Thursday, November 26, 2015

In short: The Freakmaker (1973)

aka The Mutations

University professor Nolter (Donald Pleasence putting on what I think is supposed to be a German accent that comes and mostly goes) is maybe a tiny bit mad. His fascination with genetic mutations and plants has led him to the belief that natural mutations are dangerous - and probably somewhat disquieting to the ordered mind, one assumes – and that humanity truly needs a bit of controlled mutating – and plant genes.

To further the cause of scientific (ha!) obsession, Nolter has brought circus freak show boss Lynch (Tom Baker) under his thumb by promising to some day cure his acromegaly with his future genetic super science. So now, Lynch acquires students (predominantly some going to Nolter’s own classes, because master criminality is hard) for Nolter to experiment on, and Nolter sometimes uses Lynch’s show to park his failed experiments. Which isn’t ideal when some of these experiments still got faces and friends in town, but then, these villains are idiots.

I have no idea what went wrong here. By all rights, The Freakmaker should be a perhaps silly but enjoyable piece of mad science horror. After all, it features Pleasance, Baker, and even good old Brad Harris as the nominal romantic lead, and was directed by Jack Cardiff, who has some excellent and a lot of competent work in his filmography.

Alas, nobody seems to have told the people involved about their talents, so Pleasence seems bored, Baker is hindered by his stupid make-up, and Harris goes through his scenes with a perpetual expression of embarrassment . And Cardiff? Well, he spends about half of the film dragging his feet with filler. This is a movie that starts with five minutes of archive footage of plants, continues with another five minutes of a dubious lecture by Pleasence, and often seems much more comfortable not actually showing anything of interest. Then there’s a sub-plot that’s a completely incompetently handled and misguided rip-off of Browning’s Freaks, just without feeling the need to include any of that film’s humanity.

There are a few scenes that show potential for a slightly uneasy bit of exploitational fun, like the short bit where Baker visits a prostitute (whom seems to have suspiciously low rates) and pays her to tell him she loves him, or the hilarious yet macabre man-plant thing that just happens in the film’s final twenty minutes. Not surprisingly, a couple of promising scenes do not a good film make; in The Freakmaker’s case, they also don’t make an entertaining one.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

In short: Jordskott (2015)

I don’t generally write up TV shows around here, because I’ve grown to loathe the episode by episode approach that seems to only lead anybody using it to whining and complaining about tiny details, or launching into the kind of high level philosophizing that leaves the thing you’re actually writing about so far behind you might as well be honest and not pretend to write about it.

So I’m only putting down a few lines about this Swedish TV show (with Finnish, Norwegian and British involvement) because firstly, I’d nearly missed out on it completely myself, and secondly find some of the stuff I read about it on the net rather puzzling, if not to say wrong-headed. Mostly, I’m puzzled by this being treated as some sort of spiritual successor of The Bridge, when it is actually a fantasy show that uses elements of Nordic Crime television in a way that’s increasingly turning out to be a Swedish approach to the Urban Fantasy genre. It is a local and individual approach, though, with the series firstly being rural and not urban and secondly not trying to bore its audience by the umpteenth story about vampire princes and alpha werewolves, instead using Nordic folklore and the X-Files for their mythology.

For someone who finds urban fantasy often painfully samey, that’s like a breath of fresh air in the genre, as is the (perhaps too clever, looking at the reactions) use of Nordic Crime elements to awaken viewer expectations it then consciously and willingly disappoints; an approach I personally love, but that will find some people feel tricked.

Thematically, this is very much a show about family, in particular the bonds between parents and children, the joys and horrors of this love, and the destructive force of secrets and lies. Here private horrors make uncontrollable ripples in the world outside of family units.

All this is presented with mostly stylish, often atmospheric direction and a fine ensemble cast – particularly Moa Gammel is great. The ten episode show is probably one or two episodes too long, with one or two side plots taking up more space than they need to be, but that’s not any worse than your 20 episode US network show that could use to lose five of them. What might be a flaw to some viewers and turned out something I quite enjoyed myself is how all out the show goes with its fantasy elements as well as its melodramatic vein in its last few episodes, subtlety clearly not being on its table there.

But then, it’s a fun show when you meet it on its own terms, and one whose willingness to find something sympathetic and human even in the least pleasant of its characters is far more interesting than the much more common talk about “evil”.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

In short: Mortuary (2005)

The Doyle family – mother Leslie (Denise Crosby), teenage son Jonathan (Dan Byrd) and little daughter Jamie (Stephanie Patton) – move into some god-forsaken small town so that mum can fulfil her mortician dreams. Too bad their brand spanking new mortuary is actually a ruin and that strange stuff seeps from the septic tank. And let’s not even start on the blood-drinking fungus turning people into fungus zombies.

I’m usually giving Tobe Hooper’s later works a bit more of a chance than most tend to do, but when confronted with a confounding piece of crap like Mortuary, even my tolerance goes out the window. I do assume this isn’t actually supposed to be a pure horror film but rather a horror comedy – or Hooper’d have to be stupid, which he clearly isn’t. Unfortunately, it’s a horror comedy whose every single joke isn’t funny, and that also takes ages to get going.

Now, in other films you’d suspect the slowness of the first hour or so had something to do with the film building mood and character, but since everybody’s a cardboard cut-out, and the mood is mostly childish, there’s only boredom coming through. Afterwards, it’s thirty minutes of kids screeching while people in bad zombie make-up waddle around or puke at them, with no second of tension, fun, humour, or whatever. Despite some awkward attempts at the grotesque, the proceedings feel painfully harmless too, with nothing to even vaguely keep one’s interest, wasting the generally decent potential of what could be a tale of kids not being able to trust grown-ups anymore (with added fungus zombies).

Friday, November 20, 2015

Past Misdeeds: Mad Love (1935)

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.

Yvonne Orlac (Frances Drake), the lead actress in a rather dubious looking play, is the not so secret object of affection for the genius but mad surgeon Doctor Gogol (Peter Lorre). Yvonne doesn't do anything to dissuade Gogol, because to her knowledge he is not doing anything more creepy than visiting each of her performances and sending her flowers every night without trying to meet or molest her. What Yvonne doesn't know is how affectionate Gogol is when he's slavering over that wax figurine of hers that's standing in the theatre's foyer.

The two finally meet on the day of Yvonne's final performance. It is only then that Gogol realizes that his object of obsession is married to the pianist Stephen Orlac (Colin Clive) and is really quite repulsed by the good Doctor's less than model-esque appearance and creepy demeanour when confronted with it closely.

Still, Gogol does take the whole business with as much composure as someone with his mental problems is able to show. The surgeon seems willing to be content with buying wax Yvonne (who at least has a reason to be as lifeless as Drake is) and leaving the breathing woman in peace.

That could be that, but unfortunately, Stephen's oh so precious hands are hurt in a train accident and the only way to save his life seems to be amputation. Yvonne goes to Gogol and begs for his help. The surgeon can't resist the woman's shrill, melodramatic exclamations, but he knows he can't save Stephen's hands in the way his object of adulation wants him to.

What he can do, and secretly does, is give Stephen new hands. Too bad that those are the hands of the knife-throwing killer Rollo who just had a close acquaintance with the guillotine.

I say too bad because Stephen very quickly develops the tendency to throw knives at people that displease and annoy him while losing the ability to play his beloved piano again. When he goes to Gogol for help, the by now quite mad surgeon gets a brilliant idea how to acquire himself a real, breathing Yvonne.

Mad Love is the last directorial effort of the brilliant director of photography Karl Freund, and I would call it his best work in the position. To me, it is possibly his only film as a director where he isn't a director of photography trying his hand at directing, but a real director, by now knowledgeable enough to put state of the art cinematic techniques and his experience in German expressionist filmmaking to excellent use. When it comes to visual style, Mad Love is one of my favourite films of the era, full of little details that heighten the tension and bring Gogol's state of mind to the front.

