Saturday, December 18, 2010

It had to happen

From today on, I'm taking my yearly year's end blogging vacation. So there will be no new posts here from me until the January 1st. If you'd like to talk to me in the meantime, you can always pop me an email. I'll probably even answer, unless I'm on family visit with Yog Sothoth, who still hasn't gotten around to getting itself connected to the web. I'll also still be infrequently doing the annoyed and bitter thing on Twitter as @houseinrlyeh over the holidays.

To everyone reading this blog regularly, thanks and happy holidays, season's greetings and/or whatever else may apply to you! Hopefully, I'll talk to you next year.

 

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Friday, December 17, 2010

On WTF: Les Aventures Extraordinaires d'Adele Blanc-Sec (2010)

Luc Besson takes a much needed break in his writing and producing every French action movie ever and directs, writes and produces an adaptation of a well-loved series of graphic novels by Jacques Tardi. What arises from the good man's efforts is a very silly adventure comedy I found quite irresistible.

Read more about it in my last peace of weekly blatherings on WTF-Film before my looming holiday blogging pause.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

In short: Curse of the Coffee Hill (2010)

Original title: Ka Fei Shan: Si Zhou

During the course of an unspecified research project, college student Shi Min wanders Singapore's graveyards and photographs tombstones. One day, she photographs the wrong one. The mandatory mad elderly lady's warning of a terrible curse comes too late, and a ghost latches on to Shi Min. Thanks to the ghostly infection, the student develops a peculiar limp, has short moments of atypical behaviour (aka makes possession faces) and suffers from nightmares of being raped by a gang of five men. She also suffers from a handful of coffee-related terrors. Looks like the (now coffee-hating) ghost that is troubling Shi Min belongs to a woman raped and murdered decades ago by a group of coffee plantation workers. The poor dead darling is still looking for vengeance.

Even if you know as little about a local culture of filmmaking as I do of that in Singapore at this moment, you don't need any of that knowledge to be sure that someone is going to grab a camera, a few amateur actors and make a horror film based on an urban legend in any given place and time. The film at hand is very probably shot without proper permissions, and the lack of a budget prevents the appearance of much special effects beyond a little blood and (very little) ghost make-up. Although the lead actress shows some excellent gymnastics talent at the film's grand finale, which is its own sort of special effect.

The script only makes for a thirty minute movie (whose DVD is padded out by a documentary that sees the actors take a stroll around the film's graveyard accompanied by the local paranormal society), but that does at least leave the film without filler and gives it a feeling of tightness.

So, not surprisingly, Curse of the Coffee Hill isn't exactly a masterpiece, but it's perfectly watchable if you take it for the basically good-natured trifle it is. There are certainly worse ways to kill half an hour.

 

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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Spirited Killer 2 - Awakened Zombie Battles (199x)

Original title: I'd love to know

Despite the title, this film was probably made before the film that is known as Spirited Killer in Western markets, and does also - as far as I understand - not actually belong to the series of films of which Spirited Killer was the fourth part.

Anyway, here's what this one's about: three groups of people have independently and at the same time arrived in the same patch of jungle. One is a group of Chinese guys and girls and a mediocre Buddhist priest looking for the grave of one of the girls' grandfather (most characters here don't have any names, so who knows what the girl's is) to repatriate him and bring him into the fold in the family tomb back in China. The second group in the area is a merry band of Thai graverobbers, on their way to rob exactly the grave the Chinese are looking for. The third is a magically minded gang using the secluded location to ritually burn their dead leader and transplant his spirit into his successor.

Trouble arises when the mediocre priest starts his own ritual to find the body of gramps at the same time the graverobbers are bleeding on the corpse of Gramps and the spirit transfer is taking place. That's the sort of thing that really messes up everyone's mojo. So thanks to the magical accident Gramps awakens as a hopping vampire and the gang leader becomes one of those Thai martial arts zombie vampire dudes. Both turn out to be rather grumpy.

Obviously, only a Chinese/Thai team-up can win the day.

For once, I can't really blame the licensor (in this case Mill Creek continuing the bad policies of BCI) too much for trying to sell a film as part of a series it doesn't belong to. After all, Awakened Zombie Battles - like Spirited Killer - is another among the astonishing number of films featuring Panna Rittikrai and his stunt team, a patch of jungle that looks somewhat familiar to me by now, martial arts-mad undead of various forms and sorts, and frightening heaps of peculiar humour (that will also look somewhat familiar if you have seen a few Thai budget movies from this era). I can blame Mill Creek for their bizarre assertion (repeated on the packaging of the films more than once) that the language spoken in Thailand is called "Taiwanese", though.

But I digress. So, if you have seen any other film of this type (is there a decent name for this sub-genre?), you'll probably know exactly what to expect from this one, and it will certainly not disappoint you.

As it is with every other movie in the Thai jungle zombie fu genre,  AWZ is a somewhat fun movie if you don't set your expectations to high. The humour is incredibly low-brow, but does at times manage to be funny by the simple virtue of the film visibly not caring where good taste allows the application of humour to a given situation and where not and just applying it whenever it seems to get bored by playing it straight, which happens quite frequently. So the film delivers bizarre details like the fantastic equipment kit of an evil magician complete with pocket calculator and a fire extinguisher whenever it gets tired of showing scenes of people fighting or praying against each other. The mock wrestling match where I expected an earnestly dramatic fight was especially funny. At times, the film feels like a more low-rent version of an early Jackie Chan movie, just with an even greater tendency to drift off in all imaginable directions, and Panna Rittikrai fighting with cigarettes.

Apart from the humour, you get not much acting and a lot of fighting that is actually better - because it's more creative - in the humorous fight scenes than in the more dramatic ones, and a wee little plot that only ever really gets moving in the film's last third.

It's what I call perfectly fine entertainment.

 

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

In short: Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010)

An army of Milla Jovovichs (realized surprisingly badly for a film made in 2010) attacks the headquarters of the Evil Umbrella Corp in Tokyo to finally take her (their) revenge on her arch enemy Wesker (Shawn Roberts). After laying waste to half of Tokyo, possibly killing Wesker in a plane crash and losing her superpowers (not that the film seems to want to remember that for much of its running time), the original Milla (or Alice, if you need character names in a film without characterization) tries to follow her companions from the last movie into a paradise known as Arcadia, supposedly located somewhere in Alaska. Upon arrival in the North, our heroine finds only a bunch of abandoned planes and helicopters, and her friend Claire Redfield (Ali Larter) who must have been lying on the ground, outside, in Alaska, in the snow, for a few months but is only suffering from PCA (short for plot-convenient amnesia).

Together they fight crime fly to an unnamed (I think; going by Resident Evil naming conventions it's probably called Squirrel) Big City, because that's the place where you want to be during the zombie apocalypse. The two women manage to hook up with another handful of survivors (Boris Kodjoe, Kim Coates and some other people sure to be eaten soon) who hide in a prison, and keep Claire's brother Chris (Wentworth Miller) prisoner there for reasons that will never make much sense (what a surprise), staring longingly at a ship anchored outside the city. A ship named Arcadia. Obviously, the zombies and their friends will soon get into the prison, but Chris knows a way out.

