Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Phantasm: Ravager (2016)

The further and final adventures of Reggie (as always Reggie Bannister) in his fight against the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) make for a somewhat confusing film. Not only because Ravager’s narrative becomes increasingly disjointed and not exactly logical - quite effectively mirroring the plight of a main character who may or may not have fantasized the other four films in the saga in this directly in a viewer’s brain. Because it is indeed a Phantasm movie, “may or may not” isn’t exactly the correct term to describe what happens to and with our aging hero here. Rather, it’s both at once, the film never quite slipping into the crime of turning the rather beloved films that came before into the nightmares and fantasies of a guy suffering from dementia.

That really is the proper way to do something like this: otherwise, the long-time fan would have to live with a retcon that would be annoying even in a series of films that always preferred to keep their supernatural core strange and illogical – or one might as well just have made movies about the natural all along. This way, the dream-like events in the film turn into something that is at once a fantasy of empowerment (one somewhat 70s male one of dying on one’s feet fighting against actual evil while striking cheesy action hero poses and flirting with women who could be one’s granddaughters) and disempowerment, for at best, the heroes of the Phantasm films hold back darkness for another day, like the more competent Lovecraftian heroes, just applying much more violence; there’s no final defeat of evil possible, and the best you can hope for is apparently to die with early onset dementia, which is only proper for the horrors of dementia (early onset or not).

Unfortunately, even if you’re like me and perfectly happy with the film’s increasing loss of coherence (again, metaphorically a perfectly valid choice), you just might not be absolutely convinced of Don Coscarelli’s decision to not direct the film himself but put it in the hands of David Hartman, a guy with a lot of animated TV experience but little in his filmography that suggests him as a choice for a Weird, dream-like and sometimes apocalyptic horror film. Particularly not one that is so clearly lacking in the budget to realize the surreal apocalypse its final act asks for. While Hartman’s certainly not terrible, he does lack Coscarelli’s eye for making the bizarre and the illogical still look of a piece with the rest of a film, so the strange here tends to feel rather cartoonish, something certainly not helped by the reasonably bad CGI used way too on the nose in the film’s final act.

Having said that, I still found myself enjoying the final Phantasm film quite a bit. In part, it’s certainly a degree of melancholic nostalgia for a series whose approach to horror influenced my own ideas of what horror films can do, how they can feel, how personal their vision can be, and how close they can be to the stranger areas of literary horror. However, the film does have enough strengths that aren’t based on nostalgia alone. While its execution tends to suffer from sometimes shaky direction and the too low budget for its ambitions, there are still so many intelligent (instead of merely clever) ideas on display here, the film does much more than just put the word Phantasm in its title to work for its audience’s enjoyment.

So even though Ravager isn’t exactly how I would have wished the series to finish, it is an ending very much in the spirit of what came before.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

In short: Nocturne (2016)

Obviously running away from something or someone she’d rather not face this night, Jo (Clare Niederpruem) goes to a small graduation party of people she isn’t exactly friends with (as played by Hailey Nebeker, Melanie Stone, Darien Willardson, Colton Tran, and Jake Stormoen). There are various strains of dysfunction among and between these people - suggestions of rather typical young adult problems from eating disorders to jealousy and general prickishness abound. But instead of just getting drunk, or stoned, and sleeping with the wrong people for the wrong reasons, our protagonists decide to pretend they’ve never seen a horror movie and hold a séance. Of course, what starts out as a game becomes rather disturbing when the entity they are talking to demonstrates a bit too much detailed knowledge of everyone’s darker secrets as well as a nasty streak. The thing frightens them so much, they do the big no-no in movie séances (as well as in polite society) and break it off without saying goodbye to the entity.

During the course of the night, everyone’s problems and secret sins come to the surface; people begin acting only on their worst impulses in ways that can only lead to pain for everyone involved. But that’s before the really bad stuff begins to happen, from the old standby of demonic possession to various pretty horrible deaths.

I didn’t go into Stephen Shimek’s indie horror Nocturne expecting much of it at all. There are, after all, countless films about séances gone wrong right now, most of them not worth the time watching them, and adding US style demons like they are  en vogue right now to the mix usually makes a film even less interesting. After all, how often can you watch some possessed girl float in the corner of some ceiling while sprouting bad theology before you become bored by it? I have certainly reached that point of saturation a year or two ago.

However, Nocturne is rather more interesting than the set-up or the demons suggest. It starts with a group of characters that seem much more convincing young adults than typical for this sort of production, with problems that ring truer than usual and whose escalation through the supernatural is effectively horrifying because it cuts to what feels like actual bone. For once, the more psychological aspects of the demonic activity here seem actually insidious because it’s not going through the demonic playbook but actually preying on the weaknesses of the characters. Weaknesses the script and some more than decent performances by the group of young actors have prepared well.

Once things turn physical, Shimek shows a fine macabre imagination that keeps the connections between the demise of the characters and their weaknesses open without going too far in the direction of ironic deaths. These deaths, the audience is supposed to feel, so ironic distance would be fatal for the film’s effect.

Speaking of effects, the film’s practical effects are more than decent too, never becoming the sole point of the film yet also keeping the proper unflinching pose. As an added bonus for friends of the Weird like me, Nocturne also features some rather cool parts where it plays with the nature of space and time, as well as that most rare of things – a twist ending that is actually an organic part of the film that came before.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Amityville: The Awakening (2017)

Joan (Jennifer Jason Leigh), her daughters Belle (Bella Thorne) and Juliet (Mckenna Grace) and comatose son James (Cameron Monaghan) move into the Amityville House. In this parallel world, the “actual” Amityville hauntings happened, and the movies about it were made too. Still, Belle manages not to realize what the place is all about until she’s ostracized in school because of it.

That’s not the only thing that’ll make the girl’s life difficult, though: there’s clearly something wrong between her and her mother that goes beyond the kinds of tension that develop between mothers and daughters. Why, would you believe it might just have something to do with the state James is in (though not as much as the film hints at)? Then there are of course the expected variations of the usual Amityville shenanigans mostly concentrating on Belle and Juliet. Flies, the red room – you’ve seen it in another Amityville film, it’s in here in one form or the other. The most potentially frightening threat to Belle, though, is what happens to James. He should never be able to wake from his coma again, but after some time in the house, he clearly starts to regain a part of his consciousness, if not his mobility. Is it really James, though, or is his body…possessed? Well, what do you think.

Franck Khalfoun’s new film in the franchise that by now has spawned more unofficial sequels than official ones has graced studio shelves for a couple of years now, with various reports of cuts, recuts and lowered age ratings spicing up the tale. That suggests a complete train wreck of a movie, but for most of its running time, The Awakening not a bad movie so much as a painfully mediocre one that seems not to know at all what it wants to be: a generic modern mainstream ghost horror film like The Conjuring et al but with awkwardly timed jump scares and less ad space for dubious faith healers? A more interesting psychological horror film about the price a family has to pay for the poisonous mixture of love, guilt, desperation and a mother’s inability to let her son go? Some meta-horror film where characters in the Amityville house watch the original Amityville Horror (and where nothing of interest apart from a blunt scare and a half comes of that)? A film that puts teenage Bella Thorne in hot pants and bizarre skimpy outfits and leers at her as often as possible? Apart from that last one, I couldn’t help but get the impression that Khalfoun didn’t know either, which is a bit of a problem seeing he’s the director and writer of this thing.

Because the film can’t really decide what kind of movie it wants to be, or even what tone it is aiming for, the only thing it manages to achieve is to waste a lot of potential. It is not difficult at all to imagine an effective, perhaps even emotionally involving horror film with The Awakening’s basic plot, but this certainly isn’t that movie. There are so many bad decisions on display here, not just when it comes to the bland direction and the confused script. For example, why try and let as affectless an actress as Thorne carry most of the film while the usually wonderful Jennifer Jason Leigh has to chew through a handful of scenes of bad dialogue and badly underwritten characterisation? And if you’re Hollywood-style afraid of middle-aged women in the lead of your film, why not at least hire a more competent actress for the lead? It’s not as if young, talented actresses were difficult to find.

Because all that’s still not quite enough to sink the film, someone involved in the production decided the best way to finish it is on a sequence that feels ripped out of a cheesy 80s Italian haunted house movie (one of the Ghosthouse films, say), and that there’s nothing that fits a bit of supernatural horror better than a finale that sees our protagonist running away from a guy with a shotgun in a scene that makes the shotgun sequence in the original Amityville Horror look subtle, exciting and clever. I have no idea what this thing is even trying to do..

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Past Misdeeds: The Dead Don't Die (1975)

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

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

1934. On the night of Ralph Drake's (Jerry Douglas) execution on the electric chair for the murder of his wife during a break in a dance marathon, the supposed killer, who has no memory of what took place between him and his wife but is sure he would never have laid a hand on her, makes his brother Don (George Hamilton) promise to find out who is the true killer.

Initially, Don - who is in the Navy and not a detective anyhow - has nothing to go on in his investigation. A visit with Moss (Ray Milland), the dancehall promoter responsible for the dance marathon Ralph and his wife took part in, does not bring to light anything the sailor doesn't already know.

