Friday, November 15, 2019

Past Misdeeds: The Kennel Murder Case (1933)

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 presented with only  basic re-writes and 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.

Sportsman and collector Archer Coe (Robert Barrat) dies in what at first looks like suicide to investigating Detective Heath (Eugene Pallette) and District Attorney Markham (Robert McWade), but amateur detective Philo Vance (William Powell, shortly before Nick met Nora) soon sets the two straight, for what we have here is a rather complicated case of murder that just happens to be a real locked room mystery, too.

Finding suspects is quite easy in this case, for Coe must have been the most hated, and surely the least pleasant, man in town. Possible suspects are (and I might forget one or two here, given their sheer number): Archer’s brother Brisbane (Frank Conroy), the kind of guy who carries around a book called “Unsolved Murders” when suspect in a murder investigation; Archer’s niece Hilda Lake (Mary Astor), terrorized by her uncle’s oh so cruel holding of the purse strings as well as by the fact that he’s standing in the way of her marriage plans, and, the film suggests not particularly subtly, sex life; Sir Thomas MacDonald (Paul Cavanagh), the marriage plan embodied; Archer’s secretary Raymond Wrede (Ralph Morgan), also interested in marrying Hilda, though she doesn’t want to; Archer’s cook Liang (James Lee), a highly educated Chinese gentleman who helped Archer out in some shady antiques dealings and now finds himself not only relegated to his cook but also further betrayed; Eduardo Grassi (Jack La Rue), a near business partner of Archer’s who sees himself spurned after Archer finds out he has an affair with his girlfriend Doris Delafield (Helen Vinson); and something’s off about the butler Gamble (Arthur Hohl), too.

As if being spoiled for choice weren’t difficult enough for Vance, it’s also devilishly complicated to actually establish what happened the night of Archer’s death. After a while, there’s another corpse to deal with, and as many obfuscation attempts as there are suspects. Now wonder Nick Charles would start to drink so many martinis.

It is rather seductive to pretend that Philo Vance changed his name to Nick Charles after this particularly stressful case, started drinking too much, and married Myrna Loy. At least William Powell’s performance here, in his last and – as I’m told - best Philo Vance film, isn’t far off from type, just sober. Did someone by any chance write a meta-detective novel with this plot? Someone should.

Anyhow, Michael Curtiz’ The Kennel Murder Case has not only the reputation of being the best Powell-starring Van Dine adaptation, but also of being the best of the Philo Vance mysteries, which I find difficult to doubt, given how perfect an example of its style this is, with little room for improvement except for the film being an over-constructed “golden age” mystery. But complaining about that would be idiotic, my general dislike for that part of mystery history notwithstanding. Particularly when it turns out that, when they are executed this well, I don’t mind the tropes of the sub-genre at all.

This is one of the films where all elements come together so well, it can turn even someone not particularly fond of a (sub-)genre like me into a believer. The film’s virtues start with Robert N. Lee’s and Peter Milne’s excellently paced script that has a point-on rhythm so well realized, not only are various revelations here actually exciting even whole new film languages and mystery sub-genres later, even the comic relief sequences seem to belong in the movie instead of being their usual, squeezed-in selves. There are also some surprisingly pleasant elements to the film not very typical of its time, with a Chinese character, played by a Chinese American who doesn’t have to speak in pidgin or bizarre folksy metaphors, and who isn’t our detective’s main suspect just because of his race. In fact, there’s even a short bit where Vance reacts to Heath’s casual racism with a nice little eye-roll. Why, the film treats Liang like a human being not qualitatively different from anyone around him, and actually seems a bit sympathetic towards a man having to live quite below his abilities because of his skin colour. The film doesn’t make a big thing out of this, but it’s very pleasant to witness in a film of this age nonetheless; it beats me if this is part of Van Dine’s novel, too, though I very much doubt it, going by the man’s general hateful snobbery.

The script is full of these little touches that give its stock characters more life (as does the fine cast), and just make the - well-constructed yet contrived, as it should probably be in this sub-genre – plot quite a bit more interesting because it seems to involve people with actual social and personal relations; I found the mystery itself pretty satisfying and fun to watch unravelling too.

Curtiz’ direction is also something special, for most of the minor productions of big houses of the time were directed either with carelessness or with a by-the-book style that never seems to even aspire to provide an audience with something to look at beyond groups of people who might as well be assembled on a theatre stage. Curtiz approach here is much more dynamic, with many an expressive camera angle, movements that explore the film’s sets as physical spaces, and a clear and concise idea of how to make the most out of the actors’ performances, as well as how to deepen an inevitably dialogue-heavy story through the things the audience sees. That’s the sort of thing that gives a director like Curtiz, who at the time was just another hired studio gun, if one with quite a bit of experience already, his auteur reputation. Even though I’m not a fan of his horror films for Warner, and don’t even enjoy Casablanca all that much, it’s hard to disagree when confronted with as perfect a genre film as The Kennel Murder Case, and not just in the light of other highlights of the director’s filmography.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

In short: Booksmart (2019)

I’m often making fun of actors turning directors, but that’s more on account of the Tom Cruises and Edward Nortons of this world who hijack other peoples’ films to stroke their own egos, notwithstanding the limits of their own talents, than those actresses and actors who come upon their direction work because they actually care about the art of filmmaking.

Olivia Wilde’s tale of the adventures of teens Amy (Kaitlin Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) on the last night before their high school graduation, who try to for once have a traditionally teenage fun time instead of being the teacher’s pet kind of nerd who only thinks about school, certainly suggests an actress who cares and understands said art. At first, the film seems to be a well-made and a bit lightweight but very likeable and genuinely funny coming of age comedy with a tendency to make fun little digressions into weird directions (Molly’s and Amy’s drug fantasy has to be seen to be believed), but the longer the film goes on, the clearer it becomes that Wilde is also portraying the easiness of emotional shifts and shifts in perspective common in people of our heroines’ ages, so there are moments of quiet tragedy and genuine hurt, of awkwardness and sudden insight when every character who starts out as a classic teen movie type turns out to have another facet and a different side. Wilde portrays these shifts and the opening of her characters to the complexity of other human beings as well as the downsides of their own friendship with sympathy and insight, particularly in the film’s more painful sequences, pretending the film’s a nicely flowing series of episodes when it is actually very thoughtfully structured. There’s some rather more obvious great filmmaking on display too, like the way the scene in which Amy gets her heart broken starts from a feeling of utter contentment and wonder and just flows away from there.

The whole thing is also beautifully played by Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein, who pull off all of the film’s tonal shifts with ease, keeping likeable and understandable (which is something better than merely being relatable), and working through the humour, the hurt and the weirdness.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Doom: Annihilation (2019)

A squad of “UAC Marines” - which seems to be some sort of corporate military deal where the least competent would-be soldiers around get dumped going by the rest of the film – under on Leutnant Joan Dark (Amy Manson) land on a top secret research base on the Martian moon Phobos for elevated guard duty. As luck will have it, teleportation (and more) experiments have just opened a gate to a hell dimension, and soon these incompetents and nitwits have to fight for their lives.

Given how much money the Doom games make, I have a hard time understanding how the film deal the franchise gets is this. The film at hand dwells in the most impoverished part of direct to home video action cinema, where not only hiring some bad luck former Academy Award winner for a couple of shooting days is right out (you’re in luck, Sir Ben Kingsley), but even the mandatory fifteen minutes of Dolph or JCVD is too costly, and the only guy they can get is Louis (not even Costas!?) Mandylor popping in for a bit. To be fair, the actors are perfectly competent, just not terribly interesting. Compared to this, the much-maligned but in my opinion really rather fun first attempt at a Doom movie was richly endowed with production values. Now, I know the Doom universe isn’t exactly an ideal source for more than a fun shoot ‘em up movie, but you really can aim a bit higher with that as well; just look at John Wick, for Cthulhu’s sake!

That having quite this little money available is not a good thing for science fiction action horror thing that should actually have quite a few special effects sequences and proper action set pieces should come as little surprise. Really, the only thing that could have come to the rescue would have been one of the top tier direct to video action directors, say Peter Hyams or Isaac Florentine who know how to make every cent count and possess highly developed visual imaginations. Instead, we get Tony Giglio, the guy who directed Chaos (not the great one, nor the Academy Award winner, but the one with Wesley Snipes). While Giglio is a professional director – the film’s in focus and properly edited, at least – he’s doing strictly competetent work here, with little visible effort to bring the production design of corridors (and then more corridors) and five minutes of videogame hell to life.

The action scenes aren’t exactly bad, but there’s also little anyone who has seen some of the cinematic children of Aliens will find exciting. In fact, the action is so bland, I was wishing fondly for a bit of Paul W.S. Anderson in here, whose films may suck more often than not but who is a t least always trying to make them look interesting. Of course, I would be surprised if this film had more than a tenth of the budget of your typical Anderson outing.

Not at all helping anything at all is that Giglio’s script (for yes, he’s also wearing the writer’s hat) believes it has to present us with thirty-five minutes of character stuff before we get to the first bit of amateur space marine versus monsters action. Clearly, the bunch of one-note clichés and their oh so interesting backstories we have seen in hundreds of other films need many a scene of introduction; and obviously, everyone in the market of watching a Doom movie will have no idea whatsoever of what’s happening on Phobos and will be terribly surprised once the monsters attack. It can be problematic to write too much towards a certain audience, but come on!