As someone who more than just sort of digs survival horror games as one of the few console-centric videogame genres close to his PC gamer heart, I do of course have my experiences with the Resident Evil games, which are the most low-brow and (alas) most successful series of their genre. I'm not madly in love with the series (that's what Silent Hill and Fatal Frame/Project Zero are for, after all), but I do respect its peculiar mixture of baroquely ridiculous and stupid plots and senseless violence. Although every new iteration of the series' movie adaptations has less to do with the games it is supposedly based on, their "writer" and (sometimes) director Paul W.S. Anderson uses all his powers of stupidity to keep his work as much in the dumb but bizarre spirit of the games as a Brit adapting a Japanese source can.

Still, stupidity and all, the first three Resident Evils didn't manage to charm me. There was always something artificial about their dumbness that managed to keep the films less fun than they should have been. This tragic state of affairs ends with this fourth film. Finally, the dumbness (as demonstrated by the idiotic plot - if you want to call it that, the non-characters non-acted by people who could act a little if they wanted to, the unbelievably absurd dialogue, and the mind-blowingly stupid use of slow motion and freeze effects as if The Matrix had never gone out of style) reaches critical mass and transforms what could be just another crap film by Anderson (whose Event Horizon I'll always cherish as actually nearly very good) into a movie so enthusiastically bad yet aiming to please that only those most soulless of creatures known as mainstream film critics could not appreciate its spirit of fun.

Needless to say, I sort of love it.

 

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Pale Rider (1985)

A small group of honest, hard-working gold diggers under the unofficial leadership of Hull Barrett (Michael Moriarty) is in dire straits. Evil industrial gold mining tycoon Coy LaHood (Richard Dysart) wants to own the land they are panning gold on, and he isn't too particular on how to make the change of possession happen. LaHood has been sending his men (and his no-good son, played by a young and sleek Chris Penn) out to terrorize the diggers and lets his men rough them up when they come into the assortment of about a dozen buildings that go under the description of "town" here.

Apart from the fear for life and limbs, the digging hasn't been going so good for Barrett's group either, so the first families are starting to leave his fold for less dangerous and more lucrative pastures. Fortunately, Barrett's adopted daughter Megan (Sydney Penny) has a direct line to the big director in the sky. The girl prays for a miracle, and a few hours later a two-fisted, nameless preacher (Clint Eastwood) with an obvious dark past as a gunman rides into town.

The preacher fastly sides with Barrett and his people, even when LaHood calls in the evil, easily financially incentivized "marshal" Stockburn (John Russell) and his men to take permanent care of the miner situation. Stockburn just happens to be an old enemy of the preacher's (the film suggests he either killed the preacher or at least shot him and left him for dead), which probably makes it a bit easier for the nameless man to change his collar for a gun again.

The best thing I have to say about Pale Rider is that it isn't the worst film Eastwood appeared in (that would probably be one of the films with the ape), though it might very well be the worst one Eastwood directed himself. There's so much wrong with the film it's hard to know where to begin.

So, let's start out with the film's worst sins against my brain. Pale Rider leaves an at times ridiculous, at other times deeply unpleasant impression of something that just might be Eastwood's version of masturbating in front of a mirror; seldom has an anti-hero been so perfect, and his purported self-doubt been more perfunctory and unconvincing. Men either adore him or are killed by him, and all two of Michael Moriarty's women - hopeful wife and fifteen-year old daughter - want to fuck him. At least Clint does shy away from the daughter, but that still leaves us with a film that's basically a remake of Shane in which the kid wants to make sweet sweet love to her grandpa. Apart from being loved or feared by everyone, Clint is also utterly perfect in everything else, so perfect even that it is never in any doubt that he will de-priest (which doesn't seem to be a big thing here anyway), kill the bad guys, survive and ride on while his main groupie cries after him. Which, truth be told, robs the film of any tension - dramatic, moral or otherwise. Turns out that you not only need conflict but also at least a tiny bit of doubt about how the conflict will resolve in a narrative to create any tension. Neither actual conflict nor doubt are anything Eastwood seems to care to deliver in this display of painfully apathetic filmmaking.

The typically sedate pace of Eastwood's direction doesn't help to make the film any more exciting. Usually, Eastwood uses slowness to mirror the inner life of his characters and the rhythm of their existence, to make room to let the audience's understanding of the characters slowly grow. It's a bit like meditation, but with outbursts of violence.

Unfortunately, everyone here is a walking cliché of the least interesting sort, sprouting dialogue as dumb as I've ever heard (a point on which Michael Moriarty seemed to agree; at least his performance suggests it), and so the only thing the film's snail-like tempo shines a light on is that there's nothing of substance going on in it at all, and no life in it to speak of.

 

Saturday, December 11, 2010

In short: Curse of the Alpha Stone (1972)

The Seventies™! Geneticist Professor Abe Adams (Jim Scotlin) has a dream. He wants to fuse mysticism and science so that the awesome unified powers of chemistrynetics and alchemy will enable him to be the first human being creating the Philosopher's Stone. After some boring back and forth and a little sex, honest Abe accomplishes this feat and now has a merrily blinking piece of plastic that he hides in a miniature treasure chest as sold in every good novelty toy store.

Being a scientist-mystic (scientic?), Adams begins to experiment with a fluid filtered through his brand new Stone. His first experimental subject is the local black gay dope fiend (that's the technical term, right, or did Reefer Madness lie to me?), whom the exciting new drug first turns hetero, then into the kind of guy who has sex with a store window mannequin, then into a (still hetero) rapist. Oh boy.

Since this experiment is going so well, Adams is all too willing to make the logical next step: self-experimentation. After imbibing his tincture, the Professor is getting kind of irresistible for women, and seems to acquire a heightened endurance into the deal too, but as we all know, this sort of thing always ends badly, especially for the poor lesbian girl he's going to rape to death in the end.

Yes, Curse of the Alpha Stone is a late example of the great US wave of bizarre softcore films of the 60s and very early 70s, although it really is one of the tamer films of the late period of this type of exploitation movies I've seen. Ironically, the film seems to have only been released in 1985, a time when its sort of film must have looked incredibly quaint next to the hardcore porn that had long since taken its place.

Like many examples of its particular sub-genre, Curse tries to distract its viewers from its overabundance of technical flaws by drowning them in naked, predominantly female (and this being the early 70s, quite pleasant to look at) flesh and an insane plot. You probably know what's the deal with these flaws. Stiff, ahem, I mean wooden, ahem, bad acting meets point and shoot direction meets a warbling synthie score of the most monotonous merit (could it be I'm turning into Stan Lee?) meets offensive mean-spiritedness (groups the film doesn't like: scientists, gay men, lesbian women, people of colour, feminists).

More problematic than the film's often amusing technical ineptness or its dubious ethics is its timidity. For a softcore sexploitation film with a plot, Curse really is a bit too far on the tame side, never showing as much as it could be and never putting any real imagination into its sex or at least into the ways it avoids to show the audience sex. The vein of nastiness running through the film only truly comes to the surface for a moment or two. That makes Curse less unpleasant than it could be, but also leaves it a weaker film.

But hey, drugs!

 

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Friday, December 10, 2010

On WTF: Garo (2005-2006)

It looks like I just can't escape Keita Amemiya's work at the moment, so why not entertain the rest of the Internet with a piece about his "mature" tokusatsu show Garo, especially when the show turns out to be pretty great?

If you want to read more about it, my write-up on WTF-Film will enlighten you.

 

Thursday, December 9, 2010

In short: The Torment (2010)

aka The Possession of David O'Reilly

When their friend David O'Reilly (Giles Alderson) unexpectedly arrives at the doorstep of Alex (Nicholas Shaw) and his wife/girlfriend Kate (Zoe Richards) one night, the couple are puzzled but not alarmed. David seems deeply in shock and tells them a slightly improbable story about having found out that his girlfriend is cheating on him with another man.

