Sunday, February 27, 2011

King of Thorn (2010)

A few years into the future, a rather peculiar virus attacks humanity. It turns its victims to (highly breakable, it seems) stone, and is therefore dubbed the Medusa Virus. International health organizations are helpless in finding a cure for the problem.

A corporation specialized in biochemistry and financed by some sort of religious sect, the Venus Gate Corporation, has a plan: put 160 people infected with the virus, but only in the early stages of the inflicted illness into an induced coma in the hope of waking them up once a cure has been found. The US government believes that the Corporation itself might be responsible for the virus they are now supposedly trying to cure, but before they can set anything in motion to hinder the Corporation's plan, the big freezing has already begun.

When the 160 wake up again from their sleep, they find themselves alone deep in the gigantic castle the Corporation used for the project. Quite some time must have passed while they were out, for their nice little high tech chamber is run through with gigantic thorn tendrils. As if this weren't bad enough, there's also a bunch of highly aggressive and very hungry monsters to deal with.

Alas, these people aren't very good at coping with surprise monster attacks, and so their numbers are fastly whittled down to seven. One of these seven is the shy bespectacled school girl Kasumi, who is the one half of a pair of infected twins the Venus Gate Corporation decided to help, while leaving the other one to die. Religious people are so nice. Kasumi is of course our designated viewpoint character, surprisingly enough not running around in her school uniform for most of the film.

From now on, King of Thorn deals with the the survivors' attempts to get clear off the monsters, find out what is really going on and - potentially - leave the castle. Needless to say, not every one here is who he seems to be, nor who he thinks to be.

The anime King of Thorn is based on a manga by Yuji Iwahara, but - as always seems to be the case these days - I haven't read the original, so I can't make a comparison between the two. Suffice it to say the Internet tells me there are huge differences between the two, which doesn't come as much of a surprise in a film that has to condense 800 or more pages of manga into less than two hours of running time. King of Thorn the anime is at least in so far successful in this attempt as it holds together as a narrative even for someone like me who hasn't read the manga and does - for the most part - avoid the pitfall of spouting so much exposition that a viewer might confuse it with a flashback episode of a TV show.

The anime isn't exactly teeming with originality. Its characters are all very standard types with little happening in their character arcs that will surprise anyone, while the plot hits most of the expected beats. Thanks to frequent allusions to "Sleeping Beauty", it becomes quite clear already early on that KoT will develop into something other than the survival SF tropes it uses for the first half of its running time, so the turn in the direction of slightly psychedelic and very Japanese sort of inner space SF doesn't come as a surprise either. Though the thorns themselves are something new to look at, even a rather inexperienced anime viewer will have seen most of the film's elements before in similar configurations.

Fortunately, KoT's director Kazuyoshi Katayama does know how to put his well-worn pieces together into a rather entertaining whole while avoiding the horrors of extensive fanservice. The film never reaches the depth it at times seems to be angling for but it contains enough classically fun bits (Monsters! Weird psychic powers! The Japanese obsession with doing peculiar and interesting things to European fairy tales! Very, very pretty animation!) executed in a professional manner to be an alright genre piece. Just don't expect it to be as clever and moving as it pretends to be. The former, King of Thorn just isn't, and for the latter, it's just a bit too slick and professional, a state not helpful in producing actual emotion. I still had quite a bit of fun with it, mind you.


Saturday, February 26, 2011

In short: Semya Vurdalakov (1990)

aka The Vampire Family

A newspaper sends a young reporter (Igor Shavlak) into the Russian countryside to make a nice, sensationalist yarn out of some strange stories going around about things are supposedly happening there. Our reporter friend, who might or might not be called Igor, isn't too enamoured of the job, seeing how he is supposed to get married in three days, but his boss is sure that he'll get his story in no time at all and sends Igor anyway.