There is also much to love on the design front - I'm especially enamoured of the insane costume Gogol dons to try and fool Orlac into thinking he is Rollo, back from the dead with a freshly stitched-back head, and the set design for Gogol's home, all its rooms a little too empty, all doors a little larger than they should be.

Even better than Freund and the art design is Peter Lorre. Lorre is doing another step on his way to be forever typecast as the psycho here, but his performance is so nuanced that even the worst moments of over-ripe dialogue (and gosh, there's a lot of that here) just plain work. In fact, the purpleness seems to be part of the way the doctor defines himself. As Lorre plays him, Gogol is as frightening as he is pitiably, and I think the way he creates a very human monster and not just a monster is something people doing serial killer movies today should really take a good look at, instead of just looking at Anthony Hopkins doing the bug-eye. Of course, there's always Criminal Minds doing it right/more interesting, but I digress.

What for me put Mad Love down below the status of lost classic are two things. Firstly, Lorre's performance might be a career high, but he is the only one really doing much of anything with his role. Drake's only mode of acting is being shrill and melodramatic, and Colin Clive, as we know from Frankenstein perfectly capable of doing an excellent job, is badly hampered by the second - and bigger - one of the film's problems, a really bad script.

Sure, as you can see from the plot description, there are a lot of great, even subversive ideas in it, but the execution is in parts execrable. This begins with the overblown-even-for-1935 dialogue and ends with the absurd way poor Colin Clive's role is handled. In theory, he is slowly driven mad by his inability to learn playing the piano again, hurt by money troubles and the feeling that his hands just aren't his own anymore, but as the film shows it, he goes from "person we have never seen" to "mad, tittering wreck" in seconds. And, you know, that's quite a problem when your film wants me to believe in a plot that hinges on his state of mind. Instead of exploring Orlac deep enough to make him as interesting as Gogol, the script prefers to waste its running time on throwing two OCR characters at us in the form of Gogol's alcoholic (and what could be funnier) housekeeper and an especially dreadful comic relief reporter.

It's a wonder that the film still is as good as it is, really, but the raw talent and determination of Freund and Lorre win out over the trite and the unfunny.

Just don't think about how great the film could have been with a good script.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Waxwork (1988)

Four college students, Mark (Zach Galligan), Sarah (Deborah Foreman), China (Michelle Johnson) and Tony (Dana Ashbrook) - the Poor Little Rich Boy, the Virgin, the Slut, and the Idiot respectively – make a very special late visit to the mysterious Wax Museum of an even more mysterious man (mysterious David Warner). As we all well know, wax museums are incredibly dangerous when there’s no masked luchador around, so it doesn’t come as much of a surprise when China and Tony get sucked into different exhibitions which, it turns out, work as time bubbles where they live out and die in some rather unhealthy episodes (the vampire life of Miles O’Keeffe and a very short werewolf tale with a minute of John Rhys-Davies shouting grumpily as is his custom) to eventually become waxen parts of the exhibition.

At first, Mark and Sarah don’t think too much about their friends’ disappearances, but when they stay gone the next day, they start a little investigation that’ll lead a poor cop (Charles McCaughan) into a mummy-induced death, and give Mark some opportunity to learn important things about his family history from his godfather Sir Wilfred (Patrick Macnee). Sarah for her part’ll learn all about her rather un-horror-movie-virginal desire to be whipped to death by the Marquis de Sade (J. Kenneth Campbell) – who for some reason likes to dress like a pirate. It’s all part of mysterious David Warner’s rather dubious plan for destroying the world (“Somebody has to!”), and only a Poor Little Rich Boy, a masochistic Virgin (something I’d really love to become a new horror movie character archetype) and Patrick Macnee can save us!

Ah, US late 80s and early 90s horror, you are a bit weird aren’t you, with your insistence on turning everything into a comedy (like our contemporary horror TV shows, come to think of it), and never showing stuff that could actually disturb someone on a deeper level beyond the pleasant “yuck”.

If you can cope with that, though, Anthony Hickox’s Waxwork should be quite a good time, for this is a film that may not have any intellectual or emotional depths (or even many shallows of that sort) but that is also so full of an utterly un-ironic love for the horror genre’s past it’s bound to charm (possibly the pants off of) anyone who shares this love. The film demonstrates its love by including oh so many sight gags and so many moments of joyful genre nonsense you’ll mostly probably really miss stuff just by blinking, I couldn’t help but be impressed by their sheer force of numbers.

The waxwork exhibition episodes are of course mostly a basis for the film to let rip homages on all the most classic horror monsters, specific films (I particularly dig the early George Romero camera angles in the zombie bit), and all things macabre. Just imagine, the film grins, what if your Universal or Hammer horror would end really badly for the heroes and include many more buckets of blood? Turns out that’s very fun to watch, particularly in the hands of Hickox (now a solid direct-to-DVD-action director, then a promising horror guy), who knows how to time the icky stuff, as well as the jokes and directs everything as if he had a big happy monster-mashing grin on his face. The film even has so much love to share, it also finds space for a bit of a swashbuckler homage, as well as an excursion that makes the masochistic subtext of certain classical horror movies text. Bonus points also for having the oh so typical virgin character really getting into the whole death by de Sade thing, and orgasms, and not only not killing her but making her mildly ass-kicking afterwards (though I curse the film for not keeping that development in the much inferior sequel).

There’s so much love going around here for everything: Warner and Macnee clearly standing in for classic horror hams and beloved actors and doing good by it, the shrugging absurdity of the film’s finale that just might be the most fun updated peasant mob versus monsters sequence we’ll ever get to see, and so on, and so forth, until a crawling hand (hi, Ash!) crawls good-bye.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

In short: Re-Kill (2015)

It’s a few years after the first (fast) zombie virus outbreak. Large parts of the world’s population have been killed, but the survivors – at least the US ones, which are the only ones we’ll meet - are pretending things did not fundamentally change, so there’s still TV, TV ads (though for things like an anti-zombie-virus medication that doesn’t actually work, and sex because there’s a certain repopulation pressure), and reality shows. The reality show we are watching is called Re-Kill and follows the misadventures of a squad, ahem, division of the Re-Kill military organization created to kill the not exactly tiny remnants of the Re-Ans (which is this film’s zombie moniker).

Journalists Jimmy and Bobby are the lucky bastards accompanying R-Division 8 (among whose members are Daniella Alonso, Roger R. Cross, Scott Adkins and Bruce Payne). After encountering a truck shipping Re-Ans through the United States, the group is tasked with following the truck’s trail to something called Project Judas in the walled-off ruins of Old New York. The mission doesn’t go very well.

If you’re like me and you’re suffering from a bit of zombie fatigue (and don’t even like The Walking Dead outside of its Telltale Games incarnation), a POV military horror film with zombies which predominantly takes place in corridors and empty industrial buildings does not sound too enticing. So I think it says something for Valeri Milev’s Re-Kill when I tell you I actually think it’s a pretty neat little low budget horror/action movie that doesn’t re-invent the zombie genre but does put quite a bit of effort into its worldbuilding, even if most of it comes in form of – rather funny – fake ads for post-zombie-apocalypse products that break up the bloody, camera-shaking violence. These ads not only do some nice satirical work on contemporary TV culture, they also represent the state the film’s world is in, the story the characters try to tell each other to be able to sleep at night, but also provide useful exposition, and all in a simple yet flexible format. It’s the sort of cleverness and humour you’d have found in a New World production from its golden age, and like in the best of the films of that particular era, they enhance a simple yet effective genre tale with a bit of cleverness.