Kate is a bit sceptical, but of course she and Alex invite David to stay the night. Unfortunately for them, David hasn't been very honest to them. He has problems alright, but their nature is quite a bit more outré than what he let on. David is pursued by strange, only half visible creatures who want to do him some sort of harm, and his flight has brought these creatures right to his friends' doorstep.

Well, or it might be David suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and is as much a danger to his friends as the monsters he imagines. Only the events of the following nights will show what is the truth.

The Torment (co-directed by Andrew Cull and Steve Isles) is a rather nice low-budget horror film from the UK. It's certainly good enough to make me want to avoid spoiling it, so please excuse my vagueness in the following.

Mostly, it's a film designed to keep an audience guessing if the things David (and the audience when only it and David are looking) sees are delusions or true. The Torment is pretty good at that for most of the time, although some early details should push the viewer into the right direction and should have been either omitted or kept more ambiguous to make the film's narrative core more effective. I at least realized early on what was true and what wasn't, though I was a bit afraid these hints would turn out to be mere plot holes later on.

I shouldn't have worried about that. If The Torment is something, than it is a carefully directed and designed movie. It looks like the directors have been inspired by the techniques found footage horror movies use to build tension and ambiguity and have applied them to a story that just wouldn't work as well in that other format. I'm always a bit puzzled that not more contemporary low budget movies take elements of the found footage form (like lots of hand camera work that produces closeness to the physicality of actors and location which helps build tension, ambiguity through limitation of what is shown to the audience and so on) and use them for a slightly different narrative style like The Torment here does.

At times, especially in its slower and quieter moments, The Torment is a very effective film that can make a shot of flight of stairs seem disquieting and meaningful, at other times, I found myself doubting the way its theoretically sane characters act. Would anyone really let themselves be drawn into what might or might not be David's delusions without seeing or hearing anything what he sees or hears or thinks to see or hear without at least mentioning the word "psychiatrist" a bit earlier than it happens in the film, for example? That's not the kind of problem that ruins a film for me - after all, when have characters in a horror movie ever acted reasonably - yet it kept me more distanced from the characters, and therefore made me care less for their fates than would have been preferable.

Still, The Torment shows that you still can make a good horror movie with little (yet fine) effects on a low budget if you know what you're doing.

 

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Giant Behemoth (1959)

aka the less pleonastic Behemoth the Sea Monster

Strange things are happening on the coast of Cornwall. First, an elderly fisherman dies of something that looks a lot like radiation burns while uttering the word "behemoth". Then a glowing mass of unknown origin that leaves a different fisherman touching it with burns on his hand and a whole lot of dead fish get left behind by the flood on the same beach. Shortly after that, the fish along the whole Cornish coast are dying.

Fortunately Steve Karnes (dependable American Gene Evans), a North American marine biologist with a clear eye on the dangers of radioactive tests is in the UK and has an easy time convincing Professor Bickford (dependable Brit Andre Morell), the scientist in charge of investigating the reasons for the occurrences, to let him assist in the investigation.

After a bit of research and some doing of SCIENCE(!), Karnes develops the theory that the radiation and the deaths are a mere side effect of a much larger problem: some sort of gigantic, radioactive animal threatening the whole of the UK. Bickford is a bit sceptical about Karnes' theory, but doesn't take too much convincing to come around to the American's views. He's even coming around before he sees a gigantic footprint.

Bickford's (and with him the British authorities') willingness to listen to the American turns out to be rather fortunate, for soon the creature decides to go on a nice weekend vacation in London.

If not for the UK-based setting - thanks to this being a US/UK co-production even a somewhat believable one - one could easily mix up The Giant Behemoth with director Eugene Lourie's other two giant monster movies, The Colossus of New York and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, both of which were mainly taking place around the US. By the standards of giant monster movies of the 50s not made in Japan, there could be worse films to be confused with.

Behemoth belongs to the very earnest class of giant monster movies full of middle-aged men sitting earnestly in earnest looking rooms, with earnest expressions on their faces, discussing an earnest situation very earnestly, and as such, it really is pretty good. The movie is of course a far cry from the emotional and intellectual richness of the original Gojira (the film all earnest giant monster movies tried to yet could not reach before Shusuke Kaneko began making kaiju films), but most of the anti-bomb rhetoric here seems quite a bit less perfunctory and more thoughtful - if not necessarily more scientifically sound - than in many of the film's peers. This side of the movie is additionally emphasised by the look of the radiation burns the behemoth's victims suffer (and often die) from - an element of brutal naturalism I wouldn't have expected in a movie made in 1959. Of course, the film doesn't think its own ideas through as consequently as one would wish it did, but that it has ideas of its own at all seems like quite an achievement to me.

For an art director who was sitting on the director's chair only from time to time, Eugene Lourie's films usually had a rather bland look. In this case, there's some nice use of the actual landscape of the British Isles on display, but not much else that's visually arresting. Lourie's a perfectly competent director, mind you, he's just not more than that.

Perfectly competent seems to be the favourable description of Behemoth's monster too. As rumours say, Willis O'Brien and Pete Peterson had been asked to do the effects scenes only late in the film's development, and had neither time nor money enough to create something truly impressive, so their monster turns out to be a solid but uninspired creation and the effects sequences it appears in are rather variable in quality - the monster's first appearance being the worst of them, its tussle with some electricity lines probably the best.

Still, it's a nice enough example of the sort of giant monster movie that tries to be serious SF too, and as such should provide everyone who isn't hating seriousness or giant monsters with a fine time.

 

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Three Films Make A Post: Some Things Shouldn't Be Disturbed…

No Such Thing (2001): Hal Hartley's movies are always problematic. On one hand, the man has a fantastic, personal sense of visual poetry and the ability to let actors shine doing non-naturalistic, yet deeply human feeling acting (just look at how fantastic, glowing Sarah Polley is here and compare with her performance in Splice!). On the other hand, he is a purveyor of the sort of clichéd and hackneyed culture (and worse media) critique certain art house directors (see also the insufferable Wim Wenders) confuse with depth. In No Such Things both sides of Hartley collide with a vengeance, but the director's better nature wins out for long enough stretches that I don't regret having watched the film. Still, thinking about what Hartley could accomplish if he'd apply his talents to the exploration of more interesting ideas than he usually does makes me a little bit sad.

 

Salt (2010): This is an ultra slick, competent and theoretically extremely entertaining big costly Hollywood spy action movie that has a plot as ridiculously unbelievable as any Bond movie with Roger Moore (just more complicated), although it's trying its hardest to pretend it's as clever and down to earth as a Bourne movie (and what does it say about Hollywood spy movies that the Bourne movies are as down to earth as they come?).

So far, so fun. Unfortunately, Salt is also a morally bankrupt hymn to the idea that the end justifies the means (quite unlike the Bourne movies who have a moral backbone) as probably befits a film coming from a country with government sanctioned torture. Which sort of ruins the fun. Completely.

 

Shutter Island (2010): Following the line of mediocre films Martin Scorsese had churned out this century, I had mostly given up on the director. Turns out that I was like one of those guys hating on Bob Dylan during the 80s - not wrong, but way too pessimistic.

Shutter Island is quite brilliant - a film that takes a preposterous plot (especially once the final reveal comes around) and makes it work through a peculiar combination of a sense of history (public and personal) and Scorsese's own private brand of operatic artificiality. It should be ridiculous, and yet it's pretty damn great.