Once in the countryside, Igor is accommodated by a peasant family living right in the middle of nowhere close to a ruined church. There, his story awaits him. The family is convinced that their dead patriarch, only going by "grandfather", will return from the dead as a blood-drinking fiend exactly nine and a half days after his demise, which would be right during Igor's first dinner with them. Frighteningly enough, when it's dinner time all electric lights go out, and the old man appears. He seems unaggressive enough, but when everyone's asleep, he lures the family's young son to him and drinks of his blood. This is only the beginning of some terrifying days for Igor and the family, during which the reporter still manages to fall for the daughter of the house. That's not necessarily the best thing to do when the dead have grown cold and hungry.

Ah, the wonders of the Internet and the films the efforts of fansubbers can bring you in contact with! I know next to nothing about Semya Vurdalakov, except that it was directed during the last gasps of the Soviet Union by a gentleman called Gennadiy Klimov (and possibly co-directed by its lead actor Igor Shavlak) and is based on the same short story of Alexei Tolstoi that Mario Bava used for the Wurdulak episode in his Black Sabbath. The whys and wherefores of the production are closed to me as someone who doesn't speak or read Russian.

What I do know about the film is what I have seen. A mood piece, slowly but surely gliding through pictures of the sort of poetry of decay and dilapidation that spells doom in every horror film, beginning in a comparatively bland and naturalistic Moscow and (just as Igor does) growing into a more dream-like sense of space and time in the country, as if the landscape itself would dislocate the protagonist (and his audience) from space and time as he knows and understands it. The narrative grows consistently less linear and logical until what once was clear becomes murky, difficult and utterly ambiguous. In the end, even a return to Moscow can't put in order again what was unhinged.

Klimov makes excellent use of not quite real seeming landscape and run-down buildings, using nature and man-made structures as markers of an entropic movement that grows in tempo the longer the film runs. On a more prosaic level, the director also really knows his stuff when it comes to the uses of different types of lighting. There's not much more effective than the first time the film shows the old, dead man by gaslight, his family already looking as dead as he is in the light he brought with him; foreshadowing actually does work when used like this.

The truly exciting thing about Semya Vurdalakov though is, that a scene like the one I just described isn't an exception in a workmanlike film, but typical for the way Klimov imbues everything on screen with additional meaning, until it's impossible to divide the symbolic and the concrete from each other anymore.


Friday, February 25, 2011

On WTF: The Playgirls And The Vampire (1960)

What happens when young Piero Regnoli, later to be the writer of Malabimba and Burial Ground (among other lessons in extreme sleaze), is hired to make a contemporary gothic vampire movie? A cage-match between as much sleaze as 1960s' Italy allows and a gothic vampire movie, of course!

Read my detailed impressions of the fight on WTF-Film!


Thursday, February 24, 2011

In short: Colossus And The Headhunters (1963)

Original title: Maciste contro i cacciatori di teste

An island tribe of people who seem to stand culturally and technologically somewhere between ancient Greece and the stone age is nearly eradicated when the local volcano erupts. Fortunately for them, Maciste (Kirk Morris) has just arrived on a raft that's improbably large for one person to travel on and evacuates a raft-full of survivors, among them the new king Ariel (Demeter Bitenc). Because there's neither food nor water on board, our heroes naturally decide to follow an old myth and travel to a country a long journey away.

Somehow, the raft and its passengers arrive at their goal without having become cannibals. And they just might have discovered America. Or not.

Once arrived in Peplomerica, our heroes (or whatever they are) soon meet the rather rude people of Queen Amoa (Laura Brown), who have fled from the machinations of a cruel tribe of headhunters (which, in the language of this film, means "people who supposedly love decapitation, but only decapitate someone once during the course of the movie and have no interest at all in shrunken heads or, you know, headhunting"). Amoa thinks Maciste is their prophesied saviour, but our rather jerky hero decides that helping her would endanger his volcano survivors and trots away with them, only to return after Amoa and her people have been attacked and killed or kidnapped by the bad guys. If Maciste had only known that Amoa loves/hates/loves him! Suddenly all heroic, Maciste decides to find the survivors. Will he be able to save Amoa from the main bad guy's (Frank Leroy) attempts to marry her?