Said genre tale is certainly on the pulpy side, not very complex, but told with gusto and a lot of blood and guts, providing quite a bit of fun for this jaded viewer. Milev makes the most out of the budget he has to work with, never letting his characters stop so much their mostly grey and brown surroundings become boring, setting up some nasty little set-pieces, all the while taking a look at a world full of people who’d really like to pretend everything’s going to go back to normal some day soon, but just can’t anymore. The cast of TV and character actors does the expectedly good job, leaving the increasingly shaking camera as the only thing I found potentially annoying about Re-Kill. Though thematically and logically, the camera shakes do belong into the footage we see, so the film gets a pass there too.

So it seems there’s still life in the rotting corpse of the zombie genre.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Zimmer 13 (1964)

aka Room 13

Evil mastermind Joe Legge (Richard Häussler) returns to his native London with plans for a Great Train Robbery. Because of a mysterious shared past he is able to blackmail pillar of society Sir Marney (Walter Rilla) into providing a hiding place for the loot once the deed will be done. Marney isn’t happy at all with this and hires two-fisted private eye Johnny Gray (Joachim Fuchsberger) to take care of business. At the same time, a black-gloved killer is slitting female throats with a razor that just might belong to Sir Marney.

Gray will need to hit various people in the face, romance Sir Marney’s daughter Denise (Karin Dor), and pal around with comic relief crime scene forensic Dr Higgins (Eddi Arent) to get behind what’s really going on. Gray isn’t helped by the police investigation into the matter being pursued by Sir John (Siegfried Schürenberg) himself, nor the fact that his client quickly decides hiring him was a very bad idea.

If you’re among those people who are understandably a bit sceptical about the influence the German krimi had on the Italian giallo (before the giallo started to influence the krimi right back), watching Zimmer 13 will probably clear up all doubts, for its side plot about the razor killer – including the identity of the killer and the explanation for their madness - is pretty much exactly what you’d get a few years later from the Italians, just not as stylishly and sleazily done here, and unfortunately made by people who really rather seem to prefer the train robbery business. Still, the influence is obvious.

Apart from the influence game, Harald Reinl’s film is one of the lesser known Rialto Wallace films, probably because it’s another one of the cycle’s films that very much is a thing all its own instead of a repetition of the best beloved elements of half of the other films, with no masked pulp mastermind hiding in an bizarre lair (Legge’s really just a clever criminal, and working from a nightclub), no curious murder methods, and not even a proper threatened heiress. The resulting film still goes for a pulp/serial type of enthusiasm (which is much preferable to the few attempts to make a “realistic” Wallace film in the Rialto cycle, because those turned all out rather awful and pretty darn boring), but where the core Wallace films are very much weird crime pulpy goodness, Zimmer 13 is more Gangbusters than the Shadow.

This certainly might be a problem in a film that doesn’t actually deliver on the required amount of fisticuffs, car chases, shoot-outs and train robberies. Fortunately, it’s this slightly more straight stuff Harald Reinl was best at, so Fuchsberger and company find themselves in a film much faster and rather less talky than usual in Germany, with seldom more than two scenes going by before some sort of outward excitement happens. Even better, the action is as good as a German filmmaker of the time could provide, so even as a hardcore fan of mysterious people in masks, I found myself rather too entertained by the stuff on screen to complain about the lack of Blue Archers or Hogs with Masks.

I found myself also rather pleased with the way the proto-giallo subplot went, even somewhat subverting the way basically every other Rialto Wallace film ends. Add to that a bit of the cycle-mandated off-beat weirdness like Eddi Arent’s (whose character is once again even doing something beyond being funny or “funny”) sexual relationship to a manikin, a Peter Thomas score that sounds more peculiar the closer you listen, an adorable strip tease (though one Alfred Vohrer would have done more with) and the expected professionalism in front of and behind the camera, and you’ll find me enjoying myself quite a bit with this one.

Music Monday: Vincent Black Lightning Edition

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Sunday, November 15, 2015

Graveyard Shift (1987)

Vampire Stephen Tsepes (Silvio Oliviero) spends his nights as a taxi driver, from time to time breast-biting women either with a death wish or a terminal illness. For reasons we’re not privy to yet can assume have mythical and perhaps Freudian sex and death reasons women in that sort of situation feel rather drawn to him. Stephen turns them into a variation of the good old vampire brides in the process, and unlike him, they seem to lack self-control rather badly.

Particularly once Stephen meets Michelle (Helen Papas), a director without a promising career with a cheating husband (Cliff Stoker), and a fresh diagnosis of terminal illness. Michelle may or may not be a reincarnation of a former lover – or they might just have dreams that suggest they’re destined for each other – and she’s the first woman Stephen meets he wants to fuck instead of bite, which he hopes will somehow(?) end in his own death. He’s not even wrong there.

Jerry Ciccoritti’s Graveyard Shift is a peculiar, personal, at times frustrating, more often fascinating effort, a film that often feels more like a US local production made in the 70s than a Canadian film that probably only scratched together its tiny budget because 1987 was a big year for vampire movies, and there’s always some producer trying to cash in on a trend who will let directors make whatever weird stuff they want as long as the money-making element of the day is in the film.

As a vampire film Graveyard Shift stands with one foot in the more romantic approach to the genre (at least, Stephen isn’t a simple monster and clearly truly convinced his Freud-baiting breast-biting is good for the women he vampirizes – they certainly seem to agree, so who am I to judge?), the other in the artsy philosophizing sort of vampire film, and its tail (bats have tails, right?) in the trenches of exploitation. I wouldn’t exactly say these three things go together perfectly all the time (philosophy and romance and mild sleaze aren’t exactly on a talking basis at all times) but when they don’t, they do lead to interesting friction that keeps the film lively and certainly never boring. Well, almost never – there are the inevitable scenes about two character-vacant cops trying to solve a series of murders mostly committed by Stephen’s brides (the film never calls them that, but it’s clear it is playing with the trope) that really lead nowhere and could have used cutting, but we’re not talking about Last House on the Left levels of self-sabotage here.

Ciccoritti’s direction is at times awkward and stiff like an art school project gone wrong, often creative like one gone very right, and certainly moody, showing 1980s Toronto as the grubby Canadian sister to the grubby 70s New York we know from so many other movies, and using its urban decay as the perfect - slightly unreal in its grimy reality - backdrop for a story about a bunch of people and not-people-anymore close to death. This provides the film with an effective mood of decay that’s even further increased by the sometimes curiously affected, sometimes natural, and sometimes just plain weird performances by Oliviero (who is called Michael A. Miranda today, it seems) and Papas. Thanks to this internal strangeness, it is often not clear at all if any given scene is a dream sequence, a vision, a memory, a wish of one of the characters or a metaphor, an approach to depicting the precarious position of reality in these characters’ lives that also takes the film close to European horror of the decade before. Ciccoritti isn’t quite the poet Rollin was, obviously, or the obsessed man Franco was, but he’s clearly giving the film a dream-like mood of its own devising. It’s probably a death-dream though, giving the ideas about Eros and Thanatos Graveyard Shift is interested in.

So, given my peculiar tastes, it’s no surprise I’m quite enamoured with the film. Because really, what’s not to like about a film that takes elements from downbeat US horror of the 70s (the ending, the grubbiness), and Europe (the mood), swirls them with urban decay, and philosophizes about death, sex and love, and the point where it becomes very difficult to distinguish one from the next?

Saturday, November 14, 2015

In short: Gangs of New York (2002)

For quite a few people (particularly those that didn’t already throw their hands up in disgust over Casino, which I rather love), though certainly not all, this seems to be the film where Martin Scorsese lost it. Me, coming to it after a decade or so of thinking they were right, think these people, and therefore yesterday’s me, are dead wrong, and this just might be one of the man’s masterpieces. Fortunately, we still can look down on The Aviator.

There’s no need to go into technical accomplishments, I think, but it seems rather important to me to emphasise how much this is the perfect, horrifying, pretty damn apocalyptic epos of how the US look from over here: a place divided by tribal lines of race everybody is always on about but only wants to change by kicking other people in the dirt, and by lines of class everybody pretends don’t exist; a place that channels its guilt and its pressures into horrifying outbursts of ritualistic violence that also just happen to distract the people involved in them from what’s really going on around them. Not that Europe 2015 and our willingness to let people just die at our doorsteps and to only ever take an interest in our own catastrophes looks much better there, mind you.