And that could be that already, making for a very short film, but strange things begin to happen all around Don. It starts when a mysterious woman (Linda Cristal) - later to be named Vera LaValle - tries to warn Don off the case completely, for a certain "he" knows what the sailor's up to and will do something terrible to him if he persists. Before he can question Vera further, Don sees his dead brother walking around outside the restaurant the scene's taking place in, and follows the dead man into a shop whose owner Perdido (Reggie Nalder) is not a fan of people just barging in on him. In the following scuffle, Don accidentally kills Perdido, or at least thinks he does, before the shop owner's assistant (Yvette Vickers) does her best to bash his head in.

When Don awakes, he finds himself in the tender care of Vera. The woman spouts more cryptic warnings, but at least she now gives the mysterious "him" a proper name - Varrick - and very reluctantly puts Don on his trail. That trail, not completely to the audience’s surprise, leads directly into a funeral parlour. Alas, there seems to be no Varrick at hand there. However, there's the body of a certain Mister Perdido laid out. Our hero is confused enough by everything that has happened to him to feel the need to take a good look at the dead man. Little does Don expect the corpse to speak to him with someone else's voice and try to strangle him.

After escaping the zombie, Don decides to go to the police with his rather wild story, because that's what you do when people you killed attack you. The patient cop on duty even agrees to accompany Don to Perdido's shop to clear things up. It's just that Perdido seems to be pretty much alive, and makes Don's story out to be an alcohol fuelled fantasy.

Obviously, Don can't count on the help of the police anymore, yet he can't bring himself to give up and ship out until he has discovered an explanation for what the hell is going on around him.

The excellently titled The Dead Don't Die belongs to the last interesting phase of director Curtis Harrington's career, before he became just another guy churning out episodes for any old TV show people paid him for, and that (very funny) film about the possessed dog.

The Dead is a TV production too, it can, however, count itself among the small yet potent group of US TV horror movies from the 70s that are just as individual and peculiar as anything made for the big screen. Unexpectedly for a TV movie in general, yet not all that surprising if you've seen some of the other TV movies directed by Harrington, the film has the feel of something more personal and individual than what you'll usually see produced for the small screen, and fits nicely into the cinematic body of work of its director.

As is typical of his films, Harrington fuses diametrically opposite elements into a whole that's dream-like and artificial. On one hand, the The Dead Don't Die is pervaded by a sense for and an interest in period detail that just screams - at least as much as the film's budget and short production time allow - "realism". Its visual style, on the other hand, is clearly influenced by the conscious artificiality of the film noir (and what, after all, is more noir than a story about a guy looking for the man who framed his brother for murder, a mysterious woman with a heavy accent, and a series of strange encounters?), the lush melodrama of Douglas Sirk (though with other social interests than Sirk had), and the hidden complexity of Val Lewton's RKO productions. In a sense, Harrington is about as retro a director as I could imagine (see also the near obsessive casting of old guard Hollywood actors in minor roles here and everywhere else in his career), but he's not interested in merely reproducing the past. Rather, Harrington is taking (his favourite) elements of the past to shape something new and very much his own. Which, again, isn't something you'd expect to find in a TV movie, where routine usually comes – has to come - before individual artistic expression.

As a whole, The Dead feels like a film noir's themes had stumbled into an RKO horror movie that for its part has found itself inexplicably entwined with the visual and emotional world of the melodrama.

Robert Bloch's (who you might know as the author of the novel Hitchcock's Psycho is based on, but who began his career as a pulp writer in the Lovecraft circle, wrote large amounts of SF, horror and mystery, and also worked quite a bit for TV too) script is an appropriately strange one, too, full of small but interesting diversions and peculiar little flourishes that just might let the members of The Dead Don't Die's audience put on the same utterly confused facial expression George Hamilton wears for much of the film's running time.

I'm not a great admirer of Hamilton, but his sleepwalker-ish body language here and his eternal wide-eyed look of surprise are just what the film and his role need of him. His character is, after all, walking through scenes and encounters as unreal and surreal as anything a man might dream up, never sure what's real and what's not, finding himself completely out of his depth.

Which all adds up to one of the best voodoo zombie movies of the 70s.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Three Films Make A Post: Jack Mason knows he's going to die someday. But today he's not in the mood.

R.I.P.D. (2013): Well, for what feels like a conscious attempt to recreate the old buddy cop action movie formula, but with undead cops working for the guys up top, Robert Schwentke’s film is certainly entertaining enough. It does try a bit too hard to catch the Men in Black magic in a bottle. So as not to be confused with Tommy Lee Jones, Jeff Bridges rolls out a humanly understandable version of his cowboy dialect again (which is inherently funny, though not as funny as in True Grit because that one isn’t a comedy) and Ryan Reynolds is a very pale Will Smith. Unfortunately, the film’s effects look too cartoony and weightless and its design sense is not terribly sharp. But about half of its jokes are funny, Bridges is Bridges, Kevin Bacon makes an acceptably slimy bad guy, and it isn’t generally boring, so for this type of fantasy/horror/cop/action comedy, it’s a perfectly acceptable film.

Trash Fire (2016): This one, about a dysfunctional couple (Adrian Grenier and Angela Trimbur) visiting the guy’s estranged grandma (Fionnula Flanagan) and disfigured sister (AnnaLynne McCord) so he can become less of a total asshole and get over his perfectly horrible childhood and encountering more than they bargained for, is one of those films I wish I liked more. Director/writer Richard Bates Jr. certainly has a sure hand when it comes to pacing, is able to make a film that mostly takes place in a single home always look interesting, and has a sharp ear for blackly humorous dialogue; the acting is top notch by everyone involved; and technically, there’s no flaw on screen (well, I’m sceptical anyone would not see there’s a rattlesnake hidden away in the toilet bowl). However, I never did find myself emotionally involved in these characters, which can come with the territory of a film in which everyone is a complete asshole (or worse). I’m not asking for people with a traumatic past to be easy audience stand-ins or anything that simple, but watching the film, I always found myself at a distance to everyone on screen, which becomes a problem once the film really wants me to care.

Spellcaster (1988): This Empire production directed by Rafal Zielinski is one of the lesser known Charles Band productions, and for once, it’s a well deserved obscurity, for despite a nice enough castle for what it laughingly calls its plot (a bunch of idiots are searching for a million dollar cheque in a castle belonging to Satan as non-performed by Adam Ant for five minutes) to take place in, and some neat John Buechler effects in the final twenty minutes or so, most of the film is boring and bland. Zielinski seems to never have encountered the concept we call atmosphere, the pacing is sluggish, the characters are bland, and for about an hour or so, little to keep one awake goes on on screen. While things pick up a little for the final act, at that point, I was already half lulled to sleep by scenes upon scenes dull people saying dull shit, and mildly confused by the film permanently hinting at doing something sleazy to keep its audience awake but always pulling back before anything can actually happen. That doesn’t just go for nudity but for all other kinds of excitement, too.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

In short: My Boyfriend’s Back (1993)

Teenager Johnny Dingle (Andrew Lowery) has been silently pining for Missy McCloud (Traci Lind) since they were little children, so when Johnny dies because he heroically jumps into a bullet for Missy but comes back as a zombie, he’s finally going to do what he never dared when he was alive. Missy did after all promise to go to the prom with him – when he was dying in her arms.

Turns out the whole saving her life business and coming back as a slowly rotting corpse is a bit of turn-on for Missy, so the prom situation does look indeed promising. However, being a zombie isn’t all it is cracked up to be. There’s a whole load of troubles coming with undeath: body parts that just might fall off during an even mildly heated make-out session, the special appetites of the living dead, mad science, jock boyfriends and torch-wearing mobs. Getting to prom with one’s beloved turns out to be rather on the difficult side.

As frequent (long-suffering) readers of this blog know, I’m not the greatest fan of horror comedies in general, and teen horror comedies are usually even more difficult for me to cope with. Bob Balaban’s My Boyfriend’s Back however, did charm me from the very start with its witty mix of the clever, the cynical, the sweet, the goofy and the heart-warming. Even better, it’s actually funny throughout, taking detours in all kinds of bizarre directions, suddenly pretending to turn into a kind of anti-prejudice afterschool special for five minutes, or spending valuable time on insane side-characters just because they are funny, or deciding to finish its plot very much like a supernatural screwball comedy. The male teenage wish fulfilment fantasy elements of the plot are more thoughtfully used than in many comedies of this type, too.Missy sometimes even feels like an actual character, if one of dubious mental health. Here specifically but also in general Balaban clearly prefers to give surprise twists to popular tropes until they become funny to not using or loudly decrying them, suggesting much more control over the material than the distractible nature of the plot would hint at.

Star spotters will be happy finding Matthew Fox as Missy’s jock boyfriend, Philip Seymour Hoffman as his hilariously angry (and very excitable and tasty) best friend, and Matthew McConaughey as “Guy #2”. Also, it’s really just a very funny movie.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Ghoul (2017)

Warning: this is another one of those films you can’t talk about at all without invoking at least a minor degree of spoilers!