Speaking of the monsters, Doom: Annihilation certainly doesn’t do itself any favours by, once it finally gets around to the stuff the audience has actually come for, then starting out with having the space marines for the next twenty minutes or so fight creatures which are for all intents and purposes blue-faced zombies. That’s certainly keeping the special effects budget in check, but is pretty much the most boring, over-used thing the film could have used. Of course, the videogame-approved demons we get later are not terribly interesting either, they just turn out to be terrible bullet sponges. Or rather, they are terrible bullet sponges unless Joan shoots them, for her bullets are clearly coated with protagonist venom, so a monster everyone else needs to pump an assault rifle mag or two into until it stops moving is conquered by a couple of shots with our heroine’s handguns. On the plus side, Doom Guy’s a girl now.

Which is the kind of positive note I like to end my write-ups of otherwise blandly bad movies on.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Daughters of Satan (1972)

While poking around in the antiquities shop of one Mr Ching (Vic Diaz), whom we already know as a Satanist thanks to a prologue that’s supposed to get a bit of the mandatory sleaze and nudity in early, art expert and writer James Robertson (Tom Selleck, already looking exactly like Tom Selleck in the 80s) stumbles upon a curious painting of a witch burning that took place in Manila in the 1590s. “Curious”, because the middle witch looks exactly (or really, kinda-sorta if you’re not a character in the movie), like James’s wife Chris (Barra Grant). So obviously, James buys it, hoping that Chris is going to get a kick out of it, one supposes.

However, she’s not at all pleased with the thing, showing revulsion and a strange sense of dread when laying eyes on it. With the painting come strange occurrences: voices calling Chris’s name on the wind at night; the appearance of a big dog named Nikodemus that takes to Chris totally but wants to murder James; and a housekeeper (Paraluman) answering an ad nobody put in the paper, bullying her way into the house. And why, doesn’t she look exactly like another of the witches on the painting!

Pressured by the housekeeper and a secret Satanic witch cult, Chris falls increasingly under the spell of the painting and her older witch self, and soon, she finds herself pressed to kill James. He, for his part, begins to realize some of what’s going on, but most of his counteractions seem ill-advised, awkward and doomed to failure.

Daughters of Satan is yet another of the incalculable number of US/Filipino co-productions shot with predominantly local crews in the Philippines. It is directed by Hollingsworth Morse, who was mostly a TV director apparently specialized in family and children’s TV (there’s a lot of “Lassie” on his CV). Morse never feels terribly comfortable doing horror stuff, so quite a few theoretically cool and spooky little moments here are sabotaged by awkward or simply bland direction. I’d also bet the two Satanic witch get-togethers were filmed by somebody else, because they are not just a bit on the tasteless side and sleazy, but are also much more ruthless and effective than the rest of a film that otherwise can’t even make a proper 70s downer ending feel impactful.

Some of the film’s problems, however, are less Morse’s fault than that of a script that has ideas for a handful of pretty cool moments of supernatural menace but can’t make its characters interesting. James is as bland as every Selleck character, but Chris is written as such a spineless wet blanket it’s difficult to actually see the fight between her and the outside influence that’s supposed to be going on here and not just her spinelessly wavering towards the opinion of the person she spoke with last. It’s, alas, not atypical for a female character in a 70s horror movie, but in a film that should be all about her internal struggle, this sort of thing is particularly destructive. It doesn’t help that Grant’s performance mostly consists of her making bug eyes as Chris’s main emotional reaction to everything.

Still, the film isn’t completely without its charms: the Philippines always make for a good looking backdrop, and there are at least a couple of scenes (the vision that happens to Chris’s psychiatrist before his death comes to mind) where the basic idea of a scene beats the bland execution.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Headshot (2016)

A man (Iko Uwais) with a headshot wound is washed ashore in a small Indonesian fishing town. Young doctor Ailin (Chelsea Islan), manning the place’s small clinic for a time, manages to save his life, and clearly develops a bit of a thing for him while he’s still in a coma. Because she’s reading “Moby Dick” at the time (she’s clearly a woman of excellent taste), she privately dubs the guy Ishmael. That name is going to stick once he wakes up, for he has only the faintest traces of memories of his past, so Ishmael he is now.

Of course, people do not find themselves getting shot in the head without a reason, and his past is going to catch up to him rather sooner than later. And because movie bad guys are cruel like that, Ailin and a random little girl are going to be dragged into his affairs rather more than anyone deserves; and Ishmael will learn that he’d probably rather have not remembered what the people from his past coming for him drag back to the surface again.

It’s really interesting to compare the joint Kimo Stamboel/Timo Tjahjanto feature Headshot with Tjahjanto’s directorial solo outing The Night Comes for Us. Both, once they get going, are action films of relentless pace, each of which contains about as much set-piece violence as two normal action films. As a matter of fact, you could argue that there’s a bit too much crushing of heads, shooting of bodies and so on and so forth, going on here, the directors clearly working from the theory that when one action scene is great, two must be even better. It’s a bit exhausting to watch at times, to be frank, but on the other hand, every single action scene (again in both films), is so inventive, so excellently staged, and so over the top in its violence, one can hardly blame a director for not leaving any one out. As a viewer, one simply needs to be prepared to be overwhelmed.

The films also share their tendency to be over-the-top gory, with so much blood and other bodily fluids bathing the surviving characters, the classic Japanese blood fountain seems rather reserved in comparison. Again, it might get a bit much for some viewers, but when you go in prepared for excess, you’ll have a great time simply mumbling “did they really just do that?”.

Headshot’s action is a bit different in nature than that of The Night, though, for where the later, Stamboel-less film is an action movie with martial arts sequences, this one’s very much a martial arts movie that puts most of its thoughts into coming up with new ways of getting two or a dozen people killed by Iko Uwais’s fists and feet. So there are quite a few moments echoing classic martial arts cinema, like the scene where Uwais has to fight off his attackers in a police station while handcuffed to a desk. The film also consistently sets Uwais against actors who are just as great screen fighters as he is, so there’s never a moment where we get the Indonesian version of having to pretend Keanu Reeves could beat Mark Dacascos in a martial arts fight. Now, if it where a contest in waving one’s arms around…But I digress.

The other big difference between the two films is in the nature of their protagonists. As Joe Taslim’s Ito in the later film, Ishmael has done terrible things, but where Taslim chose a life as a gangster and did have some, if dubious, degree of choice in his life (even though he tries to become a full human being eventually), Headshot’s protagonist is the victim of a man who kidnaps children, brainwashes them, and uses them as weapons, making him sympathetic even in his most violent moments. The film does use this quite cleverly to keep the audience’s sympathy on Ishmael’s side, emphasising the horror of his upbringing, the irony of him now using what has been taught to him to bring his “father” down, as well as the tragedy that the people he’s killing throughout the film – they don’t leave him much of a choice, mind you – are the closest he ever had to a family and loved ones.

It’s actually rather more cleverly done than you’d expect in a film that’s quite this fond of outrageous violence, but I for one am not going to complain about a film giving me the violence as well as some hidden complexities.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Three Films Make A Post: Stay Alive Or Die Trying

The Furies (2019): Women are kidnapped and then trapped in a picturesque patch of Australian wilderness, together with a bunch of beefy guys in creepy masks who go about murdering them. But there’s something slightly more going on, for this is all part of some sort of live stream game for rich perverts, so there are a couple of rules for the women to find out.

So yeah, Tony D’Aquino’s film does mix a couple of popular sub-genres in not terribly original but also definitely not boring ways, throws some decent acting by Airlie Dodds, Linda Ngo and the rest of the cast in, provides some nice practical gore (if you’re a fan of eye mutilation, you will have a hell of a time), and adds the usual stuff about how people in extreme situations pretty much suck. It looks pretty good, and is well paced and competently written in any case, so there’s ninety minutes of good, icky fun to be had.

Peppermint (2018): One morning, a Hollywood studio executive stumbled upon a script about a vengeance seeking urban vigilante in the Punisher style meant for Liam Neeson, and found Taken director Pierre Morel tied to a radiator too. The only problem: Neeson had just given another one of those interviews where he says he’s not making action films anymore for at least the next couple of weeks. Fortunately, the exec’s favourite intern had an idea, so they hired Jennifer Garner for the Neeson role. Well, at least that’s what I imagine the origin story of Morel’s film to be, and it is pretty much the film you’ll imagine it to be. The set-up in this one feels particularly cartoonish, but otherwise, it’s a professional, competently done entry into this sub-genre, with a lead actress who is usually good with the more physical stuff, and a totally by the numbers script by Chad St. John that still manages to be entertaining enough, if one is in the mood for this dubious kind of revenge fantasy.

The Fugitive (1993): But let’s finish on a blast from the just as competent past, when Harrison Ford was an action star, people wanted to work with Tommy Lee Jones, and director Andrew Davis was semi-hot as an action and action thriller director. The script by David Twohy and Jeb Stuart is – despite a running time of over two hours – efficient and economical, which does provide the film with a breathless pace that’s exactly right for Davis’s particular talents. However, the writing is so stripped down that what little actual plot there is feels rather undercooked, the identity of the killer’s boss obvious simply by that character being the only one on screen who has enough lines to be a traitor to Harrison-Ford kind, and while everything’s certainly very exciting, it’s never surprising or particularly interesting. Though, to be fair, if you’re looking for an ultra-efficient rollercoaster without any ambition apart from that, this is pretty much your perfect film.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Past Misdeeds: Gold of the Seven Saints (1961)

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

Please keep in mind these are the old posts presented with only  basic re-writes and 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.

Trappers and accidental gold prospectors Jim Rainbolt (Clint “The Chest” Walker) and Shaun Garrett (Roger “Master of the Irish accent” Moore) have hit the jackpot in form of quite a lot of gold. Unfortunately, Shaun is forced to pay off a charming gentleman with some of their new-found riches when he attempts to acquire a freebie horse in the closest town because one of theirs died, something that awakens the interest of crazy – and quite dangerous - bandit McCracken (Gene Evans) and his men.