 

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Goku Midnight Eye I & II (1989)

We are in the year 2014 of a cyberpunk-y future of the late 1980s. Detectives of the Special Investigation division of the Tokyo police are trying to keep Hakuryu, the new mad scientist supervillain in town, under surveillance. It's more difficult for them than you'd think, for the department suddenly develops the highest suicide rate outside of moths flying around a campfire.

What the police don't know about Hakuryu is that he owns a sizeable menagerie of bio-technological freaks, one of which is a bare-breasted woman with peacock feathers growing out of her back whose feather eyes can hypnotize just about everyone to death. When the Special Investigation unit is down to their last - and only female - member, private eye and ex-cop Goku (Shigeharu Matsuda) decides to find out what killed his friends before the last of them will die too.

A break-in into Hakuryu's high rise confronts Goku with various parts of the mad scientist's menagerie. Unfortunately, a big strong guy, sleep-inducing robot mosquitoes and a cross between a naked woman, a cat (though the movie talks of her being a dog one time), and a motorcycle who spits laser beams (she's also working as a stripper) are are a bit too much for one shirtless but tie-wearing detective to conquer, and so our hero soon finds himself face to breast and feathers with the peacock woman. It's a meeting Goku only survives by poking out his left eye and jumping into Tokyo Bay.

This would probably be the end of our hero, but a shadowy benefactor saves his life and improves Goku remarkably with a cybernetic new eye that not only carries the 80s version of the Internet right into the lucky guy's brain, but also enables him to control everything computer-controlled from trucks to satellites. But wait, there's more! The Mysterious One also gives the detective a telescopic shock poking stick, all the better to high jump through Tokyo and poke holes in people with. Looks like Goku is well equipped for a rematch with his enemies.

The second Goku movie finds our hero hired by a girl with highly unpleasant family relations and a secret government background to help find her brother before his cybernetically improved body turns him into a mad mass murderer. The case is further complicated by the girl's tendency not to tell Goku the whole truth about anything, ever, and the military's attempts at killing the cyborg before anyone else can get to him.

Well, there's no problem an inter-dimensional rocket shot out of a flying car can't solve, or so I've heard.

The Goku movies are two manga-based OVAs directed by the glorious Yoshiaki Kawajiri (responsible for anime like Wicked City! Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust! and more in that style). Especially the first one holds everything the director's name promises, possibly even more. As is Kawajiri's wont, he bombards his viewers with a highly effective combination of an 80s machismo gone bizarre, the erotically loaded grotesque in its most imaginative form (the cat-motorcycle-lady gets a rider in form of a little person in plate mail in her final appearance to make her incredible mix of weird kinks even weirder) and as much blood, explosions and breasts as any guy's inner twelve year old could ask for, all presented through some great character design and in a rather breathless pace.

What's really fascinating (and not atypical for Japanese exploitation movie culture inside and outside of anime) about Kawajiri's work is that he seldom loses the control over his material. His films may contain a flood of the incredible, the strange and the sleazy, yet he nearly always manages to funnel their waters into something amounting to a parseable plot that often manages to be interesting or exciting enough that I could imagine it to make for an entertaining film even without the utter weirdness surrounding it. Of course, having the solid plotting and the grotesquery is even better.

The first of the two Goku movies is the superior one. That's not to say the second one is bad (it does after all feature a killer cyborg, a flying car, mad military men, incest and the best rocket ever), it's just looking downright conventional in comparison to the stuff the first movie throws at the audience without losing its stride.

It's all good, though, and I'd recommend both Gokus to everyone who thinks it might sound even vaguely interesting.

 

Saturday, December 4, 2010

In short: The Evil (1978)

Sceptical psychologist C.J. Arnold (Richard Crenna) and his M.D. wife Caroline (Joanna Pettet) have bought themselves a fine new home. It was dirt cheap, which might have something to do with the fact that the house is in fact cursed and haunted.

It's also badly in need of renovation, so C.J. calls together a group of people he once had in a therapy group (at least, if I understand the film right; clarity is not one of its virtues) and a former student (Andrew Prine) coming complete with girlfriend to help bring the house in order. Before you can shout "SPOOK!", the obligatory strange things begin to happen. Loud noises and winds from nowhere are only the beginning. Soon ghosts, very localized earthquakes, and demonic possession with frightening eyebrow growth begin to assault the protagonists. A very malevolent force locks the group inside the house and begins to kill them off one by one.

In the end, it all turns out to be the fault of the gate to hell sealed in the cellar, or rather the fault of the Devil as played by a drunken Victor Buono.

Future boring TV show director Gus Trikonis' The Evil is what happens when a guy with neither knowledge of nor interest in haunted house movies is hired to shoot one based on a script that is as rote and by the numbers as spook house movie scripts come.

Because neither Trikonis nor scriptwriter Galen Thompson have ever heard of the word subtlety, their attempts at scaring their audience consist mostly of auditory attacks in the form of loud screaming, loud "dramatic" music (by one Johnny Harris), and wind noises that at times have a striking resemblance to the noise tie-fighters make. There are no attempts at building mood, no concept of what is frightening beyond shouting at the audience very loudly, and not a single idea used in an interesting way. If I had ever looked for the true inspiration for Jan de Bont's dreadful remake of Robert Wise's The Haunting, this film would probably be it.

As it goes with shocks that aren't and lots of dramatic shouting, The Evil quickly gets tiresome, and - once the demonic possessions and attempts at more bloody effects start - unintentionally humorous.

At least the acting - if I just allow myself to pretend Victor Buono's performance doesn't exist - is as good as is possible with the script. Prine has always been fine in dubious or plain bad films, and the rest of the cast just follows suit and gives this mess a sheen of professionalism it doesn't deserve, as does the solid photography by Mario DiLeo.

It's just too bad that Trikonis just doesn't have a clue what to do with their efforts.

 

Friday, December 3, 2010

On WTF: Reykjavik Whale Watching Massacre (2009)

How can you go wrong with a title like this? (And yeah, I know the US DVD title is Harpoon: Whale Watching Massacre, but I don't really care.) This is a truly strange one, with aspects that are just infuriating, and others that look quite brilliant to my eyes.

My write-up on WTF-Film still manages to come to some sort of conclusion about the film.

 

Thursday, December 2, 2010

In short: Man Made Monster (1941)

Thanks to his abnormal tolerance for electricity, the electrical one-man circus act Dan McCormick (Lon Chaney Jr.) is the only survivor of the collision of a bus with a high-voltage tower. Unfortunately, this talent awakens the interest of mad scientist Dr. Paul Rigas (Lionel Atwill), who soon uses the affable and friendly Dan as a helpful guinea pig in his plans for creating his own private electricity-driven zombie slave. Just imagine what an army made out of such men could achieve, etc.

When Rigas' experiments are successful, and Dan is all a-glow with dangerous electricity, Rigas' much more moral friend and sometimes partner in science Dr. Lawrence (Samuel S. Hinds) steps into the lab and is so aghast he loudly exclaims that he will have to call the police on Rigas. That won't do at all, of course, and so the mad evil one commands his electro-slave to kill his friend. The murder done, Rigas orders Dan to confess to the killing.

Then follows a quarter of an hour of courtroom drama that of course concludes with Dan being sentenced to death - on the electric chair. Sometimes, the sadistic ways of the death penalty really bite its fans in the ass.