Either, Chris (Tom Meeten) is a detective going undercover as a patient to acquire information about a murder from a psychotherapist, or he is the new patient of said psychotherapist who daydreams about being a detective. Either Chris is shadowing people during a murder investigation, or he is stalking them. Either Chris is the lover of Kathleen (Alice Lowe), or he has had an unspoken crush more than bordering on obsession on his best friend’s girlfriend Kathleen for years. Perhaps Chris is threatened by a fiendish magic(k)al conspiracy, or he starts to believe in the delusions of a very ill guy who goes to the same therapist

How’s that for a short outline of what Gareth Tunley’s, whom I knew more as an actor – particular in the films of Ben Wheatley who also co-produces here - than a director before, horror film (or is it?) The Ghoul is all about? It’s a film whose thoughts about identity and reality seem informed by writers like Philip K. Dick as approached by way of British magical traditions, with an idea of the city and the way people move through it that seems influenced by psychogeography. In other words, it isn’t exactly your straightforward horror film nor is it the sort of mind-fuck film that really needs to get its twist out. Surprisingly enough, given the film’s ambiguous tone, its ending is concrete, even precise, and provides the audience with a rather clear answer to the question what has been going on throughout the film while also being so well constructed the clear answer never feels too clear. It does of course help that the film’s explanation isn’t exactly a logical one, just one that fits and makes sense inside of the rules it has established throughout its running time.

As a director, Tunley is very adept at using comparatively simple (this is certainly made on a low budget) visual techniques to disquiet the viewer, setting his film in a London that is a palpable, real place, yet one whose solidity can shift and drift away at a moment’s notice. Chris’s movements through the city at times gives the subtle impression of everything around him being part of a ritual he – and with him the viewer – can’t quite comprehend.

In the beginning, while you are trying to understand the connection between the two realities of Chris The Ghoul shows, the film is certainly confusing, but as a whole, its comes about its strange (well, Weird) mood and its part-time trippiness through precision rather than vagueness. There’s ambiguity, but it is a very consciously constructed one, if that makes any sense.

Tom Meeten’s performance is particularly effective, really projecting the sadness and the pain of the unhappy version of Chris in a subtle portrayal of mental illness that suggests an actual understanding of the character as a human being instead of a doll stitched out of bits of symptoms, and not laying it on too thick with the “normality” of the other Chris. This aspect of the film is particularly well written, too, with compassion and insight and without feeling the night for pathetic gestures.

But then, the whole of The Ghoul is rather well written (also by Tunley), full of intelligent little touches, foreshadowing that actually works (and isn’t quite foreshadowing inside the logic of what’s going on here, but I digress into more spoilers), and the sort of unhurried pacing that might look slow but is actually just right.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

In short: Hide and Go Shriek (1988)

A bunch of teenagers (cough) – I’m not going to pretend their names or the actors are of any import though I have to admit that Bunky Jones is quite the name - decide to celebrate their high school graduation by an act of the wildest depravity their little minds can come up with: letting themselves be secretly locked in over the weekend in the large furniture store belonging to one of their dads to play hide and seek and have sex. Whatever happened to Lovers’ Lane?

Unfortunately for all involved – characters and audience – a cross-dressing gay killer (spoiler, I guess) is locked in with them too, and starts killing them off in frequently hilarious ways for no reason I could make out.

I could spend a paragraph or so bemoaning the homophobe text (subtext it certainly isn’t) of (future TV producer) Skip Schoolnik’s Hide and Go Shriek but that would mean I’d have to pretend to take this entry into the slasher cycle more serious than I do, and – one might argue – more seriously than it deserves. Still, if this sort of thing – understandably – bugs you, you might want to avoid this one in particular.

It’s not that anyone would miss much not watching Go Shriek. While I do approve of the film’s clear attempts to vary the slasher formula in a few elements – we don’t have a final girl, for example, but a final group of idiots – it’s not as if it makes much of these variations, because most of the film still consists of many scenes of the actors making out, deeply implausible murders, and a lot of walking, sneaking, and running to and fro through the bland and boring furniture store. It’s not exactly exciting.

At least the film’s title is pretty honest: there is indeed a drawn-out game of hide and seek going on in the film (or two – one among the teens and later one between the teens and the killer), and the last half hour or so does feature a lot of shrieking; for a change, the male characters are shrieking as much as the female ones, by the way. That last third also does suddenly see Schoolnik’s generally bland but not offensive direction try for some mood-building via semi-atmospheric red emergency lights and other not completely stupid little tricks. Unfortunately these attempts still don’t distract too well from the fact the characters have been running through the same handful of rooms for an hour now.

This is also the point when the actors – who were bad but not horrible before – seem to lose the plot completely, getting up to very funny hysterics that fit the slapstick feel the so-called fight for their lives takes on rather well. Note to directors: it’s never not funny when your characters are trying to defend themselves with the manikin arms and legs they have stolen, so you might to avoid it when you’re trying to make a horror film.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Daylight’s End (2016)

About three years ago, a (of course mysterious) plague struck the world, turning large parts of the population into rage zombie/vampire things that run around more or less mindlessly screaming, drink blood and dissolve when hit by too much sunlight. Now, we’re in Post-Apocalyptica again, the vampires and mindless raiders bothering the few enclaves of civilized humanity.

Rourke (Johnny Strong), our hero of the day, traumatized by the death of his wife at the start of the plague, is roaming the USA in his car, hunting vampires; he’s apparently good enough at it to have made it from New York to Texas. In the god-forsaken ruins of a small town, Rourke saves a woman named Sam (Chelsea Edmundson) from rape and murder by marauders. Sam is now – after the marauders slaughtered her friends – the sole member of an expedition sent out by a group of survivors lead by ex-policeman Frank (Lance Henriksen) holed up in Dallas. Sam and her friends were tasked with finding a cargo plane for the group large enough to get them all to Baja where there’s supposed to be a survivalist enclave. They did even manage to find a plane before the marauders attacked. She convinces the gruff and grumpy Rourke to get her to Dallas.

Once there, things should be easy enough, and not involve various brave/suicidal last stands to hold back any vampire hordes.

Obviously, William Kaufman’s Daylight’s End is mostly a recombination of various elements of zombie post-apocalypse movies, Mad Max style post-apocalypses, and the kind of action Kaufman and leading man (and composer of the movie’s score) Johnny Strong have teamed up for repeatedly, so originality isn’t really a concern. We all know the character types, we know the plot beats, and we know at least in loose terms how things will turn out for everyone.

In this case, however, that doesn’t mean the resulting film isn’t worth watching. Kaufman does manage to get a surprising amount of spectacle out of a clearly minor budget, the action is staged well, and the film flows surprisingly well even though large parts of it reveal it as a corridor runner, that is to say, a film that largely consists of people running up and down various ugly corridors while shooting and sometimes screaming, which isn’t generally a promise of fun. Indeed, the final third of the film does probably contain ten minutes or so too many of this particular stuff, but for most of the running time, Kaufman make all the running back and forth exciting via the magic of effective staging and editing that does its level best to not get things bogged down. There are a good handful of moments in the film that I found genuinely exciting, but just as importantly, Kaufman avoids any scenes that are boring.

Why, even Rourke’s mandatory trauma, and the scenes of minor – Kaufman’s characters generally have a feel of the sort of hard-bitten professionals Howard Hawks loved so much - in-fighting between the survivors make sense and never overstay their welcome. The script (by Chad Law) tends to underplay the possible melodrama, which makes perfect sense for a group of people who have survived for quite this long – if they’ve not gone insane fighting the zombie vampires, they’re probably too numb by now to have screaming matches for longer than five minutes. Characters are archetypes but drawn in short, sharp strokes and as a whole acted well (or at least well enough). There’s certainly never any of the awkwardness in speech or movement from the living you often encounter in low budget zombie apocalypse films. Plus, it’s nice to see a movie that seems to know Lance Henriksen is a treasure.

While this doesn’t add up to a deeply memorable film, or something new in its sub-genre, Daylight’s End’s general air of craftsmanship certainly makes it worth one’s time.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Three Films Make A Post: There's a monster in all of u

Offerings (1989): At the tail end of the slasher cycle, one Christopher Reynolds apparently set out to make a film that contained all other slasher films. At least in so far as any given scene in his film is a more or less blatant rip-off of a scene from another, mostly better, slasher, shot with no sense of style and taste, and with actors who can’t – act, that is. While this may sound rather tiresome, the resulting film is a surprisingly entertaining concoction featuring nary a boring second. When you’re not gasping in disbelief at the film’s utter shamelessness in its borrowings (even Mattei/Fracasso would have balked at some of the stuff going on here, like the not-Halloween parts of the score), you’re giggling about dialogue that starts awkward and ends up really funny, or laughing about Sheriff “That Doesn’t Look Like Sausage To me” Chism, some sort of overweight Wil Wheaton who spends his on-screen time with things like stealing a kid’s porn magazine collection. This may sound as if I’m mostly laughing at the movie, but when a film brings – even unintentionally – so much joy, there’s only laughing with it.

Aaron’s Blood (2016): It’s certainly not a bad basic idea to connect vampirism and a father’s reaction to a child’s terrible illness, but in practice, Tommy Stovall’s treatment of the theme here just doesn’t work at all for me. Unfortunately, the film handles the situation with a sledgehammer, seemingly expecting that the whole “a father will do anything to protect his child” cliché can stand in for the rest of the characterisation needed to make the narrative actually work. Plot-wise, the film is full of improbable coincidences – like the kid’s school caretaker and a local barkeep just happening to be Fearless Vampire Hunters – and characters whose actions often feel highly improbable. The film is otherwise competently shot and decently acted, mind you, but it never did manage to convince me of the characters at its core at all.

