Sunday, July 24, 2016

In short: Hardcore Henry (2015)

There’s really no need for even the tiniest plot synopsis here, for there is so little plot here, and what there is such a bunch of vacuous crap, it might as well not exist at all.

Who’d have thought that having as a film’s only feature the gimmick of it being shot exclusively in a First Person Shooter style POV vision created by strapping a cheap digital camera to a stunt man’s head is not enough to make a movie that’s actually interesting for more than the fifteen minutes or so it takes to gawk at said gimmick? Even king of the gimmick William Castle added an actual movie to his gimmicks! Unfortunately, director/”writer” Ilya Naishuller is no William Castle (shit, he isn’t even Neveldine-Taylor), so all we get here is a series of action set pieces that might have been interesting to look at if they weren’t exclusively shot through a jittery camera that has little to do with the far more stable view of one of the actual FPSs the movie pretends to be inspired by, and even less with the way the actual human eye presents the world. Unless, that is, everyone but me sees the world through a shaking fish eye that is screwed onto their heads.

Not surprisingly, the novelty of seeing action scenes in this way decreases quickly, leading first to annoyance at the awkward and un-cinematic manner the film presents what might be rather great stunt work, then to boredom caused by the visual sameness of it all, and then, worst of all, moments when you can’t help but start thinking about the film’s plot. Or rather, how stupid and irrelevant the plot is, and how its presentation is even worse than in the video games it is badly attempting to copy. This thing makes the yearly Call of Duty look like a narrative masterpiece, and Far Cry: Blood Dragon like clever satire – let’s not even speak about those shooters that actually have a few brain cells to rub together, or actual movies. Even Steven Seagal movies have better writing.

To add insult to injury, this is also one of those films that pretend the lazy, disinterested nonsense they call their writing is ironically bad, and therefore good, quite ignoring the fact that not giving a shit isn’t made any better by winking at the audience about one’s failure. Just watch Sharlto Copley in the most annoying “funny” multi-character role this side of Peter Sellers and still try to tell yourself that anything has ever been improved by being bad on purpose.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

On ExB: Lady of the Lake (1998)

Sometimes, I am rather down on indie horror of the semi-professional type. Sometimes, on the other hand, I’m perfectly willing to go with a film’s problems and be charmed by its virtues.

Maurice Devereaux’s Lady of the Lake is the latter kind of movie, so this month’s column over at the not drowning but swimming Exploder Button is a happy one.

In short: American Muscle (2014)

Stuck in jail after his partners – including his brother Sam (Todd Farmer) and his wife Darling (Robin Sydney) - shot him and left him behind in a heist turned bloodbath, formerly mild-mannered John Falcon (Nick Principe) has developed a new outlook on life, expressed through the rather minimalist philosophical maxim of “You owe. You pay.”.

When he’s released after ten years for good behaviour, John decides quite a few people owe him some dying, so off he goes in his canary yellow muscle car and kills them all, while occasional flashbacks needlessly detail a backstory as obvious as the film’s “twist”.

I’m still not quite sure if I should love how single-mindedly Ravi Dhar’s American Muscle keeps to every single cliché of the 2010’s style low budget desert-set US vengeance movie to become a delivery machine for violence, tits and ass, or if I should be annoyed by it. I am pretty sure I’m not terribly fond of the film, particularly since its brand of single-mindedness gets in the way of any kind of ambiguity and makes it pretty difficult to keep up much interest in the fate of its beefcake skinhead asshole hero. I know, he’s supposed to be all sensitive at his core, but this is not the kind of film that ever shows its hero doubting what he does, so that sensitivity is something the film may owe but certainly never pays.

It’s certainly pretty to look at, well edited, and there’s little to complain about when it comes to the action but I mostly found myself appreciating it all as technical achievements where a movie like this should really produce a little adrenaline rush. I just don’t find the film very fun at all, while on the other hand it is too superficial to be not fun in a worthwhile way.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Salvage (2006)

Warning: spoilers ahead

Nineteen year old Claire (Lauren Currie Lewis), trying to get through community college while working in her small town, has a disturbing experience. Instead of her boyfriend Jimmy (Cody Darbe) who is usually doing this, she is picked up by a really creepy guy (Chris Ferry) driving Jimmy’s pick-up after work. The man explains Jimmy couldn’t make it and sent him instead. Not surprisingly, he turns out to be a crazy killer who cuts Claire’s face off.

At that point, Claire wakes up at her job, to be picked up by Jimmy instead of the creepy killer. However, her experience wasn’t just a bad dream, for Claire now finds herself stricken by a feeling of dread, always expecting somebody to step out of the shadows, always feeling someone behind her, while the people around her tend to act a bit off. Sometimes, the killer appears again too, until Claire suddenly wakes up again only for things to repeat themselves in increasingly surreal variations. Claire does her damndest to find out what’s going on but the answer to that question might not be one she’s going to like.

“Indie horror film shot in Ohio in the 2000s” isn’t exactly the sort of description that makes me run out to watch a film. Certainly, there are some good to brilliant lower than low budget films around that keep the spirit of the local/regional cinema of the 70s and 80s alive but more often than not, this sort of thing turns out to be a film whose only redeeming virtue is that the people making it clearly meant well.

However, Jeff and Josh Crooks’s Salvage turns out to belong to the small group of the pretty brilliant ones, avoiding all the pitfalls of tiny productions. So instead of scenes that go on and on and on struggling to understand how transitions are supposed to work (or simply what the point of any given scene is), this is a tightly edited piece that never meanders but always pushes its narrative forward and its protagonist deeper into things, even though the forward momentum here from time to time happens by taking a step back. Instead of actors stiffly ACTING(!), we have a naturalistic and very effective performance by Lewis, some really creepy stuff by Ferry and generally decent performances by the rest working with dialogue that just works as things you believe coming out of these people’s mouths, Mostly, that is – I was not terribly convinced by the handful of more humorous moments, but these are so few and far between they don’t matter much.

What does matter is how well Salvage works with some well-worn genre tropes, given the narrative twist a genre-savvy viewer will expect  a further little turn, making it infinitely more interesting. The writer/directors also manage for their film what many a mainstream production with a twisty plot often not even tries to do and play fair with the audience, providing all the information to understand what’s actually going on well in advance and trusting their telling of the tale to be compelling enough to keep the viewers who get it watching.

That’s a well-made bet, for Salvage is nothing if not engrossing. It’s not just the tight editing and clever writing that makes this one so great. There’s also the sure-handed way the directors make use of the local colour – or perhaps a lack thereof – of the place where this was shot, making the surroundings feel like a real dead-end town. This does of course make the increasing weirdness of the things Claire goes through even more effective, for they break the rules of a well established reality instead of just being weird for weirdness sake. Last but not least, the Crooks (which is probably not the moniker the directors would have wanted, so sorry) are very good at suspense and horror scenes in the classic style, despite a handful of jump scares clearly preferring the creeping dread to shouting boo, creating many of the best moments of horror and excitement here out of of limited visibility, slow movement, and the knowledge there’s something lurking just around a corner.

Salvage is a truly fine film, is what I’m trying to say, the sort of film that quickly made me forget it must have been shot on a shoe-string budget through the power of really great genre filmmaking.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

In short: He Never Died (2015)

Jack (Henry Rollins) is a human blood-drinking, flesh-eating immortal. Actually, he’s a very specific immortal, but that’s neither here nor there. He has gone cold turkey on the murders that generally come with this sort of thing outside of YA novels and survives on a diet of small amounts of black market blood he buys from one of those body part hoking interns (Booboo Stewart) you find in every movie hospital. That diet isn’t too good for Jack’s personality though, and he spends his life sleeping, sleeping, sleeping, playing bingo, sleeping, keeping any given conversation ambiguously monosyllabic and ordering “hot tea” (one shudders to think what he’d get if he only said “tea”) in a local diner. Waitress Cara (Kate Greenhouse) is the closest Jack gets to actual human contact, and for reasons only known to her, she seems to have taken a bit of a shine to him.

Things will change for Jack when Andrea (Jordan Todosey), the daughter he didn’t know about, appears in his life, and he gets involved in his intern blood dealer’s trouble with some low level gangsters.

Tonally, Jason Krawczyk’s He Never Died is as far away from most other contemporary horror comedies as possible. There’s nothing zany here, and the film’s not interested in being parodic or self-consciously weird either. Instead, the humour here is bone dry, driven by Jack’s skewed attempts at pretending to be a normal human being, his peculiar interactions, and the quiet joy it brings to watch Henry Rollins play bingo.

Despite quite a body count – a part of which is held elegantly off-screen because once the audience has seen what Jack can do, it doesn’t need to be shown again and again which makes an interesting comparison to something like the much more mainstream Denzel Washington Equalizer that has certain obvious plot parallels  – I’d describe Krawczyk’s film as low key, approaching a surprisingly far-reaching mythology as matter-of-factly as it does its view of big city life, and never seeming afraid to just let things stand without detailed explanation and let the audience think about them a bit.

There’s a fine bit of irony going on here, too, with Jack being the more bizarrely literal-minded and socially awkward the less he’s involved in drinking blood, eating flesh and making a bloody mess. He’s more functional as an actual human being when he’s acting like a monster, which I find rather difficult not to read as a rather poignant choice of the film’s writer/director.

