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.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

In short: Pod (2015)

When his brother Martin (Brian Morvant) leaves his physician brother Ed (Dean Cates) a disturbed sounding and more than just a little disquieting message on his answer phone, Ed grabs their estranged alcoholic sister Lyla (Lauren Ashley Carter) and drives off to the cabin in the middle of nowhere where Martin lives to stage a neat little family intervention.

Martin, you see, has been having psychological problems ever since he left the army, perhaps based on what may or may not have happened to him in one of the last US wars. His last institutionalization was on Ed’s head, though he isn’t quite convinced anymore that was the right idea to help Martin get better. Or rather, he isn’t until Lyla and he arrive at Martin’s cabin. There, Martin doesn’t just threaten them with a rifle for a bit but also starts off on an insane, long, and very loud rant about the experiments the government did on him, the “pods” they created as horrible weapons, how he found one of these pods in the woods – or maybe it found him - and how how he has now locked it away in his cellar. From here on out, things escalate rather quickly, for as insane as Martin sounds, he really has something rather monstrous locked away down there and the government – as represented by yet another Larry Fessenden cameo – truly is somehow involved.

Sure sure sure, yes yes yes, Mickey Keating’s indie horror exercise in conspiracy theories and mad screeching is not the most original of films, and it’s true, it can be a somewhat annoying film thanks to its insistence on ever-increasing loudness and cheap shock effects.

However, watching Pod, I found myself mostly enjoying it, the shameless and unapologetic way it mixes alien conspiracy theories’ greatest hits, its clear disinterest in being tasteful when that means giving up on having fun or diluting the pure power of SCREAMING LOUDLY IN YOUR FACE for at least two thirds of its running time. And while that might sound pretty dumb, this isn’t a dumb film at all – at least, the way it plays with its clichés feels rather clever to me, playful without becoming lamely ironic.

Obviously, this sort of film needs acting dialled up to eleven, and that’s exactly what the small cast provides for your eighty minutes of dysfunctionality. Particularly Morvant gives his all in what might not be the most authentic portrayal of somebody suffering a psychotic break but certainly is an effective – and very loud – one, leaving no head un-pounded and no eardrum still.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

In short: Grim Prairie Tales (1990)

Somewhere in the Old West, after the US Civil War. City guy Farley (Brad Dourif), and shaggy rider Morrison (James Earl Jones) encounter each other at the former’s campfire right in the middle of nowhere. After displays of nervousness from Farley (probably induced by the corpse Morrison has packed on his second horse), and of sublime grumpiness by Morrison, the two start to bond by telling each other tales of horror.

The first one concerns an old man paying dearly for desecrating an Indian burial ground, while the second tells of a city guy riding through the prairie who encounters a pregnant woman and the rather absorbing turn their meeting will take. Tale number three – the only one told by Farley – is somewhat more subtle fare about a girl having to learn of her father’s Ku Klux Klan involvement. Last but not least, a gunman loses his nerve and is either haunted or going a bit crazy. These tales are interspersed with Farley and Morris doing prairie literature criticism on the them.

As far as horror anthology movies go, Wayne Coe’s Grim Prairie Tales certainly isn’t one of the most brilliant ones, nor is it one of the most complex. However, Coe (who also wrote the script) is clearly very conscious of what a – in this case very literal - campfire tale is supposed to be and do, how much depth it can carry, and what’s a good point to end such a tale on. There’s a difference between simple-mindedness and simplicity, and the film’s tales are most certainly of the latter type and not the former one, with a certain sardonic wryness in the delivery that echoes EC comics, even though, unlike at EC, not everybody who gets it here actually deserves it, and not everyone who’d deserve it, gets it.

Apart from this approach, Grim Prairie Tales also has two not-so-secret weapons in the forms of James Earl Jones and Brad Dourif, both in full-on larger than life modes, though Dourif (ironically) does a larger than life portrayal of a guy who isn’t really all that larger than life. In any case, if there weren’t any horror stories at all surrounding them, it would still be a joy to watch Jones and Dourif play off each other, both men giving their characters intensity as well as basically sparkling with a sense of fun.

That might not add up to the greatest horror western anthology ever made, but it’s a fun time, indeed.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Unknown Valley (1933)

After a stint as a cavalry scout, white hat cowboy Joe Gordon (Buck Jones) learns that his father, a poor bastard who seems to only go by Pop (Alfred P. James) even to people who aren’t his son has already started their planned gold mining project by taking another elderly gentleman and riding out into the most dangerous part of the desert they could find.

Pop has never returned, and his partner came back as a supposed raving madman, though in practice, he’s just semi-comatose and babbles a bit. Of course, Joe sets out into the desert to rescue his dear old Pa, I mean Pop. After some travails that nearly kill him, our hero is rescued by members of the lamest lost civilization ever living in a fruitful valley right in the middle of the desert. Well, alright, they’re not exactly a lost civilization but rather bearded religious cranks who survived a wagon train into, if not exactly through, the desert and now pretend to have found their own little paradise where everyone follows the Word, young whippersnappers get literally whipped, nobody is allowed to leave even if he or she wants to chance the desert, and the old fogeys decide whom the young women are to marry. Preferably the old fogeys, obviously.

But there’s an even bigger snake in this particular paradise, for two of the elders are even more evil than their religion imposes on them. They have secretly captured Pop and are holding him as their very own gold-digging elderly slave, planning on killing him and absconding with the gold once he’s dug out enough. There’s also some business about one of the bad guys planning to marry one Sheila O’Neill (Cecilia Parker), one half of a sibling duo who just won’t believe in The Word – and she’s of course Joe’s love interest to be as well. Joe’s got his work cut out for him.

The era of B-western to which Columbia’s Unknown Valley  belongs isn’t really one I particularly enjoy, nor is it one I have spent much viewing time on, and I can’t say Lambert Hillyer’s film is the one that’s going to change my mind about this particular cinematic space. The film features pretty much everything I don’t like much about the era: Buck Jones – one of the biggest western stars of his time – is that most tedious mixture for a hero in that he is both wooden and bland. I’m not necessarily looking for complexity, mind you, or very deep acting but to my eyes, the film’s central character here is just too much of a nonentity, whose most visibly noticeable character trait is his liking for very big hats. But then, that’s also a thing of this era’s B-westerns.

Woodenness is generally the way of the acting here, something that is made worse by Hillyer’s approach to shooting every dialogue scene between two characters in the same, so static it borders on the absurd, way. Also bordering on the absurd – and while I’m blaming Hillyer – is how overcranked the action scenes here are shot, looking like silent movies shown at too fast a tempo. Overcranking the action was par for the course at the time, but there’s overcranking the action, and then there’s turning it into a cartoon, Hillyard very much opting for the latter. On the more positive side, the man does know how to shoot a picturesque desert landscape.

Having said this, I also have to admit the film – while certainly far from anything even I would call “good” – is generally on the entertaining side. It’s short, it’s snappy, and it certainly has a lot of bonkers ideas it is generally willing to go with. Although I have to say I am mildly disappointed the film didn’t make more of the fact that Joe is something like a certain snake in a certain mythological garden here.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

In short: Zorro (1975)

Young Miguel de la Serna (Marino Masé) comes to Mexico to not just take on the post of provincial governor his uncle left him by dying of the kind of malaria that comes from the edge of a blade but to do so as a beacon of justice and righteousness. Alas, he is murdered before he can even reach his province, dying in the arms of his old friend, the rather more worldly and cynical master fencer Don Diego (Alain Delon). Diego – perhaps after some exciting reading of Icelandic sagas? – is all pumped up to take bloody vengeance on the people responsible, but Miguel’s last wish is that his friend take his vengeance by restoring order and justice in the province without killing anyone. So Diego does the obvious and goes undercover as a fake, buffoonish dandy new governor whom it is pretty difficult not to read as a gay stereotype, an approach that certainly keeps evil Colonel Huerta (Stanley Baker), a man so evil milk probably curdles through his sheer presence, far from suspicious.