68 Kill (2017): Trent Haaga’s adaptation of a Bryan Smith novel (probably one of his best, if you can stomach his stuff) as a dark comedy, on the other hand, managed to convince me of much more improbable characters doing much more improbable things rather well. It does help that leads Matthew Gray Gubler and AnnaLynne McCord are diving into absurdity and violence with the best of them.

Haaga softens Smith’s book a little in so far as he doesn’t show quite as much of the sex, the violence and the general depravity but he does so in a way that makes the film feel more focussed on its sad sack penis-piloted (like all men in Smith’s stuff, unless they are pure psychos) protagonist’s plight with various murderous, sexy, dominating, evil women (like all women in Smith’s stuff), like noir gone a bit explicit. The film doesn’t really critique Smith’s rather basic (and certainly problematic in more than just contemporary parlance) concept of humanity as a whole and women in particular, but as a caustic expression of it, it is pretty successful.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Past Misdeeds: Maya (1989)

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

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

A small town in rural Mexico is predominantly inhabited by descendants of a Mayan tribe who are still holding to some old traditions. Once a year, the townsfolk celebrate a ritualistic, symbolic sacrifice of a child on top of the local pyramid to keep the ghost of the evil Xibalba (or Xibalbai - the voice actors are of more than one opinion), whom the townsfolk's ancestors murdered, at bay. Of course there's a prophecy saying the dead guy will some day return to cut out each tribe member's heart.

Some time before the newest celebration is supposed to take place, US expat Salomon Slivak (a very sweaty William Berger) stumbles onto the top of the pyramid after meeting a strange, big-haired girl child, while mumbling an off-screen monologue about crossing some sort of "border to the other side". Slivak sure seems to have crossed over to somewhere, for something or someone kills him up there by cutting out his heart.

A few days after the old man's death, his daughter Lisa (Mariella Valentini) arrives in town. The more Lisa hears about the circumstances of her father's demise, the more disquieted she becomes, until she kinda-sorta begins to try and find his killer herself. This being the sort of film that it is, Lisa isn't actually doing much more than walking around, asking weird questions that are answered in even weirder ways, and doesn't appear for large parts of the plot (such as it is). She also kinda-sorta falls for another local US expat, restaurant owner, gambler, bum and all-around jerk Peter (Peter Phelps), whose best trait probably is his hatred of wearing shirts.

While Lisa and Peter aren't doing much, further killings hit the town. An invisible force murders people in various, creative ways, but never misses out on cutting out the heart of its victim afterwards.

The whole affair culminates (as far as a film told in a way as roundabout as this one can be said to culminate) on the night of the big ceremony. Will our protagonists actually do some protagging for a change?

Marcello Avallone's Maya is a pretty weird film that will grow on a certain, very specific and very small sub-set of fans of Italian horror like green fungus on bread, while the rest of the world will look at it - if it'll realize its existence at all - with a mixture of boredom and exasperation. Fortunately, it's quite easy to find out to which of the two groups you, dear reader, will belong. Just try and imagine a film indebted to the style and rhythm of Lucio Fulci's The Beyond, transplanted into Venezuela standing in for Mexico, tarted up with some barely understandable and badly explained bit of fictitious mythology, with less gore and more interrupted rape scenes (three, by my count), and made by a director who isn't as talented (or mad) as Fulci at his best, but is really trying to be. If that thought makes you happy, or at least a wee bit interested, than there's a good chance that you're either me or belonging to the group of Italian horror fans in need to watch out for fungus attacks. Otherwise, you better stay away from Maya, because it'll only bore you.

For us, the un-bored and un-boreable, Maya is a bit of a treat, especially since there aren't all that many films actually inspired by more than the gore of Fulci's best films. As I said, Avallone's movie is much more restrained in the gore department than Fulci's movies generally were, but the murder scenes share the a nearly arrogant apathy towards the laws of physics and logic with the maestro's work. The murders are very much at the heart of the movie, too, establishing the proper mood of the unreal, of the breaking-in of the illogical into the world as we know it, happening at a place where the borders between the quotidian world and the beyond have grown thin and weary.

The parts of the film's running time that aren't spent on the murders show the town (most of the time, it actually looks like a village, but some scenes seem to establish it as slightly larger with a slightly less rural feel - you could certainly put it down to sloppy direction, or you could see this imprecision as just another way Avallone uses to rattle the audience's securities) as a place whose inhabitants are generally closer to acts of madness, violence and irrationality than is typical. Interestingly enough, Avallone uses two (horribly acted) wandering rapist Texan punks on vacation to make it difficult to read the townsfolk's irrational tendencies as an expression of his film's racism (though it's clearly not a film without problematic ideas about race) but rather as a consequence of the place's closeness to the other side, as if a door had been standing open just a tiny bit for centuries, letting something unhealthy and destructive cross over that infects (perhaps calls to) anyone coming into contact with it, in small and large ways.

Maya's plot - as far as you can actually speak of a plot, which you probably can't - has the stop-and-start quality of the Fulci films it is so obviously inspired by, the same sense of rambling and meandering that is hypnotic to some, and just boring to others, but that seems to be just the logical way to plot a film that is in part about the absence of the sort of order "tight" or just technically competent plotting would suggest.

The movie's characters, all - as is tradition in Italian genre cinema - either chew scenery as if they'd never eaten anything better or seem passive and listless as if the only emotional reactions they have ever been able to show is sweating. And there's a lot of sweating done by the whole cast, adding to the air of heaviness and oppression. Maya's script includes some minor attempts at giving its characters something akin to development, but most of it is buried under the murder scenes and the sweating, and obstructed by the film's slow, slow rhythm.

I'll certainly always prefer Fulci's big three (and quite a few others) films of gory, dream-like horror to Maya, for Fulci's just a better, more daring director than Avallone. Maya, however, is still a minor pearl that puts such a heavy, honest emphasis on a mood of weirdness and slight alienation that it would be quit impossible for me not to love it.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

In short: Voice from the Stone (2017)

Eric D. Howell’s gothic romance about nurse Verena (Emilia Clarke) -  apparently specialised in nursing children with mental problems back to health only to leave them behind crying afterwards - and her misadventures with little Jakob (Edward Dring), his hot, dark and brooding sculptor father (Marton Csokas) and what may or may not be the ghost of Jakob’s dead mother communicating through the stone walls made from the material that made her family rich is if nothing else a very attractive looking film.

It is shot in appropriately moody colours and style and makes visually often arresting use of the setting in the Tuscany of 1950. The acting is on the good side, too, if rather melodramatic, even for a genre that by nature needs to go a bit bigger than life. Alas, the film really feels more “interesting” (in the negative connotation of that term) than artistically successful.

I think the largest part of Voice from the Stone’s problem is pacing. For a long time, it is very slow – even for me as a viewer who usually enjoys slow movies even if only as an opportunity to really take in the sights – but I don’t believe it actually needs to be quite this slow; as it stands, it seems a bit too much in love with showing us all the pretty sights it has than in using these sights for anything much. On the other hand, once the film decides it’s time for Verena to get to her operatic mad scene, it suddenly pulls her from being a bit frightened yet also drawn by the strangeness of her new surroundings and experiences into becoming raving mad in the classic gothic style without much of a transition between these states, which is the sort of thing it might have set up during the slow bits it didn’t do much at all in. I think the ending is pleasantly ambiguous – either it is quietly horrific or a real happy end – but I don’t think either of the two choices is as well prepared by the film as it should have been, again mostly because it has spent half of its running time dragging its feet looking pretty instead of using its prettiness in a meaningful way for its narrative.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Häxan (1922) and Exploitation Movies

aka Witchcraft Through the Ages

For its large middle part, Benjamin Christensen’s intensely strange peculiar silent documentary about witchcraft (through the ages, obviously) is very much the mother (or one of the mothers, if one is in a picky mood, or really into Dario Argento) of what would follow in the realm of exploitation films as well as in the sensationalist documentary with dramatic re-enactments. Talk about being a pioneering work. All irony aside, what takes Christensen so close to the idiom we know and love is really how dubious the film’s tone is at times. Sure, the film’s last chapter certainly convinces me that the director is a compassionate man who doesn’t want to see the poor, the destitute, the old and the mentally ill either in the thralls of the inquisition nor in a 1920s style asylum, but before that, he falls into the classic ambiguity of all exploitation cinema that shows horrible stuff in great detail and with great enthusiasm while loudly condemning it. That enthusiastic approach to depravity is generally what makes a viewer doubt the truthfulness of exploitation filmmakers; if you ask me, it’s also what makes (or can make, there’s always stuff made by arseholes for arseholes) exploitation films honest and fascinating, and nearly always adds to their entertainment value.

For, if we’re being honest to ourselves, we might as well admit it: most of us – me certainly included – really enjoy watching a bit of staged depravity, some simulation of good old-fashioned human cruelty, and a bit of fake torture too. But, like the movies in which we see that sort of stuff mostly do, we would not – at least I wouldn’t – participate in the charming activities of witch hunters or baby-eating witches, nor would we (at least those among us who aren’t arseholes) be sad about a world in which witch hunts and all kinds of atrocities don’t exist. When watching an exploitation film – and Häxan absolutely is one in this sense – we are actually confronted with these very different impulses much more so than in a worthy Spielberg movie about some historical stuff we are exclusively meant to be moved by and feel good about our own enlightenment. Exploitation movies don’t give us an easy out because they only ever very mildly pretend we don’t to a degree enjoy watching the ugly stuff; turns out they are a mirror.