Rollins, not exactly the picture of variety when working as an actor (so just like when he’s working as a musician), is pretty much perfect here, breathing life into Jack’s awkwardness and weirdness and nailing his more human phases too. That Rollins, even in his mid-50s, can still embody physical threat when necessary is no surprise at all, of course.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Doctor X (1932)

A mysterious serial killer dubbed the Moon Killer goes around murdering people on full moon nights. His modus operandi is a bit complicated, seeing as it involves strangulation, the use of a very specific surgical instrument and a bit of cannibalism (hooray for pre-code movies!). The brain-dead cops investigating are completely out of their depth, until they realize the surgical instrument is only used in the medical school/research institute of Dr. Jerry Xavier (Lionel Atwill) who also just happens to be the local coroner.

They’re in luck too, for it is holiday time, so obviously, the deeds can only have been committed by one of the handful of teachers using vacation time for their studies (the idea a student or a random visitor might just have stolen one of the things goes unmentioned, of course, or that someone just might have brought one of the instruments from another country). The problem is that these teachers (as played by Preston Foster, John Wray, Harry Beresford and Arthur Edmund Carewe) are all hilariously creepy horror movie characters who all have backgrounds that might involve cannibalism. Then there’s that other tiny problem that our cops don’t actually interview potential suspects, as well as problem number three: Xavier really doesn’t want the bad publicity that’d come with a proper investigation (and what’s a few murders, right?), so he talks the police into giving him 48 hours to find out the truth himself.

For that purpose, Xavier does the obvious thing – packing up his handful of suspects, his daughter Joanne (Fay Wray), his creepy butler (George Rosener) and the obligatory comic relief maid (Leila Bennett), isolating them in an Old Dark House on an island, and testing his peers for craziness via the power of Mad Science(!) and murder re-enactments. There’s of course also the mandatory wise-cracking reporter (Lee Tracy) smuggling himself in, though this one is armed with joy buzzer, so watch out, evil! Obviously, more murders will happen too.

If one applies contemporary standards and tastes to the script for Michael Curtiz’ Doctor X, it’s pretty much impossible not to think of it as a misbegotten mess that violently squashes together unfunny comedy, pulp nonsense science, old dark house movie elements, and an obligatory romance until no narrative sense can have any chance. Even by the looser standards of 1932, quite a bit here could have been handled better.

However, it is exactly this utter disregard for coherence and taste that makes the film as fun to watch as it is. For once, a 30s horror movie actually holds to the promise of being a lurid tale that feels ripped right out of the pulps – and we’re not talking comparatively tasteful pulps like Argosy here but the sort of crime magazine that would mutate into the weird menace pulp soon enough. In fact, this rather suggests an alternative reality where the Hayes Code was never instated and where a movie could try to get close to become a moving shudder pulp (for better and worse). This one’s not quite there yet, but neither were the pulps. and the films that would have been exist only in the imagination but man, Curtiz’ film does come rather close to the ideal.

Making up for the load of comedy, Curtiz films the actual horror parts with surprising intensity, just pushing through the silliness of many of their set-ups to the soft core of horrific goodness. Seriously, the director gets quite a bit of mileage out of decidedly contrived situations, pushing through this viewer’s jaded distance by the sheer power of visual imagination and tight editing. If you’ve seen the wrong movies of this era of filmmaking, you might assume a certain static and theatrical look was the only possibility with the technical possibilities of the time but Curtiz’ film feels dynamic and lively throughout. It’s not a naturalistic looking film, obviously. Curtiz, particularly in the wonderful and completely bonkers third act, uses quite a few expressionist techniques that are only made to feel more unreal thanks to the beautiful yet strange - to modern eyes - two-tone Technicolor this was shot in.

All of this – as well as properly exalted acting and some choice SCIENCE(!) equipment – does turn the experience of watching this into something quite close to having a lurid dream.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

In short: The Last Heist (2016)

A group of former military operators led by one Paul (Torrance Coombs) is starting on what looks like the easiest heist possible. Their target is a deposit box vault that has nearly been closed down, and is only open to let a very few remaining customers get their valuables back. Consequently, there are only two people still working there, no security at all (which obviously stretches belief, but so will much of what’s to come), and there won’t be all that many civilians to control. But where’s the payoff for crime in this case, one might very well ask oneself. Turns out, there is something rather valuable in one of the deposit boxes still in house. We’ll even learn the what and why of this very special thing but because it belongs to one of the many, many complications the film will throw in, it’s not strictly necessary to explain.

Anyway, one of the guys working the place today is Danny (Michael Aaron Milligan) who just happens to be Paul’s brother. For what I can only assume to be good reasons the script just forgets to mention, Paul at once unmasks when he sees Danny, dooming the civilians to potential murder by some of his more bloodthirsty companions. Speaking of bloodthirsty, one of these civilians – and as it so happens the one ideally placed to not get tied up by Paul’s cohorts – turns out to be Los Angeles’s top serial killer, known as “Windows” because he likes to cut out the eyes of his victims after death, which just might complicate things further. Add that Danny quickly manages to send off a text message to the 911 line, and soon the police as represented by Sergeant Pascal (Victoria Pratt) gets involved too.

The script will add further complications, but I think I can stop here. As is quite obvious, the script to Mike Mendez’ The Last Heist (written by Guy Stevenson who also has a minor role in front of the camera) tries to get around that most notorious problem of many a modern low budget action film, the somewhat problematic fact that these films can’t actually afford to show much action, by replacing the escalations that would mean stuff actually needed to happen with complications that mostly give the characters opportunity to have more stuff to stand around and talk about.

It’s a daring approach, and not one I’m keen to encounter too often, but it is something of an improvement in so much as the characters don’t have to talk about the same stuff again and again to fill out the running time. Hooray, I guess.

Though seriously, The Last Heist is mildly diverting, mostly because the actors are good enough – with Rollins and Pratt the obvious stand-outs, the former in voluntary hilarity, the latter in professionalism – and because Mendez does his best to keep the not exactly exciting happenings visually interesting. There’s only so much that can be done without the money for about two action scenes, of course, but it’s the thought that counts in filmmaking, right?

Past Misdeeds: The Oracle (1985)

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

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

Poor Jennifer (Caroline Capers Powers)! It's not enough that she has to be married to super-moustached jerk Ray (Roger Neil), no, she also has to find a planchette that belonged to the old woman who lived in Jennifer's and Ray's new apartment before them, accidentally awakening her own mediumistic powers with it.

At first, it's all fun and games and a ghost (or is it a demon?) scrawling "help me" on a piece of paper during a Christmas party, but all too soon our bedraggled heroine has nightmares and visions of the most disturbing kind. The ghost seems to have become quite obsessed with her and is enthusiastically trying his hand as an interior decorator (preferred style: destruction and bava-green lighting). Ray, like every husband or boyfriend in every Findlay film, isn't getting less jerky, either, and aggressively berates Jennifer, like you do with the woman you love when you fear she is losing her mind.

After some time, the ghost makes itself a little clearer. It looks as if he belongs to a certain Mr. Graham and is in dire need of Jen's help in taking revenge on the people who murdered him. Ghostly Graham manages to send Jen a dream in which she can see the faces of his murderers quite well. Not surprisingly, attempts at informing Graham's wife (Victoria Dryden) of the truth about her husband's supposed suicide only bring the young woman's own life in danger. Evil Lesbian hobby & professional killer Farkas (Pam La Testa; somewhere between the worst evil Lesbian clichés and utter perfection) ain't someone to mess with.

And these are still not enough problems for Jennifer. Additionally, the ghost is growing a bit too protective of her and kills everyone trying to get between him and Jennifer in ridiculous and gory ways. I won't blame anyone - ghost or not - for killing off Ray, though. Jennifer will certainly be better off without that guy.

Roberta Findlay, you're my hero! The Oracle is the first film the great lady made in the final (horror) phase of her career, after she left the world of pornography - although not the porno facial hair - behind for something only slightly more reputable, and it is glorious.

There is only a small amount of Findlay's patented semi-documentary shots of the scummier parts of New York - which would go on to take more and more room in her horror films - on display here. The Oracle places a much greater emphasis on rubber monsters, rubbery gore and Farkas and her artificially deepened voice (don't ask why - it's a Findlay film), yet I can't rightly complain about the relative absence of dirty streets when the film shows us this stuff instead.

Findlay did learn the fine art of cheap but effective photography when she was working as (not always billed) camera operator/director of photography on the sexploitation films she made with her then-husband Michael (whom I suspect to be the source for the jerky husbands and boyfriends in her horror movies) in the 60s, so her films are usually much nicer to look at than their budget would suggest. (Although I have seen her films called "amateurishly photographed" in more than one review; obviously, there's no accounting for taste).

What might be a problem to some viewers is the utter inability of anyone on screen to "act" in the more conventional sense of the word. Fortunately, there's more important things to acting in cheap little numbers like this one, and most everyone on screen has that special something to endear her or him to me for evermore. The men have their porno moustaches, Farkas a silly potty-mouth and the charming butchness of terror, and Caroline Capers Powers is intensely good at going into full body hysterics like it is seldom displayed outside of Italian genre cinema.

Powers performance in the last thirty minutes alone would be more than enough to recommend The Oracle, yet there's still more and more to love about it. How about lots and lots of multi-coloured goo? Bonus moustaches? A plot that starts out slow and boring yet gets as hysterical and jumpy as the main actress? A sex scene that is nearly as wooden and disturbing as the one in Don Dohler's Nightbeast? More (hysterical) running around than in a whole season of Rupert Davies-penned Doctor Who? Random classy-looking shots and moody lighting between the moments of shoddy insanity and bad effects? Some wonderful moments of serenity in a exceedingly badly secured New Yorker mental institution? A soundtrack that was composed by a monkey randomly pushing buttons and keys on a synthesizer? And best of all, a scene in which Ray's head is ripped off by the hands of an angry ghost? The Oracle truly has it all, possibly even more.

