Thursday, July 30, 2009

In short: Tenement (1985)

The multi-racial gang of sociopathic victim of facial muscle paralysis Chaco (Enrique Sandino) has found a nice warm home for themselves in the cellar of a rundown tenement building in the Bronx. There they can really live the gang lifestyle - snorting coke, smoking joints and eating raw rat.

Alas, their paradise is short-lived when one of the building's tenants calls the police on them. At least they are able to hide their drugs and weapons before the cops show up and so their stay in custody is only for a few hours.

Chaco is rather pissed by the whole affair and swears vengeance on everyone in the building. The same night, he and his gang attack their unsuspecting victims.

Theoretically, we now witness how the gang slowly works through the building, killing and raping like pirates and how the tenants are desperately struggling for survival.

I remember having had some nice things to say about Roberta Findlay's Lurkers, but I find Tenement to be much harder to get enthusiastic about.

Sure, Findlay's hand for filming urban decay is present, but it's really the only thing halfway praisable about the film. Tenement's core problem lies in its terrible hesitancy to commit to being nasty or poignant or disturbing. It has all the elements of a really mean little film, yet whenever the time comes to truly deliver on its promise of depravity and bad times, it doesn't follow through. There are scenes that should be highly tasteless and disturbing, but Findlay's direction gets so unsure and wavering whenever it should be ruthless that they don't have much of an effect at all. Which wouldn't be much of a problem if it were a sign of subtlety or class, but Tenement is the sort of film that succeeds or fails on pure meanness alone - if it doesn't make its viewers uncomfortable, it won't do much else than bore them.

It doesn't help at all that most of the film consists of scenes and scenes and scenes of the gang destroying furniture and banging against heaters or the tenants sitting around and not saying anything of import (character arcs are right out anyway), not activities I'd usually connect with tension or suspense.

The whole film just never really comes together, leaving what should be shocking and exhilarating just kind of boring and dispiriting.


Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Detective Story (2007)

Private detective Raita Kazama (Kazuya Nakayama) is a typical representative of his profession. He's a slob, a wearer of highly dubious fashion (or "vintage clothing", as he likes to call it) and obviously poor as can be, even though he somehow manages to have two employees in his agency.

One evening, when he insinuates himself into the alcohol reserves of his new neighbour, his perversely straight-laced namesake and IT expert Raita Takashima (Kurodo Maki), a distraught woman seeks his help. Unfortunately, Kazama's too drunk and lazy to be of any use and asks her to see him the next day at his office.

She'll never arrive there, though, because she is murdered on her way home from Kazama's. The killer absconds with her liver to do who knows what with it.

Kazama is hit hard by the poor woman's death and decides to find her killer. That's easier said than done when your talents as a detective mostly consist of the ability to wear an absurd wig and when even your ex-colleagues in the police force call you the worst detective ever.

Nonetheless, someone feels threatened enough by our intrepid hero to deposit Kazama's fountain pen close to the next murder victim. That's enough for the police to make Kazama their main suspect, but not enough for the detective to give up on the case, even if it means dodging cops and trying to rope information out of a serial killer whose nemesis he somehow managed to become.

Soon, all trails lead to the eccentric artist Aoyama.

I doubt that Detective Story is a film that could convince someone not already enamored with director Takashi Miike's body of work to fall in love with it. That does not mean that it is not a film worth watching. It's just a difficult film to comprehend and I have a hard time imagining what someone not familiar with Miike's style would make of it.

The film seems to be a re-imagining and sympathetic parody of a late 70s TV show I know nothing at all about (and the Internet won't tell me), so I bet that some of its jokes were going right over my head. But - the film mainly being a comedy of sorts and all - there's quite a bit of humor in it that I did get. Tonally, said humor jumps merrily and with the kind of abandon one is used to from Miike between really unfunny slapstick, that dead-pan Japanese humor which is so dead-pan that you're often not sure if it is in fact humor or just plain weirdness and the sort of left-field stuff one has come to expect from Miike. Because only having his way with one old TV show alone would probably bore our directorial maestro shitless, we also get little routines that play with the mystery genre in general and a truly strange variation on Silence of the Lambs' Hannibal Lecter (but with more maggot farming).

Just making a comedy would of course also be way too boring, and so the humor rubs against some gore, some maggots and a tale about the negative influence of Rudolf Steiner's theosophy on a too impressionable mind in a way that I would probably find infuriating if it wasn't exactly what I expected of Miike. This is not one of the films where disparate elements are carefully entwined until they make a beautiful tapestry, instead, they are cut up and cut open with a certain amount of glee and a strange intensity and stitched together in new ways to become a sometimes shambling, sometimes hopping monstrosity with its own kind of beauty.

And while that is more than fine with me, I don't find Detective Story to be one of Miike's strongest efforts. The comedy is sometimes a little too pedestrian, the acting a little too unrefined in the wrong way to make the film completely satisfying and some of Miike's carefully amateurish jump cut tricks just don't seem to lead anywhere all that interesting. Still, I'll take a not completely satisfying film by Miike over films by directors who are always playing it safe any time.


Tuesday, July 28, 2009

In short: Erotic Ghost: Siren (2004)

A gang of Yakuza whose members are gifted with typical Yakuza names like Chucky and Jews has made a big robbery. The group decides to hide out in an abandoned gold mine until a boat will get them and their ill gotten gains of one and a half million dollars out of the country.

While they are picking up supplies from a girl (AV actress Sora Aoi) waiting for them by the side of the road, their quite badly tucked away loot just falls onto her. These are not the most suave of gangsters.

Obviously, the girl now knows too much and has to be kidnapped.

At their hide out, the gangsters' egos and greed start to clash something fierce. The situation isn't much helped by the fact that the poor helpless girl isn't as poor and helpless as you might think. In fact, she is a demon preying on the greed of men, driven by a healthy love for killing her victims during intercourse. She is having a fun time setting the men against each other. Which wouldn't be all that difficult with these men even without her hypnotic powers.

Another Japanese sex and horror film about a men-murdering siren? Well I'm in. This is somewhat different from Siren X in that it is not a true pinku, but a made for DVD film with a lot of sex (yes, there's a difference - namely less sex and a longer running time in this non-pinku).

The film's main selling point is of course Sora Aoi, who (besides being really rather hot when she puts her mind to it) has a strange screen presence perfectly fitting for this role. Her fluctuation between a weird zoned-outness and inappropriate girlyness wouldn't work in your typical drama, but for a mythical creature her demeanor seems perfectly appropriate. I am in fact a bit reminded of Christina Lindberg, whose performances mostly weren't "good" by acting school standards, yet who was able to inhabit her roles through a combination of presence and intelligence.

The rest of Siren is mostly alright. The male actors are all doing their jobs professionally, the script is a little talky and could have used a re-write by someone who hasn't seen quite so many other movies (although I liked the references to Reservoir Dogs), or at least someone who didn't feel the need to throw the fact in your face.

Satoshi Torao's direction is good enough in a cheap hand-camera-loving way. He sometimes uses the dreaded digital colour filters to better, less annoying effect than usual, but mostly he seems to be trying to keep the film's obvious low budget in check and the talking head scenes dynamic through movement.