Soon, Rainbolt (whom nobody ever seems to want to call by his forename despite the absurdity of this surname; it’s less surprising nobody ever cracks a joke about it, for he is played by Clint Walker) – and Shaun find themselves chased through the desert by McCracken’s gang, trying to outmanoeuvre their enemies with only degrees of success. At least, they meet a helpful alcoholic doctor (Chill Wills) with a nice sharpshooting hand, and later find possible refuge with Rainbolt’s old bandit/rancher friend, the Mexican Gondorra (Robert Middleton). Given the whole “bandit” part of his occupation it is rather the question if Gondorra even is to be trusted at all, but then the kind of men Rainbolt and Shaun are need to take chances.

Until the Internet taught me better, I only knew Gold of the Seven Saints’ director Gordon Douglas as the guy who directed one of my favourite – and possibly the best – US giant monster movies, Them! and who directed the very decent Randolph Scott vehicle The Nevadan. Turns out Douglas was quite the prolific man, working pretty incessantly on genre and B-movies (in the more precise meaning of that term) from 1935 to 1973, working in every genre from Frank Sinatra vehicles to comedies. As I’m told, and Gold suggests to be perfectly true, the director had a particularly fine hand with film noirs and westerns, two genres close to my heart I’m never watching enough films in. [As future me can now add, Douglas was in fact great in an unassuming way in most genres he worked in, only lacking an easily identifiable favourite seem to win auteur bingo].

I have seen the film at hand called a lite version of Treasure of the Sierra Madre. However, even though the two films may contain gold, betrayal and the desert among their shared plot elements, they are philosophically quite different from one another. Gold is quite a bit more optimistic about human nature, clearly coming down on the belief that certain – manly – friendships are perfectly able to withstand the lure of gold, even though it doesn’t pretend all friendships are of that kind; and where Treasure’s reaction towards a universe with a very bad sense of humour is a rather depressed one, Gold prefers a laconic shrug followed by a little song.

This doesn’t mean that Gold’s view of humanity or the universe at large is naive or too optimistic – this is after all a film that shows one of its heroes trying to steal a horse (something generally frowned on by all upright western heroes) right at the start, and shows the other one as having no compunctions at all against shooting naked unarmed men when they’ve gotten on his bad side. Gold is just lacking a certain nihilist zeal to pretend only the darkness it very well knows about exists. It replaces that zeal with a sense of humour and adventure. Consequently, despite the philosophical abyss it walks next to, Gold – as co-written by the great Leigh Brackett – generally feels rather companionable and good-natured even when quite a bit of what is going on in it very much isn’t. It is probably a question of personal taste if one likes that approach to the darker sides of adventure; I found myself rather delighted by it.

A part of this delight of course also comes from the pleasant chemistry between Walker and Moore, who sell the old chestnut of the perpetually bickering friends quite well without it getting annoying or too much. It’s quite interesting to see Walker in his natural habitat here, where he is somehow losing the woodenness I dislike about his performances in non-westerns I’ve seen, and replacing it with a persona well able to do violence, yet also soft-spoken and friendly, and really preferring the people he encounters to be that way towards him too. Moore, despite his horrible Irish accent (that appears to start out as horrible Scottish accent for some reason I’m afraid to learn), is also a pleasant surprise, actually hitting the mark of “charming rogue” for once instead of just seeming like a smug bastard as became his wont in nearly all of his films after he started his stint as James Bond. The rest of the cast is doing broad, fun work, with Chill Willis’s semi-comic relief even, against all movie traditions, ending up rather funny and likeable.

The generally sharp and often clever and funny dialogue does of course help with the film’s comedy, too, as does Douglas’s ability to shift the film’s tone from tension to comedy and back again without any visible effort.

Douglas’s direction, supported by the beautiful and atmospheric photography of Joseph F. Biroc, is very fine indeed in other regards too, making excellent use of the threat of large open spaces, and generally tending to unobtrusively meaningful blocking of scenes. Douglas seems particularly enamoured of treating the locations and sets as actual physical spaces with a three dimensionality you don’t always find on the cheaper side of the movie tracks, and certainly not used with as much unflashy excellence as the director does here.

Add all this up, and you’ll end up with Gold of the Seven Saints being as fine and entertaining a western as you will likely find.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

In short: The Holcroft Covenant (1985)

When he is turning 43, New York architect Noel Holcroft (Michael Caine), is, in rather complicated ways, informed that the dead Nazi war criminal father he hates with a shouty passion has left him the tidy little sum of 4.5 billion dollars to make amends for dad’s war crimes. Noel just needs to get together with the male descendants of two of his dad’s co-conspirators in the cause, and sign a covenant. Problems arise rather early with various shadowy conspirators trying to kill and/or – they never seem to be too sure themselves – protect Noel. Can Noel at least trust the other Nazi children as portrayed by Mario Adorf (clearly enjoying himself immensely doing a character who is basically a really evil Herbert von Karajan), Anthony Andrews, and Victoria Tennant? In which way is Noel’s mother Althene (Lilli Palmer) involved? Did dear Nazi dad really want to make amends, or is a ridiculously complicated plan to create a Fourth Reich involved? In any case, Noel’s going on a road trip through Europe.

I don’t think anybody’s ever going to count the Robert Ludlum adaptation The Holcroft Covenant among the great John Frankenheimer’s best movies. The film’s construction is just a bit too convoluted, the characters a bit too much on the side of pulp fiction (well, men’s adventure, given the decade) clichés, the emotions tend to the melodramatic without the script ever really making this emotionally compelling, and the whole thing never quite seems to gel completely.

Having said that, I found myself enjoying the film quite a bit. There is much to love here. There is Caine’s sweaty, shouty and often red-faced performance that does much to sell his character as a relatively normal guy totally out of his depth, while the rest of the cast is appropriately shady to outright insane in always entertaining ways even when their plans and actions often don’t make a lick of sense. Then you have the cheesy but also evocative mood of paranoia Frankenheimer was so great at creating, getting the audience to look over Noel’s shoulder even more than he does, and where nobody – perhaps even one’s own mother (gasp) – can be trusted. Thematically, this is obviously as Frankenheimer as things can get.

The action and suspense scenes are not Frankenheimer’s strongest, but middling Frankenheimer action is still much better than good action by a lot of directors, so there’s much to enjoy here also, and a couple of scenes, particularly the nightly chase through Berlin’s red light district, are as good as anything Frankenheimer ever did. It’s also clear that the director is having a bit of fun with the dumber parts of the script, so his Berlin looks, sounds and feels like it was taken from a Fassbinder movie (with some shout-outs so obvious, this must be done on purpose), and the actors doing the neo-Nazis are clearly instructed to go big on the crazy.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Haunted Mansion (1998)

Original title: 香港第1凶宅

Permanently low key squabbling married couple journalist Gigi (Gigi Lai Chi) and marine cop Fai (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang) have to blow off their long planned holiday in Japan when Gigi decides they’ll move into her mother’s house for a time instead. There’s good reason for the surprise move, though, for a sleazy and murderous developer really, really wants the place and will do anything to get it. Whereas Gigi’s Mom (Helena Law Lan), once clearly an imposing woman, is in the late stages of Parkinson’s and can’t even talk and hardly move anymore, and Gigi’s sister Fen (Shirley Cheung Yuk-Shan) needs to take care of her.

That developer is only a sub-plot, though, for Mom’s house is built on a gate to hell, and with the place’s protections weakening because she can’t take care of them properly anymore, some ghosts get a little rambunctious. So you can expect a mahjong game against ghosts that ends badly, some spiritual possession, a ghost rape (sigh) because this is a Wong Jing production (sigh), and so on.

Haunted Mansion is the only film Do Lai-Chi/Dickson To directed, and only one of two he has written, and watching this, it is not particularly difficult to understand why. The concept of dramatic escalation, or really, providing the film’s narrative with any kind of proper dramatic structure is clearly not something the guy is terribly interested in. Stuff happens, more stuff happens, and some of the stuff that happens in the end has some connection to stuff that happened earlier, but the storytelling, such as it is, is so loose, you never feel there are any stakes here at all even when Gigi is fighting for the soul of her husband.

That doesn’t mean there’s no fun to be had with the film, you just should expect it to be even looser constructed as usual in popular Hong Kong cinema. It also looks pretty damn cheap. Making up a little for this lack of dramatic punch (or even dramatic wisps) are some joyful moments and elements - at least joyful for me. There is Anthony Wong’s full commitment to playing Fai as the kind of slouching, passive sad sack whose possession by a ghost his wife will barely notice for quite some time because in Hong Kong cinema, being possessed by a ghost can mean getting really phlegmatic and passive instead of shouty and floaty, and that’s Fai in any state. The biggest difference is really that Fai isn’t talking about his excrements anymore once he gets possessed. It’s the little things, I suppose.

I also found myself somewhat fond of To’s full commitment to the colour blue for ghostly shenanigans in a film that’s tinted blue anyway – don’t worry, he also tends to tilt the camera in important moments, if you have trouble discerning the blue tones. And if Wong Jing doesn’t give you any money for your ghostly game of mahjong (and he clearly didn’t), why, then just hang up some white sheets, put a red point light on Anthony Wong’s face, and let the magic happen.

While nothing here really plays out as crazy (or as icky) as I usually hope from Hong Kong horror of this era, the film isn’t completely without interesting imagination. Apart from the rather traditional mahjong game (what is it with Chinese ghosts and this particular game anyway?), we also get a scene of Mom’s ghost getting pushed out of her body by the application of the magic of electricity (Tesla would be so proud), so that Law can do a bit more than sit in a chair and drool, which I appreciate, as well as some creepy child ghost action.