I know that I'm usually putting a certain emphasis on the importance of filmmakers caring about the films they make, or at least not hating their audience with a burning passion. Roberta Findlay however is one of the great exceptions to this rule. The woman utterly loathed the horror genre and everything it stands for, and didn't have especially warm feelings for the genre's fans either, yet she still managed to make a handful of lovely films in it. I think her horror films are the products of someone trying to make films for the least respectable and least intelligent audience she could imagine, and just throwing everything that could possibly be of interest to that audience on screen (much like a monkey does with poo), in the hope that some of it would stick, even if none of it made any sense whatsoever.

It is this hateful and ignorant attitude to its own audience - and possibly filmmaking itself - that makes The Oracle such a fascinating experience for me. This movie is what happens when someone just doesn't give a shit about what she is doing one way or the other, yet is still too talented not to produce something interesting. And this, dear readers, is what I call "movie magic".

Friday, July 15, 2016

Three Films Make A Post: THE END WAS NEAR. THEY KICKED ITS ASS.

Mindwarp (1992): I know I shouldn’t expect anything beyond fan service in form of KNB gore that often feels shoe-horned in for no good reason, horror fan favs Bruce Campbell and Angus Scrimm, and some moments that aim for taboo breaking but fall flat because they’re as pointless as a reality show from a Fangoria production. However, there’s just no excuse for this particular piece of crap to include all these things and be boring, surely. The script’s just terrible – and I mean terrible for the standards of a low budget post-apocalypse movie with added gore – moving at a snail’s pace and containing little that’s surprising or as freaky as the film pretends it to be. Director Steve Barnett does his work with all the panache and style of a full garbage can, Campbell and Scrimm get paid, and I had myself a nice little nap.

The Light at the Edge of the World (1971): Where Barnett's film is just crap, Kevin Billington’s very free adaptation of a Jules Verne novel is something of an intriguing mess. Sometimes, it’s a psychologically tense cat and mouse game between Kirk Douglas and Yul Brunner that makes excellent use of the (Catalonian?) piece of rock it has been shot on; sometimes, it’s a decent adventure movie; at other times again, it shows the same ruthless, pessimist spirit I love about early 70s horror. A few scenes later, it’s suddenly a meandering mess that just doesn’t seem to know what point it is trying to make about people in general or its characters, just pushing stuff in front of its audience without discernible rhyme or reason. The good parts do make this one very much worth watching, though.

Shame the Devil (2013): If you always dreamed of watching a British movie partially “inspired” by the Saw films with a bit more of the standard serial killer thriller thrown in, this one’s clearly your fault. I have to say, though, this thing does give me a new appreciation for the Saws, for while the entries in that particular franchise are as implausible as all get out, pretty tacky and directed with all the wrong fashionable direction tics, they do at least hang together as actual movies and do their best to make their implausibilities work in the context of their narratives. Shame the Devil, on the other hand, has some of the worst writing I’ve ever encountered, with dialogue that’s at once stilted and unnatural, dumb and lacking in flow, everyone talking at each other in non sequiturs. The plot is obvious, badly paced, full of ill used clichés and just plain disinteresting. The writing is so bad and hangs together so little, I can’t bring myself to actually criticize the actors for the way they stumble through their scenes, for it’s pretty damn clear that there’s nothing to work with in the script. Paul Tanter’s direction sure as hell doesn’t provide anything for them to hang their performances on. It’s just a dreadful mess of a movie, as far from being entertainingly bad as it is from being competent filmmaking.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Joy Ride 2: Dead Ahead (2008)

Sisters Melissa (Nicki Aycox) and Kayla (Laura Jordan) haven’t seen each other in months, so what better way to change that than going on a road trip to Las Vegas with Melissa’s fiancée Bobby (Nick Zano) for the couple’s shared bachelor bash? Kayla invites her internet boyfriend Nik (Kyle Schmid) as a surprise road trip guest too, though Nik’ll turn out to be a bit of a prick when they meet him half-way to Vegas.

When going on a detour/short-cut Nik suggests, the group’s car dies somewhere out in the desert, about a hundred miles from their last stop. Fortunately, they manage to find a house relatively close-by. The place is mostly empty, doesn’t have a working phone and doesn’t seem to have been lived in for quite a while, but its garage features a rather nice looking car in perfect working order, with a full tank. They decide to borrow the vehicle to get to safety, and – on the insistence of the rather more sane Melissa and Bobby – bring it back once they have found a car rental. To be on the safe side, Melissa does leave her mobile number.

In a rather unfortunate turn of event the car they borrowed belongs to a truck driving serial killer calling himself – rather adorably - Rusty Nail (Mark Gibbon). And Rusty really likes to play, so first he kidnaps Bobby and then begins to play various cruel games with the others, threatening Bobby’s life if they don’t comply. It’s going to be a rather interesting time for everyone involved, though Melissa will turn out to be the kind of woman whose fiancée you probably shouldn’t kidnap.

The prospect of a direct-to-DVD sequel to a thriller that didn’t exactly swim in money isn’t usually a terribly exciting one. However, I’ve always been rather fond of director Louis Morneau’s films, and more or less enjoyed every single one of them in all their various states of low (and ever lower) budget glory. While he’s not a particularly stylish director, Morneau is the good kind of genre film journeyman who actually puts effort into his work, turning out films that generally feel to me like the result of someone trying to make the best film possible under the circumstances instead of coasting on breasts and blood like the Jim Wynorskis of this world prefer.

So it’s not much of a surprise that Morneau does make an at least always decently entertaining thriller out of a script that really could have gone through another re-write or two (so our characters can break into a drive-in morgue to steal a finger but they can’t try to secretly contact the police?), and charming little problems like the fact that British Columbia might not be an ideal place to shoot a movie supposedly set in the US desert states. Turns out there are desert-ish looking places (at least when they are framed right) available, and the rest of the proper desert mood is provided by the yellowest filter to ever turn a place desert-y. Though, honestly, I’m not intent on mocking the film here, for Morneau does make the setting more or less work.

Every ten minutes or so, the script also throws the director a bone in form of a budget-conscious suspense or action scene. These mostly turn out pretty darn well, with Morneau usually finding the most interesting and exciting looking way to shoot a given scene – again, this is not something you can actually expect from a direct-to-DVD movie. More often than not, these scenes get downright exciting.

And while it’s easy to mock the script for plot holes and a certain silliness that comes with the territory of how artificial most thriller plot set-ups are, it also subverts some of the more typical thriller expectations, like letting Bobby (whose actor also looks the part of a low budget action hero) be the kidnapped princess while Melissa as the female character goes to insane and violent lengths to get him back. Aycox is rather convincing in the part, too, particularly in the second half of the film when she applies her own killer instincts to the situation.

All of which certainly makes for very enjoyable, sometimes exciting ninety minutes of movie.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

In short: Invisible Agent (1942)

1941. German agent Conrad Stauffer (Cedric Hardwicke), “Japanese” “Baron” Ikito (Peter Lorre, as we all know the most Asian guy in Hollywood at the time, Austria being so very close to China or Japan) and their henchmen have a nice little talk – with assorted introductory torture – about a certain family invention with one Frank Raymond (Jon Hall). Raymond changed his name to Raymond from Griffin, and the film usually calls him the grandson of Frank Griffin, the Invisible Man, even though Frank was the brother of the original Invisible Man. Far be it from me to suggest a Universal movie doesn’t give a crap about even the simplest facts surrounding what came before in a franchise, so let’s just pretend “Grandson of the guy who helped Vincent Price become the second Invisible Man” would be too difficult for the tiny brains of an audience to comprehend.

Anyway, Frank manages to escape the bad guys’ clutches, delivers news of the affair to some kind of military gentleman, declines to deliver the invisibility serum to the US military (because bah, gas chambers, who cares, one can’t help but mentally add), but quickly changes his tune after Pearl Harbour, for once Americans are getting killed moral compunctions aren’t important anymore. However, Frank still has one condition: only a single man shall be treated with the serum, and that man must be him! Because this is a movie, various Allied higher-ups agree with the plan, and quickly, the Invisible Amateur, I mean Agent, is on a mission to Berlin to find out all available information about a coming Japanese/German attack on US soil.

Will he bumble around even worse than you expect the amateur he is to, and risk his invisibility cover on the tiniest of provocations? Will the film awkwardly shuffle between portraying the Nazis as fools even more bumbling than our nominal hero and actually evil? Will Stauffer and Ikito just happen to become involved? Will there be an attractive woman (Ilonay Massey) in the spy business for our hero to romance? Will character actors like Albert Bassermann and J. Edward Bromberg try their best working from a particularly sloppy Curt Siodmak script? You betcha!

Turning a version of the invisible man into a propagandistic war time hero obviously made a lot of sense in 1942, and of course suggests to the excitable mind further movies only made in an alternative reality like “The Wolfman Howls at Himmler” and “Dracula bites Hitler: Perhaps not the best idea”. Alas, what Universal and director Edwin L. Marin deliver here is quite a mess, featuring a hero so incompetent he is threatened even by the most Keystone Koppish of the Nazis, and Nazis the film never can decide are bumbling fools or terrifyingly effective evil. It’s a tonal problem that isn’t helped by the Universal love for bad slapstick, nor by the film’s episodic structure, where single scenes can be quite impressive but no care seems to have been taken with actually turning these scenes into a narrative with a coherent mood. Which of course, war time propaganda or not, does fit perfectly into the way Universal treated its fantastic films after The Wolfman, disposable trash good enough for the peasants to spend their money on but not important enough for the studio to put any effort in.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Konga (1961)

Biologist Dr. Decker (Michael Gough) was lost in the jungles of Uganda for over a year following an airplane explosion. When he makes a surprise return in England, he brings with him a cute little baby chimp named Konga, and an exquisite line of speechifying about how many textbooks will have to be rewritten once he reveals all he has found out in Uganda. But it’s not time yet, of course.