Thanks to the inspiration of a little orphan boy (no idea who plays him, alas), Diego dresses up as the local legendary protector of all that is good, Zorro, and starts to swashbuckle Huerta and his men into submission.
Unfortunately, I’m not really the ideal audience for Duccio Tessari’s version of Zorro. I may not be the kind of guy anymore who isn’t able to enjoy an adventure comedy at all, but this thing feels as if someone had seen Richard Lester’s Musketeers and only seen the slapstick, leaving out the films’ particular ideas of historical veracity, its dark sides, as well as the sheer verve of it all. Which leaves us with a Zorro film that is basically all slapstick all the time - and it’s the kind of slapstick that only misses somebody doing the old banana peel thing.

It’s about on the level of the more childish Bud Spencer and Terence Hill movies, a series of films Zorro’s further reminds me of by its incessant use of its horrible (and alas earworm-y) title song whenever Zorro appears. “Here’s to being free, here’s to you and me, la la la la la la, Zorro’s back” until brain and ears bleed. And you’ll really hear it a lot, because this thing is nearly two hours long, not exactly ideal for a low brow comedy.

However, it may very well be this’ll be perfectly fun for people not-me. At least, Alain Delon looks as if he’s having a blast (and how often have you seen that in a career spent looking coldly disinterested?), and Tessari knows how to choreograph his slapstick action.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Buried Alive (1990)

Clint (Tim Matheson) and Joanna (Jennifer Jason Leigh) Goodman are the kind of incompatible couple careers in marriage counselling are built on. He’s a country boy construction businessman who takes the first opportunity to drag his wife out of the city and return to his hometown even though he knows that she’s a city gal with some rather unrealistic ideas of a luxury life by heart and inclination. He wants a baby, she really rather doers not  - though he doesn’t know that. He clearly loves her, but doesn’t know her at all.

To nobody’s surprise but Tim’s, Joanna has an affair. Her lover is the sleazy physician Cort van Owen (William Atherton). Cort is rather keen on Joanna murdering her husband so they can sell his company and found a clinic for the rich and famous in LA with the gains. Or so he says. Cort’s rather pushy about the whole thing too, providing Joanna with pep talks and poison like the ugliest femme fatale you ever put eyes on. Joanna, neither the brightest nor the most stable of persons, dithers a bit, but then decides to go through with the murder. Clint goes down in an unpleasant and obviously painful manner, and things seem to go well for Joanna and Cort. Alas, during her dithering, Joanna has lost enough of the poison to not actually kill Clint but only put him into suspended animation, so Clint can make his way out of his coffin to take vengeance. A vengeance that becomes decidedly cruel once he overhears that Joanna secretly had an abortion, too.

Frank Darabont’s Buried Alive is a surprisingly nasty little film, particularly if you keep in mind it is actually a TV movie. However, if not for the very harmless sexual content and lack of blood, it’d be hard to actually realize this watching it. While the film takes place in only a handful of sets and locations, this doesn’t feel like a film not being as epic in its approach as it wants to be but rather like the sharp focus it is.

The film also doesn’t look like a TV movie, with neither film stock nor visual style of the sort you’d expect. It’s just a tight, focused and nice looking film. Sure, the plot is pretty simple and straightforward (and if you think too much about it, not terribly plausible) but Darabont treats it with so much concentration and clarity this doesn’t feel like a weakness but rather a strength, more as if we were watching an archetypal tale than a clichéd one.

The film does play a bit with its tropes too: a man, Atherton’s van Owen, has the femme (homme) fatale role in the plot, while Leigh’s Joanna is more the patsy usually played by guys like Robert Mitchum who lets herself control by him and doesn’t even stop at murder. There’s also an interesting shift in sympathy going on, with Clint’s revenge going so far it’s difficult not to sympathize with Joanna, particularly since Clint isn’t exactly innocent in the whole situation, though I’m not completely convinced the film is doing this shift on purpose. It might just be pretty damn reactionary towards abortion.

The acting’s as strong as the film deserves, with Leigh providing her role with considerably more weight than you’d expect in this set-up and Matheson unexpectedly shining when he comes back as the rather monstrous avenger, instead of just when he’s doing his usual nice (if stupid) guy bit at the start.

It’s all rather wonderful, really.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Past Misdeeds: Lady Stay Dead (1981)

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.

Gordon Mason (Chard Hayward) is your typical celebrity stalker: beardy, rather unpleasant and having a hell of a time with a blow-up doll made up like his favourite starlet Marie Coleby (Deborah Coulls).

Unlike other celebrity stalkers, he can get comparably close to his chosen victim/love of his life, close enough to masturbate while watching Marie doing aerobic at the beach. Those are the perks if one works as a gardener for one's stalking victim.

Less pleasant is the way Marie acts around him. Although she knows nothing about his disturbing proclivities, she treats him (like she seems to treat everyone else where she can get away with it) like dirt. After she has gotten shouty one time to many for Mason's not exactly sane temper, he rapes her and then - when she doesn't react as if she had the time of her life and is now madly in love with him - drowns Marie in her own aquarium.

Poor Marie is not the last murder Mason is going to commit that day - a neighbour who has seen too much and a little later said neighbour's dog have to die, too. Afterwards, Mason puts the neighbour back in his bungalow and hides Marie's corpse. When he's just about ready to go, the singer/model's sister Jenny Nolan (Louise Howitt) arrives to house-sit for Marie who is supposed to be away for a photo-shoot.

Unfortunately, Jenny is a lot brighter than people in films like this usually are and soon discovers some things that make her very suspicious of that friendly gardener. That night, she finds the neighbour's body and can just get out a short call to the police before her mandatory cat and mouse game with Mason begins.
Even when the police in form of officers Dunbar (James Elliott) and Collings (Roger Ward) arrive, the night isn't over for Jenny.

Most of the things I read about Australian Terry Bourke's Lady Stay Dead lead me to the assumption it was going to be another film in the slasher mold. As it is with assumptions, I was quite wrong. The film has more in common with the Giallo than with the simpler slasher formula. For one, no teenagers appear in the movie, and the killer is more or less human - if rather durable.

The sleazy parts (which just stop after about half of the film is over) are quite unpleasant and a lot more frank when it comes to the sexual motivations of its killer than most slashers are, having a brutal directness more common in the Giallo or the rougher US horror films of the 70s, while the film shows only a mild interest in gory violence, very unlike any slasher I've ever seen. I'll probably just leave it at calling it a thriller inspired by the Giallo and be done with it.

The film's director Terry Bourke has unfortunately produced only a small body of work, starting with the excellent made-for-TV-but-you-wouldn't-believe-it Night of Fear and is probably best known in cult movie circles now for his much lesser Inn of the Damned (which annoyed me so much that I didn't find it in me to even mention it on my blog). What the even smaller handful of films I have seen out of his small oeuvre shows is a director very carefully shaping the technical aspects of his films to maximize their emotional impact, much more so than typical in a low-budget film world where time and money are really the same thing.

Bourke shows the often conjured painterly eye in framing his scenes, but where that description often not only suggests beauty, but also a certain stiffness, Bourke has an excellent sense for movement and the way it builds the rhythm of a film.

In Lady Stay Dead, there's also a wonderful use of natural light on display. The first hour of the film takes place mostly by day, but is still able to convey a feeling of oppression you typically don't get from scenes filmed in the sun.

I'm less enamoured of the way Bourke directs the dialogue scenes. As soon as anyone opens his or her mouth a soap-operatic feeling of false melodrama that is at odds with the the cleverness on display everywhere else in the film overwhelms the scene. I'd blame it on the actors, but their body language whenever they don't have to talk (especially Hayward gives a great physical performance) and my knowledge of the weakness of dialogue scenes in other Bourke films put the responsibility here squarely on the director's shoulders.

Lady Stay Dead gets around this problem relatively easily thanks to the sparseness of dialogue in it. It is not a film built on deep characterization and clever repartee, but rather on an escalation of violence and suspense, and so keeps the talking to a minimum. I have the feeling Bourke realized his own weaknesses as a director quite well, seeing how Night of Fear avoided dialogue completely. In the earlier film, I initially took the lack of dialogue to be just a gimmick, but I am not so sure about that anymore.

The thing of note about Lady Stay Dead really is the sense of escalation, though. There is something slightly sardonic about the way the film goes about this main job. It starts out sleazy, gets nastier and drops the sleaziness altogether, slows down and then accelerates again and again, raising the stakes without feeling the need to show anyone's guts other than figuratively.

To some it might be problematic how little else there is to the film. It is a thrilling ride, but that is all it is. While it at first seems as if Bourke is trying to make points about class and the sexualization of the female image, that potential subtext disappears completely once Marie is dead, leaving only bare-bones characterization and a well done thrill-ride behind.