Gangs takes this basic fact about America and rams it home in exhausting, sometimes exhilarating, generally operatic and often terrifying ways with a combination of highly stylized yet pretty perfect acting performances, the technical accomplishments I’m not mentioning, and an often surprising streak of compassion that’s never undermining the horrors of the film (as a film about systemic horror, this is as much a horror film as Halloween is, just about a different kind of horror) but helps to avoid cynicism and provides humanity in places where you’d least expect it. And while Marty’s at it, he also deconstructs a classic tale of revenge (or rather, crushes it under the boot heel of history), and breaks every thinking viewer’s heart.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Past Misdeeds: The Third Shadow (1963)

Original title: Daisanno Kagemusha

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.

Japan in the 16th Century. It is the Sengoku (which means "warring states") era and the country is in a state of perpetual civil war between numerous warlords of huge ambition and dubious sanity. One of these warlords, Yasutaka Ikemoto (Raizo Ichikawa, star of the Nemuri Kyoshiro and Shinobi films), seems to be bound for greatness and already dreams of the whole of Japan united under his rule.

A man like him must be mindful of his enemies, though, and Yasutaka tries to prolong his life through the use of "shadows", doubles whose dubious honour it is to take his place when it comes to the unpleasant business of dying.

The young farmer Kyonosuke Ninomiya (also Raizo Ichikawa), a descendent of a line of impoverished samurai now earning their bread as farmers, has long dreamed of following the way of his ancestors to glory and money. His dream seems to come true when the First Retainer of Yasutaka lays eyes on him and proposes to take him into the service of his master.

Once in Yasutaka's castle, Kyonosuke learns that his new job won't be as glorious as he had imagined. The young man looks exactly like his new master and therefore makes an ideal third double. When he is not learning to act exactly like his master does, he and his two colleagues in the double business are hidden away from prying eyes.

Well, at least the payment is good, and when the Lord of the house is unwilling to spend time with his once favourite concubine Kohagi (Masayo Banri), Kyonosuke's double powers are put to the final test that is at once a rather cruel reward. Still, a shadow's life doesn't look too bad to him, until Yasutaka loses an eye in one of his battles. Obviously, a good double can't keep walking around with two. This double business isn't something you can cancel, either - the choice for the shadows is "lose your eye or lose your life".

The same night when Kyonosuke and one of the other doubles lose an eye, and the first double his life when trying to escape, Yasutaka's castle is attacked.

Kyonosuke escapes with his Lord, but when Yasutaka loses an arm, and tries to entice the freshly mutilated man into bringing him to the castle of the allied Miki, Kyonosuke's desperation and bitterness explode and he kills Yasutaka.

On his flight from his former master's land, Kyonosuke meets the First Retainer again. The crafty and power-hungry samurai coerces the young man into taking on the role of Yasutaka full time - well, that or dying - to continue the way to conquest the dead Lord once began. After a time, Kyonosuke begins to dare to develop his own dreams and ambitions, but does a normal human being with normal human dreams stand a chance against members of a ruling class without even a hint of a conscience?

I don't know much about The Third Shadow's director Umetsugu Inoue, except that he would leave Japan a few years after making this film and start work as a contract director for the Shaw Brothers and become somewhat renown for films in diverse genres that are often described with adjectives like "flamboyant".

This is not a film that foreshadows these future Hong Kong films, though. Instead, it is very typical for the wave of excellent and pessimistic Jidai Geki and Chambara that started to conquer a certain stuffiness in both samurai film genres in the first half of the 60s.

Inoue's directorial style here is an interesting mixture of lighting techniques usually found in stage plays, austere framing and extremely economic storytelling.

You won't find a single superfluous cut here, no scene that isn't exactly built as it needs to be; one could argue that the film could use some flourish, but its visual presentation and narrative flow are in exact correspondence to the bleak feeling of futility that pervades it. Poor Kyonosuke never has a chance for a better life, not as a poor farmer with illusions of the greatness of war, not when he is nothing more than another man's shadow and not when he decides to try to become that man and fulfil ambitions that are not his own. Being himself is of course completely out of the question and once Kyonosuke tries to become himself, he is doomed to death and madness. Being human is just not something that is allowed in a time and place where a person's status is more important than what a person truly is. The war machine of the Sengoku era just eats up everyone it can get a hold of to fuel more war. If you think that this could be a commentary on Japan, 1963, you are probably right.

It's all exactly as depressing as it sounds. The Third Shadow gets more melodramatic in the effective way of Japanese movies of its time the longer the film goes on, but Inoue never loses control of his film for a second.

What isn't achieved by the director is achieved by Ichikawa's wonderful performance in a difficult triple role that is as intense and complex as any I have seen from him.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

In short: The Signal (2014)

After the first half an hour of its running time or so, I was prepared to praise William Eubank’s SF film for some fine direction, some more than decent acting by Brenton Thwaites, and the promise of something clever. The next twenty-five minutes or so even strengthened that impression, and I was all set for a clever and stylish take on a cross of an alien abduction movie with a bit of the X-Men, perhaps even with a good bit of SF philosophy.

Alas, then the rest of the film happened, and what I took for style turned out to be a case of cargo cult filmmaking that takes the signifiers of better movies but misses their points. Pointless Lynchisms meet a story that goes for your classical mindfuck movie but misses out on the part about these films where they actually need to make sense according to a logic of their own (in The Signal, there’s really no sense to make, because it finds its SURPRISE ENDING too important). Ridiculous slow-motion scenes are supposed to produce an emotional impact they can’t have because the script never bothered to establish emotional stakes or characters who are more than their relations to a main character who himself becomes increasingly uninteresting; the female lead Olivia Cooke is only there to open her as eyes wide and to be dragged around by our male main character (often literally so). And that SURPRISE ENDING is just crap of the kind that pretends to have some deeper meaning but doesn’t go beyond the mere gestures of a DEEP EMOTIONAL AND INTELLECTUAL IMPACT. I’m shouting this because that’s exactly what the direction does, most probably to distract from the fact there’s really very little of impact on screen here, and the whole affair has about the intellectual depth of a really bad SyFy original movie – only with the little difference that those films don’t have pretensions of being more than a bit of a fun time for their audience.

This makes The Signal particularly useless in a time when intelligent indie SF is actually a cinematic thing, and when the big superhero blockbusters have a bit of a brain, ambition and a heart to their brawn too. It’s just pointless and – I’m surprised I can actually use the word the way it’s meant to be used – pretentious.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Android Cop (2014)

Welcome to a Los Angeles of the near future. An earthquake has hit the local nuclear reactors, leaving parts of the town as an irradiated quarantine zone populated by the poor and your usual post-apocalyptic gangs. Obviously, it’s called The Zone.

Excellent, if irascible, cop Hammond (Michael Jai White) is getting a new partner in form of the newest in police SCIENCE(!) – an android he soon dubs Andy (Randy Wayne). Now, after a partner killing incident with one of the turrets guarding the Zone, Hammond isn’t much of a lover of machines (and clearly, there’s no difference at all between an android and a gun turret), so the relationship between Hammond and the rookie robot starts with a lot of patented buddy cop bickering.

However, when our heroes are tasked with rescuing the android body harbouring the consciousness of the Mayor’s (Charles S. Dutton) daughter (Larissa Vereza), they’ll just have to learn to respect each other. Particularly since their rescue mission is connected to a conspiracy that soon sees them having to fight off not just the local gangs, and a few cannibals, but also the corrupt forces of evil cop Sgt. Jones (Kadeem Hardison).