Colossus and the Headhunters might be the, well, outright lamest peplum I have ever had the dubious honour of watching. Usually, films in this blessed genre put all their energy into presenting themselves as exciting spectacles, full of manly belly-laughter, toppling of pillars, homoerotic torture and silly monsters. And if the budget can't pay for a mechanical giant snake, then the typical peplum will at least try and pretend that a piece of painted cardboard is a giant snake. Not so, Colossus: Maciste doesn't laugh and he never is tortured - although Kirk Morris' facial expression suggests that acting in the movie was quite painful for him. The only things Maciste topples are a rope bridge and parts of a brick wall, and even this he does with about as much enthusiasm as a child pressed into eating spinach by malevolent parents. Monsters aren't in the movie at all. The latter would be perfectly alright with me if Maciste would spend his time throwing guards around while laughing uproariously, but alas, this version of the hero spends most of his time walking around or running away.

And the "walking around" bit brings me to Headhunter's main problem: nothing ever happens in this movie, and when something happens, it's realized in as anticlimactic a way as possible. The film's big moment is probably the climactic battle in front of four grass huts (one of them even burning!). At least there's a lot of shouting and running around then, and people wave their swords at each other. The excitement!

Even the mandatory dance sequence is absurdly unenthusiastic, the poor actress (yup, no money for more than one dancer - or more than some brown walls in the background - here, sorry) looking for all the world as if someone was pointing a gun in her direction from off-camera to convince her to dance.

Need I even say that the film decides to do nothing at all with the potentially fantastically entertaining "Maciste discovers America" angle? As it stands, I'm not even completely sure the place is supposed to be America. Truth be told, the film's just too boring for it to matter in any case.


Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Troll Hunter (2010)

Original title: Trolljegeren

As has happened a few dozen times before, the footage Troll Hunter consists of are the last traces of a plucky trio of film students (Tomas Alf Larsen, Johanna Morck, Glenn Erland Tosterud) that some mysterious anonymous has brought into the hands of the film's producers.

The footage shows the students attempting to solve the secret of a mysterious hunter (Otto Jespersen) who seems to follow the officially sanctioned hunters stalking the perpetrator of a series of bear attacks around. Though the hunter, going by the name of Hans, really doesn't want to have anything to do with our heroes, they begin to follow him secretly around Norway. One night, in a mightily impressive forest, they are attacked by something Hans, in a moment of overexcitement, identifies as a troll to them. Not surprisingly, the students are a bit sceptical about the existence of these particular creatures of myth, but when the gnarly, mono-syllabic Hans permits them to observe his work and interview him, they're soon quite convinced by what their own eyes show them.

Hans, you see, is the secret troll hunter of an arm of the Norwegian government desperately trying to keep trolls a secret and away from humans; it's Hans's job to kill those trolls roaming around outside their reservation. The hunter wouldn't usually talk about his work, but he has become somewhat disgruntled by the way his bureaucratic bosses are treating him.

Right now, it's a difficult time for him anyhow - for some reason, a whole lot of trolls has left their usual territories and is roaming around free, munching on stones, cows and civilians alike. Not surprisingly, running around with a film team isn't going to make the hunter's life any easier.

Just when I thought the POV/found footage style of filmmaking had found its all-time low with films like the two Paranormal Activitys and The Last Exorcism, there suddenly comes Norwegian director Andre Øvredal's Troll Hunter around to show me that there's still life in the old lady.

Troll Hunter also teaches us that you can make a comedy inside the POV sub-genre without making it a comedy about the POV sub-genre. A parody of the form would be the most obvious yet also the least interesting way to go about it. Instead, Øvredal goes into the more difficult, but also much more satisfying, direction of a bone-dry humour that's based on thinking the absurd premise of a government troll hunter through, while having a lot of fun with the details of his own worldbuilding. So obviously - and really, if you're living in Central or Northern Europe, it is so obvious that it's funny - Hans needs to fill out a form for every troll he kills, explaining if it exploded or turned to stone and probably also what direction the wind blew from. Details like this are presented with the straightest face imaginable, a tone that is responsible for a lot of Troll Hunter's effectiveness as a comedy; the absurd being something that is funniest when presented in as earnest a tone as possible.