Turns out, his house keeper, secretary, assistant and unofficial (we are British, after all) girlfriend Margaret (Margo Johns) quickly learns, Decker has befriended a witch doctor who provided him with valuable insight into a much closer relationship between plants and animals than science generally suggests, as well as ways to use this knowledge to induce certain genetic changes. Decker goes on to prove this by harvesting parts of the huge, incredibly fast growing flesh-eating plants he has brought with him from Uganda, mixing them with some hypnotic seeds into a nice green fluid (all mad science fluids are green, as you know) and injecting Konga with it.

At first, this turns baby Konga into a full-grown chimpanzee, but of course, that’s not enough for long. After a heated confrontation with the deacon of the university where Decker teaches when he’s not obsessed with growth (GROWTH!), Konga gets his next shot, which doesn’t turn him into an even larger chimp but into a dude in gorilla costume. SCIENCE! Decker then uses Konga to get rid of the deacon. This is – of course! – only the first murder the ex-chimp will have to commit for Decker. Margaret cops to the whole “my boss/boyfriend murders people with a gorilla” thing rather quickly, but as long as Decker is willing to make an honest woman out of her, a bit of mad science murder is quite alright with her.

That is, until Decker decides he’d rather have a younger, blonder and more pneumatically-breasted model of an assistant instead of Margaret.

A Hammer movie, this British monster movie directed by John Lemont certainly isn’t. In fact, it’s as close to the ideals of the US monster movie as British films got at the time. However, it does display rather more temperament than comparable US – and UK productions, to be fair – at the time of its making usually did. I’d be tempted to call the film’s approach “pop art” even though it is certainly a few years early for that sort of thing in genre cinema. A pioneering effort in making a monster movie for the UK teenager? Gosh, now I’m making Konga sound good when it is actually just so unapologetically batshit insane it turns out to be highly entertaining.

This film does have everything you might want from a monster movie, after all: Michael Gough vigorously overacting his way through dialogue reaching from the absurd to the ridiculous, teenagers who act as if they were actually made out of wood, a mad scientist who not only proves his mettle by his ranting and raving but also by shooting his poor cat, much new knowledge about the mating rituals of mad scientists (which include much ranting, surprisingly enough), a gorilla suit meant to represent a chimp, and for the finale the most polite giant monster rampage imaginable (as if the film makers were Canadian, even) that replaces Fay Wray with Michael Gough and a Michael Gough doll. It is rather glorious.

It is particularly so because Lemont breaks various of the monster movie rules of his time by sparing us the square-jawed heroes (or indeed any boring sympathetic characters, unless you count the wooden teens) and even better, by pacing the film in such a way that things aren’t only starting to happen forty minutes in. Indeed, this is certainly among the paciest monster movies of its era made outside Japan, with little time spent on anything that might bore an audience that really came to see a giant ape. Okay, “giant” the ape only becomes for the final non-rampage, but that sort of things is not much of a problem when the non-giant ape scenes are as entertaining as they are here.

But what valuable lesson can the film teach us? Mad scientists should keep romance between themselves and their killer apes!

Saturday, July 9, 2016

In short: Hush (2016)

After a bad break-up deaf mute – and no, happily the film’s not just using this as a gimmick - writer Maddie (Kate Siegel, who also co-wrote the film with her husband, director Mike Flanagan) has moved into the splendid isolation of a house in the woods. It’s not quite as out of the way as these houses often are in horror films: the nearest neighbours (Samantha Sloyan and Michael Trucco) are in walking distance, there’s working Wi-Fi, and even the police seems to be relatively close.

Nonetheless, Maddie soon finds herself in trouble. A serial killer (John Gallagher Jr.) wants to play home invasion with what must look like an easy victim to him; turns out the bastard just might have bitten off more than he can chew.

So, Mike Flanagan’s a bit of a great director, isn’t he? Leaving the supernatural elements of his earlier films behind, this one’s a splendid variation on the home invasion movie, though spiced up with more siege elements in the classic Carpenter (or classic-classic Hawks) style, and avoiding everything I dislike about most home invasion movies. So the subtext about the evil of poor people is replaced by some rather more interesting commentary about various kinds of isolation, the suburban yuppie vacuum protagonist by a deftly written author who is actually likeable, and the sub-genre’s love for sadism is replaced with less unpleasant yet sturdier thriller gestures.

That last point doesn’t mean Hush is a film that pulls its punches: Maddie and the other characters still go through a lot of horrible stuff but Flanagan has such a tight control over the material he reaches greater effect through being less sensationalist. This tightness is one of the film’s greatest strengths and feels very much like script and direction working in perfect concert at keeping things lean but never too lean. There’s something fearsomely effective about the handful of scenes the film uses to introduce Maddie, with no wasted line in the script, no wasted gesture in Siegel’s – rather fantastic – performance yet still the film avoids the impression of simplifying overmuch.

That’s really Hush in a nutshell: sharp writing that doesn’t need to make its characters stupid, and tight yet elegant direction meet excellent acting (Siegel’s opponent as portrayed by John Gallagher Jr. is nearly as impressive as she is, and stays threatening even though he’s never played as being superhuman) and turn the film into something which transform quite a few played-out tropes into something that feels alive again.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Past Misdeeds: The Clown Murders (1976)

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.

Would-be big shot business man Philip (Lawrence Dane) is just about to make an actually big deal for once, selling the farm that belongs to his wife Alison (Susan Keller) to a land development company that will build one of those nice apartment complexes where once fields were. Because the land is not Philip's but Alison's property, he needs her signature on the sale contracts, which for some reason that is never made quite clear need to be signed on October 31st just before midnight.

This is not a case of a husband forcing his wife, Alison is in fact quite willing to get rid of the farm and with it a part of her past she would like to forget, but there are other people who have quite different ideas.

Alison's ex-boyfriend Charlie (Stephen Young), who once lived with her on the farm this is all about, has just returned from some unsuccessful business adventures outside of Canada, and he, for one, would just love to get back with Alison, her being married notwithstanding.

While pretending to be as drunk as the people he's speaking with actually are, Charlie manages to talk three supposed friends of Philip's, Ollie (John Candy), Rosie (Gary Reineke) and Peter (John Bayliss) into helping him with a mad plan he sells them as a prank. He wants them to use a Halloween party Ollie arranges as a backdrop for kidnapping Alison so that she won't be able to sign the papers selling the farm on time. Since every single one of them hates Philip at least a little, and lusts quite frightfully after his wife, the idiots agree.

On Halloween, the quartet sets their plan in motion, dresses up as clowns and kidnaps Alison. At first, they drag the woman to Peter's home, but there, cracks between the men become obvious. Until now nobody except Charlie did truly realize what repercussions their actions would have. For some reason, not one of them imagined that Philip would just call the police, as he of course does. Now, the men don't know what to do anymore.

Alison herself doesn't exactly act like a good kidnap victim. She doesn't seem too sure about what to do with Charlie and the others, but she is most certainly not afraid of them or trying to escape from them.

After some arguments which already begin to turn violent, Charlie talks his co-kidnappers into transporting their "victim" to the farm. Surely, nobody will look for them there.

At their destination - and after a meeting with a cop that goes as badly for them as everything else - the men squabble and drink some more, while Alison does her best to provoke them. You'd think leaving these people cooped up with each other alone would be enough provoke a minor blood bath, but there's someone else stalking them, someone who dons a clown mask and shows some rather murderous tendencies.

The Clown Murders is certainly different. The DVD cover (and the plot description on the IMDB, of course) let the film look like a run-of-the-mill slasher, but nothing could be further from the truth.

It's a psychological thriller much more interested in building an atmosphere of tension up to the moment just before it turns to violence than in the violence itself. There is a bit of bloodshed, to be sure, but the film spends most of his running time building up to it until it becomes seemingly inevitable.

The character work here is surprisingly subtle. While the characters' actions aren't always logical or rational (actually, the men mostly come over as rather dumb, Alison as quite inexplicable), they perfectly fit their character types. These are all men jealous of something in Philip that they find embodied in his "possession" of Alison. Rosie and Peter are certainly not able to see Alison as a person, and their lusting after her has much more to do with their wish to prove their dominance over Philip than in any carnal interest in her. Charlie for his part has (probably, the film is only insinuating, not telling) thought up the whole bizarre plan as a way to win Alison again, yet it is the Alison he remembers he wants, and not the woman standing right before him. I had my problems understanding Ollie's character, or why he goes along with the kidnapping, but I'm pretty sure there's a reason why he is the one among the men Alison sleeps with in the end, apart from her sharing the self-destructive urge that seems to drive everyone's actions.

There's an uncommon element of ambiguity running through the whole film; nobody's motivations are ever directly explained, and I'm quite sure that the characters don't know why they are doing what they are doing. There is of course a subtext to the film talking about violence lurking just below the surface of male interaction, barely repressed and just waiting to explode, and the roles someone like Alison has to play just to survive, but that doesn't explain everything that is going on in the film's text.

What is Alison trying to achieve? Does she realize who the other man in the clown mask is? The film isn't telling, and I'm not too sure if the director and writer Martyn Burke actually knows, or if he's making some parts just up as they come along.