Speaking of creepy child ghost, if you are offended by this sort of thing (and who could blame you?), please be warned that this is one of those Asian movies where one of the central ghosts belongs to an aborted foetus (grown to about eight or so, because this is only a CAT IIB movie), the plot rather heavily suggesting that abortion is a very bad thing spiritually. Though, frankly, the film uses the trope with all the honesty of a US TV preacher, and really only wants to get a few cheap tears out of the audience.

All of this doesn’t read much like a recommendation, and I certainly wouldn’t call Haunted Mansion good or successful as a movie, but I found myself enjoying the vague and brittle charms of this one, noticed myself chuckling about Wong’s sad sack portrayal, nodding companionably to the ghosts, and getting into most of the things the film presented (except for the fucking ghost rape, obviously) enough to not rue my time with it.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

In short: Anna (2019)

I’ve been making fun of Luc Besson for decades now, but despite all of his flaws as a screenwriter, I’ve always taken him for a highly talented director, hell, even writer, just one who tends to be a bit lazier than he should or could be, ambitious in a sometimes self-sabotaging way, and a bit of a goofball. Who couldn’t identify with that? It’s just that most of us goofy nerds don’t get big money to bring our bad and not so bad ideas on screen, sometimes featuring major actors.

After watching Anna, however, I’m not so sure about the writer/director/producer anymore; perhaps some of us have just always cut a lazy hack too much slack and turned him into a misguided talent in our heads? Be that as it may, Anna is a full-grown catastrophe of a movie, featuring a model in the title role who can’t act, supported by a group of pros – Helen “I had a Russian grandmother” Mirren, Cillian “Like, totally American” Murphy and Luke “I am even more Russian” Evans – doing terrible accents who supposedly can act (but you wouldn’t notice), moving back and forth through a plot that is at once bland, tedious, and of course in classic Besson style dumb as a rock. Because this is a bit of a backdoor remake of Red Sparrow (but crap), the film is also full of increasingly tedious plot twists it spends an improbable amount of time explaining to the dumbest person in the audience, killing the little bit of forward momentum a film with an uninvolving story about a character without character traits can have, not once, not twice, but thrice.

Also adding to the pain are modelling sequences (fun fact: no film ever needs more than zero of those), amateurishly staged action sequences that don’t even bother to film around the fact that lead Sasha Luss clearly has even less experience as a screen fighter than she has as an actress. I’m perfectly alright with directors casting their leads on account of their cheekbones instead of their ability as actors/actresses, but directors not named Besson generally put some effort in improving their amateur actor’s game, whereas Anna seems to go out of its way to make the poor girl’s acting look as badly as possible. But then, this is a film that doesn’t get a good performance out of Helen Mirren, so what do I expect?

There’s some in theory half interesting thematic business about female freedom and independence (hello again, Red Sparrow) but that’s more or less completely sabotaged by Besson’s inability to give Anna any kind of psychology, let’s not even hope for any sort of personality. There’s nothing there, really, and unlike with old school Besson, there’s no style to become substance or at least distract from its absence here, leaving Anna empty and not even pretty to look at.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Cohen and Tate (1988)

After brutally executing his parents (and their FBI bodyguards) who were held in protective custody on a farm in the middle of nowhere professional killers Cohen (Roy Scheider) and Tate (Adam Baldwin) kidnap little Travis Knight (Harley Cross), tasked to bring him to their mob bosses in Houston on what will turn out to be a very bad night ride.

Things really don’t go well at all for the killers, even before you realize that these two aren’t actually partners, but Tate’s someone the veteran mobster Cohen has very suddenly been ordered to partner up with, reminding the old man about the kind of pension plan you get as a mafia killer - that is, a bullet in the back of your head by your replacement. But even leaving this out, the two are the odd buddy movie couple from hell: Cohen’s the classic movie killer (he even dresses the part), loving things neat, clean and with exactly as much violence as needed, while Tate is an actual psychopath who exults in inflicting all kinds of suffering, and who would be the sort of serial killer the FBI grabs after his third victim because he’s just too sloppy. One’s a horrible human being; the other’s a monster.

There are other problems than just the extremely incompatible character types, though. For one, they soon enough learn from the radio (remember those?) that they may have killed little Travis’s mother and the FBI agents, but their main target, the father, somehow managed to survive. That’s not something their bosses will be happy about. Then there’s the matter of Travis. While he’s a child and certainly not a mastermind, he does his utmost to outwit the killers, using all his powers of dubious psychology and the kid superpower of being super annoying to drive an even greater wedge between the two killers.

At this stage in his career, before the stuff happened I don’t actually feel comfortable writing about here for various reasons (and which anyone can look up with a simple Google), writer/director Eric Red could do no – or at least very little - wrong, at this stage having scripted The Hitcher and Near Dark, and a bit later Blue Steel.

This is Red’s debut as a director, and by far his best film in that capacity. In a couple of scenes that are excised in quite a few versions of the film, it’s a shockingly brutal film too, yet this brutality is not just a director trying out how bloody he can get when killing off characters, it’s also establishing its characters as not the nice, clean kind of Hollywood killers but something probably closer to the real kind - nasty people doing terrible things to the innocent, something an audience needs to be reminded about because we are quite used to tragic, noble killers obsessed with guilt and blind women.

Here nothing and nobody’s so nice. Sure, compared with the horrible Tate, Cohen is the more sympathetic character, but the film never lets its audience forget he’s a better man only in comparison. In this context, it’s interesting to look at the way the film treats Travis, the theoretically innocent child, and certainly the character here a viewer is bound to sympathize with. Travis, as we encounter him, starts out as threatened and afraid, but the longer we spend time with him, the more he seems to be not as far away from Cohen and Tate as he should be, manipulating the men and often finding just as much joy in the effects of his needling and wheedling as Tate has when he drives over an animal. There is, I believe, a suggestion here that the difference between him and the killers is again only one of degrees, and that there might be something dark, destructive and violent lurking in even the picture of innocence, as if there’s something wrong with humanity itself. And here I wonder why the film wasn’t a success.

Which is nearly a crime, for apart from the quite brilliant characterisation carried by equally brilliant performances by Scheider (who is always as brilliant as a film lets him be), Baldwin (who realizes that even an unsubtle guy like Tate needs to be portrayed with subtlety) and Cross (who is that most curious of things, a child actor who seems to understand the dark undercurrents of what he’s tasked to play), the philosophical questions it throws at its audience, and the dark joy of watching a film that often plays like a buddy action movie gone very, very dark, the film is also simply brilliant at being a thriller and a suspense movie.

There are at least half a dozen suspense scenes in the traditional style – starting with the set-up to the murders of Travis’s parents, continuing through the tour de force that happens after he first escapes, and never truly stopping – that are text book effective, but much, much more exciting than the text book would suggest, turning this into a nail biter that for once actually deserves bringing up the ghost of old, terrible Mr Hitchcock. There’s a sense of drive and purpose to every shot, every movement of the actors, every line of dialogue, and the impression of watching the work of a director putting all he knows and understands and thinks about filmmaking and about life on screen in the best way possible for him.

It’s really quite the film, and it deserves to stand next to the two Red wrote for Kathryn Bigelow and The Hitcher, as one of the great achievements of genre filmmaking of its era.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Three Films Make A Post: Don’t call it in.

Wounds (2019): This one’s one of the bigger disappointments of my movie year. On paper, Babak Anvari, the director of the brilliant Under the Shadow, adapting a story by one of contemporary weird fiction’s and horror’s finest writers, Nathan Ballingrud, sounds like a surefire win. However, somehow, the film suffers from weaknesses I didn’t expect to come up after the director’s last film. A major problem is how unconvincing the asshole protagonist’s shift into a different, darker reality is (or the shift of that reality into him), for the film is full of scenes that feel like horror set pieces instead of organic expressions of what is happening to Will’s reality, Anvari showing little imagination in his staging of events. The other big hit against the film is its protagonist itself, who doesn’t come over as the painfully flawed but interesting protagonist of Ballingrud’s piece but a simple manchild asshole bar any actual emotional complexity. I can’t help but think casting Armie Hammer instead of a proper actor wasn’t conducive there.

Vinyan (2008): This film by Fabrice du Welz about a grief-stricken couple (Emmanuelle Béart and Rufus Sewell) following a probably imaginary hint about their son who was lost and believed killed during a tsunami on an odyssey through Thailand and Burma on the other hand does contain a lot of emotional complexity. For much of its running time, it is really an attempt to bring the formula of “Heart of Darkness” into a contemporary context, the director visibly putting a lot of effort into avoiding the – for contemporary eyes, in Conrad’s own time, the guy was pretty progressive in his views about race and colonialism – aspects of that approach that could easily be read as “problematic”. Much of the film is carried by du Welz’s nearly hallucinatory staging and an intense performance by Béart, and plays out like an arthouse drama, only in the very end turning into a metaphorically loaded horror film about the horrors of love, loss, and motherhood.

Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll aka Los Ojos Azules de la Muñeca Rota aka House of Psychotic Women (1974): A drifter (Paul Naschy) with fantasies and/or flashbacks about strangling a woman comes into the household of three emotionally fucked up sisters (Diana Lorys, Eva León and Maria Perschy) as a handyman. While sexual tension rises, someone murders the surprising number of young, blue-eyed, blonde women in the area.

This Spanish giallo by Carlos Aured is one of the best Spanish examples of the style, nearly reaching the intense and often bizarre, dream-like aesthetization of the best Italian films, including a neat thematic package about how badly the relations between men and women were in Spain, 1974 (consciously or not, I can’t quite say), and featuring quite a performance by co-writer Naschy as well as the main female trio. As extra bonuses, there are the neat and plot-relevant use of “Frère Jacques” in the murder scenes and a “logical explanation” for what occurred that includes hypnotism and “simple telepathy”, as well as a very badly prepared corpse.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Past Misdeeds: Night of the Kickfighters (1988)

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

Please keep in mind these are the old posts presented with only  basic re-writes and 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.

aka Night Raiders

The company of Carl McMann (Adam “the gosh-darn Batman” West) has developed a shiny new laser cannon ideal for blowing away motionless jet models located on cardboard-looking pedestals. The technical innovation also includes a wondrous microchip that can recognize allied soldiers by their “eye prints”, cleverly even when they have turned their backs towards the laser cannon, though not while they are wearing sunglasses; nobody involved cares about civilians, it seems. However, as it always is when SCIENCE is making the Free World™ better at killing, those evil terrorists are there to mess things up.