The film has a lot of fun with applying elements of the troll belief from myth and children's books to its giant monsters. Did you know these creatures are really into the blood of Christians? And that certain modern Christian students wouldn't admit to being religious in front of their peers? Hilarity (and just possibly a dead Christian) ensues.

The Troll Hunter being a comedy doesn't mean it eschews the necessary (and beloved) elements of the giant monster movies I suspect its director and writer loves as much as I do, so there is as much of the mandatory gasping at big things stomping around as the budget allows. The trolls are in fact pretty fantastic looking CGI work that finds the sweet spot between the silly - they are based on the long-nosed children's book idea of trolls, after all - and the pretty darn impressive, without ever falling into the trap of avoiding to make the trolls menacing because they are absurd parts of a comedy a worse film would have stepped right into.

Further bonus points go to Øvredal's careful, nausea-avoiding use of shaky cam. Øvredal never overuses that most unloved part of the POV horror style, giving using shots stable enough to let one believe the student filmmakers here were actually competent. The director even shows us a lot of the trolls quite clearly, giving the whole affair a feeling of veracity an overuse of shaking and wobbling could easily have destroyed instead of increased. And, you know, Norway's landscape is just too impressive not to show it clearly.

But what really set a wide grin onto my face for most of Troll Hunter's running time is the feeling of fun that pervades it from minute one, a sense of wonder and joy at telling an especially contrived tall tale to a receptive audience that knows you're putting one on it, and still loves every second of it.


Tuesday, February 22, 2011

In short: Black Cobra (1987)

Original title: Cobra nero

Fashion photographer Elys Trumbo (Eva Grimaldi) witnesses one of the dozen murders a nameless gang of evildoers with an equally nameless leader (Bruno Bilotta) commits per week. The gang isn't amused and at once attempts to kill the accidental witness too, but Elys manages to flee into the protective arms of the police.

Alas, the police is nothing these particular evildoers are afraid of. The very same night, members of the gang attack the hospital where Elys is being taken care of. Fortunately, the chief of police has put maverick cop and professional asshole Robert Malone (Fred Williamson!) on the photographer's case. Malone arrives just in time to do what he does best: slaughtering the bad guys and acting like a douche towards the traumatised woman.

Of course, the hospital shoot-out won't be the last attempt on Elys's life. The poor woman will not even be safe in that most secure of all places the police could put her - Malone's apartment. On the positive side, the photographer has a thing for complete assholes, so there'll be a glorious romance in her and Malone's future if they survive the whole nameless bandit affair first.

There really was no movie made during the 80s too bad for the always hungry Italian rip-off machine to ignore. Case in point is Black Cobra, a film actually ripping off Sylvester Stallone's painful Cobra, of course on a mere fraction of the Hollywood film's budget. But I have to say, if I had to decide between the Stallone vehicle and this film, I'd certainly go with the Italian version, seeing as it features in Fred Williamson the charismatic lead actor the American movie lacks, tortures its audience with fewer crypto-fascist soliloquies and even is in the possession of a sense of humour.

That sense of humour mainly shows in the loving care the film puts into making Williamson's character the most unsympathetic asshole possible (while still making the man look his trademark cool), until he has all the negative character traits of any action hero ever combined, making it completely impossible to take anything he says or does seriously. Williamson seems to have fun with that and applies his considerable powers of self-irony to his role.

As it goes with Williamson vehicles, he is the most entertaining part of his movie. The script goes through the mandatory variations of scenes and elements from Cobra and adds bits and pieces of other cop vigilante movies, without too much care for logic (What exactly are the bad guys trying to do here? Or, for that matter, the police?); there's a female lead without any agency whatsoever; and the bad guys aren't just nameless but also weirdly vague characterised and without anything much memorable about them.