Burke does some fine, unobtrusive directing here. The Clown Murders might move slowly, but not a single shot in it is padding. Everything on screen is meant to convey something about the characters that couldn't be told through dialogue alone.

Of course, one could argue that the film is just too ambiguous and/or too subtle for its own good, and it is certainly true that this is a film for people willing to take it on its own terms and in its own rhythm.

The Clown Murders needs viewers willing to accept that there are theories to have, and interpretations to be made, but no clear answers will be given about its characters. Like some things in life, much in it needs to stay ambiguous.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Deep in the Darkness (2014)

Warning: spoilers ahead – though, frankly, the only surprise coming to you is how little thought the film puts into the little stuff like basic logic.

Dr. Michael Cayle (Sean Patrick Thomas), his wife Cristine (Kristen Bush) and their daughter Jessica (Athena Grant) are moving into one of these charming small towns US horror can’t live without. Not surprisingly, something is very wrong here. Not only isn’t cable TV allowed in town (though there’s internet and we never learn what these people think about satellite TV), the usual horror movie cell phone rules seem to apply and a curfew forbids one leaving one’s home after 8pm, there’s also the little thing with the cave-dwelling half-humans who have been controlling the town for centuries even though they’re clearly not very bright, number perhaps a couple dozens, and can’t even stand up to a former city doctor in a one-on-one fight. There’s also a bit of Innsmouth style “miscegenation” going on, it seems, but there doesn’t seem any immortality, riches or anything at all in it for the humans working with the stupidly named “isolates”, so I have no idea why anybody would put up with the monsters’ crap.

Anyway, exactly the stuff you’d expect after you’ve seen it in half a dozen other movies happens, there’s a twist ending that makes the motivations of one of the main characters absolutely inscrutable, and then an obvious invitation to a sequel that hopefully will never come.

So yeah, despite looking pretty good for its budget, decent acting, some minutes of Dean Stockwell, and a score that has ambitions to be in a much more lavish movie, Colin Theys’s Deep in the Darkness started to annoy me after a somewhat intriguing first twenty minutes or so. At that point, I was expecting the film to go somewhere interesting with its underground dwellers and the cult working for them, but it became increasingly clear nobody involved bothered to think anything about the plot through, or arguably, think at all. The poor cultists are so badly motivated, they don’t even have the old “they’re all crazy” excuse for what they do. Worse, the film never manages to establish the isolates as a credible threat. They’re mostly grubby, smallish people with silly glowing eyes who grunt a lot, and who have trouble winning physical confrontations with a doctor and his fists; Cthulhu knows what would happen to the poor bastards if somebody brought a gun or explosives.

Because the writing here is astonishingly lazy, there are no guns incoming, because our hero just happens to have some vials of ebola, bubonic plague and other viruses in his - completely unprotected from potential mass murderers and terrorists - office, and he’s so great at virology, he can cook up a ridiculously fast killing version of these in about five minutes. While we’re talking stupidity, this is also a film where having no car prevents you from fleeing crazy monster town even though said monsters only come out at night and the next town is supposed to be only two miles away. The script is full of this sort of nonsense, and barely a minute goes by where even someone like me who tends to be rather patient with this sort of thing can’t overlook the script’s complete unwillingness to make even a lick of sense.

And since Deep in the Darkness doesn’t have anything else to offer, there’s nothing to distract from its general dumbness nor any reason to put up with it.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Before I Go to Sleep (2014)

Christine (Nicole Kidman) wakes up every morning remembering nothing that has happened to her since her late 20s. The man she wakes up next to, her husband Ben (Colin Firth), explains - with the help of a useful photo wall in the movies more often used by serial killers - to her that some years ago, she had a bad accident that left her with a very particular kind of amnesia, erasing her memory with every night’s sleep.

However, things aren’t quite as simple as they seem to be. Secretly, Christine has been seeing neurologist Dr. Nasch (Mark Strong) for a few weeks now. Nasch has encouraged her to keep a video diary on a camera she keeps hidden, and reminds her of it with a phone call every morning. The therapy seems to be working too, but the bits and pieces Christine remembers lead to doubts concerning Ben.

Turns out Christine’s “accident” was actually a vicious attack on her. This will turn out not to be the only part of her past Ben edits out when he’s doing his daily info dump with her, but is this an attempt to protect her and survive a very difficult situation for himself, or is something sinister going on? And while we’re at it, what about Nasch? Isn’t he acting ethically rather questionable what with him making googly eyes at Christine and treating her in secret?

In general, I’m not terribly fond of thrillers with amnesia plots. It always seems to be a rather too convenient starting point from which to build a plot from, keeping protagonists and audience guessing without a film having to work for it.

However, if an amnesia film uses its easy starting point as well as Rowan Joffe’s Before I Go to Sleep does, I’m totally okay with it. The trick for such a film to make me happy is to create a narrative where the protagonist’s amnesia is more than just a plot tool, so Christine’s memory loss does have quite a few other functions than just enabling the thriller plot – though it does that too. As much as this is a well done “woman in peril – but from whom?” thriller, it is also a film attempting to think thoroughly about the way memory shapes a woman’s identity, and how memory and identity intersect with love and trust.

In putting the thoughtful bits and the thriller plot together, Joffe turns out to be a rather fine director and writer (he wrote the script based on a novel by S.J. Watson I unfortunately haven’t read) for this sort of thing, playing fair with the audience by keeping them clued in about what is going on as much as Christine is without going through awkward contortions to keep things mysterious. Sure, the way the plot relevant bits of memory return to Christine is a bit artificial (surely, she might remember drinking milkshakes or something else irrelevant to matters at hand from time to time instead of exactly those things that’ll make the film most interesting) but what the film does with these memories fits nicely into its thoughts on matters of trust, truth and love. And the suspenseful moments here are indeed exciting without looking as if the film were working too hard for them – which of course means it is working particularly hard for them.

Add to this expectedly fine performances of not particularly simple roles by Kidman and Firth, and you have an exemplary thriller.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Maze (1953)

Americanised Scot Gerald McTeam (Richard Carlson) and Kitty Murray (Veronica Hurst) are eloped to be married in two weeks. Things in the happy relationship change when a letter for Gerald arrives asking for his return to his Scottish uncle’s castle as quickly as possible. Reluctantly, Gerald does got to Scotland, leaving Kitty and her aunt Edith (Katherine Emery) behind awaiting a quick return.

However, Gerald does not return; neither does he telegraph nor write (phoning would be right out in the notoriously primitive castle). Only after weeks do the Murrays hear from him in form of a letter to Edith telling of the death of his uncle. In this letter, Gerald breaks off the engagement, declaring he will never be able to see Kitty again while at the same time swearing eternal love. Not terribly surprisingly, this sort of thing doesn’t cut the mustard with the pleasantly strong-minded Kitty, so she decides to grab her aunt and travel to Gerald’s freshly inherited castle to find out what the heck is going on with him.

On their first encounter, Gerald is visibly aged and attempts stone-faced reticence towards his unwanted visitors, wanting them out of the house at once. After some effective pushing by Kitty “at once” turns into “the very next morning”, and soon Gerald finds himself with the Murrays as house guests for a rather longer amount of time. Kitty’s pretty relentless, as you can see. She needs to be, too, for there is some sort of terrible secret hanging over the house like an appropriately gothic shroud. Gerald and his two servants seem to conspire to hide something from the two women, and follow strange house rules that see guests in the house locked in their rooms for the night, treat a certain tower room as taboo, and so on and so forth.

Kitty’s pretty sure there’s something particularly weird going on in the castle’s maze, too, and she’s certainly the kind of woman who’ll do whatever it takes to find out what it is that haunts the man she inexplicably wants to marry.

Despite an ending that is at once a bit too harmless and a bit too pat, and a deep dark secret that looks about as horrifying as the one in Lovecraft’s “Arthur Jermyn” – which is to say, not at all in the most hilarious manner - to my 2016 eyes, William Cameron Menzies’s The Maze is a minor gem, certainly one of the highlights of the cheapest side of Allied Artist’s (which were once Monogram pictures and still often enough shooting on the tiny budgets of their Poverty Row tradition) output.

Many of the film’s virtues are in fact a product of the film’s cheapness, or rather the way its veteran director and production designer chose to film around it. Clearly, if one can’t afford naturalistic (or really, even mildly realistic) sets or locations, then it’s best to not even try for them and instead use a technique that’s a better fit to make much out of little; or I imagine something of that sort to have gone through Menzies’s mind. In any case, the director chose to use very classic expressionist techniques, turning out a film that gains an oppressive mood through many a weirdly angled shadow of the sort that seems to trap the characters in corners (as well as seeming to turn everything into a corner), and framing that should look cramped but feels claustrophobic thanks to the director’s subtle use of peculiar camera angles as well as the man’s tendency to use background and foreground images in much more inventive ways than was usually done in 50’s horror films. It’s one of the handful of American movies of its age that does aim for the gothic instead of the blandly “realistic” and for most of the running time, this approach turns The Maze into a fascinating and effective film.

There are some weaknesses of course. The script – ignoring the ending – is rather good and even well-paced, but there’s a somewhat dubious monster suit to survive for the discerning viewer – even though Menzies makes as much out of it as is humanly possible – and some truly ropy acting in minor roles. Additionally, Carlson seems to have, in one or two scenes to a nearly comical degree, not the faintest idea what his character is about nor how to express it.