However, since the film never pretends to be anything else but a thriller, I'm judging it by how well it manages to keep me at the edge of my seat. That, it does very well indeed.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Three Films Make A Post: The First Motion Picture to be Called GORE-NOGRAPHY!!!

Pieces (1982): Despite being directed by Spain’s not worst but close enough director Juan Piquer Simón, this misbegotten product of a very bad night between the slasher and the giallo genres is unfortunately only seldom amusing with the crazy you’d hope for from its director - though it does include a handful of rather wonderful moments like a random kung fu attack, and Lynda Day George screaming “MONSTER! MONSTER!”). When it’s not sleazy and bloody in a pretty damn uninspired way, the film is often actually downright boring, spending way too much time on the decidedly unexciting police investigation of its murders and on the sexy adventures of a guy named Kendall who likes to wear cardigans, very much like a porn movie that doesn’t know what to do with itself when nobody’s fucking.

Diablo (2015): Lawrence Schoeck’s fine western would probably deserve a longer piece than this handful of sentences, but that kind of thing wouldn’t be doable without spoilers so egregious, they just might suck large parts out of the fun of a first viewing. Which doesn’t mean this is the sort of twist film you’ll only enjoy on first watching (the film does after all use his major turn quite a bit before the finale and does play fair enough you might realize what’s going on much earlier), but sometimes, a first impression is just too good to waste.

So let’s just say this is a clever and dark neo western that has a lot going for it: a clever script, some truly grim moments, beautiful photography, a very good very traditional for the genre soundtrack and Scott Eastwood in what isn’t as much of a stuntcasting decision as you’d expect.

Regression (2015): I rather like what Alejandro Amenábar is trying to do concerning the Satanic Panic of the 80’s and 90’s in the USA here, but in practice, his film never really worked for me. My problem is that I never actually found myself sharing in the increasing hysteria of Ethan Hawke’s character which turned that part of the film mostly irritating, and of course also undermined the film’s final act when the audience needs to share into Hawke’s feelings regarding the truth of the matter or will only very distantly appreciate the plot’s construction. As it stands, and despite some fine acting (Emma Watson’s ever-changing “American” accent notwithstanding) and Amenabár’s generally moody direction, I found myself watching the film with too much distance, kept away from its emotional core.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Past Misdeeds: A Coffin For The Sheriff (1965)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

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

A scruffy and unwashed man called not Ringo, not Django, not Sartana, but Shenandoah (Anthony Steffen) rides into a small frontier town. The place has some troubles since the gang of bandit Lupe Rojo (Armando Calvo) has put their base of operations into the area around town.

Shenandoah seems to have something in mind with the gang, though. At first, he does the usual "let's compare our penis sizes" bit by playing the always lovely "poker leading to fisticuffs" game with some of the gang members.

A little later, he subtly interferes with a bank robbery in town, carefully constructing an opportunity to grab a wounded gang member and rescue him from the law. It seems like he wants to join up with the gang.

Unfortunately, Rojo isn't just letting anyone join his merry band of slobbering psychopaths. There is a rather ill-advised membership test in form of a deadly game of hide and seek with guns against one of the original gang members for the potential newbie to survive.

Shenandoah is rather good at the game, though, and uses the possibility of a slowly dying bandit right at his feet to ask some questions about a stagecoach robbery and a murdered woman in Omaha two years ago. Alas, he doesn't get the answers he seeks.

At least, his life's dream of being one of a group of psychopathic bandits who are bound to die rather sooner than later is fulfilled. Nevertheless, he continues to ask pointed questions about the Omaha business. One could get the idea that it is somehow a lot more important to him than raping and pillaging. It might just be possible that our unshaved hero is out for revenge for a certain murder in Omaha.

All goes swimmingly, until Rojo decides to plunder the ranch of a local rancher named Wilson (George Rigaud). Wilson is an old friend of Shenandoah, and the gunman can't help himself but warn him and his pretty daughter (Luciana Gilli) of the ensuing attack.

The following debacle for the gang and Shenandoah's not exactly inconspicuous behaviour weakens his position as a big bad bandit decisively, though, starting off his obligatory torture and the typical finale of bloody vengeance.

If the plot synopsis of A Coffin For The Sheriff (and no, I have no idea what the title has to do with the film) makes it sound as if the typical fan of Spaghetti Western had seen this all before, that impression is perfectly true. There truly is no original bone in Mario Caiano's film's body, but while watching it, I didn't find myself holding that against it.

It is a very thin line which divides the realms of the clichéd and of the iconic. Caiano's film mostly dances directly on the line, doing too much of the expected in the expected manner to come down on the iconic side, yet doing it with too much panache to result in the let-down of the too clichéd.

A Coffin For The Sheriff succeeds as a very pleasant example of its genre (and this isn't exactly typical of the usually rather scattershot Spaghetti Western) mostly through the tightness of its script and Caiano's drive in executing it. While the usual assortment of side characters (with three women fawning over our hero) with their little side plots is there, the film integrates them into the main plot in a sensible way instead of going for a smoke and letting the side plots take over from time to time. This gives the film a sense of wholeness one seldom finds in the genre outside of the work of the Sergios.

But it would be unfair not to give Caiano his fair share of props. Having gone through a very typical career for an Italian director of the time by working in every genre that was popular at the moment, Caiano obviously picked up quite a bit about keeping his plots moving and cutting down on filler while letting his film look much more costly than it probably was through judicious use of rather impressive outside locations. As an old pro (his first writing and assistant directing credits come from the 50s), Caiano doesn't miss out on adding stylistic elements typical of the Spaghetti Western, elements which might still have looked vaguely original to an audience just one year after A Fistful Of Dollars. It is an excellent example of how fast some of the things Leone and Corbucci did visually became part of the visual language of Italian filmmakers trying to make a quick buck off of their successes.

So, friends of frightening close-ups of ugly, sweaty, unshaved men won't miss out here.
Also not atypical for an early Spaghetti are the acting performances. Steffen is (as was often the case with him) a little bland, yet as solid as someone with seemingly total facial paralysis can be, while the bunch of half-remembered character actors playing the bad guys are chewing the scenery nicely.

A Coffin For The Sheriff is probably not the sort of film I'd recommend to a Spaghetti Western beginner. There are just too many excellent films to see first before starting to waste time on one which is "just" very good, but when one has reached the point where one has worked through the classics and semi-classics of the genre, films like this are the little gold nuggets hidden in the dust and mud of the genre.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Past Misdeeds: Hantu Jeruk Purut (2006)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

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

Three friends are visiting an old cemetery by night. It is said that if an odd number of people circles the cemetery seven times, they will see the beheaded ghost of a priest who is supposed to haunt this place.

The legend turns out to be true. For some reason, it has missed the part about the ghost then slaughtering the odd number of people in a Final Destination-like semi-accident.

Romance writer Anna is trying to branch out by writing a non-fiction book about the supernatural. Unfortunately, she has decided on the same cursed cemetery as base for her book. After a short visit there of her own, the ghost starts to follow her around threateningly, or rather, the ghosts do - apart from the beheaded guy picturesquely carrying his head in his hand, there is also a rotting and pale female ghost and a ghostly dog. Most active of them is the woman. She warns Anna that she'd better stop writing lies about them, but doesn't give her much time to reconsider her writing or bothers to explain what exactly she is talking about.

Instead, the headless kills Anna in another strange semi-accident. While she's bleeding to death (or is already dead - the film is never making this clear), Anna calls the student Rin (Angie Virgin), an acquaintance and aspiring writer herself, to beg her to finish the book for her.

Even after discovering the corpse of her idol, Rin decides to respect the dead woman's wish. It's not as if she hadn't enough problems of her own, living with a mother who has become clinically depressed after divorce and Valen, the assholish boyfriend of her best friend Nadine trying to creep himself into her heart. The new writing project however grabs the girl at her ambition.

Together with Nadine and Valen, Rin visits the cemetery, does her seven rounds and is from then on haunted by the ghosts herself. The girl isn't dissuaded from her course by spooky visions, though, and soon the ghosts put their energy into harassing her friends and her mother whose fragile state of mind seems to make her quite attractive to unfriendly spooks.