All in all, I found this to be a perfectly entertaining little film in the classical exploitation manner, which is a lot more than I usually expect from anything shot directly for the DVD market.


Sunday, July 26, 2009

Muoi (2007)

South Korean writer Joon-hui (An Jo) has a bit of trouble. The work on her second novel is not going well and by now her relation with her editor has deteriorated to the point where he is leaving her angry messages on her answering machine.

Fortunately, her old friend Seo-yeon (Ye-ryeon Cha) - now living in Vietnam - contacts her with some enticing tidbits about a legend concerning the curse of a ghost named Muoi. Joon-Hui hopes that a little research in Vietnam will help her to quickly build a novel out of the tale.

She is a little reluctant to see Seo-yeon again, though, since her first novel included a less than flattering portrait of her friend and a love triangle she was caught in.

But when the old friends meet in Vietnam, Seo-yeon shows no sign of irritation at all. She probably just didn't read Joon-hui's book.

And it surely is an accident that the story of Muoi sounds quite a bit like a more dramatic version of Seo-yeon's own.

Muoi (Anh Thu), you see, was a Vietnamese woman in love with a man who was unfortunately already eloped to another woman. His fiancee was of a rather murderous disposition, and when she found out that her future husband was having an affair, she didn't think twice of burning Muoi's face with acid. Her heart broken and her face ruined, the girl committed suicide only to return as an understandably pissed off ghost. With the help of Muoi's treacherous lover the local priesthood managed to catch the wrathful spirit in a portrait, but a few decades later Muoi was accidentally freed and started a new career as an avenging ghost, using her powers to take revenge for other women betrayed by their lovers - for a terrible price, of course.

As soon as Joon-hui has arrived in Vietnam, she starts having the strangest dreams about Muoi. The further her research into the legend leads her, the less is she able to separate dream from reality and the less sure she gets about Seo-yeon's friendship. Could it be that Seo-yeon has cursed her?

Muoi, a South Korean/Vietnamese co-production written and directed by Tae-kyeong Kim, is a fine and elegant little film.

While the connoisseur of Asian horror probably won't be surprised by much of what is happening (I certainly wasn't), she most certainly won't be disappointed either. The film has a direct and seemingly uncomplicated told story, quite distinct from the complicated plotting that is par for the course in South Korean horror, but it still achieves an emotional complexity I found surprisingly touching.

The emphasis here does not lie on the horrific events (although the film's finale is of assured creepiness). Instead Tae-kyeong Kim's main interest lies in his characters and in the way their secrets and lies and the secrets and lies in Muoi's past mirror each other until it becomes obvious that a variation of Muio's story is playing out again before our eyes, old pain perpetuating itself again and again.

A major reason for the effectiveness of Muoi are An Jo and Ye-ryeon Cha, who both help to let characters come to life that might have become melodramatic cardboard cut-outs in less accomplished hands and who manage to imbue the film with a slight and subtle hint of classical tragedy.

I was also quite satisfied by the way the film never fell into the trap of making Vietnam into the evil place where evil black magic comes from (as your typical Hong Kong film would do). Whatever evil there is, is something the characters are carrying inside of themselves and that would follow them wherever they went; nationality just isn't of any importance.

Tae-kyeong Kim's direction puts no importance in being flashy or stylish in a way that would hamper the film's plot, yet psychologically clever colour compositions and the flow of Muoi's story betray a director of great talent and a disposition that puts his film's story before the sort of showiness that permanently screams "Look what a clever director I am! I am Brian dePalma's illegitimate son!" (or something of this sort).

Having said this, I don't think that everyone's world will be as rocked by Muoi as mine was. There is much to recommend the film, yet it is neither heart-pumpingly exciting nor original. If you can live with that, you'll probably find a lot to like about it, if not, it's a film best to avoid.


Saturday, July 25, 2009

In short: Jangan Pandan Belakang (2007)

aka Don't Look Back

During an exorcism, a demon is pulled out of his victim and captured in a bottle, which is then thrown into the ocean.

Some time later, a young man called Darma (Mohd Pierre Andre) is hit with terrible news during a meeting. His fiancee Rose (Intan Ladyana) has suddenly, without any reason he or her family could comprehend, killed herself with sleeping pills.

Especially Darma's twin sister Seri (of course also Intan Ladyana) is skeptical thanks to a strange message her sister had left on her voice mail right before she died. In the panicked message, Rose talks about something that is following her and that she can't get rid of.

When Seri and Darma drive to Rose's apartment, they find the place in a slightly disheveled state. Obviously, having a place that is still tidier than mine was atypically disorganized for her. There is not much else of interest to find, until Darma stumbles over the bottle we saw in the intro sequence. Blissfully unaware of the nature of the thing, he takes it with him.

That same day he starts to see things. Plagued by terrible nightmares and the feeling that something besides grief is following him and torturing him, Darma decides to return to his home town in the country to get the evil spirit exorcised.

I don't know much about Malaysian cinema, but Jangan Pandan Bekalang does mostly speak the language of contemporary Asian horror as seen through a slightly Islamic lens.

So we still have our creeping longhaired female ghost, but it looks rather putrid and has the disconcerting ability to just float behind poor Darma (well, sometimes just to roll around on a tray hidden by her ragged gown).

The film might begin and end with quotes from the Koran, yet I wouldn't call it religious horror. There is no real urge to convert its viewers to anything, the one short scene of religious instruction doesn't really lead anywhere, and although you could read a certain undercurrent of Darma and Rose being singled out by the demon for their a-religious ways into it, the film never goes so over the top with it that it is becoming annoying to the atheist. It is a horror movie first.

Which of course leads to the question "Is it scary?". Well, not all that much, but there is one exceedingly creepy scene tucked away in the last third which alone makes the film worth watching.

And while it isn't all that scary a movie, Jangan Pandang Belakang is still a well done one with solid acting and pacing, decent photography and enough of the spooky stuff to keep me entertained.

For me as a European, it's also just pretty darn interesting to watch a contemporary horror movie from Malaysia - so this is how the concept of demonic possession works there, and this how an exorcism is done etc etc. If you're like me, and interested in other people's conception of the supernatural (even if you are as completely unbelieving in it as I am), that alone should provide quite enough food for thought to keep you going for a while. It most certainly does for me.


Friday, July 24, 2009

The Third Shadow

My newest review on WTF-Film concerns a rather fantastic - if bleak - film by future Shaw Brothers director Umetsugu Inoue starring Raizo Ichikawa. It's Japan in the Sengoku era, and life is painful.

Read more about it on WTF-film here.


Thursday, July 23, 2009

In short: Drifting Detective - Tragedy In The Red Valley (1961)

A small airplane carrying the industrialist Mr. Nagumo crashes in the snowy Akaiwadake Valley, killing Nagumo and his pilot. The Powers That Be decide that the crash was caused by bad weather and a too reckless pilot, but the pilot's sister Misako (Harumi Sone) can't believe that her brother would have risked his life senselessly.

She travels to Akaidawake Valley where she stumbles into the conflict between the evil, yakuza-employing developer Kido and a saintly father daughter duo running an orphanage on land belonging to the dead Mr. Nagumo. Can it really be a coincidence that Kido suddenly has paperwork signed by Nagumo that transfers the land the orphanage is built on to him?