Although there a too few of them for an action film, director Stelvio Massi knows how to shoot mildly exciting action sequences. They're nothing to write home about, especially compared with what a Hong Kong director or someone like Enzo G. Castellari would have done on a comparable budget, but they're clean, have loud noises and people dying, so I'm kinda alright with them, as I am with the whole of the film.

And, truth be told, for a film ripping off Cobra, being "kinda alright" is quite an achievement.


Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Man With Icy Eyes

Original title: L'uomo dagli occhi di ghiaccio

Albuquerque, New Mexico. Senator Robertson is shot by an assassin in front of his own house. The killer absconds with a mysterious suitcase the politician was carrying. Very soon, the police suspect Mexican American Valdez of the deed. The man does after all have enough reasons (some of them political) to hate the senator, and there's enough circumstantial evidence to put the responsibility for Robertson's death on him. Valdez not being white sure doesn't hurt, either.

Italian American reporter Eddie Mills (Antonio Sabato) is working the case with some excitement, hoping to use it as leverage for a professional breakthrough that until now hasn't been coming for him because he's not white enough, either. Mills soon realizes that the most interesting aspect of the case is what happened to the suitcase Valdez supposedly took from Robertson. Because the police couldn't find it among the belongings of their preferred killer, they theorize the existence of an unseen accomplice in the deed. Mills decides to look for that man, and in his search finds the model Anne Sachs (Barbara Bouchet), who - as it turns out - was close to the senator's home when he was shot. Conveniently, Anne witnessed Valdez giving the suitcase to another man, soon to be dubbed "the man with the icy eyes". Though nobody manages to find this mysterious accomplice, Anne's statement will be an important factor in a trial that sees Valdez convicted of murder and sentenced to death.

Eddie's editor John Hammond (Victor Buono actually bothering to act here, giving his character something I'd describe as "sardonic warmth") has his doubts about Anne's veracity, but his and Eddie's inquiries in this regard lead nowhere.

Only months later, on the day of Valdez' execution, new information convinces Eddie and Hammond that Anne has been lying all this time and they themselves might be partly responsible for bringing an innocent man to the gas chamber by having given her lies additional authority. In a race against time, haunted by a doubtful prophecy of death and some very real death threats, the reporter and his boss are trying to expose the true killer.

If you are one of those people who dislike the giallo genre for its setting of mood and ambiguity before a straightforward narrative, you might be positively surprised by The Man With Icy Eyes. In fact, Alberto De Martino's film is so straightforward that it often seems to come down more on the side of a conventional thriller than that of the giallo. Fortunately, The Man does err often enough from the more predictable path of the less Italian genre to stay interesting. There's that whole bizarre subplot about Robertson's astrologer prophesising Eddie's death at midnight after two other people have been murdered that is in part a red herring, in part a rather peculiar way to ratchet up the film's tension. That part of the plot feels as if someone had planted a piece of Cornell Woolrich where it wouldn't naturally belong just to make the landscape more interesting. It certainly keeps the film from becoming too obvious.

De Martino's direction is also quite straightforward for the genre he's working in. He puts the genre's usual (and lovely) stylistic excesses on the backburner and presents the plot as if his film were an action movie, just with more talk and less action. When the opportunity to include a fistfight (with Victor Buono pretending to hit people, even!) or a short chase sequence arises, De Martino's the right guy to make it tight and exciting, though.

While the script (as usual for an Italian genre film credited to half a dozen people, but turning out much more coherent than one would expect after hearing that) doesn't exactly burst with originality, it has its interesting elements. The film might not dive very deeply into the race and class aspects of the tale it tells, yet it does make clever enough use of it as an obvious part of the world its story takes place in. It also certainly isn't an accident that both Valdez and Eddie have a tougher life on account of their darker skin, giving the whole plot a vibe of Eddie throwing another man with whom he has more in common than with the people he works for to the wolves for his own betterment in a classic case of the disenfranchised getting complicit in their own demise. The film never gets too explicit about these connection, though - I'm not sure if distractibility or an attempt at subtlety is the reason for it, but there you have it.