But back to Christensen’s film for a couple of sentences or so, before I wrap this rambling piece up. And back to joyful depravity, for particularly for the friend of the macabre, there’s some great stuff to look at and let sink into one’s dreams. The witch’s Sabbath sequence is rightly famous, seeing as it is a fever dream of sexual imagery, the director himself as a tongue-waggling devil (in a costume so great, various modern films could learn from it), a thing with a skeletal horse head, baby murder, and all the joys medieval imagination brought us. But there’s also a short visit to a nunnery that should make Ken Russell’s The Devils obsolete (don’t ask me about Ken Russell), a couple of lurid sequences set in a witch coven’s lair, and some choice demonstrations of torture devices and psychological cruelty by the inquisition. Also there and accounted for are humanoid walking pigs that would have given William Hope Hodgson nightmares while also looking patently absurd, and bizarre cat costumes. Among the wonderful weirdness on display, there are also moments of the sort of great, dream-like poetry you only get from silent cinema. In Häxan’s case, much of it can be found in the least fantastic pieces of it, in the close-ups of women’s faces: the old victim of the inquisition and the young and beautiful one both suggest a hidden depth of suffering of women at the hands of men words – and certainly not words written in 1922 – can’t or won’t express. Which of course either turns Häxan into less of an exploitation film at all, or a particularly good one.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

In short: Slit Mouth Woman in LA (2014)

Apparently, that horrid orange guy with the alien on his head on Twitter is right and the US of A do have an illegal immigration problem. Los Angeles, at least, is invaded by a group of low budget filmmakers from Japan going Bulgaria on the place. No wait, that’s the production history of the film, not the plot. In the plot, there’s a curious, unexplained (and never to be explained by the film) accumulation of killings related to Japanese urban legends suddenly happening in Los Angeles. In various, anthology-style episodes, the Slit Mouth(ed) Woman does her thing (and is indeed beautiful), a kokkuri-san (imagine a Japanese version of ouija) session causes murder and undeath, and so on, and so forth. Why, things become so bad, one Furen, Evil Hunter – that’s what it says on screen - (Eiji Inoue) travels to the city for some Japanese style monster bashing.

After this, I honestly hope Japanese budget filmmakers hopping over to Los Angeles to shoot something fast and cheap will become a thing exactly like US action films shot in Bulgaria, for while this certainly is neither a deep, nor a creepy, nor a clever movie, it certainly is a fun one. The directors/writers – Akira Hirose, Hiro Kay, Kazuya Ogawa and Takeshi Sone – seem to have a lot of fun imagining Japanese urban legends happening in the US, and who could blame them?

A large part of the film’s charm is based on the feeling of cultural whiplash watching it may cause. It’s not just that Los Angeles’s population of Japanese citizens seems to float around fifty percent (this is not a complaint), it’s that all the white people in the film don’t conform to the clichés of US horror movie characters but to those of Japanese horror movie characters, leading to an LA based film that’s full of guys and gals of the types you’ll more often meet in anime or in (movie) Tokyo; the slightly alienating – or at least very weird – effect is further enhanced by the quality of the actors playing these characters, for their acting is off in various typical indie horror ways anyway, resulting in moments when writing and acting come together or apart in the most bizarre ways.

If this sounds as if I were looking down on the film, nothing could be further from the truth. We all have, after all, seen many a film made by US filmmakers who just don’t get the foreign setting they are using at all. This turnabout isn’t just fair play, but it’s also a great example of cultural bastardisation, of artists playing around with the elements of a foreign (or should I say “strange” in this context) culture, understanding about half of it, and building something new and weird nobody actually coming from the place would ever be able to dream up.

Add to this the film’s sprightly pace, decent to good special effects and its goofy lovability, and you could do worse than stream this on a rainy evening. I actually found it among the dregs of cheap horror films on Amazon Prime, and certainly became a little happier watching it.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Action Jackson (1988)

Detroit cop Jericho “Action” Jackson (Carl Weathers) has been having a rather quiet two years. After a bit of police brutality towards the – rapist – son of a very rich man, he was demoted from Lieutenant to Sergeant, lost the right to wear a gun, and consequently landed himself a desk job. Jackson’s life is going to become rather more interesting again in the next few days, because a series of men working in the same worker’s union all happen to die rather explosive deaths. Jackson’s colleagues don’t seem to bother much about this sort of thing. The script doesn’t make clear if they actually believe a guy who had a grenade shot into his chest and exploded died in an accident, though they will later pretend a different guy getting shot into his chest from a few feet distance with a gun that didn’t belong to him committed suicide. At least, nobody does much investigating or other nonsense. The audience does of course already know there’s a group of supposedly sneaky and competent, but actually loud and silly, assassins making the union rounds.

Fortunately, an old college buddy of Jackson, one Tony (Robert Davi in a short but sweaty appearance), asks our hero for help because he’s convinced he’s the next on the list of the killers; and he’s absolutely right. Tony can even point Jackson to the man he is pretty sure to be responsible – rich asshole Peter Dellaplane (Craig T. Nelson). Dellaplane just happens to be exactly the same rich asshole whose son Jackson beat up (or mutilated, the dialogue’s a bit vague here) and got into prison, and who then did his best to ruin Jackson’s career. One might believe that’s a bit of an additional motivating factor, so it won’t come as too much of a surprise that Jackson soon finds himself sniffing around Dellaplane’s (evil) business, perhaps finding allies in Dellaplane’s wife Patrice (Sharon Stone before she was famous) and his junkie singer mistress Sydney Ash (Vanity when she was sort of famous). Explosions are soon too follow, as are absurd attempts at framing Jackson for murder that of course cut it with his brain dead colleagues.

Action Jackson is a rather likeable attempt to turn Carl Weathers into a black American action hero, kinda like a Schwarzenegger who can act and doesn’t look horrifying. In an interesting turn of events, the film doesn’t nod in the direction of classic blaxploitation flicks at all, and focuses on late 80s style US action movie tropes, treating its hero’s blackness with casualness. Given the comparative lack of other action vehicles starring Weathers, it can’t have been terribly successful at the box office, though it’s a rather entertaining film if you’re willing and able to at least ignore the typical flaws of US action cinema of this point in time. So please don’t think about the cartoonish incompetence of a movie police force that makes even the worst real world one (and boy, they do get pretty terrible, don’t they?) look like a band of geniuses and heroes; ignore the fact that the bad guy’s plan – he apparently murders lots of people to control the union so he can then use its influence to some time in the vague future become the power behind the throne of an as of now imaginary president – makes not a lick of sense; and please, don’t even try to find connections between anything in the film’s world and the real one.

Ideally, in an action movie of this style, these flaws shouldn’t just be things to be tolerated. As a matter of fact, they are supposed to be enjoyed, and boy, is Action Jackson enjoyable. Craig T. Nelson is awesome as the ultra-violent rich slime ball, his plan is pretty damn funny, his goons are clearly supposed to be cool but are very desperately not, so they are ideally positioned to be shouted at, be-one-linered and murdered by a hero who really needs to get creative with his own violence because he has to survive much of the film without a gun (he’s obviously taking the bit where he’s not allowed to be armed seriously even once people start and try to murder him). Weathers is very fun to watch as Jackson, giving the typical US macho hero some human traits, even making him pretty likeable. It helps that the man’s dignity seems undisturbed by even the cheesiest and most nonsensical one-liner (my personal favourite is “Chill out!”, before he burns a guy to death), nor by the film’s sudden bursts of what I surmise is humour. And if you’re interested in the baser things, Stone and Vanity both have a bit of nudity in here; though we actually see much more of shirtless Weathers, so there’s hopefully something for everyone here.

The whole bag of lovable nonsense was directed by Craig R. Baxley. Baxley has an extensive list of credits in stunt teams for film and TV, is credited just as extensively with various second unit directing jobs, directed a few episodes of The A-Team, and then – starting with the film at hand – made three well liked – well, by people like me who enjoy this sort of thing – action movies before he trotted off to become a dependable and solid TV director. His stunt background certainly shows in the quality of the stunt work here, with every bit of carnage and violence shot to full effect, Baxley clearly operating on the directorial basis that the audience wants to get as good a look at possible at what he has to offer here. In other words, there’s not boring action scene here. Even better, Baxley does know how to stage an entertaining dialogue sequence too, providing his actors with many an opportunity to chew the scenery or to have fun with the general absurdity of things.

As a matter of fact, I think Action Jackson is much better – and definitely more entertainingly – directed than most of the more mainstream US action movies of its era that for my tastes tend to be not terribly well paced – the works of Harlin and McTiernan obviously excluded. I certainly prefer Weathers to Schwarzenegger, too, so clearly, I judge this film “better than Commando”.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Films Make A Post: When the kidding stops...the killing starts!

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014): The second and fortunately last of the Andrew Garfield Spider-Man films – again directed by Marc Webb – doubles down on most of the flaws of the first film. So there’s a screenplay made out of many bits and pieces that very often go nowhere and bloat the film to a run-time of nearly two and a half hours for no good reason whatsoever, character motivations that egregiously follow the needs of the script, surprisingly mediocre special effects for a film of this type and budget, so many nagging details that either just don’t work or don’t work in the places where the film puts them, too many villains for the thin script or Webb’s personality-deprived direction to handle, and so on and so forth, until the whole thing turns into a confused slog.