Fortunately, Nagumo's former corporation has asked the detective Goro Saionji (a very young Sonny Chiba) to look into the matter. Goro and his remarkable skills at fisticuffs, rifle-shooting and horse-riding will surely bring light into the affair, but not before he has earned the respect of Kido's newest henchman, the clownishly dressed sharp-shooter Tetsu the Spade.

Young Kinji Fukasaku directing an even younger Sonny Chiba in a programmer that plays out like a serial-minded Western - what could possibly go wrong? Not much, I have to say. Unless you're one of those people who just can't abide films that are made only to let their audiences have a fun time, that is. In that case this surely isn't the film for you.

Everyone else should be too distracted by fake but fun brawls, flying dynamite, pleasant shoot-outs and a permanently laughing and smiling Sonny Chiba to care about the slightness of the whole enterprise.

Fukasaku was already a perfectly capable director at this stage of his career, with a real gift for the fast pacing this type of film needs to have to work. His energetic style is a perfect fit for a pulpy adventure film like this one.


Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Killing Machine (1975)

During World War II, martial arts expert Doshin So (Sonny Chiba in a role supposedly based on events in the life of the founder of the Shorinji Kempo style of martial arts) works as a secret agent in Manchuria for the Japanese, and is with his concept of honor and duty probably as much of a pain in the ass for his superiors as for the Chinese. So doesn't take too well to the Japanese capitulation, shooting up his superior's office with a machine gun and shouting stuff like "Japan may have surrendered, I never will".

He's not as completely a nationalist tool as he sounds, though, and acts mostly as a protector of the weak and downtrodden, regardless of their nationality.

After his return to Japan, he's trying to make ends meet in the ruins of Osaka, but his overstrained sense of justice and the mustache-twirling evilness of the local Yakuza don't make for a pleasurable life. While he's protecting the local war orphans and saving women from prostitution So gets into trouble that could possibly get him hanged when he breaks some (of course evil, child-harming) American bones, but a suddenly materializing Tetsuro Tanba saves him and sends him to Shochiku to make himself a new - and hopefully more peaceful - life.

There he somehow manages to scrounge together enough money to found a martial arts school whose teachings are based on the things So had learned from the Shaolin Temple in China. His dojo effectively works as a way to keep other male war survivors (although we will see some women at his school, too) from getting in trouble and killing themselves one way or the other.

But So just can't keep his head down when confronted with the local Yakuza gang who make people's lives even harder than they already are. At first, there's just a little friendly brawling, but when the Yakuza rape a schoolgirl, So grabs himself a pair of scissors and does some amateur surgery on the main perpetrator. This isn't something the gangsters will just let sit, and soon the situation escalates.

A film directed by 70s exploitation god/madman Norifumi Suzuki with the glorious Sonny Chiba playing its hero sounds like a surefire winner to me. Alas, The Killing Machine is far from being as good as I had hoped for.

Mostly, it's just a mess of a movie, cursed with a script that can't decide what the film is actually about (a man finding a more peaceful self? The state of mind of post-war Japan? Sonny hitting people?) or to which genre it belongs. While title and cast promise your typical "Sonny Chiba plays a real life martial artist in an outrageous interpretation of said martial artist's life" film, The Killing Machine mostly turns out to be an incredibly overwrought melodrama, trying to do for post-war Japan what Gone With The Wind did for the American South. And it succeeds - it is nearly as hypocritical as its American model, and even a bit more confused about its own political position. Which isn't to say that I don't understand the mixed emotions the post-war years produced in the Japanese cinema of the 70s or the very real suffering many Japanese people had to go through - the problem is that the film's melodramatic vein so overstates the case that it spits into the face of the real suffering, making it seem trite and trivial. Karate Bullfighter looks downright balanced in comparison.

The film's loose, episodic structure doesn't do much to improve this impression. Nothing here really hangs together in any meaningful sense, character development is as disjointed as the film is confused about its own themes.

Still, even this mess has its good sides. Chiba is as scenery-chewingly good as he always is, the small amount of action scenes is competently choreographed and while you can't say that Suzuki does anything that helps the film hold together, he still wastes a number of beautiful shots on scenes that just don't deserve it.

As disappointing as The Killing Machine is, it at least should encourage you to seek out better films about the same themes, say Karate Bullfighter or Karate Bearfighter to see the Killing Machine done right, or Kinji Fukasaku's Battles Without Honor And Humanity (and its sequels) as a much more complex and honest analysis of Japanese post-war society.


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

In short: Hideo Nakata's Curse, Death & Spirit (1992)

Three short films made when the later Ring director Hideo Nakata was still slaving away for Japanese TV, cobbled together to form a short anthology movie.

The first story, A Cursed Doll, concerns the misadventures the aspiring actress Satomi has when she discovers a traditional Japanese doll hidden away in a cupboard of her parents' home. Sudden doll appearances and a near nervous breakdown follow, until the doll's secret is revealed.

In the second story, Waterfall of the Dead Spirit, a recently widowed mother and her son go on a camping trip with her friend and her friend's children. They are confronted with a female ghost who has lost her child and has no qualms in trying to grab random children that pass by to fill the empty space by her side.

In the third (and best) story, An Inn Where A Ghost Lives, two girls and one of the girls' younger sister go on a short vacation in an inn, only to meet a rather sad ghost there whose life somwhat mirrors the way the younger sister feels.

How much the interested viewer will like the three shorts will probably depend on her or his tolerance for simple, not really subtle ghost stories, overwrought acting and the dubiously cheap look of early 90s Japanese TV shows.

If you're a Nakata fan like me, you will still find moments of interest. Even this early in his career and in such a weird place the main themes of Nakata's work as well as his interest in the people the horror happens to start to emerge; from time to time - mostly when the execrable special effects or the actors don't interfere - there are even moments of true creepiness. Stylistically, there is a palpable influence by the films of Nobuo Nakagawa, which is probably a good influence to accept when you are making a ghost story on next to know money like Nakagawa did for most of his career (his studio killing masterpiece Jigoku excepted).

The first and third episode are by the way written by Hiroshi Takahashi, who would go on to write the Ring films for Nakata (and utterly weird stuff like Crazy Lips for other people). It's also nice to know that Takahasi isn't responsible for the terribly saccarine ending of the middle story.


Sunday, July 19, 2009

Death For Five Voices (1995)

aka Tod für fünf Stimmen

Leave it to Werner Herzog to make a documentary about a Renaissance composer of vocal music I find actually watchable. It of course helps that the version of the composer (and mad Italian prince) Gesualdo's life Herzog prefers to tell - and which only the very gullible or atrociously optimistic would mistake for the historical truth about his life - has all the trappings of a Gothic horror story and just seems to be waiting for Riccardo Freda's or Mario Bava's ghost to appear and finally make a movie out of it.

Well, how gothic can it get? We have Gesualdo's murder of his unfaithful first wife and her lover (both corpses to be ravished by a traveling monk afterwards, oh yes), the hanging murder of Gesualdo's second son while a choir sings some of the composers madrigals to make the event more momentous, the man's employment of an alchemist to decipher the markings on a strange stone disk, some years of silent solitude and regular whippings by the good man's servants - the works. The only thing that's missing is a report that the Devil himself took Gesualdo's corpse with him to hell to get a band together, but after Herzog has gracefully dragged us through the presence of a lot of the assorted nutcases that fly to the legends about Gesualdo like moths to a flame (and who could blame them), this is only a minor oversight.