Going into a film made by the writer/director (and editor, and cinematographer, and more, because who says movies aren’t a one man job?) responsible for nigh unwatchable The Asylum productions like Princess of Mars and Battle of Los Angeles is not a task one sets oneself without adjusting one’s expectations. As it turns out, however, in the case of Android Cop, there isn’t actually much need for any adjustments of the unpleasant kind, because when it comes to silly, low budget SF action movies a tiiiiny bit based on other movies you might have heard about, this one’s actually great fun.

Now, obviously, the SF elements, as well as the details of the conspiracy, are very much on the silly and not always on the coherent side but since the film presents them with a self-deprecating sense of humour (yet not cloying self-conscious irony) and with fun, they set up exactly what they’re supposed to set up in the sort of film this is – action scenes, basic motivations for basic characters, and a bunch of bad yet funny jokes. Why, the SF elements even have an actual plot function I found myself appreciating as silly yet kind of awesome!

The most important elements for silly SF direct-to-video action – action all work out quite nicely for the film. The action scenes are, despite mostly taking place between our heroes and guys dressed up in rags (so you can use the same stunt actors in more scenes a bit easier, one suspects), pretty fun, decently choreographed and directed, if not with particular style, at least with the sort of discreet confidence that eschews too many dumb editing effects. Sure, Atkins isn’t Isaac Florentine or John Hyams but here, he shows himself to be a much more capable action movie director than I had expected. And while the film’s ruined houses - that look a lot like reused sets from some kind of Middle Eastern set war movie to me – aren’t exactly incredibly attractive, they sure beat the exclusively warehouse set action of many another cheap action movie I’ve seen. The same goes for the costumes and the make-up effects – they’re a bit dumb (particularly the silver sheen of androids), they’re certainly cheap, but they get their jobs done and look as if the people involved at least cared a little about them. It seems like The Asylum truly has changed.

Android Cop’s true not so secret weapon, though, is Michael Jai White. If you’ve watched your share of direct-to-DVD action films in the last couple of decades, you do of course know that White is an excellent screen fighter who at least deserves to have the name recognition of your Van Dammes and your Lundgrens (whom I have both grown to love in their own special ways) but doesn’t really seem to get it. So, yes, White is great in the action scenes, yet his real gift to people consciously deciding to watch a film called Android Cop (hey, that’s me!) lies in his overall performance. He’s playing a somewhat hard-ass yet sympathetic cop who isn’t acting like one of your typical action movie cop on the edge assholes (why, he even prefers peaceful solutions), and he does so with the sort of easy-going charm that suggests he’s quite conscious he’s in a movie of highly suspect quality yet not willing to go the easy way of just cashing his pay check without giving the audience something. Doesn’t mean he can’t have fun with it, though, and so he plays whatever silliness the film throws at him with a friendly wink (but not too big of one), and a relaxed but not bored attitude that suggests he’s having quite a bit of fun here. I’m not too surprised about that part, given White’s past career; what I didn’t know is how good his comical timing is, so he milked quite a few laughs out of jokes that really weren’t all that funny from me.

Randy Wayne isn’t exactly the ideal comical foil for him, seeing as his interpretation of an android is to talk like he’s reading the phone book aloud and turn his head stiffly. Wayne isn’t terrible, though, so it’s just about enough. The rest of the cast is mostly okay (Vereza), or hamming it up in satisfactory manner (Hardison and Dutton), which, given that the acting side still is the Asylum’s biggest problem, is perfectly fine for a fun little flick like Android Cop.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

In short: Attack on Titan: Part 1 (2015)

This live action adaptation of the popular and sometimes pretty inspired, some times annoyingly generic manga and anime series (short plot: humanity has nearly been destroyed by being eaten by mysterious, utterly horrifying humanoid giants; there might be a glimmer of hope, but it’s icky; also, mysterious mysteries abound) is a real emotional rollercoaster ride: half of it is nearly brilliant, the other half total crap.

Unlike a lot of fans of the source material, I am perfectly alright with the live action version taking huge liberties with the plot, background and characters; in fact, if there’s one thing that has ruined a lot of live action franchise work coming from Japan during the last decade or so for me, it’s the slavish devotion to just putting the source material on screen beat for beat, as if you could just turn an endless manga series into a pair of two hour films without making huge changes to make it work in a different medium. The art of achieving a good adaptation of anything lies in deciding what’s the visual/thematic/narrative core of the source, and putting that on screen to the best of one’s abilities. Shinji Higuchi’s version of Attack on Titan seems to get stuck somewhere half-way between, though, making huge changes but often replacing the kind of clichéd crap you have to put in your manga and anime or get lynched by horde of angry otaku with things that are just as trite and overplayed.

Not surprisingly, there’s also a decided lack of subtlety, with certain characters – generally played by tired veteran actors or pretty young things with excellent hair – only in the film to (comically, oh har-dee-har) eat potatoes, suddenly ask for a new baby daddy (that scene really needs to be seen to be believed) or creepily (and badly) quote Nietzsche without any of it actually making sense in the context they have been put in. Of course, every single moment of that is presented with grand gestures, unlike, say, in the blockbuster-wise comparable Marvel films of today where the quiet moments are actually allowed to be quiet and still feed into the overall carnage surrounding them. The way Higuchi handles the character moments, I mostly feel embarrassed by their unnecessary broadness.

The good part of the film are the giants and their attack scenes. Blood is flowing in buckets, and the CGI creatures manage to turn something that should be silly just as well into something creepy and horrifying as the manga does. And where Higuchi isn’t good at all at that icky people having feelings stuff, he does come into himself in the scenes of mass carnage and destruction, really bringing home the horror of the film’s monsters as well as how tiny and fragile the humans they eat are. The character bits that are actually integrated into the carnage tend to work better too, perhaps because here, Higuchi not doing “subtle” fits into surroundings that certainly don’t do subtle either.

“But is it actually worth watching!?”, I hear my imaginary reader ask. Well, sort of, I think. At least the film’s big monster doing big monster stuff scenes are fine, and the rest isn’t anything that can’t be fixed by watching this thing inebriated or fast forwarding through it judiciously.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Three Films Make A Post: They were created to save mankind. Something went wrong.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004): It’s taken me a good decade to learn to appreciate Kerry Conran’s only feature film. And now I’m thinking “what the hell is wrong with me and why has it been taking me so long”? Of course, in that decade, I consumed a very fair share of the pulps, serials, and comics this is an updated homage to, and gained a bit more knowledge about the people who built the wall this particular ball is bounced off of. Though, honestly, even before that, I should have appreciated the detail-rich production design and costuming, the love and care taken with a peculiar yet effective visual aesthetic, the sure-handed way Conran handles his one-note (but the right one) characters, the fact that – unlike in many a film of this type – Gwyneth Paltrow’s reporter character Polly Perkins actually gets to do stuff beyond looking pretty and being a love interest (although she handles that part rather excellently too), the expert pacing of the one damn and awesome thing after another plot, and so on, and so forth. Seriously, what is wrong with me?

The Nightmare (2015): If you’re looking for an actual documentary about sleep paralysis and the people suffering from it, Rodney Ascher’s documentary won’t be for you, because it basically handwaves away the actual science, concentrates on its mostly cheesy re-enactments of the sufferers’ hallucinations, and ends up with a lot of rambling about Jesus, aliens, and demons, and never makes even the tiniest sceptical or critical gesture towards even the greatest bullshit story. Perhaps, if one doesn’t get quite as annoyed by the film and its approach, one might be mildly creeped out by the archetypal nightmare imagery, but honestly, there are quite a few films admitting they are fiction that are much better at that,

Hangar 10 (2014): I found myself positively surprised by Daniel Simpson’s POV horror film of the UFO persuasion, which makes use of the UK’s favourite UFO incident. It even makes good use of it, actually hinting at various bits of the mythology concerned during the course of the film instead of just waving its hands and screaming UFOs. Like with a lot of POV horror films, there are some moments of mild tedium around the end of the first act but the film actually escalates things from there nicely, going through various POV horror greatest hits but avoiding the most annoying ones and ending in a handful of effectively creepy scenes quite its own.