Directed by George Waggner in the same year in which he also made The Wolf Man with Chaney, Man Made Monster is certainly one of the more tolerable of the non-classic Universal films of the 30s and 40s. That doesn't mean it's anything like an ignored classics. Rather, the film is a professionally made, yet somewhat unenthusiastic revue of scenes you might know from other Universal films - sometimes in slight variation, sometimes not. Compared with the downright hate for its own audience and the genre it was working in that can be found in much of the studio's output besides their well-known classics, Man Made Monster seems at least willing to entertain the idea that it owes its audience at least a bit of coherence, maybe even a movie worth watching.

Waggner was never one of my favourite directors of Universal's horror films. He lacked the visual flair people like Browning (when he bothered to), Freund or Whale brought to their films, and had only a dogged professionalism to put into that hole, which is not much of a replacement. At least in Man Made Monster's case, Waggner manages to keep things comparatively well-paced (with the overlong court-room stuff and surrounding things as an exception that pumps a part of the film that should take five minutes at most up to fifteen - for no good reason whatsoever; and some sentimental mawkish stuff with an unnecessarily cute dog for whose inclusion I don't see much reason either). It's all very inoffensive, but also a bit dry.

That is, it's dry as long as Lionel Atwill doesn't start on one of his lengthy, mad-scientific rants. Once Atwill gets going, the "tampering in God's domain" (alas, not used in this exact form here) phrases are thrown around with abandon, and plans that make no logical sense at all are explained with much relish. The ten minutes or so of Atwill doing his thing are the main reason to watch the movie, and would deserve - as would one of Junior's better turns as monsterized everyman - to be part of a film that knows what it has in them.

But, as I said, it's all perfectly watchable, which is more than I can say about a lot of Universal's movies from the 40s.

 

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

I Married A Monster From Outer Space (1958)

Bill Farrell (Tom Tryon), up to this point a man seemingly very much in love with his fiancé Marge (Gloria Talbott), comes too late to his own wedding. His sudden tardiness is only the first of the changes Marge discovers about her husband. He's getting absent-minded and confused about everyday things and doesn't act like a decent honeymooner at all on his honeymoon.

A year of marriage later, Marge is getting increasingly puzzled by her husband's strange ways. Good gawd, he's even given up drinking! Worst of all, Marge still isn't pregnant (oh, those 50s Americans must have been fertile like rabbits) although her Doctor gives her a clean bill of health. It's as if something were wrong with Bill.

When Marge - who is a real romantic, it seems - gives Bill a dog as a present for their wedding anniversary, the animal doesn't take to him at all, and Bill, who has always been a dog person, hates the animal right back. Just a few hours later, the dog is dead. (You'll learn a bit later that Bill doesn't like cats, either, so no gloating, dog-haters). This really awakens Marge's distrust, so she follows Bill when she sees him sneaking out one night, only to realize what the audience has been prone to from the beginning: Bill isn't Bill anymore, but a creature from outer space that has taken on the form of Marge's husband.

Marge, not the kind of girl prone to thinking things through, goes to the police with her story. Fortunately, the chief of police knows her, and so does at least not put her into the loving care of 50s psychiatry, but he doesn't exactly do anything about Marge's problem either. His inaction just might have something to do with the fact that the chief isn't the chief anymore either, but another alien. Turns out that this peaceful American small town has been infiltrated by the scouts of an alien invasion force. Their goal: make lots of little alien babies with Earth women.

Despite the rampant silliness of its plot  and a bit of a melodramatic streak, Gene Fowler Jr.'s I Married A Monster From Outer Space isn't half bad, at least when you like the more paranoid parts of 50s SF/horror as much as I do. Sure, the film is lacking the comparative subtlety of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but I imagine that it's nearly impossible for a film to be subtle when it isn't only just tapping into the zeitgeist of fear of communist infiltration and/or fear of the loss of individuality, but also adds an extra helping of the type of marital alienation that belongs into a time when women didn't know the men they were going to marry as well as they generally do today into that mix of emotionally loaded issues.

What's most interesting about I Married is how close to the surface these fears of white, "middle-class" (read: rich) US Americans lie here. Most genre films of the 50s at least have a thin surface veneer that tries to paint them as films not being about any particular fears (and many of them are certainly only subconsciously taking on the problems of their time), but I Married's script by Louis Vittes doesn't even try to pretend being harmless. It's as if Vittes and Fowler had decided they might as well use their cheap little b-movie as a window into the things 50s WASPS feared the most; as long as they used aliens for their experiment, nobody would care. Which turned out to be quite true. The film is even allowing itself to use ironic reversals like showing a woman whose troubles reveal themselves through her man not going out with the boys for a drink, among other things.

When it comes to the more textual than subtextual pleasures - though I Married's subtext tends to overwhelm its text - the film is not as fascinating. For every dense scene of paranoia - usually overacted in a good way by Talbott and Tryon - the film features another one that is just plain silly. The silliness of oxygen-allergic aliens invading Earth, or of the astonishingly bizarre scene in which the town doctor has the brilliant idea of finding a fighting force of men who aren't aliens by grabbing them out of the maternity ward, are undermining that sense of paranoia enough to bring the film out of balance, so that what could be classic of 50s paranoia becomes half a classic of 50s paranoia and half a masterpiece of unintentional comedy.

Still, a film that's half great and half unintentionally funny should make for fine 70 minutes of entertainment for anyone who has a heart and an interest in 50s alien invasion films.

 

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

In short! Psycho Shark (2009)!

See Japanese gravure idols on a beach holiday! Watch them film each other with the shakiest hand-held camera that ever zoomed in on a pair of breasts! And another one and so on! Get a headache! Hear them shout things like "booby squeeze" and "sexy pose"! Watch them shower while wearing bikinis! Try to adjust your standards! Remember you always thought you didn't have any! Have an existential crisis!

Watch the girls watch another shaky videotape with bikini models on vacation! Enjoy the meta while your headache gets worse! Applaud the models' use of the fast forward button! Stare at a two person beach party! Have some more bikini showering with traumatic flashbacks! Or something! Listen to senseless blabbering! Doubt that you're up to watching this thing all the way through! Get another existential crisis! Miss out on more breast-zooming because you're crying! Rejoice at the words "the tape is almost out"! Look at those shark hunter feet and legs that won't be important later on! Decide that this might be directed by a Japanese Doris Wishman! Watch the awesome first murder as represented by some bubbles underwater and half a glass of cherry syrup! Mentally apologize to Ms Wishman!

Think about how short life is! Cry again! Be surprised by a sudden, moody four second shot of a shadowy guy standing in the ocean by night! Start to hope for a wereshark! Get the next pair of breasts thrown into your face a second later! Thrill to the astonishing shark attack dream sequence! Stare at that dark screen for a few seconds! Be glad about the respite from all the excitement! Watch a shakily shot psycho murder! Hope for more feet! Try to ignore the film's attempt at suddenly having a twisty plot! Succeed admirably! Brew yourself a nice cup of tea! Return and find yourself confronted with the best breast physic in volleyball videogames and some not entirely breast-related slow-motion! Try to ignore the film's permanent repetition of the same handful of scenes! Fail, as the film does at being a horror movie or a softcore concoction! Wonder about a flying digital mega shark even The Asylum would be ashamed of! Puzzle why this crap gets licensed while actual films are languishing in limbo! Oh bondage up yours!

 

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Superman and the Mole-Men (1951)

Square-jawed reporter Clark Kent (George Reeves) and his partner Lois Lane (Phyllis Coates) come to the small American town of Silsby to have a look at the deepest-drilling oil well in human history.