Evil terrorist Kedesha (Marcia Karr) takes valuable time off from her various family friendly sexual perversions and lets her henchmen – among them the mandatory weird-looking big strong guy in form of Ponti (Carel Struycken) and his inspired grimaces – kidnap McMann’s daughter Kathy (Lisa Alpert). McMann gives out the data about the laser Kedesha wants from him, but he also hires international man of adventure Brett Cady (Andy Bauman) to find Kedesha, save his daughter and blow the complex (aka a series of grey corridors located in the desert) they’re in as well as the laser data to kingdom come.

Because Brett already had his ass kicked by Ponti once, he goes the seven samurai way and calls in a troupe of friends and business associates as his own private kick-fighting strike force. With a team consisting of computer wiz Clea (Phyllis Doyle), mandatory person of colour Socrates (Fitz Houston), hairy explosives and gadget man Bomber (Michelangelo Kowalski), and “British” stage magician Aldo (Philip Dore), all ready for a stealthy night assault on the Mexican base, evil terrorism won’t stand a chance.

Initially, the main claim Night of the Kickfighters had on my interest was the fact that it was distributed by the glorious Action International Pictures (still the only company I know which actually wanted to be confused with Arkoff’s and Nicholson’s AIP), the finest purveyors of direct-to-video nonsense. Now, after I’ve finally seen it, I’m quite a bit more focused on the film’s adorably silly mixture of low cost Eurospy stylings, Men’s Adventure pulp novel fixations, and part-time martial arts adventure. It’s the sort of thing I can’t help but describe with words like “adorable” and “charming”, because, while it certainly won’t thrill anyone with its exciting plotting, its poetic fight choreography or its brilliant acting, thanks to their absence, Night is a film very eager to please, putting all its negligible money and talent right on screen with verve and a sense of excitement that just doesn’t care how silly everything going on here actually is.

So how silly is it? Well, there’s a scene that sees Kedesha (and her oh so brilliant accent) dressed down to what might be very sparkly underwear or an equally sparkly bathing suit, writhing on a couch while cuddling with a snake, getting a foot massage by a nameless henchman, and being fed grapes by Ponti, which not only demonstrates how far out of its way the film goes in presenting her as of dubious sexual proclivities (she also likes to play with blood) while still keeping the movie breast-free, but is also one of the more inexplicable things I’ve seen in a movie in quite some time, unless the aim of the scene was to fulfil some producer’s very particular fetish wishes. During the course of the movie, we also encounter nunchuks that shoot bullets, a microwave glass tube for humans, blow-up dinosaurs, a heat-seeking explosive crossbow quarrel, and henchmen making a prescient impression of being time-travelling henchmen out of later stealth based videogames, only lacking big yellow exclamation points over their heads; the line “must have been rats”, alas, is missing too.

These moments and little flourishes of reality-deprived nonsense run through nearly every scene of the film, with little happening in Night of the Kickfighters that actually makes sense going by our human logic or the rules of the real world (place of horrors), resulting in a film that can’t help but entertain through the sheer power of its wilful imagination, and the absolute shamelessness it shows in putting it on screen, with no thought spend on yawn-inducing nonsense like “ironic distance”.

Surprisingly enough, the action itself is comparatively copious, and decently filmed by first-time (and only-time) director Buddy Reyes. At least, Reyes knows enough about filmmaking to keep his camera moving, giving the film a lively, if messy and cheap, feel. Because we demand that sort of thing, there are a handful of explosions, two car chases (the first one rather awkward thanks to the inclusion of a luxury limousine as the chased vehicle), and some mild martial arts fights that do indeed have a kick to punch ratio of 5:1, just as the film’s better title promises.

On the acting side, I found myself rather unimpressed with Andy Bauman’s impression of a moving wooden doll, but Struycken’s truly inspired grimacing and Karr’s all-around impressive scenery-chewing that seems to interpret “femme fatale” in ways oh so patently right in being patently wrong, more than make up for this minor matter.

The resulting film is a beautiful, inspired (by drugs, alcohol or just the unbridled human spirit) thing, lacking even a single dull second. Or, to quote our dear friend Bomber: “Fuckin’ A!”

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Ismail Yassin in the House of Ghosts (1952)

Original title: ‘إسماعيل يس في بيت الأشباح

You know the drill: a bunch of more or less peculiar relatives are gathered in the house of a far-flung uncle or some such living out in the boons for the reading of his will. In it, he bequeaths his money in equal share to everyone gathered as long as they stay together in the house for – in this particular case – a month. Since this is a horror comedy, there’s only a little murder involved in the following proceedings, but intrigue and many a scene of people being frightened by ghosts as well as the obligatory romance between two members of the younger generation ensues. There’s also a gorilla we see rather a lot of. And quite the gorilla it is, as played by some poor guy stuffed into a costume that I can only read as looking as absurdly un-gorilla-like as it does for comical effect, given that the rest of the production looks pretty spiffy. But then, you never know with gorillas costumes.

Fortunately, cousin Lionheart (Ismail Yassin) – apparently he legally changed his name into this more heroic/silly moniker – is a well-travelled parody of the Great White Hunter trope, arriving with his own tribe of racist caricature African tribespeople (who, to the film’s defence, will turn out to be caricatures because they are a fake African tribe, which alas still doesn’t make them funny). But hey, Lionheart should be able to do away with a single gorilla, right? Too bad that he isn’t actually a great hunter – the film never explains why he feels the need to fake it so your guess is as good as mine – and so spends too much of the film’s running time monkeying around with the ape.

Eventually, somewhat more interesting things happen, as ghosts appear, an actual murder occurs (hooray!), and…a Scooby Doo ending rears its ugly, misshapen head, the true horror of the age.

Reading this, one might think I wasn’t terribly keen on this outing of popular Egyptian comedian Ismail Yassin as directed by Fatin Abdel Wahab, but I was enjoying myself watching this more often than I was not. People who have seen more than this one Yassin movie tell me that this isn’t one of his better ones. Apparently, he doesn’t typically fulfil the bumbling fool comedy role this directly, and I can see myself watching more films with him if that’s the case. In any case, Yassin has impeccable comical timing even in the lamer jokes, getting laughs out of more of the monkey business than it actually deserves.

The film gets decidedly better once the gorilla becomes less important to its plot, too, evolving into your typical series of scenes of people running around screeching after encountering ghosts, people stumbling upon secret doors, some mild stripping, a musical number and a pretty fantastic dream sequence that works more by being comically surreal than via pratfalls. That’s not exactly deep or subversive entertainment, but it’s about what I expect to get out of an old dark house movie. It’s certainly miles above poverty row US ones, being always clearly made to entertain by whatever means possible.

The ghosts for their part are pretty effectively realized, the gentleman in the old-timey Arabian outfit walking around with his head in his hand being the obvious darling of the film. It’s never so much they’ll be even slightly scary to a modern audience, but they feel fun, funny, and imaginative enough I’d have loved to see a film in which they were real. But it’s an old dark house movie, so one expects to be attacked by Scooby Doo.

Rather typical for what I know of Egyptian commercial films of this era, the whole affair, even when it’s the tenth scene of Yassin versus Gorilla, looks wonderful, clearly flirting with classic pre-50s Hollywood cinema through a combination of technical chops and an obvious love of glamour; the non-gorilla effects are simple yet great, and the acting has the precise, stylized yet generally not awkward quality of pre-Method Hollywood.

It’s not a great movie, but it certainly turned out to be enough to entertain me on a rainy October night shortly before Halloween.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Dark Waters (1994)

Following the death of her father, Elizabeth (Louise Salter) travels to a convent situated on a remote island somewhere in what I assume to be Eastern Europe. The film was at least shot in the Ukraine, and the rural folk our protagonist encounters are dressed in what looks to me like rural Eastern European garb, or rather the movie shorthand version thereof. It’s never quite clear to this viewer why Elizabeth is going there. In a curious coincidence, she is friends with one of the place’s nuns (as it happens the one we witness getting murdered by a robed figure before we meet Elizabeth) and wants to visit her; on the other hand, when she speaks to the blind abbess of the place, she talks how she found out that her father secretly financed the convent and wants to check it out. Or she has been called there and just doesn’t know it. She is, after all, born on the island, but doesn’t remember her living there or her family’s leaving anymore.

Elizabeth’s investigation of the cloister does uncover various strange things, like some books that tell a curious, occult version of Christianity, a system of tunnels below the place that’s basically a labyrinth full of nuns who seem to partake in rituals that don’t look properly Catholic to me. The labyrinth also harbours a blind monk doing rather good wall-paintings for someone who can’t see, featuring strange creatures as well as lots of blind people on them. And that’s only the strangeness before the nuns begin to turn aggressive, trying to kill Elizabeth for she doesn’t know what reason. She does attempt to leave at several points in time, but there’s always bad luck or malevolence keeping her on the island, pressing her into a confrontation with her childhood and the things she’s meant to do and be.