Fortunately, Carlson is really more of a plot prop than a character here, for this is certainly Kitty’s tale, not his. And Kitty, well, she’s the very rare example of an independent, head-strong female heroine in a 50s genre film who actually is the audience’s viewpoint character throughout, isn’t “tamed” (shudder) by her man, and is only breaking down as much as is believable. Not surprisingly, Hurst makes the most out of this rare opportunity and together with Emery dominates proceedings for once in her career. Even if the film’s mood wasn’t as strong as it is, Kitty would be reason enough to watch it. As it happens, she’s just one of two very sturdy legs The Maze stands on.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Three Films Make A Post: A warrior without equal. A weapon without limits

The Messengers (2007): And then there was the time when the Pang Brothers Danny and Oxide went to Saskatchewan to shoot a movie for a US company that’s supposed to be taking place in North Dakota, while none of the actors even attempted to pretend to be Midwesterners (in a way even a German notices). It has a perfectly decent cast including Penelope Ann Miller, Dylan McDermott and Kristen Stewart in a non-horrible performance, looks – it’s a Pang Brothers joint after all – really nice, and culminates in a finale as crappy as only the Pangs do them. In between there’s a run-through of variants of many a classic horror scene (done ever so slightly to very much worse, of course) and little that’ll catch one’s interest.

It’s all perfectly inoffensive, but when has that ever been a good thing to be said about a horror film?

The Messengers 2 (2009): Of course, this direct-to-DVD sequel-in-name-only by Martin Barnewitz manages to be even less interesting than the Pang Brothers film that came before. It’s got little of the slickness of its predecessor and clearly not much of an idea what to put in place of that slickness. Despite decent actors like Norman Reedus and Heather Stephens, there’s little to see on the acting front either, for the script can’t do ambiguous characters or just internal complexity at all, but then, this is the sort of movie that thinks not going to church and “taking His name in vain” (seriously) is something that can only be the first step on the path to adultery and cursed-scarecrow incited murder.

The Caller (2011): So props to this US-Puerto Rican production directed by Matthew Parkhill for at least leaving the baby Jesus home. But I’m being unfair, for this is actually a rather decent thriller of the timey-wimey sub-genre, with a good lead performance by Rachelle Lefevre, a well-cast handful of other actors (well, and Stephen Moyer whose attraction this heterosexual guy can’t fathom, but we can’t have everything), and even a script that doesn’t go for any kind of idiotic twist in the end but works fairly and consequential from its premise. While I’m not particularly excited about the film – it is good but never quite as riveting as it perhaps could be – this is the sort of random Netflix find that makes one look at one’s queue with a degree of hope, and certainly a film it’s easy enough to appreciate.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Past Misdeeds: The Devil's Express (1976)

a.k.a. Gang Wars

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.

Luke (awesomely named Warhawk Tanzania) leads a successful martial arts dojo in New York. Among his pupils are as diverse people as the white cop Sam as well as Rodan (probably not related to the kaiju, played by Wilfredo Roldan), the drug-dealing thug leader of a street gang called the Black Spades.

Luke seems to have become quite successful in the growth of his own martial arts as well, at least he has earned the honour to travel to China to attain a new rank by getting his ass kicked by an elderly master. Luke seems to have some hope for instilling a bit of spiritual growth in Rodan, so he takes him on his Chinese adventure.

After a bit of fighting and losing, the New Yorker only needs to do some meditation in the woods to level up to level nine. He chooses Rodan to protect his body while he's doing the silent soul-searching stuff. Unfortunately, Rodan is easily bored, and instead of protecting his friend, he's all too soon roaming through the woods until he finds a cave full of century old corpses. Unknown to the freshly awakened Luke, he also steals an amulet one of the dead wears around his neck.

Both men don't realize that their indiscretion has awakened the amulet's owner, who is annoyed enough to possess some poor random Chinese guy and stow away on the same ship to New York the martial artists take, obviously with bad intentions in mind.

Back in New York, Rodan steers his gang into a war with a Chinese gang called the Red Dragons, while the demon, although seemingly pining for the return of his amulet, moves into the subway system and starts to kill people.

At first, the police think the gang war and the subway murders are somehow connected, but Sam - who is quite bright for a cop in a blaxploitation movie - soon realizes that there must be more to the latter than meets the eye. He also tries to get Luke's help in containing the gang situation, but the martial artist is of course too much in love with his own machismo and the evils of The Man to be of any help.

Luke is only getting active when the demon finally kills Rodan. At first, he tries to avenge his friend on the Red Dragons, but when a random wise old man explains to him who really killed his friend, he decides to catch himself a demon.

There's not much that could be sounding more grindhouse than a combination of blaxploitation, American martial arts and horror flick, promising a very special sort of dubious movie nirvana. Of course, "sounding good" was often as far as films made for the grindhouse circuit came to the word "good" at all, so I went into watching The Devil's Express with some reservations regarding its quality. I was positively surprised.

Sure, Barry Rosen's film isn't exactly what one would call a good film, but it takes the elements of the three (four, if you add the surprise visits in cop movie territory) genres it plunders with enough enthusiasm and earnestness to win my heart.

It's certainly a film with its share of problems. The acting - with the exception of the guy (possibly Larry Fleishman) who plays the Italo-American cop with excellent clichéd gusto and a schizophrenic bag lady - is rather wooden, but carries with it the sort of authenticity you get by casting semi-professional actors and amateurs. And I can hardly blame Warhawk Tanzania for not being as awesome as his name.

Compared to even the most mediocre martial arts movies from Hong Kong or Taiwan, the fighting (I wouldn't really speak of fight choreography in this case) isn't much good either, but are there any US martial arts films with good, or even just competent, fights? At least the fights aren't lackluster, because everybody on screen is really trying to get into it like Bruce Lee, just without the required training.

The movie's plotting isn't much to gush about either. The script doesn't even seem to be able to decide who its protagonist is - Luke? Sam? both? - and therefore jumps merrily back and forth without developing much momentum.

Additionally, the film's running time is padded out by random inserts of not exactly important scenes. However, in this film the padding is where the fun lies, since here "padding" doesn't mean the usual travelogue footage or scenes and scenes of people explaining the plot to each other, but wondrous moments of exploitative art. Sudden bouts of grindhouse social realism (the things that just happen to land on camera when you film outside in a big city without a permit), an utterly random love montage between Luke and a nameless woman, a kung fu fighting waitress, or the rambly monologuing of a bag lady unite to become something quite special.

In these moments, The Devil's Express isn't so much a cheap shot at making money by haphazardly throwing a movie together, but a near-magical evocation of a particular place at a particular time. This is something you couldn't get in a more carefully constructed picture that (understandably enough) would need to keep out all the randomness Rosen's film (probably unconsciously) embraces. Of course, not too many low budget films of this type manage to incorporate as many of these moments of magic/unconscious art as this one does.

I also have to stress that some scenes belonging to the film's main plot line are pretty great, too. The scenes in "China" are very creatively realized, and while you'd never believe them to take place in China, Rosen gives them a very different feel from the city scenes. I think it is the quality of the light that's mainly accountable for that effect.

First and foremost, The Devil's Express is an extremely fun movie. I can take a lot of delight in a film that goes out of its way to keep the promises of fun it makes, even if it is a little sloppy, a bit cheap and very silly, so I felt right at home with it.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

In short: Cell (2016)

You know what, says one Hollywood producer to another, why not adapt Stephen King’s very worst book? Yup, the luddite one with the cellphone zombies. The kids love ‘em zombies, and they sure will dig the whole thing about technology being evil, right?

And don’t you think the book’s ending is just not bad enough? I’m sure we’ll be able to stitch something together that’s even worse! Quick, now tell me the director of a bad but commercially very successful horror film? James Wan? Nah, to stylish. How about Tod Williams? You know, Paranormal Activity 2? I’m sure his experience with nailed down cameras will be a great asset here.

Now we only need a star or two. How about Samuel L. Jackson? He’s willing to be in anything as long as he gets paid, and we don’t have to be afraid he’ll believe anything below his dignity. The white guy we need, hmm, big ego, big talent he’s never actually using, career declining painfully… That has John Cusack written all over it! And what if he looks so bored with what he’s doing he might as well be talking in his sleep? And while we’re at it, why not hire a young actress (Isabelle Fuhrman) who’ll actually put effort into our crap like an actual professional, and whose character will die an hour in to add insult to injury?

I’m pretty sure that is exactly what went through various producers’ heads when Cell was greenlit. There’s no explanation how bad this thing is that makes any other sense, no reason for this to be quite as offensively bad as it turned out to be. Apart from Cusack’s sleepwalking and Jackson’s (whom I love, but honestly…) whatever performance, you get direction that – particularly in the first half of the film – goes all out on the lazy director’s favourite methods to produce “tension”: shaky cam and fast inconsistent edits, which also just happens to be the ideal way to avoid having to think about the actual framing of scenes. In this context, it’s hardly a surprise Cell also has the usual bleached out colour scheme going on, nor that Williams manages to waste some choice opportunities to add some weirdness and creepiness it desperately needs to the film, wasting the Kaufman-bodysnatcher with digital noises tendencies of his monsters on scenes that always manage to sell as ridiculous what should be nightmarish.

Of course, given how desperately the script (co-written by King himself, which is usually a very bad sign) tries to push as many elements of the book into a hundred minute running time as possible, the poor guy really doesn’t have the time to prepare any of the more interesting set pieces properly. After all, we need to rush to the next bit of the book, leaving the narrative a tattered series of barely connected episodes that lack any kind of coherence, weight and even the most basic thematic throughline. And then there’s that ending, a thing so misguided, vague and unparsable, even John Cusack’s Nic Cage on a very bad day style cell phone zombie face can’t make it worse than it already is.