There’s an actual visual pay-off in this one, too. Add to that Simpson’s ability to frame atmospheric and effective shots while keeping in hand-held consumer camera mode, a decent cast, effectively creepy sound design and subtract the sort of automatic hatred many people have evolved towards the POV form, and you actually have a clever and effective little piece of low budget horror.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

In short: Tower of Evil (1972)

aka Horror on Snape Island

To make matters shorter than the film does, a bunch of naked teenagers is slaughtered on a light house/island studio set. The only survivor (because she’s only into oral sex, and I’m not even kidding) loses it and nakedly stabs a rescuing fisherman, therefore proving to the police she was the killer. Fortunately for her, she falls into a catatonic state and spends the rest of her scenes being hypnotised by a psychiatrist, leading to the expected home-made psychedelia flashbacks that are the obvious highlights of the film.

All the while, an expedition of some – and I quote, unconvinced – “experienced archaeologists” (names and actors are pretty unimportant) makes its way to the island, for one of the teenagers was stabbed to death with a Phoenician spear that suggests to the archaeologists the island must harbour the hoard of a Phoenician chieftain. Which indeed it does, as well as the guy who actually killed the teenagers, and who, after good slasher manner, will slaughter the new, joint-smoking, wine-swilling, and sex-having non-teenagers, too. Hooray.

On one hand, Tower of Evil is quite the interesting film as a clearly giallo-influenced proto-slasher with all the love for sleaze (though not the propensity for gore) of a third generation slasher, showing off the bizarre yet fascinating fashion (sometimes I wish people actually dressed this way) and unpleasant characters of the former genre, and the “kill all people who have sex and/or drugs” tendencies of the latter one, as well as copying the often dubious plotting of the latter.

Unfortunately, Jim O’Connolly’s resulting film just isn’t very good. Sure, there are a lot of nude bodies if you’re into that, but if you’re hoping for some of the style of the Italian genre cinema this is built on, or clever or even just aesthetically interesting use of the sleaze and the violence, you’re really watching the wrong film. O’Connolly’s direction may not be inept, exactly, but more often than not, it’s pedestrian and boring, leaving the audience little to do than to watch these rather unpleasant people be unpleasant and later get offed. This turns out to be neither very entertaining nor captivating, even though there are one or two moments I found vaguely amusing. Extramarital sex is better than masturbation you say? “Zip me?”.

Things are made even less interesting by to the bone-headed decision to first spend half an hour plus on the teenagers and then do the same plot, just with more set-up, again with the “archaeologists” (who carry more grass and wine than any actual archaeological equipment, and dress like people from a bizarro fashion magazine), instead of somehow just fusing the two strands and actually getting on with the business of killing people and getting them naked (not always in this order).

As it stands, I can only recommend Tower of Evil as a historic curiosity that badly aped a particular sub-genre and sort of arrived at prefiguring the worst bits of a different related sub-genre, because as a movie, it’s just slow, mucky, and sleazy in a way that’s neither fun nor oppressive enough to be of much interest.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Past Misdeeds: Ghosts That Still Walk (1977)

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

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

The teeth-grindingly sweet American teenager Mark (Matthew Boston) suffers from weird headaches and seizures. His doctors fail to find a physical explanation for the boy's symptoms, but there is enough strangeness to his family backstory to let them recommend psychiatrist and holistic weirdo Dr. Sills (Rita Crafts) to his grandmother Alice (Ann Nelson). Since the death of his grandfather Henry (Jerry Jensen) during a vacation trip with Alice and the nervous breakdown his mother Ruth (Caroline Howe) had, Granny is the only grown-up taking care of Mark, and in her bible quoting, but sweet way she's more than willing to go to Dr. Sills if it is of any help to her grandson.

Now, if someone suffering from Mark's problems came to you, you'd probably try and concentrate your first inquiries on him. Dr. Sills doesn't. She seems a lot more interested in the grandparents' deadly vacation trip and the notes his mother took while working on her last book, a treatise on a little known South-Western tribe of Native Americans.

Granny has repressed most of what happened on the fateful vacation in their camper, but every quack's best friend - hypnosis - leads to the rather puzzling story of an invisible force taking control of the elderly couple's car and driving them out into the desert where they are attacked by rolling stones (not the Rolling Stones, mind you). More invisible force shenanigans follow, until poor Henry dies from a heart attack while balancing on the top of a rampaging camper. Alice chooses to treat everything that has happened as a dream message send to her directly from her old buddy God, but mostly represses the whole incident.

Even more interesting than the hypnosis session with the old woman is what her daughter's notes have to say. Ruth found the mummy of a Native in the desert and got it into her head to revive the dead guy's astral spirit (not to be confused with his physical or mental spirit, as the film helpfully explains) to learn all that is to learn about his tribe's culture. Mummy-man is rather grumpy though, and bad things start to happen.

Of course, now that Dr. Sills is on the case, there's just a little mumbo jumbo to go through until we get to something amounting to a happy ending.

Among the few people that know his name, Ghosts That Still Walk's director James T. Flocker's films have the reputation of being as weird as they are cheap, and Ghosts surely isn't an exception. Part horror film, part new age idiocy fest, it is wholly peculiar.

Technically, there's not too much to talk about here - for a locally produced low budget film, Ghosts looks nice enough, the acting's not all terrible and everything does feel mostly competently made, while the plotting drags and meanders to get the film to a sellable running time, as is usual in this type of film.

What is more interesting, and therefore actually worth talking about here, is the truly weird mood Flocker somehow summons out of a mobile home, a few unremarkable interiors and a whole lot of desert. It's not a truly horrifying type of weirdness, but rather the feeling that something about the film is slightly off, as if Flocker was visiting us from a parallel dimension just a wee bit different from our own, a place where you just make a film about possessive spirits and rolling stones without showing the slightest bit of scepticism about your ideas and where no viewer has any disbelief that might need suspension.

Usually, I am quite annoyed when filmmakers throw their new age beliefs in my face (even I have standards regarding how much stupidity I am willing to take), but in this case I have no problems with making an exception for the sheer matter-of-factness of the film's tone and the unusual nature of the rolling stone scenes. The latter aren't as suspenseful as Flocker seems to have imagined them, but work as a perfect way to achieve that floating feeling non-mainstream cinema can induce in the brain.

The beauty of the whole thing is how little sense it makes to people not inhabiting the filmmaker's mind, while it is completely obvious that to him, it all is perfectly sensible and logical.

There is a constant tension between the mundanity of the non-desert places (too) much of Ghosts takes place in and Flocker's bizarre brand of new age Christianity. It's as if your pious, but down to earth grandmother suddenly started to explain to you how perfectly common astral travel was in the bible, and reincarnation? Totally Jesus' way!

One can feel an admirable stubbornness at work somewhere below the simple surface of the film; while watching, I could never shake off the feeling that I was witnessing something intensely personal, made by a true believer in something that could never be properly articulated through a more common filmic language, always waiting for a possibility to get out, yet never really able to.

I'd call the film a major achievement, if I only knew what exactly it does achieve, or what Flocker set out to achieve with it.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

In short: Terminator Genisys (2015)

Given that I’m not an admirer of contemporary Hollywood’s REBOOT EVERYTHING motto (we all know how Uncle Ben died by now, right?), I didn’t go into Alan Taylor’s reboot of the Terminator franchise with too much hope; of course, seeing as this would be a stupid intro if I wasn’t positively surprised by the film, nobody’ll be surprised to hear I was indeed positively surprised by it. Surprise.

Thinking about it, the Terminator movies were actually one case where a reboot made sense, it being a franchise whose entries beyond the first two movies and some of the comics were not very good anyway. Furthermore the last two films have pretty much stuffed the meta-plot with so much nonsense burning down what came before was probably the best option.