Koya Pagayo's Hantu Jeruk Purut is an extremely competent effort in the seemingly never-ending struggle of a handful of Indonesian production houses to mix the more international version of the still popular Japanese ghost horror genre no reasonable person will call "J-horror" with typical teen horror and Indonesian ghosts and spooks. Describing it as "Final Destination meets Ju-On" wouldn't be too wrong, but is also meaner than the film deserves.

My first impression on watching the film was one of craftsmanship and competence. I don't know if this is typical of the films of Koya Pagayo, or if this one is an island of competence in the cheap mire that seems to make up about half of contemporary Indonesian horror (which is of course still a much better quota than we get from US horror), or if he is always this confident a director, but I am bound to find out sooner rather than later.

As is typical for films I praise with the less than enthusiastic word "competent", Hantu Jeruk Purut impresses mostly through the avoidance of certain mistakes which too many other films seem to be seeking out with a true enthusiasm for wrong artistic choices.

Here, you won't see supposedly ultra-hip young characters, nor experience the special kind of annoyance that comes with supposedly scary sequences only based on jump scares, nor will you have trouble parsing what happens on screen because the camera shakes as if held by an epileptic in the throes of a fit.

The young protagonists may be prettier than is realistic (not that I'm complaining, mind you) and have to deal with some soap operatic problems, but the film does not seem interested in glamour - something which usually is a bad fit for horror - and times its moments of melodrama quite well, never falling in the "too much boyfriend and not enough ghosts" trap. It does of course help that the actors playing them aren't half bad.

When it comes to the scares, Pagayo prefers the long shot of a ghost behind or floating over one of his protagonists to shouting "boo!" into his viewers' faces, at first trying to build a mood before escalating the horror. This isn't to say that there are no jump scares at all here, but rather that Pagayo uses other techniques in the horror book as well, which makes the few jump scares a bit more unexpected again. It's also nice to have a relatively good look at the rather neat looking ghosts.

I really liked the way the film at first jumps into the horror action, but then decelerates for a slow build up and slow escalation to its plot until the loud and fast finale in a hospital. It's an old-fashioned yet satisfying sort of structure.

Also worth mentioning, especially for people who know and dread the often clunky and ill-fitting way Indonesian horror uses comic relief, is that the film eschews humour completely apart from a moment in the introduction and one in the outro, which aren't even all that painful.

The film's big weakness and the point that could very well make you enjoy the film a lot less than I did is that it is not original at all in the elements it contains. We all have seen these kind of ghosts, these sorts of deaths and these characters a hundred times before in other films, screaming, running, dying and making creepy noises while crawling around on the floor. However, I can't say that I mind much, or rather, I like many of the elements that make up the genre called "horror" and am watching horror films not necessarily for completely new experiences (although I'm fine with those), but for the way any given film mixes and matches the familiar elements, sometimes giving them unexpected twists, sometimes just repeating them in hopefully satisfying ways.

"Satisfying" is a good word for the way Hantu Jerak Purut turned out for me, and while it isn't as brilliant as Rizal Mantovani's Kuntilanak trilogy, it is a more than worthy part of the Indonesian horror boom.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Past Misdeeds: Project: Metalbeast (1995)

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.

1974. In a stroke of tactical genius the guys who thought there was a military need for killer sharks would be proud of, one of the quintillion of US secret agencies decides to send some agents to Transylvania to get some werewolf blood as basis for the usual supersoldier serum.

Two men leave, one - a certain Butler (John Marzilli) - comes back, with the werewolf blood and a mean disposition. Scientific evaluation shows that it will take some time until the blood can be used to enhance American forces. Too much time if you ask Butler, who has apparently been searching for the blood all of his life and is now getting antsy. Even his boss Colonel Miller (Barry Bostwick) in his position as evil government guy doesn't think Butler should be this overzealous.

Butler doesn't care much, so he steals the blood, injects it into his own body, rapes a scientist (female) and kills another scientist (male), only to be shot with silver bullets and laid on ice by Miller.

I suppose Miller spends the next few years gloating evilly and talking to himself. Twenty years later, he takes control of a project lead by supposedly humanitarian minded Dr. De Carlo (Kim Delaney).

The good doctor is trying to perfect a new type of artificial skin made of metal, but can't get past the problem of her creation hardening too much. Gosh, it's as if she'd use metal for her artificial skin.

Miller pressures the scientist and her team into testing her skin on supposedly dead bodies. The first one will be Butler's. Miller plans on the dead guy becoming his unstoppable killing machine after being upgraded with some shiny metal skin. For some reason he thinks that Butler will suddenly become his best friend and do everything he says. As long as the man is still dead he is quite friendly, actually, not talking, growling or killing, but things change after the scientists remove the bullets. Butler comes back to life.

Well, is anyone actually surprised that Were-Butler still doesn't love Miller after twenty years on ice and does some rather nasty things, but is now much more difficult to kill on account of his sexy new skin?

Oh, this is an intensely silly film, full of stupid ideas and based on so much bad science it can interrupt even my bad movie calm.

The script seems to be based on the idea that human psychology is a mystery not made to be solved by mere mortal minds and therefore lets people act as nonsensical as it pleases. Take dear Colonel Miller, who really has no reason to believe that he will be able to control a werewolf with metal skin any better than a werewolf without one. It's not as if he had invented mind control or anything. I know, I know, he is supposed to be a Mad Evil Government Guy (a MEGG), but mad and evil aren't equivalent to stupid. Or take our dear heroine, a humanitarian not afraid of taking part in inhuman experiments as long as she can bitch about it.

At least we can learn some important lessons about military research installations here: there are no soldiers around in them, except for a general and a guy who side-lines as a scientist, and really, why would anyone have security protecting secret research?

As stupid as Project: Metalbeast is, as seriously the film seems to take itself, and it is the friction between the absurd and the deathly earnest that gives it its own brand of charm, somewhat reminiscent of the classic monster films of the 50s and 60s.

It is very much something my twelve-year old mind could have come up with, although my version would probably have included a scene with a motorcycle riding werewolf, and left out the bit with the self-made silver rockets for the RPG. "What's cooler than a werewolf?" "Oh, I know! A werewolf with a metal skin!!"

However, while the script doesn't seem clued in on its own stupidity, some of the actors - at least Delaney and the scenery-chewing Bostwick, probably also Musetta Vander as a tech girl for once living through a whole horror movie - seem to have quite a bit of fun making fun of their roles. I certainly won't blame them.
The most important thing about a monster movie is of course its monster. As a film made in 1995, Project: Metalbeast (and how awesome is that title, by the way?) doesn't use the bane of all monster movies known as CGI.

Instead, we get a perfectly adorable monster suit, although I must say that the golden colour its metal variation sports is a little ill advised, as is the spiky look of its hair which makes it look rather porcupine-like for a supposed werewolf. However, there's nothing wrong with a werecupine.

In a rare moment of genius someone, probably director Alessandro De Gaetano, thought it prudent to hire a real pro to get into the were-suit and so it is worn by everyone's favourite Jason Voorhees actor Kane Hodder. Not that he's all that impressive in the role, mind you - he is unfortunately not doing much that goes beyond the lingering massive shadow thing, and I doubt he does his growling himself.

Given how stupid it is, and that it is not necessarily the most original or exciting of films, I still find myself in a position to warmly recommend Project: Metalbeast. It pushes the buttons in the heart of a monster movie fan your usual SciFi Channel production just won't reach (I presume because those films just hate their own audience). It's a throwback, but a fun one.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Music Monday: Thing Edition

In short: Into the Grizzly Maze

For various not boring reasons, a bunch of idiots and arseholes (played by dependable pros like James Marsden, Thomas Jane, Piper Perabo, Scott Glenn and Billy Bob Thornton) converge on a piece of Alaskan wilderness one character’s dead dad dubbed the Grizzly Maze because “even grizzlies can get lost there”. There’s killer grizzly stuff, brotherly reconciliation, and so many clichés any drinking game would be of actual physical danger.

Which, apart from the cast, all sounds rather second rate SyFy Original, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, while certainly looking much better than your average second rate SyFy Original, David Hackl’s Into the Grizzly Maze is much less entertaining. It might be its nearly offensive stupidity (yes, even in comparison), a script so full of bizarre holes, plain stupid plot devices and clichés its basically inexplicable, or the problem might just be that the film makes a lot of grand gestures supposed to suggest it is a nature strikes back movie on the level of Jaws when it is rather one on the level of Grizzly (without the whole “cheap as dirt” excuse the Girdler film has going for it, mind you).