It seems as if the reporters have come in vain, though. For some mysterious reason, the boss of the drilling project (Walter Reed) has closed down all drilling operations, and that just after the drill has poked into the hollowness at the Earth's centre. At first, Bill Corrigan, as the bossman is called, only explains his reasoning vaguely with a report to the head office he had to make. There's nothing else forthcoming from the man, at least until after the elderly night-watchman of the drilling operation dies from a heart attack caused by something terrible he has seen. Or so the film explains. I suspect the truth is quite different and the pair of midgets dressed up in furry suits with bad bald wigs who have crawled out of the centre of the Earth he sees have caused the old man's death by inducing a deadly attack of laughter.

After the watchman's death from ridiculousness, Corrigan becomes a lot more forthcoming towards Clark, telling him of the mysterious phosphorescence he found once the drill went deeper. This being the 1950s and all, any glowing stuff can only be explained as radioactive matter.

So the new guests on the surface of the Earth aren't just frightening/hilarious to behold, but also potentially deadly carriers of radioactivity for anyone coming into contact with them. It's fortunate that they only seem to have come to look around a bit and just didn't count on the surface natives getting as easily riled up as the examples in Silsby. Soon, there's a well-armed, angry mob out for innocent mole-men blood, and only Clark Kent's other identity, the insufferably smug Superman, can protect them.

Lee Sholem's Superman and the Mole-Men is a bit of a dry-run for George Reeves' stint as Superman that would begin about a year later in the TV show The Adventures of Superman, and the film's interpretation of Clark Kent and Superman are basically identical to those in the show (at least as much as I've seen of it). Officially, Clark is defined as mild-mannered, but in practice he's as unpleasant a know-it-all as every male lead in a film from the 50s ever, just with the added surprise that he seems to be quite competent in his job as a reporter. In fact, Kent the reporter seems to be much better at his job than he is at being Superman. In the latter position, he prefers looking superior and talking down to people to diffusing problems before they come to a crisis point. That "Superman is a dick" meme fits Golden Age Superman here just as well as it does the Silver Age variation.

Ideologically, Supes and the Mole-Men isn't as unpleasant as one would fear. Most of the film plays out as a slightly silly appeal for not shooting people just because they are different (or furries), which isn't something genre cinema of this (or really any) era is exactly full of. Of course, if you read the film as an allegory of the "race question" in the US of the time as some people like to do, the film's ending can easily be interpreted as approving of the rather less pleasant notion of segregation. Or I might just be over-interpreting what is a cheap little B-movie that aims to entertain its kid audience and teach it a valuable lesson about being nice to each other.

I don't know about the teenage audience of the film's time, but I was entertained enough, if not always in the ways Sholem probably intended. The film's budget was obviously very low, so the unavoidable flight sequences are realized by a camera filming the moving ground (super-groin-cam?) while the rest of our smug hero's effects-heavy superpowers are just ignored. And I already explained about the terrifying mole-men.

There really isn't much exciting to look at on screen. Sholem's direction is of the usual point and shoot style and doesn't show any memorable ideas or any variety, but at least the director keeps the film's pace fast and filler-free and shows as much solid competence as you can hope for in this sort of film.

Superman and the Mole-Men is certainly a disappointing film for an audience expecting the blue Boy Scout in some sort of grand cosmic adventure, or hoping to witness a plot as weird as those in his Silver Age comics, but if you can accept its limitations, it's a perfectly fine little film.

 

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Three Films Make A Post: The First Monster Musical!

Darkside Blues (1994): Surely, you can't go wrong with an anime based on a manga written by Hideyuki Kikuchi, the guy who wrote the novels Vampire Hunter D and Wicked City are based on? Turns out that you really can't, at least in this particular case.

Although its plot is rather distractible and opaque, and it is prone to revolutionary kitsch, this anime concerning the emotional and political awakening of some inhabitants of Shinjuku, or to be more precise, Kabukicho, one of the last places on Earth not bought out by an evil multi-national corporation who now lords over its realm as a semi-benevolent dictatorship, is really quite something. It's filled to the brim with wonderfully bizarre details even in the least important corners of its universe, and it tends to do quite clever things with its details when you'd least expect it.

It's probably a bit too full of ideas and characters. There's enough fascinating stuff in Darkside Blues to fill one or two full seasons of an anime TV show, so it is at times actual work for a viewer to unpack everything that's going on. Not that I mind when a movie accepts that its audience doesn't consist only of people unable to use their brains.

Zeiram 2 (1994): Evil space thing Zeiram returns to Earth in a new, less impressive body for a rematch against galactic bounty hunter Iria (Yuko Moriyama) and her electrician friends (Yokijiro Hotaru and Kunihiro Ida). After some back and forth, everyone ends up in a parallel universe again, and a bit of fighting ensues.

Sounds exactly like the first movie, but plays out in a much less entertaining fashion. One reason for it is the rather draggy pacing of the whole affair. The annoying humour to Iria fighting a guy in a rubber suit ratio is skewed in the wrong direction. Even Amemiya's monster design is just not as good as it was in the first movie. There are still moments when the film becomes excellent silly fun (just watch Iria go all Mary Poppins on us!), and the last twenty minutes are pretty swell, but Zeiram 2 contains just too much unnecessary baggage to come close to its predecessor.

Genocyber (1993): There is a reason why the name Koichi Ohata strikes fear into the hearts of even the more hardened friends of anime from the 80s and 90s, and that reason is M.D. Geist, possibly one of the worst examples of the form ever made - and if you know worse ones, please don't tell me. Ohata's later attempt at lobotomy through anime, Genocyber, is not much better than his anti-classic. Throw a bunch of ideas "borrowed" from a dozen better anime into a pot, add footage of children dying in sprays of gore, and heat it with the help of random, confused storytelling, and voila, you have cooked yourself some Genocyber! I have to admit that some of the bio-mecha-demon transformations are somewhat awesome, but nothing would be awesome enough to slog through the rest of this crap.

 

Thursday, November 25, 2010

In short: Cyber City Oedo 808 OVA 1-3 (1990)

Japan in a far, cyberpunk-y future as it could only have been imagined in the early 1990s. Three hardened cyber criminals - the badass, madly pompadour-ed and ponytailed Sengoku, the badass hacker and wearer of Geordie LaForge's old eye visor Gogol/Goggles, and the badass gender bending hair-metal-hair-favouring melee expert and Goth in spirit Benten - are roped into the service of the Cyber Police to hunt other cyber criminals. For every caught ex-colleague, they'll lose a few years of their original sentences of several hundred years in prison.

Which would be an okay deal, if our reluctant heroes wouldn't have to wear some of those darn explosive collars around their necks and wouldn't have to work under the secretive (possibly cyber and badass, too) Hasegawa. Hasegawa for his part seems to like nothing more than to set their collars on random countdowns during which they have to solve their cases.

In a bit of structural cleverness, each of the episodes concentrates on one of the three cyber policemen and relegates the other two to supporting roles.

In the first episode, Sengoku and his colleagues have to deal with a very peculiar hostage situation caused by a hacker (or is it a ghost?) in one of Oedo's space scrapers. Mild carnage, manly behaviour and angry ranting about morality ensues.