There is a real sense of glee about most of the film, an infectious love for the way legends have grown around the composer, with some of the more obviously faked moments of Herzog's documentary career (hello mad woman who supposedly thinks to be the reincarnation of Gesualdo's dead wife!) again making clear how little interest the director has in factual truth. With other, different truths - be they philosophical, artistic, emotional or just plain human - though, Herzog takes greatest care, and you won't ever find him laughing at even the strangest of human beings.

Between the respectfully treated people of dubious sanity or honesty, we as viewers are ourselves treated to performances of some of Gesualdo's works which (or so sources a lot more knowledgeable about vocal music than I am tell me) aren't the most accomplished, yet are in perfect emotional resonance with the wide-eyed acceptance of every bizarre thing imaginable Herzog shows, while sounding to my amateurish ears pretty damn interesting.

Death For Five Voices embodies quite perfectly what I love most about Herzog's documentaries - the fact that he is always honest about his lies.


Saturday, July 18, 2009

In short: Lupin III - The Fuma Conspiracy (1987)

Everyone's favorite thief with a heart of (solid, stolen) gold, Lupin III, is thought dead by his old police nemesis Inspector Zenigata. While the cop is determined to spend the rest of his life as a Buddhist priest, the very much alive looking Lupin is attending the wedding of his samurai friend Goemon to a school girl named Murasaki (patriarchal rule number one: marry 'em early before they develop enough of a backbone to say "no").

Marrying into Murasaki's Suminawa clan is not without its problems, though, as is proven when a group of jet-pack wearing ninjas with a deplorable love for olive green uniforms crashes the wedding to steal the vase Goemon has to protect to earn his schoolgirl marrying rights. Said vase is supposed to contain the key to a hidden treasure - as it later turns out in a very literal sense - and the evil ninja of the Fuma clan have been looking for it for 400 years now.

Goemon and friends successfully protect the vase, but lose Murasaki to the ninja in the process. There's a maiden to rescue and a treasure to steal, both things that fit perfectly well into Lupin's job description, so it does not take long until the thief and his gang (including the already rescued Murasaki) stumble through a trapped cave system searching for the treasure while trying to evade the ninja and a re-instated Zenigata.

The Fuma Conspiracy is the infamous Lupin film where the initial voice cast of the TV show and earlier films was fired and replaced by less successful actors to cut costs. I'd be more up in arms about it if I'd actually registered much of a difference in quality between the two acting troupes, but everyone does good enough work (says me, someone whose knowledge of the Japanese language is rather non-existent, which obviously makes me an expert on such matters) to not let the shady business decision ruin the film.

If you are able to ignore a certain ickiness in the relationship between Murasaki and Goemon (who is emotionally so stunted that he isn't even able to kiss his bride, a fact that makes the "marrying a schoolgirl" business somewhat more appropriate, since he it's hard to see Goemon as an adult), The Fuma Conspiracy is very much 80s Lupin by numbers, which is to say it is insanely entertaining if you like things like bizarre death traps, enthusiastic car chases right through a hot spring or ninjas with jet packs. It's all presented at exactly the right pace for the rather thin plot - that is, a very fast one - yet never ignores the necessity to slow down for little moments of whimsy from time to time.

The Fuma Conspiracy is not as varied a Lupin film as Miyazaki's Castle of Cagliostro and feels more professional than it does inspired, but it still is an excellent way to get one's fix of basically good-natured adventure anime without mopey boys as protagonists.


Friday, July 17, 2009

Ghosts That Still Walk

If you want to know what I have to say about director James T. Flocker's epochal new age horror film Ghosts That Still Walk (and really, how couldn't you), you should follow this handy link to my write-up on WTF-Film.

Expect to see an elderly couple attacked by rolling stones (all looking a lot younger than Keith Richards) and other delights.


Thursday, July 16, 2009

In short: Don't Go In The Woods...Alone! (1981)

A quartet of city-based campers makes their merry, bitching way through the American backwoods woods. Little do they know that they have stumbled onto the hunting grounds of an overworked, pelt-wearing wildman serial killer I like to call Stinky (Tom Drury).

And it'll take quite some time until they notice, because Stinky's work in this area is really never done, what with dozens of utterly bizarre people hiking through his woods at the same time.

Who will survive? And will the Sheriff who hasn't got a problem with the hundreds of people who must go missing in the area each year finally get a clue?

Don't Go In The Woods is one of those special treats US local independent filmmaking sometimes has to offer. It's an abysmally bad film by many people's standards, but to me (and a surprising number of others, it seems) it is utterly charming in everything it has to offer. Director James Bryan marries so-unfunny-it-is-funny-again humor (hello, wheelchair hiker with "funny" music) with moments of beautiful, cheap absurdity until the wrong-headed viewer doesn't know if he is supposed to feel bored, threatened or disturbed. Especially the last third of the film has some quite effective and disturbing moments. The magic lies in the off-hand way even the most absurd ideas are handled, I think.

Bryan's honestly great, atmospheric nature shots are the film's secret weapons against an ultra-low budget and an illogical (only in the best way) a-kill-a-minute script.

Don't Go In The Woods...Alone! is an absolutely magical piece of cinema if you are willing and able to see its flaws as a window into an alternative reality where local colour, improvisation and a manic insistence on making a film no matter what are the true virtues of a movie.


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Swordsman (1990)

When a retired official of the Chinese Emperor steals a scroll containing the secrets of an invincible form of martial arts from one of those notoriously evil and hard to kill eunuchs (Lau Shun) to ensure the future of his children, the plan backfires a little.

Soon, he and his family are slaughtered by the Eunuch's henchpeople (among them Jackie Cheung in one of his few outings as an evil bastard). Before he dies, the official can just inform Ling Wu Chung (Sam Hui), the pupil of his friend, the leader of the Wa Mountain School (Lau Siu-Ming) of the scroll's hiding place and ask the young man to deliver the secret to his son.

Of course, this being a wuxia and all, what should be an easy delivery of a small piece of information turns into a quest of epic proportions with double-crosses, the song that won't ever go away, snake throwing, girls badly disguised as boys and more flying people than in the last general meeting of the Marvel Universe. Limbs will be torn, hearts will be broken and honor sacrificed to ambition.

Swordsman obviously had quite a troubled production history, but the accounts I found of it are so inconsistent that I don't think it prudent to go into it too much. Let's just stay with the fact that the HKMDB lists six directors for the film - King Hu (who is the official director going by the titles), Tsui Hark, Ching Siu-Tung, Ann Hui, Andrew Kam and Raymond Lee. At a guess and based on my knowledge of their other films I would say that most of the movie was directed by Tsui Hark and Ching Siu-Tung, with a few scattered scenes (the rather melancholic moments in the first half of the film come to mind) by King Hu, but it's impossible to know for sure. What I can say for sure is that the film is very much a new wave wuxia as one would expect of Hark and Ching.