I honestly can’t understand how this project could end up being quite as bad as it is – it makes World War Z look downright decent by comparison.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Last Girl Standing (2015)

Five years ago, Camryn (Akasha Villalobos) had been the final survivor of a group of friends encountering a slasher later dubbed The Hunter (Jason Vines) who did what slashers love to do. In the end, Camryn (and good luck) managed to kill the Hunter.

It doesn’t come as much of a surprise Camryn never really got over an ordeal that has left her very much alone and damaged. In the now of the film, she’s suffering from PTSD and is barely managing to make the way out of her front door to her job as one of the cleaners in a dry cleaner. Things like a social life, relationships or just a night’s sleep without nightmares are still beyond her.

One would hope for her the arrival of hipster-haired new cashier Nick (Brian Villalobos) in whom she is clearly interested would improve Camryn’s personal situation a little. Unfortunately, at about the same time Nick arrives, the Hunter seems to return, too. At least, Camryn sees him and feels threatened by him, though she’s the only one who does see him. She becomes convinced Nick and his assortment of mildly deepened slasher movie cliché friends and roommates just might have to suffer the same fate as her own friends did years ago.

Up until its final act, I was very happy with Benjamin R. Moody’s Last Girl Standing. After the intro in form of a pretty traditional slasher movie final girl sequence (if with a final girl that isn’t particularly active), the film quickly turns into a typical US indie movie about a damaged young woman who might just perhaps get some sort of chance for an actual life with added psychological thriller tension. That alone already is an unexpected surprise from a film whose basic idea threatens yet another meta-slasher that is more about commenting on other movies and excusing all one’s own failings through “irony” than having an identity of its own.

Even more pleasant was my surprise when the film went to great lengths to treat Camryn’s PTSD as more than a gimmick, with more than one scene that rang truer than usual when it comes to that particular illness. It’s clear the film is willing to take its time and space to get into the head of its main character, even when that means choosing a slow pace and only putting on its thriller hat when it’s appropriate. Thanks to a strong cast – particularly Villalobos, Danielle Evon Ploeger as one of Nick’s room mates, and the male Villalobos – the character scenes in an indie horror movie for once feel like actual human beings interacting instead of semi-professional actors declaiming their dialogue.

Unfortunately, that whole psychological care goes right out of the window when the final act goes for the most obvious (and pretty damn boring) solution to its plot. For no better reason, it seems, than that this wants to be a horror film, so it’s gotta go for the pointless bloody mess. Gone are the empathetic treatment of someone with a mental illness, gone is the thoughtfulness, and all that is left is the usual – if competently filmed – “crazy people are murderers!” stuff. Which are all things I’d accept quite a bit more readily in a film that did not for most of its running time demonstrate it does indeed know better. Sometimes, going the obvious route one’s chosen genre pushes one in is just the wrong decision, and it most certainly is here.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

In short: Night of the Big Heat (1967)

aka Island of the Burning Dead

aka Island of the Burning Doomed

Despite it being winter and the rest of Britain complaining about freezing temperatures the British island of Fara suffers under a terrible heat wave. Experts are baffled by the phenomenon.

The weather is only the start of the islanders’ problems, though, for there’s much worse, much stranger and much more fried egg shaped to come. At first, there’s only an inexplicable high-pitched noise in certain parts of the island upping the pressure but soon, sheep and people are cooked while electronics burst. And what does the mysterious guest of the island’s only inn, one Hanson (Christopher Lee), do with the science-y instruments he has in his room, and the tripwire and camera constructions he builds in the woods?

If your answer to that is: trying to find proof for an invasion by heat-producing giant, glowing fried eggs from outer space, then give yourself a gold star! Now the only question is: will you get through the film’s main concern, a love triangle between writer/innkeeper Jeff Callum (Patrick Allen as some sort of mid-60s John Agar-like manly man monstrosity who likes to blame the woman he fucked for their extramarital affair with charming declarations like “She was a slut! And I wanted her!”), his former lover Angela Roberts (Jane Merrow) who has smuggled herself onto the island as Jeff’s new secretary and is characterised in a way even a gracious interpretation can’t not call misogynist, and his wife, the wifely – yes, that’s her only character trait – Frankie (Sarah Lawson) to reach a finale where the aliens are beaten through a bit of rain, which never happens on the British isles?

Oh boy, this just might be director Terence Fisher’s worst film. It was produced by the same company responsible for the somewhat superior Island of Terror  with quite a few overlaps in cast and crew, with the addition of Christopher Lee and the relegation of Peter Cushing to a guest starring role. Which is rather unfortunate, seeing as Lee does the usual low effort thing he did when cashing his cheque for projects he was embarrassed by – looking grumpy, then looking grumpy, then looking grumpy some more – while Cushing doesn’t get anything to work with at all and still comes out looking the dedicated professional.

Though, to be fair, the script really doesn’t give Lee much to work with. It is much more interested in a love soap opera sub-plot that is badly dated, deeply unpleasant in his loathing of female sexuality and which can’t help but make every character involved in it look like a deeply horrible person. Sure, a better script could have used this approach to do something interesting about or with its characters’ general unpleasantness; unfortunately, this one’s not even average and therefore leaves us with a bunch of protagonists we have no reason to care about.

Night also suffers from sluggish pacing (that at least fits the whole heat wave concept, so there’s that), monsters that turn out to look like downgraded versions of the creatures in Island of Terror when we finally get a look at them in the last act, and the lamest deus ex machina ending imaginable. It’s really a rather dire film.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Arrowhead (2016)

Some time in a space faring future. Two generals - both clearly not kissed by the democracy fairy - have been fighting over the part of the universe the film takes place in for some time. One Hatch (Mark Redpath) is the losing general, and has gone from your more standard space warfare to guerrilla operations, in particular attacks on prison planets where his former men are held.

On one such prison raid, prisoner Kye Cortland (Dan Mor), former elite soldier, son of a close associate of Hatch, and now suffering from PTSD as well as a big case of bitterness, more or less saves Hatch’s bacon, having to cut off his own foot in the process. That earns him a new cybernetic foot, and an offer from Hatch to do a little bit of data collection for him that should lead to a way to free Kye’s also imprisoned father before his planned execution in a couple of month’s time.

Not surprisingly, things don’t go quite as planned, so Kye soon finds himself stranded on a rather lethal desert moon together with enemy biologist Tarren Hollis (Aleisha Rose). Your usual environmental dangers – and the race against time in an attempt to get off the planet – aren’t the only problems for our heroes. There’s also some sort of creature around and it does rather more interesting things than just eat humans.

Jesse O’Brien’s Arrowhead is a great example of the fine art of making a clever and entertaining low budget science fiction movie in the classic style, which is to say with a robot made out of vacuum cleaner parts and rubbish bin bits (apparently because the production’s 3D printer broke) and an alien planet that looks quite a bit like a South Australian desert patch. If that sort of thing doesn’t sound potentially exciting to you, this is not going to be a film for you; to my eyes, this approach to just doing things the best one can usually promises enthusiasm, perhaps even intelligence. Turns out the film holds that promise, and provides even a bit more than I’d have dared ask for.

Sure, as it goes with this kind of production, Arrowhead has its moments of somewhat too vague scripting and not always terribly convincing special effects (specifically, the practical effect alien looks so screwy I think a crappy CGI effect would have actually worked out better for the film), but at its core, this is a clever little SF tale told with conviction and style whose plot actually goes into directions quite different from the sort of SF action film I expected it to be after the first fifteen minutes or so, and which features acting of a decency many an indie horror film of the same budget size would kill for. This is a proper science fiction film that takes on some proper science fictional ideas with dignity and conviction, and while it doesn’t add anything extremely new to these ideas, or becomes as psychedelic as some of its later ideas suggest it could become, it executes them very well indeed.

Apart from the alien – but honestly, if a viewer applies a bit of imagination there she should be able to cope - O’Brien makes fantastic use of his hand-made props, using their design to suggest parts of his universe’s background and giving the technology a lived-in and practical feeling, not as grimy as some films prefer but with a patina of reality that convinced me of the film’s universe as well as of the seriousness of the filmmaker. And while I don’t exactly buy an alien planet that looks quite this much like Australia, O’Brien uses the desert so well to provide moments of desolation as well as of beauty, complaining about this would be churlish, particularly since the desert does look rather alien to this German.

Even though I’ve mentioned the film’s budget a lot, the thing that impresses me most about Arrowhead is how quickly I found myself reaching the point watching it where this sort of thing just didn’t come to my mind anymore at all, for the film doesn’t feel like something filmed to get around problems and trouble spots but like a story told in exactly the way it was meant to be told.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

In short: The Beast of Hollow Mountain (1956)

Cowboy Jimmy Ryan (Guy Madison) and his friend Felipe Sanchez (Carlos Rivas) have established a cattle ranch somewhere in Mexico. Despite the obvious hatred the big man in town Enrique Rios (Eduardo Noriega) harbours for them, things have been going well so far. That is, until a few weeks ago. Now, cattle is disappearing in surprising numbers, and it looks as if someone is driving the animals into a nearby swamp surrounding the titular Hollow Mountain.

Or it might just be the swamp is cursed, for whenever a particularly heavy summer heat wave strikes, as it does this year, and the swamp shrinks, something attacks and eats men and cattle alike in the area.

What is clear is that Enrique is stepping up his attempts at sabotaging our protagonists, not only because he doesn’t approve of an American undercutting his cattle prices but also because his fiancée Sarita (Patricia Medina) has taken quite an obvious shine to Jimmy. Of course, Jimmy’s a true white hat, so he’d never do much more than pine for Sarita, but Enrique’s the kind of guy who projects his own rather more aggressive approach to life on others, so more trouble has to ensue.