Mariano Baino’s Dark Waters is a wonderful late example of great Italian horror cinema, made at a time when the commercial bubble for Italian genre films had popped nearly completely, and most of the surviving filmmakers connected to the genre had long since made their way into TV careers or general oblivion. To make more out of what probably was a tiny budget, the film was shot in the Ukraine, with many technical positions as well as smaller roles in the cast filled by local professionals. On the production side, this made things rather difficult, it appears, but for the look of the films, the opportunity to shoot on sets and locations highly above what this kind of production could typically afford paid off wonderfully, providing the film with a distinctive look and a sense of place very much its own.

In mood and style, the film does feature quite a few nods to the greats of Italian supernatural horror, with coloured lighting sometimes hinting at Bava or Argento, and all the wetness and white, blind eyes of a Fulci film. However, Baino uses the elements and techniques of the tradition he is working in for a film with a quality all of its own, telling a story the big three wouldn’t have told exactly this way.

Of course, the film does have the dream-like quality of much of the best European supernatural horror films, but Baino does more gradually develop this than is typical of the form, showing Elizabeth increasingly stepping out of the world as we know it through her travels, first finding herself surrounded by ever stranger people who seem to share secrets she doesn’t know about, then becoming physically isolated on the island, finding herself dressed in a sack-like nun habit, encountering strange books and finally finding the labyrinth, the world becoming stranger and more threatening the closer she steps to the knowledge of her own past. All of this is portrayed by Baino in deeply atmospheric shots of decay, with lots of brackish water dripping everywhere loudly, disturbingly and inexorably, metaphorically standing in for all the inexorable and destructive forces we humans can’t really do much about. The camera is always suggesting someone or something watching Elizabeth, things happening just outside of her view or earshot, threatening her in ways more than just physical.

There is quite a bit of Lovecraft in the film too, the central supernatural conceit really feeling like one of HPL’s alien godlike creatures interpreted by nuns and superstitious locals through a lens of Christianity that doesn’t just distort what they are looking at but gets itself distorted by the thing seen through it. Furthermore, there’s a strong connection to Lovecraft’s recurring theme of biological and familial inheritance as doom (which is connected to but separate from his racist views, in my opinion), Elizabeth going back to roots she had probably better avoided.

Dark Waters is an absolutely fantastic film, taking everything I love about European/Italian horror, adding some Lovecraft and a smidgen of occultism, and presenting them in a visual language that’s as distinct as it is compelling. The only thing here that’s disappointing is the fact that Baino has barely had a career as a director after this; or rather, maddening and frustrating more than just disappointing.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

In short: Monster on the Campus (1958)

aka Monster in the Night

aka Stranger on Campus

University professor Donald Blake (Arthur Franz) is very happy to have acquired a coelacanth for the business of doing science on it. Alas, the fish brings trouble: when a friendly Alsatian drinks from its condensation, it becomes aggressive, growing large canines for a time. Blake himself cuts his hand on one of the coelacanth’s teeth and accidentally also gives that hand a good dab in the fish’s condensation water. So when a series of brutal murders shakes the campus, it’ll come as no surprise to anyone in the audience (at least of today) that the nice professor is regressing into some pre-human form and doing the killing.

Blake does eventually figure out what’s going on, but convincing anyone else of the ridiculous truth is near impossible.

The nice bit of 50s science fiction horror that is Monster on Campus is certainly not its director Jack Arnold’s best film, but particularly in the 50s, Arnold made such a great string of b-movies, a film that’s in that period’s lower third of his output is still pretty wonderful.

As is generally typical for him, Arnold has a much tighter reign on the film’s pacing than usual in 50s science fiction and horror, understanding that drama and excitement isn’t typically created by people spouting exposition. That’s not to say that Monster is an action heavy film. Its script by David Duncan is full of scenes of characters discussing evolution, the concept of civilization and so on, but unlike in many another film of the period, this is actually the film defining its main theme of civilization as the thin membrane that divides humanity, even a pretty bright and civilized guy like Blake, from utter barbarity, of which becoming an ape man is only the outward symptom. It’s a very pessimistic view of humanity the film consciously and subtly undercuts repeatedly, particularly in an ending that finds Blake turning himself into the apeman again on purpose to commit suicide by cop and convince university president Howard (Alexander Lockwood) - who is also the father of his girlfriend - of the truth of his rambling. Which is a very civilized act.

For a 50s genre movie, Monster is also rather sceptical of authority figures – sure the cops are not of the keystone variety, but when they need to make the mental jump that could save lives, they fail; and Howard can’t see how his own passive-aggressiveness towards his daughter’s girlfriend and his general conservatism blinds him to possibilities.

Also of interest are the – again very Jack Arnold – hints at the caveman’s murders as the dark side of Blake’s sexuality; at least the first one suggests an element of sexual – off-screen of course – violence, particularly since the victim was flirting with Blake beforehand.

This thematic richness does not get in the way of Monster on the Campus being a fun 50s monster movie, though, so we get all the expected thrills, just with a bit more going on under the hood of the film and minus a lot of the woodenness in acting and writing you can get in the genre.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Blind Woman’s Curse (1970)

Original title: 怪談昇り竜

A short word on definitions up front: ninkyo eiga is the old-fashioned often more than slightly sentimental sort of yakuza film about yakuza clans who are honourable, decent, protecting the down-trodden and providing a home for those people left out in the cold by a highly hierarchical and caste-based society. Given the actual history of the yakuza and their involvement in the film business, this is of course more than a bit of a self-serving affair. But that Robin Hood didn’t exist and steal from the rich and give to the poor doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make and enjoy movies about him, at least in my book.

Having spent some time in jail thanks to a gang fight that my ninkyo eiga sense tells me was probably some kind of revenge killing for her parents, Akemi Tachibana (Meiko Kaji) has taken over the role as leader of the Tachibana clan of yakuza. She is, of course, one of those yakuza leaders who would never truck in dangerous drugs, press women into prostitution or act in any way, shape, or form dishonourably. Being as perfect as she is, she does command a huge amount of respect from her men, as well as the women who followed her from her jail cell into the gang life, tattooing the rest of the dragon whose head marks Akemi’s back on their own.

However, someone seems set on acquiring her territory, probably encouraged by her being a woman (the yakuza of the early 20th/late 19th Century being known for being rather backwards in their sexual politics), and the toll her absence must have taken on the Tachibana as a whole. It’s an indirect attack, too, trying to manoeuvre her into a fight with other yakuza operations to weaken or destroy her. Things are exacerbated by an honourless traitor in the Tachibana’s midst.

This perfectly standard ninkyo eiga style plot isn’t at all the only thing going on here, though. During the fight that got her into jail, Akemi accidentally slashed the face of the non-combatant daughter of one of her enemies, blinding her. At once, a cat appeared and started licking the blood from the girl’s wound. Akemi still has nightmares about this, and believes to be cursed for what she did to the woman, so that the problems her clan is beginning to have seem like a kind of supernatural punishment to her. That’s a rather unsurprising interpretation of what is going on around her too, for again and again, elements of the horror movie are encroaching on the yakuza business. Some of Akemi’s girls and men disappear or are killed, their back tattoos cut off and presented in various gruesome ways, and what looks very much like the cat from the beginning does like to lick at or run away with the damned things. Then there’s the very strange hunchback (Tatsumi Hijikata) capering about, usually bathed in green or blue gel lighting, his behaviour suggesting something of the ogre from Japanese folk tales about him. Adding to that, there’s also a mysterious blind swordswoman (Hoki Tokuda) with a highly honourable streak offering her services to Akemi’s enemies.

Teruo Ishii’s Blind Woman’s Curse is a fantastic genre mix of ninkyo eiga and horror movie, made with a very clear eye towards which of the thematic elements of both genres are compatible and how to shift from one to the other. Ishii did of course have copious experience doing both, having directed masses of yakuza movies particularly in the earlier parts of this career – including the immensely popular Abashiri Prison films – as well as turning his talents to films of the grotesque and the horrific afterwards. The ninkyo eiga base of the film is pretty great, full of stylized shots of the great Meiko Kaji glancing at the camera with great dignity, or anger, as well as that great sense of determination the actress projects like few other of her contemporaries. Even before everything else, Kaji, the as usual fantastic cast of Nikkatsu contract players and Ishii’s always atmospheric and meaningful direction produce a wonderful example of how and why a very constrained, nearly ritualized genre like the ninkyo eiga can work something akin to magic, selling what could be simple sentimentality as an archetypal drama about the responsibility a woman has to live following her own values even when those make her life dangerous.

It is mainly in the form of the grotesque that horror enters the realm of the ninkyo eiga here, too, with wonderfully artificially lit scenes showing the gruesome tattoos, the hunchback dancing into scenes that were looking like what the – always very stylized - ninkyo eiga defines as naturalistic just moments before. It is as if the relatively straightforward world of the yakuza film has been infected by something otherworldly through Akemi’s accidental sin, something not uncommon in the world of Japanese horror. Ishii films these sequences in ways at once eerie and breathtakingly beautiful, suggesting a very different, horrifying yet fascinating world sitting right beside the one where people fight over territory and honour.

The movie has another trick up its sleeve, too. In her way, the blind swordswoman Aiko turns out to be just as honourable as Akemi is, really following the same kind of code Akemi does, not just mirroring her in ability and determination. They are so much of a kind that she as well as the hunchback help Akemi in certain moments because they are too disgusted by their actual allies to do otherwise. Their grudge, after all, is about vengeance as a form of justice, not about greed.