Edge of Tomorrow (2014): Doug Liman’s adaptation of Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s brilliantly titled “All You Need Is Kill” is good enough to satisfy even the needs of a Tom Cruise hater like me. It does help that the old placenta eater is teamed up with the generally and specifically lovely Emily Blunt, as well as that the film early on uses Cruise’s slimy image for its own needs for a bit. Liman also gets a decent performance out of Cruise, even managing to put a lid on the actor’s often distracting vanity (cinematically useless heroic poses usually being to Cruise what vaseline on the camera lens was to aging Joan Crawford).

The script uses the good old time loop (not invented by Groundhog Day, by the way, as much as I like all parts of that film not Andie McDowell) structure for a fun, fast, in the early proceedings darkly funny military SF adventure of highest entertainment value. The old SF reader in me wants to decry the lack of actual substance, and my politics the film’s inability to even think of any way to solve problems but violence. However, that’s really asking of what at its core is a clever and fun adventure movie with CGI monsters to be something it isn’t trying to do while ignoring it is rather brilliant at what it does do.

Atomica (2017): Dagen Merrill’s – nominally SF – thriller is certainly well meant: it is pleasantly serious in tone, obviously believes in character as the basis for plot and clearly tries very hard. Unfortunately, it’s just not very effective at being a thriller. There are few actual surprises, and while the writing certainly is serious and character-based, it is also just not very interesting and never becomes gripping or exciting in any way, shape, or form. Visually, the film suffers from pretty bland warehouse-style sets, and direction that never chooses anything but the most obvious way to shoot any given scene. It’s certainly not a bad film, but I find it hard to find much more than theoretical praise for it either.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Past Misdeeds: Santo contra los asesinos de otros mundos (1971? 1973?)

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

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

A horrible monstrosity that looks a lot like a bunch of people crawling around under a tarp or inside of garbage bags kills important leaders of Mexico's industry. It's so very very sad. The tarpster serves a certain Malkosh (Carlos Agosti) who uses his awesome ability to appear on a television in police chief O'Connor's (Marco Antonio Campos) meeting room to try and blackmail Mexico into paying him a lot of money, or else, more "important" people will die.

Fortunately, the police has a not-so-secret weapon: El Santo (El Santo!), the idol of the masses, greatest man on Earth, Blue Demon's secret nemesis (etc.) is on the case before you can even cry out in excitement. One might doubt the great man's technique - getting himself overrun by Malkosh's car after he has already gotten rid of the bad guy's henchmen, and then caught - but his results are great.

So, after winning a little gladiatorial bout against a Roman-style guy with small shield and short sword, then another Roman-style guy with trident and net, and then a not terribly Roman-style guy with a flame thrower, our hero guns down Malkosh and his men with a machine gun. Malkosh's a good loser and informs Santo, while dying very politely, of the origin of the monster. Basically, moon cooties. Malkosh also tells Santo that his former henchman Licur (Juan Gallardo) is planning to use the moon cootie monster to rule the world. I imagine Licur's plan looking something like "1. Control moon cootie monster 2. ???? 3. RULER OF THE WORLD!!!".

Licur seems to need the help of "space scientist" Dr. Bernstein (as played in one of his regular guest appearances by Santo's real-life manager Carlos Suarez) for some parts of that plan, and has already kidnapped him. For some reason, Licur has forgotten to kidnap Bernstein's daughter Karen (Sasha Montenegro) too, but Santo is sure that his new enemy will try to sooner or later, so it's a simple job of protecting the girl, saving the scientist, wrestling Licur and his henchmen into submission and somehow getting rid of the moon cootie monster for our hero.

A meagre plot description like this can hardly do justice to Rubén Galindo's Asesinos De Otros Mundos. Sure, the whole thing might sound goofy, even for a film in a genre about the heroic exploits of masked, evil-smiting wrestlers, but the special beauty of this one lies in its love for loopy details. Galindo has no time for filler scenes (in fact, there isn't even a single one of the obligatory ring fights to bring the film up to length in it), because he has to include not one, but two evil masterminds, one or more (the script doesn't seem to be able to decide how many monsters there actually are - the characters usually speak in singular about it, but if it's only one, it's better at teleporting than a killer in a slasher movie; also, stealth) tarp monsters, and quite a few scenes of Santo heroically running away from said tarp monster(s).

The loopy details Galindo seems to love so well are often of the kind that can only lead to awesome or uncomfortable questions. I mean, why exactly does O'Connor have a replica of Santo's head in a cupboard in his office? Is it like the Bat Signal, but really, really weird? How does Malkosh's TV telephone work? How many monsters are there, exactly? And while I'm asking questions, two gladiators and then a guy with a flame thrower, Malkosh? There's also a lovely moment when Santo realizes that Karen hasn't been kidnapped yet and automatically assumes that Licur will try any moment now; because that's what the daughter of a scientist is for, right?

I have to admit that I'm in love with the randomness of Asesinos's script. Its wild and illogical leaps of imagination may not work as "good writing", but delight my inner child with their sheer comic book/pulp recklessness, and their willingness to just go for badly prepared ideas like the two masterminds business the second of whom is never even hinted at until half of the film is over, or the surprising - to say the least - "Santo turns into the Spider (Master of Men) and shoots everyone" scene. (And yes, I know this is not the only case of Santo using lethal force against an enemy, but he doesn't usually leave behind this many corpses). The only thing that's missing for complete lucha nirvana is a scene with our hero in mask and pyjamas, but he's wearing a very red cape throughout the whole of the film to make up for that lack.

Equally random as the script is Galindo's direction: it's an improbable mixture of the usual point and shoot style of early 70s lucha cinema  and sudden bursts of arty scene framing and camera angles. "Why not pretend it's a film noir for a minute" seems to be Galindo's motto here, and certainly, why not?

I'll probably hardly need to mention it, but the film's already pretty fantastic weirdness is further strengthened by the random jazz soundtrack (supposedly by the excellently named Chucho Zarzosa, but probably a random assemblage of records that were lying around during editing) that jumps from jazz funk, to easy listening, to some awesome atonal stuff, without a single moment where music and action on screen have anything to do with one another.

And then there's the monster. Moon cootie monster is one of those horrible creatures that move so slowly they can only devour their victims when these victims crash their cars, or don't know how to run, or never look around, or dislocate their ankles, but it's also as adorable as three to ten people crawling around under what might be a bunch of garbage bags stitched together can be. I posit that someone who doesn't at least smile when the thing starts crawling around, "threatening" people must be dead inside.

Basically, Asesinos De Otros Mundos is the dream of every twelve year old lucha fan (there are still twelve year old lucha fans, right?), scripted by someone who is writing like a twelve year old himself. In other words, it's lucha perfection, and exactly the sort of film that makes questions of "good" or "bad" absolutely irrelevant. Asesinos De Otros Mundos just is.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

In short: Paterson (2016)

It is difficult to talk about Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson without making it sound like a precious, pretentious and condescending piece of pap, seeing as it concerns itself with the poetry of everyday life and everyday people and the beauty hidden in the quotidian; but that’s mostly because this sort of thing is incredibly difficult to pull off and seems to draw the filmmakers least able to actually do it the most, so there are quite a few terrible films – usually made by the sort of arthouse director who never met an everyday person in his life – sitting around as bad precedents.

Jarmusch, however, pulls this thing off without even looking as if he’s trying. Paterson, mind you, isn’t a “realist” movie, so there’s little in it of the kind of thing that makes one want to kick the world and its collective inhabitants in their stupid heads. Instead, this is a film about the quiet joys of overheard conversations, love that is strong and deep and at least partly based on tolerance instead of being a dramatic kind of love, the small sadnesses and defeats that are just as real as the loud and dramatic ones, and an idea of art that’d find the concept of outsider art deeply confusing because it’s really the insiders making art that stand at a distance to the world as people inhabit it.

Because this is Jarmusch, the film is full of little bits of strangeness - strangeness that in Jarmusch’s view clearly is just as everyday as is driving a bus for the film’s main character – and chance encounters.

Of course, things never really cohere into a plot when the film follows bus driver Paterson (Adam Driver), his wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) and their dog Marvin (Nellie) through a week of their life. It’s not a week in which nothing happens, but it certainly isn’t one dominated by any pressing need to follow a classic dramatic structure. Rather, Jarmusch shows the sort of flow of life that once might have inspired dramatic structures.

The director has by now become highly proficient at this kind of slow exploration of people and places, and where some of his early films had moments where their deliberate slowness felt like the director consciously striking a pose of breaking narrative rules, here (and in quite a few of his other films) the film’s habits and structure are nearly natural expressions of the things it is about. Paterson’s also genuinely funny, but that’s just life if you think about it from a certain angle.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Knights of the Teutonic Order (1960)

aka Black Cross

Original title: Krzyzacy

The early 15th Century. Poland (or to be more precise what would become the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) still suffers from frequent attacks on supposed pagans as well as trade routes and attempts to grasp the country’s sovereignty by the Teutonic Order (who in real history as well as in the movie were a group unpleasant even by the standards of fighting Christians of the medieval era). Young nobleman Zbysko of Bogdaniec (Mieczylsaw Kalenik) heroically stumbles into the conflict more than he at first chooses to partake in it when he falls in love on first sight with the beautiful (yet frankly completely lacking in any kind of personality) Danusia (Grazyna Stanizewska). Danusia’s main characteristic is being the daughter of one Jurand of Spychow (Andrzej Szalawski). That man never was on anything but violent terms with the Teutonic Order but has become an effective guerrilla fighter and a major thorn in the Germans’ side ever since they horribly – and needlessly – murdered his wife, Danusia’s mother.