If you think this sounds as if Edward Nassour’s and Ismael Rodríguez’ Beast of Hollow Mountain, the first of the tiny handful of cowboys versus dinosaur films is rather more interested in its B-western elements than it is in its stop motion dinosaur, you’re absolutely right. In fact, if you’d leave the dinosaur out of the plot completely, there’d be little about the film that would have to change.

That’s particularly disappointing since the fifteen minutes or so of cowboy versus dinosaur action we get are rather good, with solid stop motion and a handful of clever action set pieces. Still, if you’re going into this expecting much dinosaur or monster action, you’re bound to be disappointed.

As a B-western in the non-psychological style, Beast is perfectly alright fare that starts out with a bit of neat action but suffers from a middle that’s too talky for the flat characterisations it offers. There’s not even a decent shoot-out in there, even though there are at least two scenes that would set the scene for one beautifully. The film also suffers from a wide sentimental streak that mostly involves a sub-plot about the mandatory little boy and his alcoholic father. The Western parts are certainly not horrible if you like this side of the genre – which I do to a degree - but it’s not terribly exciting either.

At least the film looks good. Thanks to being a US/Mexican co-production (there’s supposed to be a Spanish language version shot back to back), it was actually shot in Mexico for the most part, providing the directors with ample opportunity to show off the local landscape, which they do with decided enthusiasm. It’s also quite pleasant to encounter a western whose Mexican characters are played by actual Mexican actors instead of white guys from Brooklyn in brownface.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Past Misdeeds: The Real Pocong (2009)

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.

As is somewhat traditional in films, a small, young family consisting of mother Rin(i) (Nabila Syakieb), father (I)Van (Ashraf Sinclair) and little daughter Laura (Sakinah Dava Erawan) moves into a new home in the country, although as a non-Indonesian I'd call it "the jungle" or at least "the deep dark woods".

Rini and Van are enthusiastic about their new house. It was cheap, and there are none of the dangers of the city threatening their daughter now. One would think that the country air could also be good for Laura's asthma. There's a certain lack of neighbours, though, with the only person living nearby the young physician Dr. Nila (Kinaryosih). At least she's friendly and could probably be of help when little Laura has one of her attacks.

Less friendly are other inhabitants of the area. Right on the family's first day in the new house, Laura follows a strange, unsmiling girl of about her own age deeper into the woods, until she comes to a weather-beaten old shack beside a well. There, the other girl seems to disappear into thin air. Instead, something dressed in white funeral shrouds jumps Laura.

When Rini finds her deeply disturbed daughter, she can't get a word out of the girl, and puts her strange behaviour on an understandable reaction to the new environment. In truth, a pocong (female Indonesian ghost dressed in white shrouds that often seems to have religious connotations I won't pretend to understand) has taken an interest in the girl. At first, it seems relatively benign, turning into a kitten and sneaking into Laura's room, or singing her lullabies, but just too soon the ghost again lures the girl to the shack.
Only this time, Laura doesn't return.

The police (who are never actually shown by the film) find not a trace of the child, nor any explanation of what happened, so the desperate Rini seeks the help of a medium, very much against Van's will. The medium diagnoses the place to be haunted and declares a pocong to be the child snatcher, but seems unwilling to act on her findings. Only when Van calls her out in a fit of aggressive scepticism she deigns to do something, and I can't say that I find giving the sceptic an amulet that is supposed to help him cross over to the spirit world and then drive away never to return to be a very responsible action.

Surprisingly enough, Van actually uses the amulet to cross over (through a gate of pine trees, no less), and manages to bring Laura back. Of course, this is not the end of the family's troubles.

The more films of the (as it seems still merrily continuing) Indonesian horror film boom I see, the more impressed I am with it. Of course, quite a few of the films are terribly generic, or marred by the sort of comic relief that is neither comical, nor any kind of relief, but you can say that of every country's genre film output at the best of times. The important thing is the good films, and the good horror films made in Indonesia in the last five years or so tend to be very good, and quietly ambitious in exploring the possibilities of their genre.

The Real Pocong definitely is one of those good films. Directed by Hanny R. Saputra (whose other films I unfortunately know next to nothing about), it is a film that treats its horror story as a fairy tale. One just needs to have a look at the plot structure - like the way the film uses repetition - or the elements (the deep dark wood, the road into the other world, the child-snatching supernatural creature etc) of the plot to realize this.

The characters are more archetypes than psychologically "realistic" people. As such, they don't always act as rational or logical as some viewers might want them to - especially Rini's inability to completely understand what is happening around her in the final third of the film could be very problematic to some - but I'm not too sure I would find people learning that their little daughter has been kidnapped by a ghost and then acting rationally and logically that much more believable. Thankfully, the handful of actors is good enough to provide performances which do not confuse the archetypal with the inhuman.

I was especially impressed by Sakinah Dava Erawan. Child actors are often terrible, and I find it somewhat unfair to blame them for it, seeing that they just don't have much life experience they could draw from, but I didn't find it difficult at all to sympathize with this little girl. Cleverly, the first part of The Real Pocong lets the film's audience share Laura's perspective, her mixture of terror and wonder and the naturalness with which she treats the stranger occurrences around her; as a child, she doesn't have the grip on what should be reality and what not a grown-up possesses, and because we share her view of the world, we don't get to have that grip either.

As any good fairy tale would, the movie does well addressing anxieties people typically don't want to be confronted with quite directly. The Laura-centric half of the film embodies many childhood anxieties. It's not only the more banal ones like "the thing in the cupboard" or "the thing under the bed", but the fear of not being understood by one's parents, and the more painful fear of not being able to trust them.

The second half of the film puts the same (slightly painful) spotlight on the big parental fear of the loss of one's child without going down either the road of Spielbergian kitsch, nor that of exploitative melodrama.

Apart from that, The Real Pocong also manages to be quite creepy (again, as a good fairy tale should be). While some of the special effects look a bit ropey, the production design and photography are excellent. This is one of the few horror films whose actions take place nearly entirely by daylight, and it proves that a director who knows what he's doing doesn't need darkness to build a mood of dread.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Collection (2012)

A bizarre serial killer called The Collector (Randall Archer) has made his way into a sequel. His modus operandi sees him locking up a group of people somewhere and slaughtering them with the help of physics-sceptical death traps as well as more hands-on efforts until only one victim is left. Him or her, he loads into a neat little trunk and carts to his murder castle (quite traditionally situated in an old hotel building named after Dario Argento) where he has fun with torture, drugs, and the creation of modern art of the sort I suspect Rob Zombie would love.

For reasons, the Collector likes to bring an earlier trunked victim to his next crime. Which affords thief Arkin (Josh Stewart), the survivor of the first film I believe, an opportunity to escape the crazyman while he’s killing a horde of teenagers on a warehouse party in various hilarious way. The Collector then trunks survivor Elena (Emma Fitzpatrick) and carries her home to have his various ways with her. Elena, it turns out, was not a terribly good choice of victim. She’s a ten out of ten on the Final Girl effectiveness scale, and I’m pretty sure she’d kick the guy’s ass herself rather well.

However, she doesn’t have to do the job alone, because she’s also the child of a very rich father as well as under the protection of a rather effective security guy named Lucello (Lee Tergesen). Lucello convinces Arkin to lead him and a small band of mercenaries (among them Andre Royo and Shannon Kane) to The Collector’s murder palace. Arkin has seen Aliens so he’s not willing to lead Lucello and his people any further than the entry to Collector central but once there, their guns are rather convincing for him to change his mind.

Now they only have to fight their way through a bunch of the killer’s drugged up zombie victims, survive a cornucopia of death traps, and somehow find Elena in this somewhat creepy labyrinth. It’s good for all involved that Elena can take care of herself and that Arkin will find his heroic spirit.

I thought Marcus Dunstan’s The Collector was a pretty useless Saw-alike crossed with a slasher with even less substance, care and style than that series or that genre show; Dunstan’s own sequel, on the other hand, doesn’t just beat the Saw movies by a wide margin but also has a personality of its own. Sure, its personality is stitched together out of the parts of other movies but it’s the right parts put together in the right way, presented with an eye for the lurid and the outrageous.

While nobody – certainly not I - would suggest The Collection to be subtle, it is a rather more clever and coherent film than I expected it to be. Early on, around minute eleven or so, the film establishes that it isn’t taking place anywhere that might be confused with the real world through the rather fun, rather absurd and rather cool party slaughter scene. After that point, one might expect the film to continue to just throw random disjointed crap at its audience but the first fifteen minutes or so actually establish the specific kind of luridness and craziness the film is going for, and Dunstan just follows through for the rest of the movie, turning what by all rights should be a warehouse horror piece about people wandering from one random shock to the next (and dying) into a film that is lurid as hell but also of one piece – while still being all about people wandering through a warehouse, being shocked, and dying.

There’s an unexpected sense of aesthetic coherence on display into which the Collector lair’s Goth Metal cover look and feel fit perfectly well, making sense in context and providing the film with a coherent mood and style, as do the set design and the film’s very un-2012 thoughtful use of colours that reminded me of some of the better bits of 80s horror.

Even the writing works rather well, with the script going out of its way to add surprising little moments where a character’s action comments on other actions that happened before. Clearly a lot of effort is put into keeping the film’s main victims more than just meat for the killer to slaughter; this being the rare slasher film that actually realizes its killer is a right prick. I also very much enjoyed the little bits of action movie cheese that are sprinkled throughout the film, keeping things pleasantly crazy while never going so far as to breaking the established rules of the film’s world.