The actors are completely wasted on characters that are walking, talking clichés, and not the kind of cliché that feels like an archetype but one that feels like lazy writing and disinterest in making any character here interesting instead of obvious. The poor people also have to get through dialogue as bad as it comes. Just try and keep a straight face through even a single sentence Thornton’s Great White Hunter character says, or stop groaning whenever anyone opens his or her mouth.

Even this much crap could still have been made watchable through competent animal attack sequences and decent thriller pacing. Alas, both aren’t in the cards either, for the animal attacks are generally neither clever, nor interesting, nor awesome but are set up with just as little intelligence as the rest of the film demonstrates, while the pacing stops and starts thanks to the film’s insistence on having a lot of characters that are only in the film to talk nonsense and spend way too much time on their uninvolving melodrama (whose ends and consequences are of course obvious right from the start in any case for anyone who has not grown up on some sort of isolated island where TVs and cinemas don’t exist).

Friday, April 15, 2016

On ExB: Beyond Darkness (1990)

You thought Claudio Fragasso only made one film worth watching (I’m talking about Troll 2, so you know where this will lead, imaginary reader) after he broke up with Bruno Mattei? Think again! For Beyond Darkness is the ghost and exorcism movie nobody else could have made, a Thing That Should Not Be yet which is utterly delightful.

You can – and should – learn more if you only follow this handy link to my column over at Exploder Button, a place drowning in the sweat of alcoholic priests.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Three Films Make A Post: The One...The Only KING OF MONSTERS as the new demon of the atomic age!

Tunnel 3D aka 터널 3D (2014): The only genuinely positive thing I can say about this South Korean mess is that it is one of the still too few horror films directed by a woman, one Park Gyoo-taek in this case. It also goes to show that women are just as good at making generic crap as men are. This is pretty much “I Know What You Did Last Bloody Valentine”, with a perfectly useless twist surrounding the identity of its killer, and way too little of interest going on to get away with keeping as low on blood and sleaze as it does. One and a half hours of boring characters doing boring things do not a slasher nor a thriller make.

Any Gun Can Play (1967): This Spaghetti Western by Enzo G. Castellari on the other hand is never boring. It concerns a gun-fighting banker (Edd Byrnes), a bounty hunter some versions call Django but the one I saw dubs the Stranger (George Hilton), and a Mexican bandit (Gilbert Roland) chasing after a bunch of gold the bandit stole and then let steal from him, with various other groups also showing – generally violent – interest.

It’s neither a particularly original nor a very deep entry in the genre. Castellari plays the usual series of betrayals and alliance shifts, the shoot-outs and punch-ups with a friendly grin. The film is, consequently, rather good fun that – for better or worse – lacks the mean-spiritedness as well as the political background of many other films of the genre.

Contraband (1940): This is the second movie in the fruitful partnership between Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. At this point in time, they were making pleasant, clever genre fare with a mild propagandistic bend. Consequently, this is a romantic spy movie about a Danish freighter captain played by Conrad Veidt who insinuates himself into the spy plots surrounding one of his passengers (Valerie Hobson). A smart and loveable, mildly exciting romp through black out London ensues, with some very fine moments of suspense, a fun central couple, and an air of off-handed sophistication that makes the whole affair pretty delightful.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Precious Find (1996)

Welcome to the future of the solar system, when a kind of repeat gold rush has the outer planets and their moons in its grip. A metal generally known as Precious is the new gold, and yes, that does indeed mean every character in the movie is going to say “Precious! Precious!” about every two minutes or so, my precious.

Anyway, a series of very script-like events finds young, somewhat naive despite the obligatory tragic past, rookie miner – with a nose for Precious as he never gets sick to tell anyone who will or won’t listen – Ben (Harold Pruett), former cheating executive now cheating crazy gambler Armond Crile (Rutger Hauer in full-on-scenery-chewing mode) and garbage hauler Sam (Brion James, doing nearly as much overacting as Hauer here) teaming up to find and exploit a Precious claim. Of course there are complications, among them SPACE FEVER(!), Armond being crazy as a bag full of badgers even before space fever takes the rest of his sanity, general distrust, claim jumpers lead by a terrible racist stereotype named Loo Seki (Don Stroud, like, totally an evil space samurai), absurdly cute roguish space captain Camilla (Joan Chen) and the shittiest CGI tentacles I’ve seen in a long time.

Calling Philippe Mora’s Precious Find “Treasure of the Sierra Madre in Space” would be rather unfair. Unfair, that is, to the John Huston film which does after all feature a psychologically deep, tense script, a plot that makes sense, 1948-style acting performances of the highest quality and intense direction, all things you won’t find in Mora’s film at all.

Being a Philippe Mora film – and an ultra cheap 90s SF movie to boot – Precious Find seems most interested in two things. Firstly, in a type of self-sabotage that I’ve often encountered in Mora’s films (though I have to add I’ve not seen all of them by far, I’m not that kind of a masochist), an unwillingness to ever go into the obvious direction of playing a narrative straight or using its potential sensibly. Secondly, and closely related to the first point, doing everything in as weird a way as possible, with ideas of varying degrees of bullshit inanity or just plain insanity popping up with light speed and for no good reason.

I mean, nobody can honestly have thought dressing up Don Stroud in yellow face and letting him speak in a fake Japanese accent was a good idea, right? Not to speak of Hauer suddenly starting to imitate him – new eyebrows, kimono, sword and accent included – for the last act of the film. And that’s really just the tip of the iceberg of the film’s weirdness, with so much goofy, nonsensical, and just plain bizarre stuff going on throughout it becomes impossible to take anything that happens in it seriously. On the other hand, you’d be hard-pressed to call this thing an actual comedy, for it is just too awkward and plain peculiar to sell as such.

While this approach doesn’t lend itself to making this an actual version of Treasure of the Sierra Madre, IN SPACE, it does certainly keep the film lively and interesting, because there’s no way to guess what dubious delight Mora will pull out of his – probably very strange looking – hat next. While Precious Find is certainly horrible, abstruse nonsense, it’s absolutely my kind of nonsense, containing not a single boring second, and giving no hint it might be ashamed of being the kind of bizarre nonsense it is.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

In short: Murder(s) in the Doll House (1979)

Original title: Midare karakuri

aka Crazy Doll Trick

aka Random Mechanism

After losing big at the bicycle races (what’s a “horse”?) affable loser Katsu (Yusaku Matsuda) takes a look at a newspaper and wanders into the office of the detective agency of one Meiko. He finds himself hired practically immediately, despite his only qualifications being ownership of a literature degree and an ambition to be just like Philipp Marlowe (or so he says). The first case Katsu assists Meiko on turns out to be rather more interesting than anyone could have expected.

Theoretically, Meiko is just supposed to investigate the relatives of an elderly toy industrial boss, specifically two cousins who loathe one another for mysterious reasons. However, family members soon start dying left and right in increasingly bizarre ways, and Katsu seems like just the guy to solve the case, if only because he’s rather – in a very low-key manner – into the family member who quickly becomes the police’s main suspect (Hiroko Shino).

The big wave of Japanese mystery films of the 70s (as well as the films in the genre made before or after) is still a pretty unexplored part of cinema in other countries, with even the bootleg circuit not offering many of these films. Going by the handful of entries in the genre I’ve managed to see by now, that’s a bit of a shame, for there clearly are quite a few shallowly buried treasures to find.

Calling this Toho production directed by Susumu Kodama a treasure would probably go a bit far, though. It looks and feels very much like a typical example of Japanese late 70s studio films, when many of the more maverick directors weren’t terribly active anymore or even shifting their interest (as did that of their audiences) towards the TV screen, and the lesser lights behind the camera weren’t exactly going out of their ways to become honorary outlaws themselves.

So Kodama’s direction is more professional than inspired and rather too conservative to be really exciting with only a handful of scenes – most of them in the final third – having much visual impact, the rest being more functional than anything else. However, a conservatively directed film made in 1979 Japan generally is still very much worth looking at, if only to enjoy the way the country adapted Western fashion of the day and to get a good look at the architectural idiosyncrasies of its day and place.