The second episode finds Gogol (who is not only a badass cyber whatever, but also a lover of Russian literature; probably "Dead Souls") the victim of a rather complicated (cyber?) conspiracy whose goal it is to use him as the final test object for a new-fangled military police cyborg (made out of mutilated dead bodies and metal) and to let the military replace the Cyber Police. Heavy carnage, manly behaviour and intense badassness ensues.

The third and - alas - final episode concerns Benten's investigation (he's the only one of the three who actually seems to investigate his cases) into what looks like vampire attacks on rogue bio scientists. A very mean old capitalist also makes an appearance. Heavy carnage, manly behaviour and melodramatic gothy vampire stuff ensues.

Although I think that the some of the "Cyber City Oedo 808 is the best cyberpunk anime ever!" talk on the 'net is a bit of an exaggeration (*cough* Mamoru Oshii *cough*), I can't say these three OVAs aren't very entertaining pieces of anime. That doesn't come as a surprise from films directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri (Wicked City, Ninja Scroll, and so on), a man who seems unable to make boring films, or dumb films that are dumber than strictly necessary.

If you're like me and have come to Kawajiri mostly through his more sleazy output, you'll be shocked to hear that Cyber City does not contain any nudity at all, and can in fact hardly even be called sleazy. The first episode also lacks some of the director's trademark visual grotesquerie (although the nature of the episode's antagonist will turn out to be quite grotesque). Fortunately, his trademark violence is still on board. The second and third episode do a visually much more interesting job at crossing cyberpunk with horror elements; the third even manages a visually impressive take on vampires.

While Kawajiri hits all the required beats of fight movies, he also manages to squeeze some interesting ideas and even a bit of characterization into the anime. The military cyborg and the vampire (and to a lesser degree even Sengoku's enemy) are cool things for the characters to fight, but are also used to reflect their inner lives. It's not really deep stuff, but makes the carnage more interesting because there seems to be something more at stake for the characters than just conquering bad guys.

 

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Monster Dog (1984)

Original title: Leviatan

Rock star Vince Raven (a two-hundred years old looking Alice Cooper), his girlfriend Sandra (Victoria Vera) and a van load of fodder are on their way to Raven's old family mansion to shoot a new video for one of the singer's songs there, the last one being "shit". Not surprisingly, given that this is a film directed by Claudio Fragasso, the audience has the fortune to see that clip two times during the course of the movie. It is indeed shit.

Anyway, Raven's return home after an absence of more than twenty years comes at a somewhat inopportune time. People in the area have been attacked by a pack of roaming wild dogs that act surprisingly intelligent, and are accordingly nervous. Even before the singer and his gang have arrived at the house, they have already encountered a police roadblock (which is what the inhabitants of planet Fragasso consider to be an ideal defence against dogs, animals known to always travel by road), have run over a dog, and have met an older guy in bloodied clothes muttering the mandatory "you are all going to die, but I'm not giving out any useful details" warnings. Raven and Sandra also see a creature that does not look like a dog as we know it at all, but like a werewolf.

When the meat finally arrive at the house, the fun really begins. The caretaker is missing, the mandatory psychic among the group has a bad feeling and later an extensive nightmare about Raven being a werewolf and killing everyone - how could things get any worse?

Well, the next day, the caretaker's corpse is somehow thrown through a window that's rather high up in the mansion's wall, for one. Then, the local group of psychopathic werewolf hunters arrives, planning to kill the singer as a werewolf as they did with his father before him, the fact that the murders were already happening before Raven arrived in town notwithstanding.

And that's only what happens before the dog pack and their supernatural leader attacks.

Say what you will about the movies of Claudio Fragasso (for example that they are shoddy and stupid beyond belief), but don't pretend they are not designed to be as entertaining as possible just by virtue of stuffing as much stuff that was exciting in other movies Fragasso vaguely remembers into a ninety minutes running time. Monster Dog seems out to prove my case here.

Nothing that happens is any good in a traditional view of the art of filmmaking, of course, but what the film lacks in quality, it sure tries to make up for in the sheer quantity of silly crap. Seen from this angle, the film is something of a mother lode of the crazy, even though it does not show Fragasso at his most insane. But when someone's most insane is Troll 2, even his third most insane is pretty mad.

The greatest strength of Monster Dog lies in the absurdity and sheer stupidity of most of its details. And boy, does Fragasso love to put a lot of needless yet stupid details into his movies. There's not only no good reason to, say, have the dead caretaker crash through an upper window that should be quite unreachable from the outside, it's an idea so actively nonsensical I can't help but admire Fragasso for not only having it but putting it on screen without any explanation. We can only assume that the werewolf/monster dog is either really, really good at throwing full grown men or is some sort of spider dog scuttling around house facades like Peter Parker. Excitingly enough, this is only one example among dozens, one of them as awe-inspiringly stupid as the next. Did you, by the way, know that lycanthropy is a heart disease?

If the overabundance of stupid details isn't enough to make a viewer happy, she can further delight in moments of Very Bad Acting, Alice Cooper staring sinisterly right into the camera, Very Bad Special Effects (though Fragasso mostly tries to avoid showing us too much of Monster Dog), and lots of scenes of people acting like utter fools, even for horror movie characters. Yes, sure, let's invite the armed, not the least bit suspicious men in; they say they know Vince after all, while leering suspiciously. Yes, let's leave the screeching, traumatized woman alone with the mutilated corpse. And so on.

It's all enough to make a boy dizzy with admiration for Fragasso's very special art.

 

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

In short: The Expendables (2010)

The CIA (in a short scene that also includes a rather stupid cameo by that Schwarzenegger guy) embodied by cameo-Bruce Willis hires a not completely morally bankrupt group of mercenaries lead by Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) and spiritually mentored by a biker/tattooist/ex-mercenary (improvised by the curious mixture of decay and off-beat charisma that today is Mickey Rourke) to assassinate a South American dictator (David Zayas). But before the troop is really in, Barney and his right-hand man Christmas (everyone's except my favourite Hollywood action movie Brit of the last few years Jason Statham - and my problem isn't so much Statham himself but that all of his films are borderline unwatchable) go on a little sightseeing tour of the island.

Said tour ends with the acquaintance of the dictator's daughter Sandra (Giselle Itie) who turns out to be an enemy of all her dad stands for, the discovery that dad is controlled by a rogue CIA man (Eric Roberts eating the scenery's mother), and an exploding pier full of soldiers.

At first, Barney is determined not to take this particular job any further, but the memory of Sandra's moral uprightness in doing the right thing even when it means working against her own father and some rambling soul-searching with Mickey convince him otherwise.

After taking care of their rogue mercenary ex-friend Gunnar (Dolph Lundgren) who has hired himself out to Mr Bad CIA Guy, Barney, Christmas and the rest of the gang (Jet Li, Terry Crews, Randy Couture) start a night attack on the bad guys' base.

The Expendables is another of Sylvester Stallone's attempts at milking his 80s action movie achievements and his audience's nostalgia for them for success and money, and like it was with the last Rambo movie, he sort of succeeds. The Expendables tries to go about the business of self-copying a bit differently than Rambo did, though.

Where that movie was all earnest and dramatic soul-searching and slaughter, The Expendables tries to be a bit lighter, uniting Stallone and other action guys of his (and later) generations not just for "looking for their souls" (yes, that's how the film likes to talk), but also for stupid quips and sometimes limp, sometimes charming attempts at self-irony. Well, that and slaughter.