Given that state of affairs, it is little wonder that Zbysko soon finds himself fighting the Teutonic Order too, once he elopes to Danusia to be married and has to cope with the usual problems of heroes in this kind of epic: kidnapped fiancés, intrigues, duels, recurring comic relief characters, and so on and so forth. There is, of course, also another woman, his childhood friend Jagienka Zychówna (Urszula Modrzynska), who is rather more interesting to modern eyes than Danusia’s medieval ideal of womanhood; pleasantly enough, the film seems to agree there too, or at least never criticizes her for being opinionated and capable. The plot culminates in 1410s Battle of Grunwald that started the decline of the Teutonic Order and mostly ended them as a threat for Poland and Lithuania.

As far as I understand it, Aleksander Ford’s historical epic based on the highly influential novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz was something of a blockbuster in Poland, and still is a beloved film. It’s not terribly difficult to see why, for even though it does have its share of problems (I’ll get to them later), it carries has an undeniable power and conviction. It also manages the trick of being a large patriotic epic without becoming unpleasant about its patriotism. That’s a difficult balancing act, but one Ford seems perfectly committed to.

Don’t misunderstand me: the Teutonic Order of the film is a group of horrible German people doing horrible things to the Poles and Poland (as historically Germans – I’d rather not phrase this “we Germans” – alas have repeatedly done), and the film does very consciously let the Order and its practices echo Nazi iconography and ideology. However Ford is also more fair-minded than you’d expect, never dehumanizing the enemy but giving even the worst of them scenes that provide them with depth, a degree of humanity and even moments that understand they are not villains in their own minds; which doesn’t make them less horrible, but more human. This thread of the film pays off particularly well very late in the film when a mutilated Jurand forgives the man responsible for his fate, a sequence that is particularly moving because Jurand’s earlier ordeal at the hands of the Order is a cinematically particularly effective sequence where the film takes on the guise of Gothic horror and brings the desperation and cruelty of the moment to life with near-expressionist sets and lighting.

Jurand, the members of the Teutonic Order and Jagienka are certainly the most interesting characters of the cast. In the tradition of many an epic historic movie, the film’s nominal romantic leads are certainly courageous and virtuous but they are also desperately bland, with nothing in their personalities that’d draw a viewer to care about them. The other definite weakness of Knights – and one I’d be surprised to learn not to be caused by an attempt to press as much of Sienkiewicz’s book into not exactly short three hours running time – is the film’s tendency to the episodic, to introduce scenes and characters that aren’t terribly important for mood, theme or character, and to take the scenic root a bit too often. That’s of course a problem the film shares with many a long historical epic – keep in mind you are reading the opinions of a guy who thinks Laurence of Arabia could lose half an hour or so here – and perhaps just something to be expected of this kind of movie.

However, there are so many inventive, moving and captivating scenes in Knights of the Teutonic Order I’m perfectly okay to have to drag myself through some weak ones, too. As a director, Ford is particularly adept at changing his tone and style for the needs of any given scene, so there’s a real heft and even a sense of sadness to the climactic battle scene, that gothic horror whiff to Jurand’s ordeal, a clean simplicity to the more peaceful moments, and generally the impression of a director who manages to shoot no two scenes in exactly the same way yet still manages to create a film that is an artistic whole.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

In short: Temple (2017)

When it comes to horror sub-genres with dubious returns for the viewer, the old “stupid Americans get themselves killed by visiting the wrong foreign place?” does present a particularly pathetic picture.

Directed by Michael Barrett, and written by Simon Barrett who has written some really good stuff (The Guest comes to mind) in the past, yet is also responsible for some very much less good stuff (Blair Witch and some of the worst segments of the VHS movies), this one finds three young pretty things going to Japan. They are The Girl (Natalia Warner), The Asshole Boyfriend (Brandon Sklenar), and The Girl’s Male Best Friend (Logan Huffman). The last one does of course have a vague history of mental illness that doesn’t at all point to a particularly useless twist ending (no, sir!) and a giant crush on The Girl she somehow manages not just to ignore but not to notice. They are not on vacation but doing some vague stuff concerning Japanese temples having to do with The Girl’s folkloric studies; why someone who doesn’t speak Japanese is doing her work on Japanese themes, we don’t know, or if we are involved here behind the camera, we don’t care about. In one immense twist on the formula, at least Male Best Friend does know the language of the country the idiots are visiting.

Of course, the three fools sooner or later stumble upon the trace of a creepy temple in the country (I’ll spare us all the would-be creepy back and forth to find out about it), a temple, I might add, the next people Male Best Friend encounters in Tokyo just happen to know all about to warn our heroes off. Of course, they still go and encounter some surprisingly lame Japanese ghosties (of course including a creepy little boy) as well as the least fox spirit like fox spirit you can imagine, and go through various personal troubles. Things end on a particularly stupid twist ending that makes no fucking sense at all when seen in connection with the film that came before it.

The sad thing about Temple is that it should have a lot going for it. Unlike many of these tourist horror things, the film was actually co-produced by a Japanese company and shot in Japan, and includes actual Japanese actors speaking actual Japanese. Why, even the effects are made in Japan, so there is at least a degree of authenticity concerning things Japanese. Unfortunately, the Barretts squander the inherent possibilities of their set-up with a generic story about generic people told in a generic way ending in a muddled series of twists that lack any logical coherence. It’s not just that that the film’s final act makes no sense, I can’t even parse what sense the filmmakers are trying to do.

You’d think the filmmakers would at least have the chutzpah to steal from the better Japanese horror films for their shocks, but they can’t even get around to creating a decent creepy little boy (he doesn’t even make cat noises or crawls under anyone’s blanket), while the fox spirit is just a generic CGI monster. There’s just nothing in Temple that could keep anyone’s interest up. Well, at least it’s short.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Creepy (2016)

Original title: クリーピー 偽りの隣人

Warning: there will be copious spoilers!

Some time ago, Koichi Takakura (Hidetoshi Nishijima) was one of the few Japanese police investigators well versed in American profiling techniques. After an incident that resulted in the death of several people and grievous injury to himself, Koichi retired from the force, and now works as a university lecturer on criminal psychology. His wife Yasuko (Yuko Takeuchi) and he have just moved into a new house in easier reach for his new job. And, one suspects, also to draw a hard line between the past and the present. The marriage certainly isn’t in the best state, either, both partners performing the roles of a loving couple more than actually living them.

Soon, though, Koichi finds himself falling back into old habits he promised Yasuko to change, poking around a cold case involving the disappearance of three members of a single family who left behind their daughter Saki (Haruna Kawaguchi). Saki’s vague statements concerning the case never made much sense to anyone involved in the investigation, and when a former colleague and friend of Koichi hears of his interest in the case, he asks him to interview the now nearly grown up girl. What he hears from her suggests a very particular and strange kind of serial killer.

At the same time, Yasuko has repeated and increasingly disturbing encounters with one of their neighbours, Mr. Nishino (Teruyuki Kagawa). Something is very off about that man as well as his family, and he seems to develop some kind of hold over her.

Of all the directors who came to a degree of international fame during the great J-horror boom, Creepy’s Kiyoshi Kurosawa has been the one whose films have been the most consistent in quality; by now, I don’t believe Kurosawa is actually able to make a bad or even just a mediocre movie. Among the themes creeping up again and again in the director’s films, alienation is one of the strongest and clearly of great importance to him. In the case of Creepy, Kurosawa concerns himself with the quiet alienation between members of a family, with people who are nominally close going through the motions of personal relations, never even getting up the energy to shout much about their problems – that would, after all, be emotional, and the characters in the film are mostly involved in shutting out their emotions for another until only the outer veneer of them exists.

It’s this gap between what they actually feel and try not to feel, and what they express the film’s serial killer thrives on, dominating family members and playing them against one another by providing them with the opportunity to violently express all the things they leave unsaid as well as with drugs that makes it so much easier for them to keep the emotions they are afraid of at bay. There’s even more to the character, in the way he uses whom he leaves alive of the families he preys on to construct a fake family of his own; in a fitting bit of irony he certainly doesn’t appreciate, a family that is quite a bit more built on lies then the ones he destroys ever were.

A look at Creepy’s basic plot construction might raise a few eyebrows, for Kurosawa asks you to accept that the serial killer Koichi begins to hunt just happens to be his neighbour now and that said serial killer is – apparently without violence - able to turn a reasonable woman like Yasuko into his drug-addled accomplice over the course of a few days. However, I don’t think Kurosawa is actually interested in making the kind of straightforward thriller where this thing would be a problem, for both these narrative problems (if you want to call them such) – as well as some rather more minor ones later on – fit very well into the film’s meaning: Nishino just happens to be the Takakura’s neighbour because, the film suggests, every family is like them, so he might as well be theirs, and Yasuko falls as quickly as she does because she needs exactly the kind of destruction and/or structure (both things seem closely related in the film; see also Nishino’s house that is at once a building site and a well constructed death trap) the killer provides.