For a film directed by just about everyone, Swordsman stays surprisingly consistent in tone and content. It is a little complicated for the uninitiated, perhaps even convoluted, but that has always been the wuxia way of storytelling. "Let's just throw as much of everything on the screen as possible, and do it well, and let the audience (with the knowledge of the novels our films are based on) do the rest", seems to be the main thrust of the philosophy behind these films, and usually - as well as in this case - this works out well even for people not familiar with the sources.

While Swordsman's plot is complicated, it is quite comprehensible when one sets one's mind on understanding it, this time even with quite clearly understandable character motivations, but - and that's one of the aspects I love about this genre the most - the film works perfectly well as a string of little marvels; just going with the flow is as pleasant as understanding everything.

One of the deepest pleasures of this phase of wuxia filmmaking lies in the way the complex plotting and the incessant motion of the fight scenes are intertwined, making the flying and spiraling people with the superhuman powers and the archetypal psychology the logical consequence of the shifting world they find themselves in.

Swordsman seems to me like a perfect specimen of its genre, with wonders and small, lovely moments of humanity to spare that quietly tell the story of a bunch of young people declining to become like their elders.


Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Bride of Three Films Make A Post

House of Bugs (2005): Part of a series of short movies based on horror manga by the glorious Kazuo Umezu. This one was directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa (whose tone is usually quite the opposite of Umezu's) and tells the story of a broken marriage that climaxes in a metaphorical or not so metaphorical bug transformation by way of Kafka and Rashomon. It is very much a Kurosawa film with his typical subtle aesthetic and the director's usual themes (alienation, the inability to empathize, broken families etc) and therefore quite excellent.

The Bounty Hunter (1954): The story of an infamous bounty hunter played by Randolph Scott coming to a small town to catch three robbers about whom he knows next to nothing and making the whole town more than a little nervous in the process feels a little slight, even though it has its share of darker flourishes. The plot just works out a little too pat, making this most certainly not the best cooperation between director Andre de Toth and actor Randolph Scott. Not that it would be a bad Western, it's just that de Toth and Scott seem to be coasting on their talents instead of straining them.

Dead & Breakfast (2004): A bunch of dweebs on the way to a wedding strand somewhere in Texas. "Comedy" ensues, until the locals get possessed by demons and zombified, which leads to the sort of gory "comedy" that would very much like to see itself standing in the tradition of early Peter Jackson or Sam Raimi, just with the minor drawback that it is about as funny as Bela Lugosi meets a Brooklyn Gorilla. At least I have a new example now when trying to explain the phrase "painfully unfunny". Oh, and the people who compare this to Shaun of the Dead will be taken care of soon, a dark and ancient power promised me.


Sunday, July 12, 2009

Siren X (2008)

A very small film team consisting of three crew guys and one mini-skirted actress are working on a panty shot perv version of Monster Hunt for Japanese cable TV. Their show is called (I kid you not) "Miniskirt Adventures" (please imagine a woman lifting her skirt to show you her panties now - I am again not kidding). They come to a country lake to fake their way to the "truth" about the male campers who supposedly disappear there in droves.

It goes rather well for them in a panty-heavy way until an even heavier rain shower encourages the group to a bit of the traditional running through the woods in search of shelter. They come to a nice enough looking house, whose owner and only inhabitant is a young and quite attractive woman (Yuma Asami). She says that she's feeling lonely living so alone in the deep, dark woods and so invites them to stay the night, a proposal the guys in the team find all too enticing. They even decide to stay on after their actress (Yuria Hidaka) absconds on account of a lover's quarrel with the director.

Turns out that staying in a house in the woods that is only decorated in the colors white, red and cobalt blue isn't the best idea a man could have. The nice hostess turns out to be some sort of succubus, killing one of the men during sex to drink the sperm he has choked on. Yes, she magically transforms her victims' bodily fluids completely into sperm; welcome to Japan, children. The other two men flee. But as we all know, you can't escape your sexual death wish once it has been woken, and it does not take long until both men have terrifying and arousing visions of the woman calling them back.

Hideo Jojo's Siren X is one of the better examples of the rather small sub-genre of pinku horror films. Most of the ones I have seen are rather dubious achievements that don't bother to connect the sex and the horror much thematically, resulting in mediocre horror films with overlong sex scenes. Siren X is quite a bit more successful and even mostly works as a real erotic horror film, although it is too steeped in the mechanics of contemporary pink cinema and lacks the obsessiveness of a Jess Franco film to be a truly excellent one.

The acting may be mediocre and the script just a little bit too shallow, but Jojo's direction is quite accomplished. He does some fine, even somewhat disquieting things with frame composition that show an obvious Argento influence - although you have to keep in mind that the whole film has probably cost about as much as a single scene in an Argento film to see it. Jojo milks the strangely claustrophobic outdoor locations for all that they are worth and cleverly uses his color scheme to keep Yuma Asami the center of attention in non-nude scenes even though she can't act too well.

There's also a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor regarding the production of low-rent, low-budget entertainment that caters to the lowest common denominator, fortunately not realized through dishonest moral disgust, but with a knowing wink in the direction of the film's viewers.

Siren X's weakest points are its sex scenes. Instead of going all out and making the sex as weird and disturbing as possible, most of it is the same rote stuff you will find in any other pink film and disappointingly (especially in comparison with the rest of the film) just not all that interesting to look at. The sex does at least culminate in strange and unreal moments, but before those pink cinema has set four minutes of squeaking woman.

Well, until the final scene of the film shows us a shot nearly perfectly incorporating the mood the erotic part of erotic horror needs to work.


Saturday, July 11, 2009

In short: One Missed Call 2 (2005)

It looked as if Mimiko (Karen Oshima), everyone's favorite handy-cursing ghost had made her last death prophesying phone call in One Missed Call, until the people around Kyoko (Mimura), a kindergarten teacher and future child psychologist, suddenly begin to fall victim to her curse. Viewers of the first film will probably remember the drill: at first you get a call from your own cellphone, but three days in the future, the time comes to get rather rudely killed by a ghost.

Kyoko isn't too keen on dying, yet unsure how to evade the curse. She has the good luck to meet Takako Nozoe (Asaka Seto) who is a little obsessed with the handy curse case because it reminds her of the mysterious death of her sister years ago and more than willing to risk her own life to alleviate her feelings of guilt.

Takako's investigations lead to Taiwan and the discovery of an earlier string of killings there. It looks as if the ghost who is after Kyoko isn't the dear old Mimiko at all. Poor Mimiko was herself a victim of this original ghost, a little girl from a now depopulated mining village.

Together with Kyoko's boyfriend Naoto (Yu Yoshizawa), the two women travel to the old mine to somehow lift the curse before it is too late for them.

While Takashi Miike's original One Missed Call mixed some of the more samey elements of contemporary Japanese ghost horror (I'm never going to call it "J-Horror") with satiric wit and moments of creepy genius, this sequel is very much a genre film by the book.

It's all a little too much like something written by a committee while making marks on a checklist to be really exciting (or creepy, or disturbing), but I wouldn't call One Missed Call 2 a bad film. It's more a mediocre film rescued from being too boring by technical competence. Director Renpei Tsukamoto might not be more than a craftsman, but at least he's a skilled craftsman with the control over his work this implies, working with other skilled professionals to deliver a professional product.

This sort of filmmaking often strikes me as incredibly lazy and wasteful of talent, but One Missed Call 2 at least keeps the pedestrian and workmanlike watchable - and me away from the "eject" button on my remote control.