In their duel in the final scene, with Akemi accepting her probable death as the proper consequence of her actions, Aiko recognizes how much of a mirror of herself Akemi is, and, instead of killing her when she has the chance, making a cut on Akemi’s dragon tattoo that symbolically blinds it. Which, obviously, is not at all how ninkyo eiga or horror movies about curses are supposed to end, Ishii rejecting the fatalistic streak (some might say one bordering on nihilism) of both genres for something very different: forgiveness and the hope of a new day when things and people can change.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Three Films Make A Post: Welcome to the Witching Hour

Aval aka Gruham aka The House Next Door (2017): Apparently shot in three of the big Indian languages in parallel, Milind Rau’s tale of ghosts, possession and eventually vengeful reincarnation is a nice example of how world pop cinema can be able to take genre elements from a popular Hollywood genre (in this case The Conjuring style horror) and at first seem to reproduce that pretty closely, only to eventually add highly specific elements from its own cultural frame that change things up considerably. This sort of thing is always at least great fun to me; in Aval’s specific case, that fun is further increased by the director’s genuine ability at creating a proper mood of the contemporary Indian gothic – with a bit of help of some genuinely beautiful locations and often wonderful set design that also finds the point where western horror and Indian horror meet (with a bit of dubious Chinese horror thrown in the mix, too). Plus, possession is always better when no Christian demons are involved.

The Craft (1996): For some, Andrew Fleming’s tale of four high school teen witches getting up to increasingly dark shenanigans, or of four girls trying to survive growing up weird (as portrayed by ridiculously attractive young actresses, of course), is at least a minor classic and an important step in the development of mainstream feminist horror. For others, it’s a camp fest that’s basically made to be incorporated into some crappy talking head TV show about the 90os. As the first, I find the film to be a sometimes frustrating experience, often getting to a point where it looks like it is going to face some shitty thing young women have to go through but then steps back from it at least a half-step again. In the second thing, I simply have no interest, and frankly think a film as genuinely trying to do something interesting while still keeping its contemporary teenage audience entertained deserves better than to be treated as camp.

As a horror movie, I find The Craft a bit harmless but also pleasantly imaginative and graced with the kind of all-out performance by Fairuza Balk as what amounts to its villainess that seems fearless in its total abandon.

Bring Back the Dead (2015): And finally for today, there’s this Singaporean horror movie about a grieving (yet also abusive when her child was still alive, which the rest of the characters comment with sad-eyed tuts) mother (Jesseca Liu) using her former nanny’s (Liu Ling Ling) contacts to a Buddhist priest of dubious morals to conjure the spirit of her dead child into her house. On a theoretical level, that plot is horror gold made for mining an abyss of grief and denial, but even though director Thean-jeen Lee is perfectly decent at the basics of Asian ghost movies, the film’s too glossy and too disinterested in exploring the depths it suggests very deeply.

It’s a fun little spook show, mind you, just one that wastes an excellent set-up on being only that.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Past Misdeeds: Fatal Frame (2014)

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 presented with only  basic re-writes and 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.

Original title: Gekijô-ban: Zero

The peaceful life of the girls of a Catholic boarding school in a small Japanese town turns first strange, then rather too exciting, and finally tragic. It starts when one day, everyone’s favourite student Aya locks herself into her room. After a month, she’s still not coming out.

She does appear in the dreams of some of her friends, though, whispering into their ears to free her from “the curse that can only afflict women”. The dreams turn to frightening visions, and soon, some of the girls find themselves sleepwalking during these visions, waking up in front of a portrait photo of Aya, and just about to kiss that photo. There’s an urban legend about a love spell ritual and a curse connected to that sort of thing going around in school, but it’s disconcertingly vague, so it’s not much help in any attempt of the girls to understand what’s going on around them. What’s not vague is the fact that those of the girls who do end up kissing the photo disappear without a trace.

Has Aya really cursed the others – and if so, why – or is something rather different and quite a bit more complicated going on here?

Officially, Mari Asato’s Fatal Frame is some kind of adaptation of the fine (at least those I could play before they landed in the exclusivity-grabbing hands of Nintendo) series of survival horror videogames known as Project Zero here in Europe, but if you expect a film about girls and young women hunting ghosts with the help of a magical camera, you’ll not be too happy here, even though photos do play an important role in the plot. The main connections between the film and the games are certain thematic concerns: girls growing up, girls uncovering the dark secrets of the past, sometimes even their own, the societal and internal emotional pressures on the lives of young women, and the difficulties added to them by a Shinto and animist inspired supernatural world that, unlike in our world, actually exists. The rest are merely nods in the direction of fans of the games.

Fortunately, Fatal Frame the movie is much too well made a film to make this loose approach to adaptation annoying – even though I’d still like to see a film about young women photographing ghosts while uncovering the secrets of the past – telling a clever story with quite a bit of subtextual pull in an interesting and satisfying way. Going by the films I’ve seen by director Asato, she’s one of the rays of light among younger Japanese genre directors, the kind of woman who can turn on paper crappy sounding franchise work into pretty great low budget films which definitely show a personal handwriting and thematic concerns, in particular regarding female friendship, love between women, and growing up.

Obviously, these are some of the main themes of Fatal Frame, too, sometimes elegantly, sometimes somewhat bluntly expressed and intensified through the supernatural. At first, the film does threaten to be beholden to a bit of lesbian panic but the longer it goes on, the clearer it becomes Asano (who is also responsible for the script) is playing a different game with different rules, and clearly isn’t out to preach against the (highly doubtful) evils of girl-love, though, this being a Japanese film where a gay happy end still seems rather unthinkable, it’s not really embracing it either. It’s not all that important to Asano, either way, I think, for the director seems more interested in how the sexual aspects of growing up add to the general confusion of girls right on the brink of becoming women, even before the threats of the supernatural come into it at all. While the film does have quite satisfying supernatural elements (and a bit of the Japanese gothic too), they are on the quiet side, the ghosts here being a pleasant antidote to the jump scares of contemporary US horror as well as to the fixation of some Japanese horror directors on repeating scenes from Ringu again and again. For some tastes, this approach might be too quiet and too little interested in the supernatural being scary, but I found myself quickly invested in a film that does use the supernatural from a different angle than we’re used to right now; it does of course help I’m rather fond of quiet ghost stories, and that “quiet” doesn’t have to mean “without emotional stakes” or “harmless”.

While the storytelling becomes a bit flabby towards the film’s end – the sort of thing that happens when you have to tie up plot threads of not just your main characters’ growing up but also of more than one haunting and more than one case of very human evil – most of the film is very focused, with Asato’s highly composed looking, always clear and calm direction anchoring the film in a world of naturalistic sensation that can still turn into the dream-like and the strange with apparent ease. There are quite a few moments here I find quietly wonderful from a filmmaking perspective, at their core very simple scenes and concepts realized with a quiet confidence, helping unite character, mood and themes, and making it easy to ignore the film’s handful of missteps. If you – as I do – sometimes like to admire the rhythm of a film, this might impress you as much as it does me.

On the technical side, Fatal Frame also impresses with a very Suspiria-like soundtrack (which certainly isn’t an accident given the film’s themes), mostly excellent photography and acting that is much better than I’ve become used to in Japanese low budget films. Unfortunately, the film having come to me without an official release in these parts, I have no idea which actress is playing which role, but they’re all good, so it’s fine in any case.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

In short: Nightwish (1989)

After a short intro sequence that sets the “it was all a dream, but whose?” plot twist at the end of the movie up so clearly, using the term “spoilers” talking about it seems absurd, four grad students (Elizabeth Kaitan, Alisha Das, Clayton Rohner and Artur Cybulski) are driven up to a house where they are supposed to help their psychology professor (Jack Starrett) – introduced to us with green horror movie light shining on his face so you know he’s a mad professor – to once and for all prove the reality of some supernatural bullshit or other.

These guys have clearly even less of an instinct for self-preservation than usual for horror movie characters, otherwise they would probably have second, third and fourth thoughts on encountering the guy who is driving them (Brian Thompson). He’s clearly just a week or so away from starting on his first night as a serial killer, what with his obsession with running over animals with the bus and his general air of violent craziness, but instead of running away screaming into the night, one of the girls is even flirting with him!

Things don’t improve in the old dilapidated mansion in the mountains the professor wants to test, and all kinds of Fortean stuff starts happening very quickly. So expect ghosts, demons, alien insects who nest in people’s brains, icky mineshafts, drawn ectoplasm tentacles that have watched The Entity, nightmare (spoiler) architecture, a really uncomfortable alien mind-control masturbation scene, and so on and so forth. It also turns out the Professor likes torturing his students for occult science, with help from his even crazier assistant in practical matters (Robert Tessier).

If you want to see a film that really goes all out with abusing stuff like logic, sense, very basic ideas of how to plot a movie and so on with the excuse that everything in it is just a dream and therefore doesn’t need to make sense, Bruce R. Cook’s NIghtwish is just the ticket, taking on a nearly Italian horror dimension of illogic without reaching the actual dream-like qualities these films can have without pretending to be a dream. But then, it’s not just about the lack of logic with these things, they also need to create a specific mood to work their particular magic, and while the film at hand certainly has quite a few moody scenes – invariably lit in the classic horror colours of green, red and blue – they never come together to create one singular kind of mood over the whole movie. Or really, over more than two scenes.

The script, also by Cook, is more of a list of ideas of what would make a cool special effects or fright scene turned into scenes that never come together into any kind of a whole, be it a narrative, a mood, or a theme. These stitched-together scenes are generally pretty to look at and, at least, realized with high technical competence. Apart from the ridiculous drawn ectoplasm tentacle, the effects, a KNB job, are great. Particularly the alien breeding stuff looks excellently icky, but the rest of the bodily fluids and mutations are very accomplished too. I just would have liked to see all these technical chops in service of something that at least tries to be an actual movie instead of a show reel, but Nightwish never gets boring, so who am I to complain?