As it was with Rambo's earnestness, this film's lightness doesn't convince me too much either. It's all well and good for Stallone to show he understands that much of the traditional action hero poses are more than a bit silly, but instead of, you know, doing something about that problem, he decides to go the way of least resistance and just wink at his audience and let his band of badly aging muscle men exactly do what they always did, reminding me at times unhappily of Wes Craven's Scream. Stallone also still doesn't have much of a clue about what to do with female characters apart from letting them save souls and be damsels in distress, but I didn't expect anything else from him in this respect. Speaking of being intellectually stuck in the past, it comes as no surprise that Terry Crews and the awesomeness that's still inside of Jet Li are sorely underused.

Fortunately, it's not all winking all the time, and much of the film's running time is spent on the loveable carnage Stallone as a director and as an actor is much better at than at trying to be Quentin Tarantino (or worse, profound). Once the film stops trying to be clever or to make a point, it's pretty much as physically immersive as action movies get, so much so that I didn't have any trouble just ignoring the rest of the movie and so enjoyed myself immensely.

 

Sunday, November 21, 2010

TNT Jackson (1974)

Diana "TNT" Jackson (Jeannie Bell) comes to "Hong Kong" to look for her brother Stag/Stack (Stack-o-lee?). She doesn't know yet that he has been killed in a drug deal gone very bad. With the help of friendly, two-fisted bar owner Joe (played by beloved - or so the Internet tells me - Filipino comedian Chiquito; not doing any comedy), TNT finds out the truth about her brother soon enough.

The young woman swears vengeance on the killers of Stag, planning to do some punishing with her superior martial arts. Her plans are made easier to accomplish by a few helpful factors: firstly, the drug cartel TNT is after is not as united amongst themselves as it should be. Someone has begun to attack their deliveries and make off with the product. Secondly, Charlie (Stan Shaw), a high-ranking member of the cartel who also just happens to be the killer of TNT's brother shows a lot of interest in her. And thirdly, a female government agent (Pat Anderson), has managed to penetrate the inner circle of the gang.

Looks as if the vengeance business isn't as lonely and difficult as people say.

I've got my reasons for usually being quite hard on the films Filipino exploitation mega-producer Cirio H. Santiago directed himself, namely that the man's directorial style is terribly bland, and that his ability to make the most boring movies out of perfect exploitation ideas is maddening to the extreme. Because of these dubious tendencies, I go into Santiago's films with a large amount of trepidation, quite certain the director will be able to ruin even the best of set-ups through a special brand of wilful apathy only paralleled in certain late period Santo movies.

So it comes as something of a surprise that Santiago's TNT Jackson left me enjoying myself quite a bit. As was often the case with Santiago's movies, TNT was co-produced with Roger Corman for the American's New World Pictures, and therefore made with a large eye on the US market, with Santiago's native Philippines a secondary concern that could be satisfied with a local star like Chiquito in a secondary role.

Obviously, TNT's attempts at crossing the blaxploitation film with a very US American version of the martial arts film (that is to say, a version that mostly lacks people in front of or behind the camera even vaguely acquainted with the basic concepts of fighting on screen) do not add up to a "good" film of any kind, even before you have witnessed this film's particular idiosyncrasies, but they do end up being pretty enjoyable through sheer persistence.

This time around, Santiago actually manages to completely avoid his most debilitating weakness, the love for long and painful - often painfully long - scenes of filler. Being Santiago, he goes even one step further and seems to just have decided to throw any pretence of a coherent plot out of the window. The whole film is just a massive conglomeration of stuff that just happens to vaguely centre around TNT's vengeance, but never comes together as anything I'd call a story.

It's all bizarre dialogue, ridiculously choreographed fights during which clearly no bodily contact is ever made (cleverly emphasised by the lack of any exaggerated sound effects - we don't want people to think anyone's trying to hide his or her lack of martial arts skills here, right?), a heroine played by a woman who looks even more ridiculous in a fight than anyone else here (which is quite an achievement, once you have seen Stan Shaw waggle his legs, or, as the film calls it, "fight") with a stunt double who looks nothing like her (but can do acrobatics, hooray!), random naked fu, random moments of Chiquito being likeable and being the only competent person on screen (even his few fights look sort of believable!), and so on, and so forth. All this random stuff is presented without even the slightest attempt at making it gel dramatically. In place of all that high-falutin' logic and emotional depth, Santiago sets random, silly crap. But this once, the director/producer also seems to have realized this amount of silly crap needs to be presented with complete earnestness to be charming instead of annoying, and proceeds accordingly.

It's a laugh a minute, but I found myself laughing with the film, and not at it.

 

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Ghosts of Hanley House (1968)

A strapping young man in a small Texas town makes a bet with a friend. If he will spend a night in the notoriously haunted Hanley House at the edge of town, his friend will give him his brand new Ferrari (which is not the sort of car anybody involved in this production could actually afford, so it is never appearing on camera). That's fine by our young man, given that he doesn't believe in ghosts at all.

Because these are the 60s and not the stuffy old times of Gothic horror, our young hero decides to invite some people to spend the night there with him in a very free interpretation of the word "party". After some difficulties, he finds a handful of willing co-victims (some older guy, the mandatory medium, the new girl in town, and his betting partner - although he'll have to hide the last one's car keys to make him stay), and a black maid to clean up the house for them (oh yes, this is definitely Texas in '68), so project spook house can start.

Unfortunately, our hero is very wrong not to believe in ghosts. Everybody will have quite an unpleasant night, full of barking, knocking, strangling and highly unpleasant revelations about the cause of the haunting which will lead to the need for some gravedigging.

The Ghosts of Hanley House, the only directorial effort by Louise Sherrill, is another film among the seemingly endless number of US local independent productions of the 60s and 70s. It's a film belonging squarely to the weird amateur school of filmmaking. As such it suffers from some typical problems many productions of its type share. There's the usual assortment of sound problems (dubbed lines aren't always spoken by the actors and are much louder and clearer then the poor location sound, the sound effects have a strange position in the mix, that sort of thing), ropey acting, and awkward dialogue.

The most productive among the movie's flaws are the visual consequences of the combination of an inexperienced director with a decided lack of funds which leads to scenes full of static camera set-ups (cameras can move, you say?) that are only interrupted by peculiarly lit close-ups of actor faces wearing way too much make-up and so can't help but remind of expressionist silent movies. The latter shots are often used to let the actors stare disquietingly into the camera while uttering their lines, as if they weren't talking to their peers but directly to the audience.

Sherrill also has a weird tendency (born from inexperience or indifference) to show reaction shots a few seconds too late and seems to try to make up for it by letting them linger just a little too long. This, the staring, and the film's not-quite black and white (that looks slightly tinted blue to me; it might just be the state of the print, though) in combination aren't bad for the movie, however. It's quite the opposite, in fact: These technical inadequacies help give the film a mood very much of its own - as if something about what Sherrill is showing the audience is not quite right, a feeling of strangeness a good horror film should strive to evoke.

Now, don't get me wrong here, I don't think for a second the director was purposefully going for an effect this avantgarde in its conception for her cheap little horror movie done with amateur actors. It's rather one of those things that can just happen to a movie when outward circumstances combine in just the right way. "Those things" did happen to local independent productions more frequently than they did to other film, as if the lack of experience (sometimes of ambition) of the people making them made it easier for those films to become interesting instead of professional, and purposelessly strange instead of well thought-through. Obviously, I don't think purpose matters much in art. What matters for this particular film is that the peculiar mood of slight wrongness is there, and is as strong as I could wish for.

That's what I look for in a movie like this, and that's what The Ghosts of Hanley House delivers.