It is possible that my cautious positivity here is mostly based on the final ten minutes of the film, when the genre-necessary twist arrives with the beautiful nonsensicality of a force of nature, crushing the competent narration of everything that came before below the awesome power of what the fuck, but that's perfectly alright with me.


Friday, July 10, 2009

More rambling, different place

Kevin Pyrtle of has graciously invited me to contribute to his site.

This means not much of a change for The Horror!?, since my regularly scheduled natterings will still appear here and I'll diligently link to everything that will go up on WtF-Film.

So, what could be a better start for really anything than a film featuring Feroz Khan's hairy chest?

It's time for adventure (and barely concealed manlove) in Feroz Khan's wonderful Qurbani!


Thursday, July 9, 2009

In short: The Sick House (2007)

Archeologist Anna (Gina Philips), has found what's left of a London orphanage from the time of the Great Plague below a dilapidated children's hospital that is going to be demolished soon.

She hopes to find evidence for something called "The Cult of the Black Priest" the film never really bothers to explain any deeper. It had something to do with a malevolent plague doctor, but not even the scriptwriters know what. Some of the objects Anna digs out are unfortunately showing traces of the plague bacillus, so the authorities forbid a continuation of her work and order the hospital to be demolished immediately.

Anna, being a movie scientist and all, of course breaks into the building. Her poking about in the dark somehow wakes up the ghost of the evil plague doctor and his child victims. Since one woman alone wouldn't be enough victim to terrorize, a group of juvenile delinquents (well, they're supposed to be chavs, I think) also stumbles into the building.

The rest of the film mostly consists of people running around in the dark and screaming at each other and the ghosts or whatever they are supposed to be teleporting in and doing evil ghosty stuff.

I hope you like the colour green, because The Sick House's director Curtis Radclyff just loves it. He loves it so much that it is the only colour you'll see during most of the movie. It's probably supposed to define the film's mood, but I'm not too sure if "monochrome and annoying" is really a mood a film should strive for.

The colour green is not the film's only visual and stylistic problem, unless you're into the dreaded trinity of shaky cam, jump cut and focus flicker. And boy, does Radclyff overuse them, until the only explanation for it is a conscious decision to drive the film's viewers to seizures. Well, at least it's a reaction, right?

But even the total visual breakdown isn't the film's biggest problem. That is an honor that goes to the total lack of anything one (and "one" would even include Bruno Mattei) could call a script, or a concept or a single frigging clue that you need just little more than a creepy mask to make a movie.

Now, as you know I am not a stickler for logic, or a strong plot, or (Cthulhu help!) "realism", but a film that entirely consists of some undefined green people running through a green building screaming at each other (because the plague works like rabies, or something) while nothing of interest happens drives the idea of a plotless movie a little too far.

In other words: avoid like the plague (yeah, I went there).


Wednesday, July 8, 2009

In short: Scream of the Wolf (1974)

A strange series of murders disturbs the population of a small rural community somewhere in America. Going by the wounds the victims suffer, the killer has to be an animal. But what kind of animal attacks people in their homes or jumps through the windshields of their cars at them?

Sheriff Bell (Philip Carey) is at loss and so asks the writer and hunter John Wetherby (Peter Graves) for help. Wetherby is unsure what kind of animal is doing the deeds, too. The fact that the animals' tracks change their form as if the animal would run on all fours but grow in size and weight on walk on two legs afterwards only to then disappear completely does not make anything more clear.

Wetherby would very much like the help of his old big-game hunting friend Byron Douglas (Clint Walker), but Byron prefers to hold long and stupid Nietzschean hunting-Libertarian speeches.

Wetherby's girlfriend Sandy (Jo Ann Pflug) - obviously the brains in the relationship -  hates Byron like the plague and takes him for a madmen. The night after a rather disturbing discussion in a restaurant in which she makes her dislike quite clear to Byron, she is threatened by the mysterious animal. The woman starts to suspect Byron of being somehow responsible for the killings which fit so nicely into his ideological world view. Is he perhaps a werewolf?

Scream of the Wolf was directed and produced by Dan Curtis, the creator of the horror soap Dark Shadows and of The Night Stalker and one of the patron saints of horror TV and written by Richard Matheson who shouldn't need an introduction, but I can't say I am too enthusiastic about the film.

While the plotting is exasperatingly workmanlike, Matheson's script does at least strike some interesting thematic and subtextual sparks from time to time. I couldn't help myself than to interpret the Wetherby/Byron/Sandy triangle as both Byron and Sandy courting for the writer's sexual favor (which also fits nicely into the scope of things Matheson as a writer has always been interested in). The film is surprisingly obvious about this point, much more obvious than one would expect of a 70s TV movie. Unfortunately, even the most interesting subtext can't elevate a too mechanical text.

Curtis direction does not fare too well either, again bringing the terrible description "workmanlike" to mind, a word containing in it multitudes of boredom the word "inept" does not harbor.

But what really drives the film over the dividing line between good and deeply mediocre things is the dreadful performance of Clint Walker, a former Western star who is about as miscast as Byron as possible. The whole success or failure of the movie rests on the way Byron is portrayed. It is the only role in the film that needs a truly great actor to work, but instead of a physically powerful man with a semblance of charisma and intelligence we get a big lug barely able to speak.

And this single mistake brings the whole film down for me.


Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Alien From The Deep (1989)

An evil Texan corporation (of Evil) known as E-Chem has built a shiny new recycling facility for radioactive waste right next to a mildly active volcano on a tropical island. What do you know! It is not really a recycling facility! In truth the corps' minions dump the radioactive materials into the volcano, blessedly ingorant of any problems this might cause.

The projects' chief scientist (Luciano "Alan Collins" Pigozzi) doesn't think this is a very bright idea (now, don't ask me why he helped build it, then), but his Texan bosses ignore him and have put the homicidal hard-ass Colonel Kovacks (Charles Napier) in charge, a man who does what he's told, unless that interferes with shooting people or screaming at subordinates.

But don't fret, people who think dumping things in volcanos is a bad idea, Greenpeace has sent its top operative Jane (Marina Giulia Cavalli) and her cameraman Lee (Robert Marius) to infiltrate the facility. The inital break-in part works out nicely, and the two heroic eco warriors get some nice shots of waste being deposited contrary to regulations. Too bad that then the alarms start to sound and a bunch of angry, armed people is out to shoot them. Lee just manages to hide the video tape before he gets caught, while Jane escapes into the jungle, hunted by the rather rude security personnel who are just itching to kill her with their nice automatic weapons.

Jane survives her pursuers' attention only thanks to the help of the American snake farmer Bob (Daniel Bosch) and his tobacco into snake face spitting brand of masculinity, upon whom she literally stumbles while running through the jungle. Bob takes Jane home, and finds himself a wet T-shirt moment later roped into helping Jane rescue Lee from his (very American, that is, torture-loving) captors.

At the same time, a hungry alien has landed in the ocean next to the E-Chem base to do who knows what with the radioactive waste. In any case, it starts to lay waste to the place just when Bob and Jane arrive to rescue Jane's friend. What fun!