The film doesn’t just reboot though, but actually remixes and remodels parts of the first two films in clever and surprising ways that can also keep the good parts of what came before canonical thanks to the vagaries of time travel. The film’s first half in particular is blockbuster action cinema at its most playful, breaking up the big dumb (and rather fun) action scenes with often delightful twists on scenes we knew know from earlier films without letting the film become a mere series of ironic quotations. Taylor keeps the pace up nicely, and while some of the CGI looks a bit shoddy to my eyes, he manages to keep the increasingly silly action (the helicopter chase really is too dumb to believe) fun despite its rampant stupidity. The film’s second half isn’t quite as successful with the self-referentiality and awesome time-travel nonsense but it stays a seriously effective spectacle that knows how to keep small bits of humanity in play in between the explosions. There’s nothing deep here, yet Genisys never has that Michael Bay air of utter loathing for the intelligence of its audience; and it actually knows how to time silly one-liners.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

In short: Space Truckers (1996)

John Canyon (Dennis Hopper) is one of the last independent interstellar freight haulers. Thanks to an unfortunate incident concerning a (space) truckload of genetically modified piggies and a guy getting sucked out of a space trucker diner window into the outer dark, Canyon has to haul ass from his latest stop quickly, having to take on a load meant for Earth that just stinks of trouble. Because it’s one of those weeks, he also finds himself teaming up with former Company (boo hiss) rookie trucker Mike Pucci (Stephen Dorff) and his own favourite (space) waitress, granddaughter-aged Cindy (Debi Mazar), the woman who has just promised to marry him if he gets her to Earth. There just might be a love triangle situation in the making here. Also, the mysterious load our heroes are carrying is a bunch of bio-mechanical warrior droids built to invade Earth for exactly the Corp Canyon hates so much. Should be an easy voyage, then.

To keep with the traditional intro sentence for every write-up of this silly SF comedy lark ever written: this is not the finest film Stuart Gordon ever directed. In fact, it’s pretty much a bunch of ideas that are not really funny enough to carry a whole film, connected by a series of random sight gags, a hilarious Western-style soundtrack, and actors like Dennis Hopper and Charles Dance seeming to have quite a bit of fun with the whole thing.

How much fun any given viewer will have with Space Truckers will probably depend on their patience with certain jokes just carried on for too long, their love for watching Dennis Hopper doing improbable things, and their willingness to trade in ninety minutes of their life time for a film that contains jokes about a cybernetic penis with a starter. At times, I found myself giggling merrily at the whole thing, appreciating the improbable yet fun production design; at other times, my eyes went to the clock and my thoughts to the age-old question if there’s an official rule that states comedies aren’t allowed to be plotted consistently or carry actual emotional weight beyond the jokes. In other words, Guardians of the Galaxy this is not, but it might be an okay way to while away one’s time. Or not. (Yup, I’m as decisive as the film’s plotting, here).

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Descendant (2003)

Imaginary history lesson: Eddie Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher” was based on a real family named Usher and ruined the family name for generations. To reciprocate, one Usher murdered Poe’s Virginia, and cursed Poe (Arie Verveen) and all of his descendants. Seeing as Poe didn’t have any children, I don’t see much of a point in this curse, but hey. The film will of course pretend people descended from the man’s larger family are indeed his descendants, demonstrating early on what kind of a film it’s going to be.

Today (well, in 2002), Poe’s “descendant” Ethan (Jeremy London) has a career as a popular horror author of books which mostly seem to consist of mangled Poe quotes, bad-mouthing old Eddie while coasting on the Poe name. He is also, as we will quickly learn, rather crazy, having shouting matches with a hallucinatory version of Eddie and making all the bug-eyed crazy faces you want. Alas, he’s supposed to be a dark, charming sort of crazy, and so Ann Hedgrow (Katherine Heigl), also a far descendant of a man without any children, falls for her very distant cousin at once, as does he for her, when they meet at a Q&A session. Well, or he might just like the sex and living in the huge house she just inherited from her mother. Not surprisingly, a series of murders starts right about the time Ethan hits the small town Ann lives in. Who, oh who, might the murderer be? The guy who shouts at Poe? Ann’s best friend with an eternal crush on her, Deputy John Burns (Nick Stabile)? Ann’s lunatic brother with incestuous hopes Kiefer (Matt Farnsworth)? It’s not very difficult to guess, as is the rest of the plot.

Descendant is the sad, embarrassing end to Del Tenney’s attempt at a return to films, co-directed with Kermit Christman, and mostly pretty damn bad even if you ignore the whole idiotic set-up with the real-life Ushers or the point nobody involved in the production seems to have had much of a clue about Poe or his work (or if they did, didn’t bother putting that in). That’s bad, of course, but I probably would have gotten over it in a film that started from a bad place and went anywhere interesting or entertaining.

Instead, you get a barely tolerable Gothic Romance movie that plays up the stupidity and uselessness of its heroine whereas it would have been quite a bit more entertaining and interesting if it had gone in the totally opposite direction; of course, then the people involved would have had to come up with reasons for a competent heroine to get into trouble via love. And yes, the script: it’s stupid, it’s obvious, it misses the best set-ups for Poe-nods that would actually work, it shows no imagination for the macabre whatsoever, and does tend to meander, too.

There’s not much on the acting side that could redeem anything here either: Heigl is bland, London chews the scenery in the least charming and most joyless way imaginable, and Stabile is wearing a uniform. Christman’s and Tenney’s direction is mostly as bland as their heroine, though it does reach the heights (depths) of inadvertent hilarity from time to time through the virtues of awkward staging and just plain bad decisions. The grand finale is indeed a bit of a side-splitter, but that’s really the most entertainment I got out of Descendant.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

In short: Hellions (2015)

Teenager Dora (Chloe Rose) has a decidedly bad Halloween when she learns she is unwantedly pregnant. While she’s still pondering what to do (at least she’s not in the US but in Canada, so she actually has options), and is home alone preparing to tell her boyfriend, some rather frightening trick or treaters in creepy costumes begin harassing her in manners rather supernatural.

I am very glad director Bruce McDonald has made another genre film, for, much like his brilliant Pontypool, Hellions takes a common and generic sounding plot and turns it into something special and strangely (given that I don’t think McDonald has much experience being a pregnant teenager) personal. I don’t think this one will be as popular among the horror crowd as Pontypool was, though, because Hellions is a much weirder, more metaphorical film, less clear in the story it is telling, and so invested in being dream-like and truly strange it’ll rub anyone interested in more traditional storytelling the wrong way.

Me, I found myself fondly remembering the best of Italian horror cinema while watching it, Fulci and al seeming not far away once the film’s sure-handedly realist (that is to say, involved with quickly and deftly establishing its main character as a person instead of a cliché) introduction was over. Sure, Hellions is far less gory than comparable Italian films, but it is very much in the same business of building a dream-like creepy mood through non-realist storytelling, clearly taking place in a moment where the rules of logic and normal narrative don’t apply anymore, so also using All Hallow’s Eve properly. For my tastes, McDonald is rather good at this sort of thing, too, quickly going from one set-piece to the next, every single one of which seem taken out of nightmares and the shared horrors of humanity. He’s doing so for cheap, too, on a limited spacial scope, with only a handful of actors, the camera, some creepy costumes and deeply un-real(ist) light carrying the film’s weight. Unlike most of the Italian films I felt reminded of, McDonald’s film does offer a rather clear interpretative reading, but because he’s not really pushing that onto his audience, I let that slide.

What really drew me in – apart from the seamless way Dora’s reality drifts into the unreal – was the wonderful weirdness of it all, the pumpkin fields under the film’s strange fake blood moon light, the voices out of nowhere, the score’s chanting children, “blood for baby”, the way pregnancy turns into a form of body horror. McDonald – again unlike my beloved Italians - also clearly understands the difference between “weird” and “random”. While the supernatural occurrences never make sense in a traditional way, they do belong to each other, suggesting a world that doesn’t work by logic but by rules simply not made for humans.