As a mystery, the film is not quite as weird as I like my more traditional mysteries, even though there’s one inexplicable and unexplained moment quite late in the film that saw my jaw drop in joy. Again, the film is rather too restrained in how it portrays the weirder aspects of its plot, as well as in the way it portrays the emotional repercussions it has for its characters. I don’t want to overuse the word “conservative” to describe this approach, but I can’t find a better descriptor.

Still, Midare karakuri is a perfectly watchable film. Its narrative flows well enough, the actors are likeable and competent, and while the whole affair never rises above being a competent if conservative genre film of its time and place, it is at least rather good at being that.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Sleeping Dogs (1998)

Welcome to the future of 2029. The world’s economy isn’t interested in your old “money” anymore. The it thing now are emeralds, and the most important illegal emerald kingpin of them all is one Sanchez Boon (C. Thomas Howell). Boon is letting his emeralds cut by women with electronic gags only dressed in their underwear, so you know he’s a very special kind of guy. He also thinks his connection to the Agency (don’t ask me) are tight enough he can even kill one of their agents without consequences.

Jewel thief Harry Maxwell (Scott McNeil) has chosen just the night when Boon puts that theory to the test to rob the villain’s main emerald store. Harry’s not too happy with how things are going down, for not only does he end his strike of consecutive break-ins without murder when he has to gun down some of Boon’s henchpeople but he soon finds himself involved in a series of firefights and explosions. On the positive side, he finds instant action hero love – which means the characters are going to sneer at each other and exchange unwitty one-liners for half an hour or so – with one of Boon’s emerald cutting slaves, one Pandora Grimes (Heather Hanson).

Said series of explosions and firefights somehow (and it’s really better not to think about the plot mechanics here too closely, lest one’s mind might just break) leads everyone onto a prison ship bound for titan with a cargo hold full of weapons and cryogenically frozen criminals. Of course, Boon soon un-freezes the criminals, becomes BFFs with super-evil android-the-film-calls-cyborg Zee 4R (Kiara Hunter), and takes over the ship, so that finally Die Hard on a space ship can begin.

Oh yes, it’s another Lloyd A. Simandl production, made by the purveyor of only the finest Canadian cheese, and it’s got everything I have learned to love and fear about Simandl’s productions of the era. Namely, this is an action film so stupid, it might be possible to weaponize it and kill people – or at least their brains – stone dead through prolonged exposure. Oh no, it’s already happening to me!

So, we have a plot that makes little sense even if you’re giving it the special action movie dumbness pass, takes place in a world whose technological level makes no sense at all, is tacky at all get out, and never ever stops to throw out at least one delightfully idiotic bit per minute. No scene goes by that doesn’t either contain numerous explosions, guys holding their guns like John Woo reject gangsta wannabes, needlessly exposed breasts, an awesome stupid idea (quick example: the film gets some of its early exposition, like the name of its protagonist out of the way by letting Harry dictate stuff for his autobiography while he’s breaking into a highly secured building), or if you’re really lucky all of that at once.

Then there’s the acting: McNeil mostly seems a bit embarrassed by the whole affair, nearly visibly wincing throughout the psychotronic dialogue where nearly every sentence is a surreal winner, while Hanson keeps up a never-changing look of annoyance, whatever is going on around her, whether she’s flirting or being threatened with torture. Hunter gives her sadist android gal by contorting her face into all kinds of interesting grimaces like a nine-year-old’s concept of how bad guys emote, an approach that seems perfectly appropriate to the film’s idea of characterisation. Throning over them all is C. Thomas Howell, putting on an affected voice that might be a particularly offensive idea of a cliché gay voice but that just as well might be an attempt at a British accent gone horribly wrong, providing Boon with the most cartoonish tics he’s capable of thinking up, and chewing the scenery as if somebody had lathered the cardboard used to turn the usual warehouse sets “futuristic” in honey. It is truly a thing to behold more than one to describe, for words just cannot do Howell’s performance here justice.

Director Micheal Bafaro barely keeps all this nonsense und nearly surreal bullshit under control in typical late 90s cheap-shot movie hired gun style. That is to say, he adds a lot of inappropriate (the only kind fit for this movie) slow motion and does his best to pretend three grey walls and a handful of monitors from the 80s do a futuristic set make. Though I have to admit, some of the action scenes work as well as anything this deeply stupid in conception could, so kudos to Bafaro, I suppose. And given how much I enjoyed this misbegotten thing calling itself a movie, I’m not even wearing my ironic hat right now.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

In short: Bloody Mallory (2002)

Mallory (Olivia Bonamy) – turned demon hunter when her newly wedded husband turned out to be a demon and tried to sacrifice her during the wedding night to gain more demonic powers –, her trans explosives expert Vena Cava (Jeffrey Ribier), mute body-hopping girl child telepath Talking Tina (Thylda Barès) and Inspecteur Durand (Thierry Perkins-Lyautey) are France’s answer to the BPRD, hunting ghosts and ghoulies wherever they may roam. When attempting to save a bunch of nuns from the dubious amorous advances of a gaggle of ghouls, the team is attacked by something much worse, leaving Durand dead, Tina in a coma, Vena Cava badly hurt, and Mallory royally pissed off.

At the same time, the same sort of boogie kidnaps the new, ultra-reactionary Pope (Laurent Spielvogel). Clearly, it’s all part of a fiendish plan, but just as clearly, Mallory and her now not terribly fit team might be in over their heads countering it.

Still, plot developments lead Mallory to a French village that has been sucked into a different dimension, Tina into a bunch of exciting new bodies, see Vena Cava get better right quick, and have them team up with not exactly successful papal bodyguard Carras (Adrià Collado).

If you can imagine an improbably cheap yet vigorous and excitable, generally tasteless yet imaginative cross between Hellboy and Buffy, you have developed quite a clear picture of what Julien Magnat’s film is all about. Why, it even has the (for the Buffy side) mandatory romance with a demon of dubious allegiance.

What it obviously doesn’t have is Joss Whedon’s dialogue, making up for that by being in turns rude, unpleasant, and pretty darn funny, at least as far as the subtitles tell me. If this is actually the height of French language dialogue writing when you speak the language, please correct me, French language speakers.

Anyway, the film’s plot doesn’t make terribly much sense (nor does it try to) but it does make up for that by demonstrating a fine sense for the bizarre and by quickly going from one bit of good, cheap fun to the next, making the best possible use of very limited means and creating its own little off-kilter world. It’s a charming affair of the sort that’s cheap but not dumb, deeply silly, a bit cantankerous, bloody, and generally feels like a labour of love. And labours of love go a long way with me.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Past Misdeeds: Colin (2008)

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.

It is the zombie apocalypse again (and again). Clutching a bloody hammer in one hand, a young Briton named Colin (Alastair Kirton) stumbles into a house in the suburbs. We never quite learn if it is his home or the home of a friend, but this is not going to matter in the long run.
Colin is hurt and seems to be at the end of his strength, therefore letting his guard down enough to get ambushed and bitten by the building's sole, undead inhabitant. He manages to kill the zombie, but soon succumbs to his wounds.

Hours or days later, Colin wakes up as one of the shambling masses himself. From here on out, we follow him closely for a dead man's perspective of the end of the world. We watch as he eats his first victim, as he looks at a traffic sign and reacts to music like he is trying to remember something, but doesn't even understand the concept of memory anymore.

He meets and bites his sister Linda (Daisy Aitkens), takes part in a bloody mass attack on a student dorm and falls directly into the cellar of someone whose dreams of dead and blind women seem to have come true via the apocalypse.

Later, Linda and her boyfriend (Tat Whalley) catch Colin in the desperate hope to reawaken his personality. Perhaps showing him his mother (Kerry Owen) will work?
After this hasn't worked out quite as catastrophically as one could suspect, Colin shambles into the crosshair of more organized survivors in form of a killing squad.

Just when I had given up hope for anything not absolutely dreadful coming out of the backyard zombie film sub-genre, this British production shambles around the corner with a certain amount of hype and nearly floors me.

Colin was supposedly shot on a budget of £45, but with a consumer-grade (yet probably not too cheap) digital camera available and a bunch of surprisingly talented actors working for free, I'm not sure I'd see the film's budget as quite this low. Be that as it may, what makes the film as interesting as it is isn't that it was shot for very little money, but that it was shot very little money and turned out to be an excellent film.