Alien From The Deep is one of the last films directed by Italian low budget crap hero Antonio Margheriti and is for some reason often called his worst film. I don't really see that. Sure, the film's stupid as they come, it has plot holes you could maneuver a death star through and everyone in front of the camera except for Pigozzi and Napier tries to win a price for "Worst Acting Performance In A Movie", but that is par for the course when it comes to the Italian action film of the late 80s. The true measure for this type of film isn't how intelligent it is, but how entertaining, and when it comes to entertainment, Alien From The Deep is a winner.

It really has quite a bit to recommend it. For a start, there's some of Margheriti's patented incredibly fake but beautiful looking model work, made with obvious love for detail, and an even greater love for miniature explosions). Then there's the immortal dialogue including lots of discussions of people's "balls" and some of the most deadly sexual inuendo you will ever hear.

And of course there is the alien, for the most part represented by a, well, a giant black lobster claw which is unfortunately not related to the Giant Claw, but looks pretty nifty in its giant clawlike way. The rest of it is rather less exciting. It seems to be a very very very large behelmeted, black, spiky biker without a motorcycle (but with the wonderful claw) or a beard, and it just don't look right, Ma, no, not right at all. Fortunately, Margheriti was far too experienced a director to show us this abomination for too long, so we can only enjoy it for a few short moments in the grand, Aliens-inspired finale.

What I find absolutely brilliant about the film is its (technically of course absolutely dubious) decision to make about an hour of an Italian jungle action film that then culminates in thirty minutes of Alien(s)-impressions. This does not only help reserve the effects budget for some mighty fine explosions, but also keeps the film away from needing to include too much filler by the sensational new method of making two Italian genre movies at once. It's brilliant in its simplicity, Dub-Dub.

This brilliant plan of resource conservation could of course have backfired badly if not for Margheriti's knack for making something watchable even when only in control of the tiniest of budgets. Late period Margheriti possessed a certain liteness of touch quite contrary to the nastiness and misanthropy of Italian exploitation colleagues like Lenzi (or the total incompetence of Bruno Mattei, for that matter), a liteness that made for surprisingly charming movies in genres where charme was usually absent. Even when people are mutilated by aliens or bitten by cobras, it all very obviously happens in good fun.

It's the magic of cinema, I suppose, and absolutely keeping in spirit with the classic American movie serials Margheriti must have loved.


Sunday, July 5, 2009

In short: Criminally Insane (1975)

Ah, Ethel (Priscilla Alden)! Put into an asylum because of her violent outbursts, regularly treated with electro shocks and still not healed. And her doctor is giving her back into the care of her grandmother (Jane Lambert) anyway. He'll probably regret it, if only for a very short moment.

He's a great doctor, he is, and so he recommends to Gramma that she should decrease heavily overweight Ethel's calorie intake, which is obviously the right thing to do with someone with the delusion that others want to starve her.

One prevented meal comes to the other and a kitchen knife finds Granny's back. Finally Ethel can eat whenever she wants and how much she wants. Or so she thinks.

In truth, Ethel will have a lot of troublesome people to deal with before she can eat peacefully. There are delivery boys, psychiatrists, sisters who work as prostitutes and evil boyfriends to take care of. Ethel will also have to learn that keeping the dead bodies of one's victims locked away in one's home is a stinky business.

Criminally Insane was made in Oakland by the prolific low-low-budget filmmaker Nick Millard (also known as Nick Phillips). As the others of his films I've seen, it's technically crude (but obviously trying very hard to make the best of its budget), raw and rather fascinating.

What sounds like a mean series of jokes about overweight people is given a sense of humanity and reality by Priscilla Alden's spot-on performance. Alden is as good as any semi-professional actress I've ever seen, mostly working through presence and a line delivery that might have been much too affectless for a different role, but fits perfectly here.

The film mostly plays out as an 70s psycho movie reduced to its bare essentials, brought back to an ugly semi-reality of provincial life with casual racism and violence, but also given some gloriously funny moments that work as added reality checks. The scene in which Ethel finally wants to do something about her corpse problem by burying her victims in the garden, only to be first annoyed by a nosy neighbour peeking over the fence and then completely prevented from realizing her plan by the simple fact that the soil is bad for digging alone is worth the price of admission. Ethel is the perfect antidote to the sexy, suave serial killer of today.


Saturday, July 4, 2009

A Girl Fighter (1972)

The Kim family dominates a province in ancient China through the force of their supreme martial arts and lots and lots of money.

The worst of the family is Kim junior, Kim ten-jiao. When he gets it into his head to rape the female head of household of the Lio family and her husband, the rest of the family of course still tries to protect her. Alas, he kills them all, including the woman.

The local magistrate, especially after he has been pressured by higher-ups in the bureaucratic hierarchy, would very much like to arrest the younger Kim for this deed, but the people in the area are so afraid he just can't find anyone willing and able to do the arresting. Until Sima Mu-rong (Polly Kuan) appears, that is. The young woman is just burning to help bring Kim to justice. The magistrate is afraid of her girl cooties at first, but a short demonstration of her martial arts convinces him that she is the right woman for the job. It should always be this easy.

Later, we will re-learn the lesson that people in wuxias are blind in any case and have difficulty to parse someone looking like Polly Kuan (with make-up and all) as a woman as soon as she dons male clothing, so Polly could just have spared herself the trouble and pretended to be a boy from the beginning. Ah, the glories of cross-dressing!

The arrest itself isn't too difficult. Sima outclasses Kim quite easily, but the real trouble begins afterwards. Sima and a handful of guards have to transport Kim the long way to court. Kim senior is not going to stop at anything, even the theft of the magistrate's official seal, to get his son back.

Help for our heroine comes in the form of the slaughtered Lio family's nephew (Tien Peng). At first, he plans to kill the prisoner himself, but quickly adjusts his goals when he realizes the efforts the elder Kim makes to put a stop to Sima.

A Girl Fighter is another Taiwanese wuxia made by people from the surroundings of King Hu's Dragon Gate Inn and A Touch of Zen. Director Yeung Sai-Hing was the production manager of those films, and the first half of A Girl Fighter makes at times quite clear why he didn't work as a director too often. The film starts out rather lackluster, hitting all the right genre beats without making much use of them. Especially the fight sequences are a minor disappointment, seemingly filmed to look as fake as humanly possible with some dreadful wire work that lets the fighters resemble nothing so much as bumble bees, making this part of the film a swell example of the deadly bumble bee fu style so feared in ancient China.

Surprisingly, the second half of the film very suddenly picks up the slack by transforming itself into a variation of a Howard Hawks western with a neat siege sequence and a rather exciting trek through trapped enemy territory. The fights start to look a lot more convincing too and the whole tone of the film shifts into a much tenser and darker direction, until it all culminates in the sort of grand finale Cheng Cheh usually traded in - although seemingly edited with a butter knife.

Even before the action of the film gets watchable, the exciting phenomenon known as Polly (Shan) Kuan, as well as the less exciting, yet dependable phenomenon that is Tien Peng, should be enough to keep one watching. What I find so wonderful about her is the determination she brought to everything she did. No matter if it was a "normal" wuxia like this one, a nice and friendly kung fu comedy or the sheer insanity of many of her later works, Polly brought the same amount of energy to every movie she acted in. She was game for just about anything, and automatically elevated each of her movies into the "entertaining" category through sheer presence, even in those cases when she was the only good thing about her films.