Which is quite a thing for a film about teen pregnancy.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Mangler (1995)

Warning: there may be one or two last act spoilers hidden away in the text, because some things are just too good not to mention them. Plus, it’s Halloween.

Horrible things are happening in the early industrial age looking industrial laundry of evil old capitalist Bill Gartley (Robert Englund in peculiar age make-up giving a performance permanently fluctuating between the ridiculous and the ridiculously inspired): gothic looking mangler number 6 is mutilating and killing off members of the female workforce in accidents that don’t look so much like accidents but rather as if the machine had an evil mind of its own. In a normal place, the mangler would be shut down right quick, but Gartley’s the most powerful man in town, and he only cackles evilly about death and mutilation, so on the mangler mangles.

Only police officer John Hunton (Ted Levine as a bitter, shouty, sweaty and irascible hull of a man with a peculiar haircut) cares. His investigation, involving the help of his “theoretical parapsychologist” neighbour and buddy Mark (Daniel Matmor), quickly leads to the assumption the mangler is indeed possessed by a demon. Finding that out and doing something about it are quite different things, particularly as our heroes take quite some time to make the connection between demons, pacts, powerful evil old men, and sacrifices of the virginal kind.

Like all films Tobe Hooper ever made not called Texas Chainsaw Massacre, this (sort of) adaptation of a Stephen King short story is not well loved; like some of these films, it can be a worthwhile viewing if approached from the right angle.

The sympathetic viewer will need to bring along a patience for the weird, a love for the artificial, and a tolerance for the blindingly obvious yet circumspectly told when it comes to plotting. In other words, this is Hooper’s early 80s Italian-style horror movie, with all the silliness, the gooey blood and the just plain inexplicable stuff this suggests. Of course, in my house, being an early 80s Italian-style horror movie is a good thing, and Hooper is rather good at the whole business too. I, at least, can only appreciate a film with two perfectly silly looking and rather unnecessary cases of old age make-up (well, it’s not difficult to imagine Englund’s there because of his horror idol value), a main monster that is somewhat hindered in being all that threatening by virtue of not being able to frigging move, yet that still finds victims willing to step really close even after corpse number three or so, a script that contains grand ideas like pretending Frazer’s “The Golden Bough” is some kind of magical handbook, and so on and so forth. And let’s not forget the utterly crazy finale when the mangler turns into some sort of organic mecha thing - a fire-breathing organic mecha thing to be more precise.

Hooper presents the glorious mess in a tone of hysterical artificiality that – apart from the Italian angle – mostly reminds me of his own Eaten Alive and Spontaneous Combustion, films that also share the off-beat – and again rather on the hysterical side – approach to performances, not exactly logical plotting and a political subtext so blunt you can scratch the sub right away (doesn’t mean Hooper’s wrong, though). There’s a lot of dry ice fog pretending to be steam so that people have a reason to sweat a lot, harsh blue and red light coming from places where blue and red light have no business coming from, production design right out of the industrial gothic handbook, and camera angles that eschew any idea of realism for the full-time grotesque.

The same goes for the bloody stuff: like in comparable Italian movies, believability or the facts of human anatomy or physics belong to areas Hooper seems to have no regard for or interest in, so people get mangled in pretty damn strange ways completely in tune with the visual language and all around bizarre tone of the rest of the film.

Following the fashion, the haircuts, the cars and the way people talk in the film, it is also impossible to pinpoint when exactly The Mangler is supposed to take place; or rather, it is clear it’s not supposed to take place at a precise point in time at all but in a grotesque nightmare space born out of the corrupting influences of power and money, a place and time that combines 40s movie accents, Italian gore, industrial gothic and random elements of the year the film was actually produced in with wild abandon. It’s not so much a place as a state of mind turned visual. Again, the political subtext about the way capitalism turns everything into ruined shadows of its own seems pretty clear to me.

But, my imaginary reader will ask (what ever did I do before I made you up?), is The Mangler entertaining? Well, to me it is, but I can see how somebody could get bored or annoyed by it easily. It is, after all artificial, grotesque, more than just a bit silly, and most problematic at all, it seems to be the kind of horror film that’s not actually putting much (or any) work into being frightening, or creepy, or suspenseful, using all its energy for the grotesque mood, to bring a bit of weirdness on screen, and to talk politics, so if you go in expecting to be frightened, or shocked, you’ll probably hate it with a passion, and you won’t be wrong about it.

Me, on the other hand, love to wallow in a film that’s all weirdness and grotesqueness all the time, and if the price for that is a horror not very effective at horrifying me, I’m more than willing to pay it, even on Halloween.

Friday, October 30, 2015

On ExB: Tales That Witness Madness (1973)

Amicus wasn’t the only company making British horror anthology movies during the 70s, of course. Where there’s money to be made, there’s an imitator, particularly if said imitator can just hire a lot of the same people in front of and behind the camera.

Read all about how this particular Freddie Francis film turned out over at my column on the penny-farthing-riding website for the tasteful set, Exploder Button.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Howl (2015)

Not that Howl, it’s the October-fit one.

British train guard Joe (Ed Speleers) does not have a very good day. For one, he’s a train guard; then there’s the fact he’s just learned he hasn’t got the promotion to supervisor role he applied for. The actual new supervisor is a little prick who’ll lord it over him forever, and already starts with giving him a double shift - which means night train duty. Last but not least, Ellen (Holly Weston), the woman on food trolley services (I’m sure there’s a proper term for that on British rails, but I’ll be damned if I can find it) he’s got a crush on doesn’t seem to reciprocate.

Things actually go downhill from there, for right in the middle of Thornton Forest, the train comes to a halt. When Joe and Ellen try to find out what’s going on, they find the driver (Sean Pertwee saying hi for a few minutes) missing. The audience knows he’s been eaten by a werewolf while examining what exactly he just crashed into.

Not surprisingly, nobody else on board knows how to drive a train. Help won’t be coming too soon, either, for there is – of course – no cell reception, and the very weak connection to the train emergency services can only promise help in about four hours, and then falls into the big black hole of things whose existence the film will just ignore.

Four hours is much too long for the passengers, especially banker asshole Adrian (Elliot Cowan), so soon, everybody trudges through the dark woods in the direction of the next station. For a short while, that is, because soon the werewolf attacks, and the travellers will just have to barricade themselves in the train. It’s going to be a long night.

Given this time of year always makes me even more hungry for all things containing monsters than is my usual state of mind, and that I’ve a bit of a thing for stories set on trains, Paul Hyett’s werewolves on a train movie Howl has its work really cut out for it when it comes to this viewer. The film doesn’t disappoint me either, seeing as it features its monster early and often, doesn’t balk from killing off more sympathetic cast members comparatively early, and does make good use of its train.

There are, of course, all the typical elements of your siege movie, too, with barely avoided ingresses of the monster, panicked fights in confined spaces, people (well, bankers) being the worst monsters of them all, other people cracking up in various appropriate ways as portrayed by a bunch of capable and sympathetic actors, while others find their inner strength in adversity. It’s not very original, to say the least, but the film’s script goes through these standards with verve and conviction, adds elements and character traits that situate the proceedings very concretely on the British Isles in the 2010s (local flavour is always important), and does very clearly understand the structure it uses well enough to know which parts it needs to change for the situation at hand and which ones to keep. That last one might sound like a curious element to praise but I’ve seen a lot of movies in my time that shoot themselves in the foot (camera?) by missing out on the fact that certain things that work in a sheriff’s office don’t work so well on a space station, for example.

The werewolves are in fine shape too, sharing a basic form but showing individuality as well as expressiveness, and – once we get to that part of the film – are really fine (and rather fun) caricatures of the people they once were, adding monsters(!) to the generally fine impression this werewolf train siege epic made on me.