For once, I don't need to hesitate to give most of the props a movie deserves to its director, seeing that Mark Price not only directed, but also edited, scripted, and shot the film. I wouldn't be surprised if he also helped cook the coffee. This is of course not uncommon in backyard productions, but where most films of this price-class could use a few more hands doing the work, Price has talent enough to make shooting a film with the smallest of crews look simple.

However, what makes Colin worthwhile is not that it was made on the cheap, but that it is so well done that, while watching, I very soon found myself not being impressed by how good it was despite its budget, but how good it was, period. There is really no connection between this film and the hateful lack of ambition that makes too much backyard horror filmmaking so hard to stand. I usually avoid calling these films "indie" horror, out of respect for the quality "indie" suggest in other media like games and music. Colin, I have no problem calling indie horror.

By now you, dear reader, might ask yourself what exactly makes Colin so special to this long-winded guy who is rambling at you like a mad street person (that would be me).

First and foremost, it is the film's mood. It is shot in a grainy style that has much more in common with the texture and colour of 70s horror cinema, giving everything that happens an immediacy I still like to call documentary, however misused this word has become by now. Price seems to have had a very exact picture of when and where to shoot hand-held and when to use a tri-pod in his mind, giving the film a rhythm permanently changing between nervous action and deliberate shambling, a rhythm very much its own.

There is a real sense of weight to the proceedings. We basically have a nobody's view of the apocalypse by always staying close to Colin himself. At times, we even share his inability to fully comprehend what is happening around him, the everyday surroundings the action takes place in becoming strange and frightening through their desolation.
This is part of where the sadness of the film lies - it were not so much the (nicely done) gore set pieces which got to me while watching the film, but the loss of humanity the zombies and the survivors share and real feeling of hopelessness. This is of course nothing new in the annals of zombie cinema, yet as long as it is done as poignant as here, originality isn't really of much import.

Between the carnage and the sadness, the film also has room for some fine pieces of dry black humour, not enough of it to derail the film, yet enough to add to its grounding in reality.

I was also struck by how different this British zombie apocalypse is from the usual American one - cars and guns are nearly completely absent, making the efforts of the survivors more desperate, and through that desperation, more terrifying.

And the film really is terrifying at times, grasping the horror of zombies as a shambling mass of hunger made flesh with a mind only set on consuming, unconscious of the way it makes its victims part of its own, even unconscious of the reality of its victims as anything beside food. There is something claustrophobic and unconsciously cruel about the big zombie attacks in Colin I found very disturbing.

All of these qualities could still have gone to waste without the right lead actor, because Colin is the person/thing who keeps the fragmented narrative together. A bad performance here would have sunk the film completely. Fortunately, Kirton is quite brilliant in his role. He effortlessly suggests faint traces of humanity without ever falling into the trap of playing his zombie as something so normal as a stupid, flesh-eating man. The rest of the actors doesn't do much worse; the fact that we only witness fragments of their characters' stories makes it easier to relate to them than if we had to watch them emote in long and nuanced dialogue scenes actors working for free probably wouldn't be able to deliver as believable as needed. As the film is constructed, everyone is only glimpsed in moments of utter desperation or sadness, dying or damned.

Call me a loon, but I think there's a real sense of poetry in Colin, an emotional weight found only in the best zombie films. And you know what, I think Colin is one of the best zombie films I know.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Dead Silence (2007)

Poor Jamie Ashen (Ryan Kwanten doing his usual decent if frequently open-mouthed nearly acting thing). Not only does an anonymous donator send him a package containing a creepy ventriloquist dummy but when Jamie’s away buying roses and food for his wife Lisa (Laura Regan), the ventriloquist doll and a supernatural presence it brought with it murder Lisa, rip our her tongue and pose her in the marital bed. I’d say poor Lisa, too, but given everything that’ll happen after her death, she has hit the jackpot through her early departure.

The investigating Keystone Kop, Detective Lipton (Donnie Wahlberg), does of course go by the old rule of “the husband did it”, and understandably cares little about Jamie’s tales of how ventriloquist dolls are seen as a bad omen in the town he and Lisa came from, how it reminded Lisa of an old creepy children’s line about one Mary Shaw (Judith Roberts), or that Jamie heard Lisa’s voice calling him into their bedroom when she must have been already dead. Being a Keystone Kop, he does of course not follow up with a thorough investigation but will stalk and threaten Jamie for the rest of the film until he can’t escape the supernatural himself anymore. Jamie for his part brings Lisa’s body to their old home town to be buried.

There he’s attacked by various ventriloquism based horrors, and the doll-like old woman ghost of Mary Shaw herself, whom you can only fight off if you do not scream (though you seem to be allowed to shout stuff, unless it’s “noooooooo”). So Jamie will do a bit of investigating too and learn the tragic tale of an evil female ventriloquist, the search for the perfect doll, and encounter all kinds of creepy shit until the film culminates in a hilarious plot twist.

This is the film James Wan and Leigh Whannell rather seem to like to pretend doesn’t exist, which is a bit weird from the people responsible for the Saw movies, and jump scares. Consequently, as somebody who could care less about these guys’ body of work (or would like to, if only they weren’t so influential on mainstream horror), this is the one film they’re responsible for I actually think worthwhile.

It’s mostly the film’s inherent weirdness that gets me, its obsession with ventriloquist dolls, the audacity to actually use an idea as strange as a ghost ripping out her victims’ tongues and adding them to her own(!), and the rip-roaring, transcendent absurdity of its final plot twist. It’s a bit as if in mentally working their way up to the weird parts – which is to say, the good parts - of Insidious, Wan and Whannell had accidentally stumbled onto a mode of filmmaking not based on ruining weirdness with jump scare after jump scare after jump scare (after jump scare), but actually going with it, just putting one piece of weirdness after the next, not caring too much about a plot throughline as long as the as any given scene contains its quota of creepy strangeness concerning dolls, dummies and ventriloquism as living metaphors gone mad.

It’s pretty fantastic, really, with the film doing nothing at all to establish its world as anything else than a weird dream where mad women talk to stuffed ravens (while living in a town called Ravens Fair, obviously), where a US small town has a huge, now dilapidated, absurdly Gothic theatre on a lake that once belonged to a ventriloquist, and where a decade long series of murders by tongue-ripping has not made its way to any outside authorities despite the town clearly being connected to the outside world like any normal town. Visually, Wan here seems highly – and unexpectedly – influenced by Bava and Argento, keeping most of the pseudo-cool editing techniques and bullshit camera angles that made Saw so annoying in check. For once in his career, Wan successfully creates a mood of vigorous yet dream-like dread and bizarre horror and actually manages to keep it up for the whole of the film.

That the film’s narrative only makes the most basic of sense and that some of its ideas are as silly as they are strange seems neither here nor there to me when talking about Dead Silence, for making sense in this way doesn’t seem what it is aiming for at all. Instead Wan here continues the more Continental tradition of making films about the inexplicable that don’t try to keep it in check by explaining it too much. Of course, I’d not at all be surprised if the filmmakers themselves now see Dead Silence as a failed attempt at starting a Mary Shaw franchise. But then again, that’s not anything I need to care about.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

In short: Mister Dynamit – Morgen küßt euch der Tod (1967)

aka Die Slowly, You’ll Enjoy It More

A dastardly villain has somehow stolen a US nuclear bomb. For vague plot reasons, the CIA, despite having a spy among said villain’s men (excellently positioned as his chef), can’t take care of the situation themselves, so they do the most embarrassing thing and ask the German BND for help. The BND sends out its top agent, one Bob Urban (Lex Barker), also known – perhaps in the same way you call a big guy “Little” - as Mister Dynamite.

Bob’s investigation consists of the usual things Eurospy heroes get up to: sleep with every woman who can’t flee fast enough, walk into traps, get out of traps with his awesome powers of punching and ventriloquism (seriously), and shoot some people. Somewhere on the way, the CIA does send in one of their own, one Cliff (Brad Harris), also known as Cliff. Things don’t get terribly exciting.