Friday, July 3, 2009

In short: The Dark Side of the Moon (1990)

The Dark Side of the Moon is a difficult movie to write about. Its plot and sense are elusive, yet it is still strangely compelling.

So, there's this spaceship trundling in the direction of the moon to do something of no import. More or less suddenly, the ship breaks down and it will be only a question of time until the life-support systems will stop working.

Fortunately - and somewhat surprisingly since this type of spacecraft isn't in use anymore - a space shuttle flies by. The crew of our original ship hopes to be able to salvage what they need from the strange vessel to get their own craft running. Turns out the (rather big on the inside) space shuttle is flying without any fuel. It is also deserted but for a dead guy with an inexplicable chest wound hanging from a ceiling.

Obviously, our heroes plunder only a part of what they need from the shuttle and drag the corpse onto their own ship.

A little later, the corpse rises, all yellow-eyed and satanic and presses the head of the only woman around into his sucking chest wound, leading to a possessed woman and later on the inevitable seduction sequence.

There follows a little research on the ship computer (consisting of a typical screen keyboard combination and an android woman whose only function on board is to sit in a chair, stare and talk monotonously - the best use of room in a spacecraft possible, I'm sure) that leads to the fantastic discovery that the shuttle was lost while crashing in the Bermuda Triangle and somehow teleported back into space. Also, the Bermuda Triangle somehow represents the number "666". Okay.

Then there's more demonic possession stuff, the least credible medical officer in SF history, said seduction scene with !surprise victim, a paranoia angle that doesn't make any sense, more going back between the shuttle and the ship to get some kind of device they probably should have bothered to get a little earlier, a missile platform and a big explosion. The End.

Honestly, I couldn't make heads or tails out of this one. Although an American film, Dark Side is a shoddy, weird piece of crap made out of cardboard sets, affectless acting, mumbling, and an inscrutable script that places it clearly in the Italian WTF style.

It feels a little like a precursor of the widely underestimated Event Horizon, just bad, cheap and nonsensical and with little bits of Alien rip-offs grafted onto the story for no particular reason other than both films being SF horror films and the screenwriters unable to understand that scenes need to have a function in a film. No, really, they do.

But I must admit the film has something. Is it the hero's mullet? The fact that not one of the viewer's questions is answered?

Or is it just that my taste has degraded so far that I have a hard time not enjoying the deeply stupid and inept?


Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Collingswood Story (2002)

Rebecca Miles (Stephanie Dees) has moved from Virginia to Collingswood in New Jersey to get away from some unsavory family business, leaving her boyfriend John (Johnny Burton) behind. John isn't too sure he isn't part of the reason Rebecca has left, but since he is still very much in love with her and she doesn't seem to want to break up with him, they are trying for a long distance relationship.

To make the distance hurt a little less, John gives Rebecca a webcam for her birthday (which is around Halloween). At first she plays around with it a little, calling a bunch of web cam freaks John has recommended to her, until she lands on the site of the webcam psychic Vera Madeline (Vera Madeline). Their reading is a little strange, what with the psychic guessing Rebecca's name although the young woman uses a pseudonym, but not strange enough for Rebecca to get too worked up about. When John calls the psychic, she talks quite a different game. She says she is compelled to warn Rebecca from something, and would even be willing to hold a seance without a fee. Then she tells John a story about Collingswood, something about a cult that has been secretly working and killing in Collingswood for centuries, using Halloween shakers as a symbol in their rituals.

When John tells Rebecca the story, she is creeped out but skeptical and not at all willing to talk to Vera again. John is unsure about the whole thing, so he does a little internet research. What he finds does nothing to relax him. The house where Rebecca now lives was the place of a murder suicide just a few years ago. A judge first drowned his children and then killed himself, right in what is now the guest bath room.

Nightmares don't do much to alleviate the pair's anxieties, but Rebecca is far too stubborn to let herself lose control over her life because of an internet psychic and a few rumors. She also does not seem too sure about John's motives in the strange little affair, as much as he isn't too sure about hers.

Both aren't able to leave things well enough alone though, and the viewer can't help but think that their insistence to get to the bottom of the weird secret they have stumbled upon will lead to something dreadful.

This seems to become something like the week of the bastard children of Blair Witch Project. The Collingswood Story's writer/director/editor Michael Costanza is getting creative with the elements of the POV style's mother by telling its story not through digital shaky cam but through (mostly static, and therefore cheap) a handful of webcam set-ups and a few video emails that are used to keep things moving a little - especially towards the end. It is quite a clever conceit, but one that could have failed miserably with a weak script or bad acting.

Fortunately the script if anything but weak. Costanza hits the campfire tale/urban myth feel that is ideal for the sub-genre beautifully, gives his characters a believable psychology that is actually entwined with the horror he subjects them to and shows an excellent sense of when it is useful to let the viewers themselves fill in the blanks and when not.

The acting is equally convincing. Both (the insanely cute) Dees and Burton are making the kind of natural impression that's essential to make the mock realism of POV horror work, while Vera Madeline does a little more scenery chewing than the sub-genre would usually recommend, but really makes that work for her role.

This being a horror film and all, it is of course not unimportant to mention that the film really creeped me out, enough so that I have right now turned on the lights in my living room and am throwing nervous glances backwards from time to time. Now, I am much more impressionable when it comes to ghost stories and urban myth than gore fests or torture porn, so other viewers' mileage will probably vary a bit, but if a film can make me dread the way to the toilet, it does something right.

The Collingswood Story is (relatively) contemporary independant, low budget horror filmmaking exactly like I like it, turning its budgetary deficits into virtues through sheer cleverness and energy. The kind of film that gives me hope for independent horror beyond boring, ambitionless gorefests.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Three Films Make A Post's Daughter

Deadly Outlaw Rekka (2002): Takashi Miike in his Wild Director-Man of Japan role. The film merrily hops between ultra-violence, subdued Yakuza drama and weird humor, adds a wonderful scenery-chewing performance by Riki Takeuchi and a near magical bazooka. Somehow Miike gets a rather brilliantly fun film out of it that does not feel even remotely as random as it sounds. Extra bonus points for the ecstasy-inducing use of the Flower Travellin' Band's "Satori" as the rhythmic backbone of many scenes.


Ekusute (2007): Sion Sono directs a strange mix of Japanese horror parody, the grotesque and a story about child abuse with this tale of cursed hair extensions which fuck up the problematic life of a young Japanese woman (Chiaki Kuriyama) and her battered niece even more. Thanks to the director's incredible hand for tonal shifts, inventive grotesqueness and some rather great acting by Kuriyama, Miku Sato as the abused child and the inevitable Ren Osugi at his most exalted as the misogynist hair fetishist from hell, the film avoids every pitfall its ideas could set it up for.


Demonoid - Messenger of Evil (1981): One would think that a Mexican-American co-production of a film about the Devil's hand doing classical crawling hand mischief and possessing people while pining for Samantha Eggar couldn't be anything but great (fun at least). One would be oh so very wrong. Apart from a handful of moments of hand-wrestling hilarity this is just dreadfully boring. It drags, it is charmlessly incompetent, has a stocky mid-70s TV movie soundtrack - what a waste!