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Grip of the Strangler (1958)

aka The Haunted Strangler

England in the late 19th Century. Writer, social reformer, and kindly man of reason James Rankin (Boris Karloff) has a rather revolutionary idea: wouldn’t it be helpful to the cause of actual justice if poor people accused of a crime would have some kind of lawyer defending them? He believes the best way to reach this goal is to re-investigate the case of the Haymarket Strangler (who actually stabbed his victims after strangling them a bit because he only had one hand, yet still a “strangler” he is) and prove that the man committed and hanged for the case on the thinnest of evidence was in fact innocent of the deeds. He even has a candidate for the actual killer – the doctor who performed the autopsy on the hanged man and disappeared soon after. Proving his theory should give Rankin’s cause a very helpful bit of publicity.

However, there’s something more going on than meets the eye here. Rankin isn’t just more passionate about the case than a proper gentleman of his time was supposed to, he is growing downright obsessed, leaving politeness and even the law by the wayside to get at the information he needs, pulled by some internal need that clearly confuses himself in his calmer moments. He’s even going so far as to bribe a prison guard to let him have a crack at exhuming the condemned man’s body, or rather to get his hand on the murder weapon the true killer used he believes to be inside it. And it’s true, he does indeed find the weapon he seeks. But once Rankin touches it, he seems to become possessed by the spirit of the killer, his facial features stretching into those of a man after a very bad stroke, one of his arms becoming useless and his personality turning animalistic and murderous. Is he actually possessed by the spirit of the dead murderer, or will the film find a more polite, non-supernatural solution?

Of course Robert Day’s film will, as is sadly all too typical of a 50s horror film – and it is a horror film as much as it is a mystery, whatever certainly internet movie databases say. However, in this particular case, not going the supernatural route is simply the better choice, turning what could easily be a film about a man possessed by capital-E Evil into one about a good and decent man haunted not just by the parts of himself that are neither, but also by mental illness, also turning the film into something of a tragedy. As in any good ghost story, he is also haunted by the past, in this case a past he doesn’t know about yet feels drawn to uncover unconsciously.

While it certainly portrays Rankin’s mental illness as something monstrous, dangerous and evil, Grip of the Strangler’s treatment of what is actually going on with him, and the way his society deals with people suffering from a mental illness, is surprisingly progressive for a movie from the 50s. The film not only takes the psychoanalytical jargon it spouts seriously, it is also clearly wanting its audience to be horrified by what we see of the time’s mainstream idea of the treatment of the mentally ill. It is, however, enough of an exploitation film to clearly also find a ghoulish delight in portraying that treatment, but then, it wouldn’t be much of a horror film if it avoided horrifying us. Its sympathy is very clearly with Rankin despite him being a brutal murderer of women; there’s not misogynist enjoyment in the fact, thankfully, but the film sees Rankin’s murderous side as a sad thing as well as a horrible one, mourning the good man who wants to better the world as well as his victims.

Why this works as well is it does isn’t just on account of a script (by John Croydon and Jan Read) willing to add emotional complexity to the horror tropes it clearly also deeply enjoys using, but also thanks to a really wonderful performance by Karloff. Like quite a few of the classic horror actors of his generation and the one after, he is as believable playing the kind and good man Rankin as he is when he does a pretty spectacular piece of physical acting to show us his other side, making the man likable and intelligent, fully understanding and portraying the pathos of the situation as well as the menace. And menacing Karloff is of course, too, doing the strangler bit with wild abandon and an intensity that makes it perfectly reasonable that most people can’t even identify Rankin as the Strangler.

On the direction side, Day knows what Karloff and the script provide him with, putting every nuance Karloff gives him to great use, while at the same time also using all the cinematic techniques you could learn from the best of Universal as well as the productions of Val Lewton. So there’s much meaningful contrast between shadow and light, and a degree of intensity you not always get from 50s British genre cinema not made by Hammer. The film does show rather more than a Lewton film would have, is a bit less intelligent than the best works of Lewton, and can be more frank than you would have gotten from Universal.

It’s a really impressive mix of old-fashioned spookiness and at the time newer ideas about what could be done with cinematic horror.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

In short: Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970)

Original title: 5 bambole per la luna d’agost

Some rich businesspeople have invited a scientist (William Berger) for a bit of vacation time on an island. In truth, they don’t really want to give the guy a time of rest and relaxation, but wheedle, seduce, buy (the going price seems to be a million dollar – in 1970!) or threaten the formula for a revolutionary industrial resin out of him. Things start to go badly once the two only ways off the island disappear under strange circumstances, and someone starts murdering their way through the assembled horrible rich people. Well, at least they have a huge walk-in freezer and large see-through body bags for the body count.

When asked in interviews Mario Bava called the sardonic giallo Five Dolls for an August Moon one of his worst movies. It’s not much of a surprise he thought that way, really, for Bava was not at all involved in the pre-production of the film, only taking the directing reigns two days before shooting started, so he had little control over most of the cast and crew, and really couldn’t give the script by Mario di Nardo the rewrite he thought it needed. That sort of experience does tend to sour a director’s opinion of a movie.

However, as a viewer nearly fifty years later, I can’t say I agree with the great director at all here. Sure, the script is your typical giallo-riff of Christie’s “And Then There Were None” concerning a bunch of horrible rich people in an isolated location dying – or killing each other – in various ways, and the characters are so thin, they’re more like visual props, but Bava compensates – one might sometimes even say overcompensates – for all of this by turning this bog-standard plot about how horrible the upper classes are (you can certainly call it political subtext, if you’re of a mind) into a series of of shots and rhythmic sequences that seem to suggest meanings and double meanings not at all in the script, making internally very ugly yet outwardly beautiful people look even more beautiful in settings that present like something crazed interior decorators made up in their dreams, providing everything with a seductive sheen so intense it suggests the unhealthy and wrong with its sheer beauty. While he’s at it, Bava’s editing rhythms give what would be a slow and talky movie in the hand of most other directors a real kick in the behind, making the film feel fast and furious even when very little is actually happening.

Bava also has quite a bit of fun with how unlikeable all of his characters are, playfully suggesting some actual human feelings in some of the sociopaths only to gleefully reveal that whoever we thought might actually not deserve a horrible death is indeed even worse than the rest of the gang. Clearly, nobody innocent or even only half corrupt could make it onto this island. So it’s only consequent that the film treats their demise increasingly sardonically, its camera gliding through the freezer with a macabre chipperness.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Teketeke (2009)

aka Teke Teke

Original title: テケテケ

A rather nasty spirit (who is indeed the star of various real world urban legends in the country with the best urban legends) known by the onomatopoetic moniker of Teketeke after the skittering noises it makes when it comes after you, haunts an overpass in the city of Nagoya. The thing takes the form of the upper half of a woman’s body moving around on her hands with high speed, and has the habit of slicing anyone in half horizontally who looks at her after hearing the noises she makes, mirroring whatever happened to herself before she became a supernatural creature. Apparently, even when you manage to escape, Teketeke will come and finish the job exactly (jurei are nothing if not punctually) three days later.

After a bit of a row about a boy, high school student Kana’s (Yuko Oshima) best friend Ayaka (Mai Nishida) takes the unaccustomed way across the overpass and is promptly killed by Teketeke. The manner of Ayaka’s death, the way it fits the urban legend of Teketeke, and a quite a bit of guilt do leave Kana with more than a few questions and doubts about what happened to her friend. When she visits the overpass where Ayaka died to lay flowers on the little shrine put up in her memory there, she encounters Teketeke herself. Unlike Ayaka, Kana manages to escape the thing; but now that she’s seen Teketeke, she can’t disbelief the rest of the urban legend, so she has only three days left to find some way, any way, to get rid of it. Fortunately, she doesn’t only have the local library to help her out, but also an older cousin named Rie (Mami Yamasaki) who is a grad student in cultural anthropology, and will turn out to have a vested interest in this particular urban legend herself.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, in my eyes Koji Shiraishi is one of the best Japanese horror directors of the post-Ringu generation. Like all of these guys (and at least one gal), Shiraishi has to fight against ever tinier budgets and a market that prefers its horror with idols instead of actual actresses in the lead. Shiraishi usually manages to squeeze good to astonishing things out of these production vagaries, getting decent and often much better performances out of the idol of the week, usually suggesting that many of them are only a bit of luck, a system change in the Japanese entertainment industry, and some acting lessons away from better ways to show their talents than bikini shots, variety shows and J-Pop.

Of course, this still  leaves a film like Teketeke with a budget that can only afford a couple of appearances of its titular creature and needs to fill the rest of its short 70 minute runtime with anything a filmmaker can come up with. It has to be said that the creature design when we get to see it is actually pretty creepy, and thanks to some excellent directorial framing choices, its absurd way of running around doesn’t feel as ridiculous as it might be but rather strange and otherworldly. Generally, the scenes where Teketeke scuttles and skitters and around work very well, Shiraishi using all the tricks in the low budget handbook to produce menace and excitement, never showing too much of the creature for too long.

This still leaves about fifty minutes of movie. About half of it Shiraishi fills with little character moments that don’t exactly pull these women away from being the obvious clichés you expect them to be but make them sympathetic and likeable and provide them at least with a bit of an inner and outer life beyond being horror movie characters, and give Oshima and Yamasaki some room to demonstrate decent basic acting chops. The other half is spent, like in any proper ghost story, following our heroines doing research about the whys and wherefores of Teketeke, trying to find a way to understand the thing and hopefully come up with a way to dispel it. I’m getting quite a bit out of scenes of characters hitting the books and interviewing people about the background of ghosts, so this sort of thing is nearly always enjoyable to me, as indeed is the case here as well.

All of this adds up to a somewhat lightweight horror movie without too much emotional heft. However the combination of a simple yet not brain-dead and effective script, the lovely urban legend it uses, Shiraishi’s directing chops as well as the chutzpa of a guy who can base a suspense sequence on a spelling mistake do make it a fun time. Sure, Shiraishi has made far more impressive movies than Teketeke, but given the constraints he’s working with, I’d still call this an artistic success.