While Creepy is sometimes unwilling to play to the standard rules of the thriller, it still uses many a trope and many a visual concept from the genre. Kurosawa is colliding these with the earnest Japanese domestic drama most beloved by western critics when it comes to the country’s movie output (and one he has worked in as well) explores what happens during and after the collision, quite literally finding the horror beneath the calm bourgeois surface in the wreckage. And Creepy is truly a horror film, too, full of moments of expectant dread when another character steps into Nishino’s house, a place nobody leaves unchanged (and few alive); culminating in various acts of violence that are as haunting as they are not just because of Kurosawa’s unflinching depiction of them, but because of the natures of the perpetrators, and what this means.

The acting is spectacular throughout, with Teruyuki Kagawa’s indeed very creepy performance certainly a stand-out, but also nuanced work by Takeuchi (who easily convinces the viewer of things that should be difficult to swallow) and Nishijima.

It’s all held together by moments of incredible filmmaking. Just watch the way the scene becomes darker and darker, and the rooms closer and closer in Koichi’s interview with Saki Honda, and that’s just one perfectly staged and imagined scene among dozens. Kurosawa is equally adept at the moments of horror and dread as he is at the domestic drama (with echoes of very classic Japanese cinema in the last one, not surprisingly), but more importantly, he easily keeps a film under control that would in lesser hands burst under the pressure of too much meaning, too many genres colliding, and too many improbabilities, and so proves that all these elements do indeed belong together in Creepy.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Three Films Make A Post: This Dogg's got a bone to pick.

Amusement (2008): This sort of slasher by John Simpson is rather irritating. It looks really fantastic, it is slickly directed, and Katheryn Winnick is a fine final girl, but the script (by Jake Wade Wall, apparently otherwise one of the go to guys for pointless remakes) is one of those efforts that tries to be a clever twisty thriller but ignores even the mildest bit of plausibility. Its central killer and abductor (Keir O’Donnell) – apparently going by “The Laugh” – prefers plans ripped from creepypasta which aren’t just absurd and only work when everyone involved is an idiot but could only work in a universe with an interventionist god who has taken quite a shine to the killer, so based on mere chance are they; characters don’t just act like idiots but like idiots following a script dumber than them; there’s a backstory between the killer and his victims that is so underdeveloped your random late 80s slasher has more depth. And so on, and so forth, the people involved clearly believing that there’s no need to put any effort into anything about a horror film or thriller beyond a slick look.

Shojo Tsubaki aka The Camellia Girl (2016): Torico’s adaptation of the Suehiro Maruo manga with Risa Nakamura in the title role is a pretty incredible mix of candy colours, proper kitsch, twisted kitsch, cruelty, feminism, perversion, anti-feminism, star cult critique, pathos and just plain weird shit, and ends with the sort of meta blast that just might make you interpret what you’ve just seen completely differently from what you thought three minutes earlier, or it might confuse you completely; probably – and rightfully so – both. It is pretty mind-blowing, in any case.

Visually, Torico delivers a particularly fine example of classic Weird Japan that uses artificiality in a way like Hausu did in the olden times (and looks great and aesthetically stringent); in sensibility, its use of kitsch and irony without loathing or posturing feels close to Anna Biller’s grand The Love Witch – just with a very Japanese sensibility.

American Friends (1991): Last but not least, this romance (with some comedic elements) about an Oxford don (played by Michael Palin who also co-wrote the script based on the travel diaries of his great-grandfather) who finds love – or really life – through a young American woman (Trini Alvarado) – who very much finds in him what she needs too – doesn’t look or sound like terribly much. Tristram Powell’s direction is a bit conservative at times – though it is neither cheap nor stupid – but the stars here are the acting - with Palin, Alvarado and Connie Booth as Alvarado’s adoptive mother/aunt putting turning out moving performances without histrionics – and a script that understands the past and its people and their respective flaws and mostly treats them with mild irony, a degree of sadness and much love; it looks upon our common humanity and treats these people gently, with the understanding that everyone looks like a fool (or worse) seen from the future (that eternal know-it-all).

Friday, September 22, 2017

Past Misdeeds: Contagion (1987)

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

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

Real estate agent Mark (John Doyle) is driving through the Australian bush when he sees a woman being kidnapped by your typical rape-hungry backwoods person. The following rather timid rescue attempt doesn't work out too well for Mark, for the backwoods guy isn't alone. A few minutes later, Mark finds himself stretched over his own car's hood and raped by a guy who dresses up in a mouse mask for the occasion.

Afterwards (we don't get to see the rape in detail), the backwoodsies (that's the technical term, I think) take Mark and the girl to their camp. In a surprising twist of fate, Mark manages to escape after a time and even stumbles into killing one of his tormentors. Next thing he knows, Mark finds himself - still in the bush - breaking down in front of an aggressively blasé woman named Cleo (Nathalie Gaffney). Unimpressed by the backwoods rapist threat he mumbles about, Cleo takes Mark to a mansion where she lives with another girl called Helen (Pamela Hawkesford) and an older guy with an upperclass accent and Hugh Hefner's dress sense (that is, none) called Rupert (Ray Barrett).

Rupert likes to expostulate about the classical 80s yuppie talking points - power and money - and something called the threefold path. Mark seems instantly smitten by the blather and the two girls, so he's quite happy when they invite him to return whenever he likes. Which he will do, once he's fled from the hospital he'll soon enough find himself in after his ordeal.

On his second visit, Rupert invites Mark to become one of them ("ONE OF US! ONE OF US!") - filthy rich, spouting nonsense, and so on. He just has to prove to Rupert he really has "the right stuff" for that role.

It's pretty clear to Mark that you demonstrate your talent for being a rich bastard by killing people, so he first gets rid of one of his real estate colleagues, and then strangles his girlfriend Cheryl (Nicola Bartlett) a bit. Surely, that would impress even Gordon Gecko, and Rupert does in fact accept Mark as one of his own, while Cleo and Helen reward him with sex.

Cheryl's not the sort of person who is dissuaded from a man by a bit of strangulation, however. She decides to find out what the hell happened to Mark. That probably won't end well for her. But honestly, what is happening to Mark? Is he hallucinating? Or has he stumbled onto haunted ground that has infected him with some kind of evil?

There are quite a few things the films of the ozploitation wave of the 70s and 80s have in common with the US local indie productions of the same era - generally (yes, this is a shoe that does not fit every film) both styles of film were done on low, sometimes very low, budgets; they were distinguished by not hiding their specific regionalities but using them (consciously or unconsciously) to give themselves a grounding in the local that could reach nearly documentarian levels; they were often not afraid to be terribly weird - sometimes because their makers didn't actually know how to do "normal", sometimes because their makers were willing to take risks the mainstream would never take, sometimes both; and they were often made by directors who only had a single movie in them, or were the single strange outings by the kind of work-for-hire director you'd never expect to have something weird, or even just interesting in him.

Contagion's Karl Zwicky is one of those latter directors. Before and after this particular films, Zwicky was working on about every Australian TV show ever made (warning: I may be exaggerating here). While Zwicky would also go on to direct an episode of Farscape (as you know one of the notoriously weirdest SF shows ever made), most of his TV work was on the sort of show that does not thrive on creative direction or a talent for the bizarre. Contagion pretty much makes up for that lack of strangeness in its director’s filmography by being as weird an experience as a film made outside of Taiwan can possibly be.

Now, parts of the Internet call the film a supernatural slasher, and it's hard to disagree with that interpretation completely - there are, after all, various murders, and the film's ending suggests that the supernatural agency that was kept ambiguous until then is in fact real. However, calling Contagion a supernatural slasher leaves out a few other genres it's part of, like 80s yuppie satire (rich people are evil, and proud of it, use computers, and love to talk gloating nonsense, don't you know?), classic backwoods horror (even going into the male rape direction most films of that genre - beyond Deliverance - don't dare touch), films about pacts with evil entities, and so on. Most importantly, calling this a supernatural slasher just doesn't at all prepare somebody willing to watch it for the air of utter strangeness it breathes.

Mainly responsible for this air of the bizarre is Zwicky's direction. I don't think the director applies a single camera angle here you'd call straight. When a scene is not dominated by improbable blue light like in a Tsui Hark movie gone mad, it's filmed from below, or with a camera tilted sideways, or Zwicky just applies a judicious amount of peculiar camera movement. It's a style quite unlike anything I'd have expected from a TV guy of this era. It's also a style that could easily step into the trap of being weird for weirdness' sake (not that I'd necessarily have a problem with that), but it fits the tone of the film's script - raving lunacy - perfectly.

In a different movie, the acting - especially John Doyle's wide-eyed mugging - could be seen as unpleasantly broad, in Contagion's case this broadness is needed to not let the actors' work be drowned out by all the things Zwicky's visuals are throwing at the audience, and to strengthen the mood of the unreal. That mood's pretty necessary too, seeing as some of what's going on in the film is in fact not real at all (just don't ask me which parts).

Although the film's general execution has an remarkably artificial feel (that's a compliment, mind you), it stands in marked contrast to the localities it takes place in - there's a fantastic friction between the very real and naturally moody locations it takes place in and the strangeness and absurdity of what happens in these locations.

Contagion shows not a weird slowly seeping into reality as is normal in the horror genre, but the weird having a shouting match with reality until one of them falls down dead.