Officially a German/Austrian/Italian/Spanish collaboration, this movie based on the popular series of German Men’s Adventure novels, is pretty German dominated behind the camera, which, despite its director Franz Josef Gottlieb usually being kind of okay when doing pulp action, does lead to exactly the result you’d fear, namely a curiously boring and anaemic film that lacks the feeling of crazy joy you can usually get out of Eurospy films. While there’s nothing about the film that exactly runs against the pleasurable parts of the genre’s formula, it all feels very bland and lifeless, with a few too many scenes of people in uniform sitting around in a grey room talking, and little excitement to be found around those scenes.

There are one or two pleasantly crazy moments, though: the film’s main villain is so much of a model railway nut his – tiny, unspectacular – lair is dominated by a model railway that if needed provides the usual monitors for henchpeople communications, as well as a lot of mysterious buttons. Oh, and for some reason, the guy likes to get drunk and roll himself up in a rug. Which is exactly the sort of nonsensical craziness I love in my Eurospy films, but is basically the only truly crazy thing about a film that seems to go out of its way not to provoke a heart attack – or even mild excitement – in anyone watching.

Most of the time, the film’s a series of scenes with Lex Barker being bland, Brad Harris being inexplicably bland and painfully underused, and bland blandness all around, with a veritable horde of German actors you’ll know from Rialto’s Edgar Wallace krimis popping up in tiny roles – with Joachim Fuchsberger as a random MP, and Eddi Arent as the BND Q, among others.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Revenge of the Ninja (1983)

Ninja Cho (Sho Kosugi) has some sort of never explained trouble with other other ninjas. I suppose it’s a clan thing, but the film never actually bothers to explain. Anyway, those other ninjas slaughter Cho’s family. Only Grandmother Osaki (Grace Oshita) and his baby son Kane (soon to be Kane Kosugi, alas) survive.

Cho’s friend Braden (Arthur Roberts) convinces Cho that it’s best for the surviving family to emigrate to the USA where Cho is to go into the Japanese doll exhibition business with him. A few years on, Cho and Braden are indeed in the USA and in that dubious business, Cho having kinda forsaken his ninja heritage, but not so much he isn’t teaching people – including little Kane, alas – martial arts.

What Cho doesn’t know is that his good friend Braden is secretly evil and uses their dolls to transport Heroin from Japan to the United States. And yes, this being a Cannon film, he does indeed put the dolls full of heroin on public display, and Cho doesn’t seem to realize his precious dolls just disappear after a time. What an ex-ninja! Be that as it may, Braden clearly thinks the time has come to make a move to further his career as a drug trader and get out of his connection with mafia guy Chifano (Mario Gallo) whose men suddenly turn up dead - murdered in ways only explicable through the powers of ninjitsu. Turns out Braden isn’t just secretly evil, but also secretly an evil American ninja.

Through various plot contortions, Braden develops the need to piss Cho off badly, and soon we go through a threatened and kidnapped Kane, dead grandmothers, and other reasons for Cho to get back to ninja business.

Ah, Cannon’s US ninja movies. Ridiculous, mildly offensive – seeing as this one includes dubious stereotypes about Japanese people, native Americans, Italo-Americans, and Anglo-Saxon white Americans – yet generally fun, likeable despite everything and the best of the bunch of American ninjadom. Or rather, Cannon’s ninja movies starting with Sam Firstenberg’s Revenge are, for their first effort, with Franco Nero as a pudgy white ninja fighting an evil land developer is mostly a boring mess, and while the idea of Nero as a Ninja might sound funny, the reality is mostly indifferent, if stupid.

Not surprisingly, Sho Kosugi makes for a better ninja than Nero, what with him actually possessing martial arts skills and clearly knowing how to apply them to fighting on screen. As an actor, the man – at least at this point in his career – isn’t much to write home about, but he’s decent enough at the ninja basics of looking in turns stoic and pissed off and carries himself well enough in front of the camera (compare in Cannon land to early Michael Dudikoff or Chuck Norris, and you’ll see the difference). What more could I ask from the lead in a Cannon action film?

The script is obviously a nonsensical mess, but it sets up a good share of fun action set pieces, throws in a bunch of sleazy moments of nudity, as well as the mysterious evil ninja power of hypnotizing people by waving one’s hands before their face until one’s eyes glow green, so there’s little to complain here, unless you need your US ninja movies to tell a coherent story. In that case, skip a few decades and watch Isaac Florentine’s ninja movies with Scott Adkins, which aren’t deep either, but do heavily tend towards the coherent.

Still, Revenge of the Ninja is a lot of fun, even though I could have lived without the scenes of tiny Kane Kosugi showing off his – actually impressive – martial arts skills, but that might either be my near total disinterest in little children in movies – if they do martial arts or not - or Kane’s total lack of charisma even as a tyke.

The whole thing is directed by Sam Firstenberg, Cannon’s best (which still didn’t save him nor us from Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo). Firstenberg was never a man for flashy or very creative direction but generally didn’t answer the slap-dash scripts he worked from (if they were actually finished when shooting started) with slap-dash direction but applied himself with technical soundness and a good eye for action direction – the art of timing and motion. Given these circumstances, it is little wonder Revenge of the Ninja is such a fun little flick.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

The Dead (2010)

Welcome to another zombie apocalypse. Large parts of Africa have been overrun (or in this case really over-shambled) by the walking dead and the Europeans and the Americans are evacuating their people. American Military engineer Brian Murphy (Rob Freeman) is on the last flight out of the continent. The plane crashes somewhere over a West African country, though, with Brian ending up as the only survivor. Brian makes his way across country with vague plans to somehow get out and get back home. His knowledge of things mechanic and electronic at least enables him to get an old, rusted car working.

Early on, Brian meets Daniel (Prince David Oseia), a deserted soldier trying to make his way to a military base to the far north where he hopes to find his young son. Somewhat reluctantly, the two team up – at first, Daniel’s only supposed to show Brian the way to a small military airport (the big ones have all been bombed by the US military so that nobody can flee the country and possibly infect white people) where the engineer hopes to rig something flyable up, but when that falls through, the men decide to try to reach the northern base together, crossing through much of the rural West African apocalypse.

Given the unending masses of zombie movies that shamble across all kinds of screens, it is little wonder I’ve only now seen Howard J. and Jon Ford’s (working as the Ford Brothers) piece about zombie apocalypse taking place in Africa, particularly since “it’s the zombie apocalypse, but in an unnamed West African country!” does sound like a rather gimmicky approach to the end of the world on film.

As it turns out, the plot’s location is not a gimmick but an important part of the film’s approach to zombies. Where most films of the genre concentrate either on cities or the country as post-apocalyptic survivalist wet dream and/or nightmare, The Dead is involved in the moment when the world hasn’t quite ended yet, with Africa going first through a combination of an infrastructure destroyed or hampered by decades of proxy wars, the bloody consequences of colonialism and imperialism, and general human inhumanity, with the rest of the world clearly only interested in the continent’s troubles as much as it doesn’t want to catch them too. While this sounds like a very political movie, these aspects of the plot are rather downplayed, running in the background as part of its world building more than anything. If you’re unkind, you might even complain that a film taking place in West Africa still has a white American hero, and I don’t think you’d be completely wrong.

On the other hand, when it comes to the type of zombie film about basically competent, basically decent, people stumbling through a normal world that has freshly turned into hell, this one’s a real low budget gem. It’s well-paced, well-acted by Oseia and Freeman, and (until the somewhat too cheesy end) with a clear vision of what it wants to be and how to achieve it.

Take for example the zombies. These aren’t your at the moment more typical loud fast zombies, nor the kind of slow shamblers that only become a threat en masse. Instead, the Fords opt for scattered, very slow, yet also very silent zombies whose main claim to danger is their complete relentlessness. These things don’t ever stop - if you’re sleeping, drinking, or just trying to rest for a bit, they just come and come and come at you until you’re as dead as they are, something the film emphasises again and again. Add to this approach some fantastic zombie acting - the people playing the dead often create a very real impression that these aren’t people anymore, or infected, but truly soulless husks that only know to follow and to bite - and you have zombies that are always creepy, and very often truly frightening again, shambling through a landscape that is at times beautiful, at times oppressive in its emptiness, and at times claustrophobia inducing. It’s such a pure and concentrated approach to zombies I’d love the film for them alone.

I really don’t need to, though, for the same calm, thoughtful and careful approach the Ford Brothers take to their zombies they also take concerning the rest of their film, with very little that doesn’t just work, and work very well, making The Dead something pretty special in my book.