Saturday, February 19, 2011

In short: The Touch of Satan (1971)

Anti-spoiler warning: I'm going to be especially vague in my descriptions today, because I'm afraid to otherwise spoil the film's minor charms.

Young Jodie (Michael Berry) is travelling across the USA to learn the bewildering ways of his people. When he stops in the surroundings of the small farm of the Stricklands, he immediately feels drawn to their daughter Melissa (Emby Mellay). A bit of talking, an evening dinner with the folks and a nice long walk lead to an invitation by Melissa to stay with her for a few days. Jodie agrees, not knowing that he's just taken a step into a realm he'd possibly better avoided.

A secret surrounds Melissa and her family, and questions are opening up before Jodie: why do people in the nearby town think she is a witch (something Jodie will laugh off as pure superstition for much longer than is rational)? What is wrong with the old woman (Jeanne Gerson) locked up in a room in the Stricklands' house? Has she something to do with the murder committed in town a few days ago? And what is the true purpose of Melissa's invitation?

In the beginning, Don Henderson's The Touch of Satan looks like one of the less interesting entries into the large sub-(sub?-)genre of regionally produced horror movies about witchcraft. Henderson's direction is straight, the film's pacing is quite slow and there's only a bit of early 70s local colour to keep a viewer's interest up.

But then, slowly yet surely, the film develops a bit more traction than its beginning or its especially lousy IMDb score promises. Henderson's - or rather his scriptwriter James E. McLarty's - ideas about witchcraft turn out to be slightly more off-beat than you'd expect in a film like this, having a folktale-ish bent to them that is surprising and quite enjoyable. I also appreciate how much the script is willing to play with its audience's expectations of what is going on and why while keeping completely inside the parameters of early 70s witch movies.

Once the film has finally gotten going, Henderson even manages to do some pretty clever directing from time to time: there's a scene in which Melissa, after witnessing something traumatic, falls to her knees, the camera circling around her, and all sounds get muted while Melissa's breathing is the loudest noise we hear, that looks like a pretty fantastic way to show her emotional turmoil to me; then there's a flashback witch burning that becomes a lot more chilling than its ropey effects promise by having the witch haters singing "Amazing Grace" through it until something happens to make them stop. Scenes like these, sudden unhoped-for bursts of creativity and artfulness, are exactly what I'm looking for in lost little films like this.

Emby Mellay (whose only role this seems to have been) is also pretty good in her role as sympathetic witch. Unlike many inexperienced actresses playing witch roles in lowest budget movies, she's projecting naturalness, and doesn't go for the scenery-chewing (though the letter would probably be fine with me, too), so that I can nearly imagine her as a person.

Sure, the The Touch of Satan is a bit slow, its plot is a bit silly and has its share of holes, the effects (what there is of them) aren't good, but I'm quite willing to ignore these sorts of problems in a film that is always at least competent, does much that is ambitious and even succeeds in its ambitions more often than not.


Friday, February 18, 2011

On WTF: The Saviour (1980)

Being the kind of curious person I am when it comes to movies, I'm always happy to take a look at the lesser known films of directors whose central works I've enjoyed.

Ronnie "Bride With The White Hair" Yu's early career is especially interesting, because unlike, say, John Woo, he was already making pretty interesting films when he was just starting out. Case in point is Yu's The Saviour. My weekly column on WTF-Film will tell you more about the film and the wooden dolls acting in it.


Thursday, February 17, 2011

In short: Busu (2005)

aka The Booth

Because of renovation work, his station puts Shogo (Ryuta Sato), the host of a late night call-in radio show specialized in love advice, into an old, seldom-used studio somewhere deep down in the cellar of the station's building. What Shogo initially doesn't know (but his producer seems just too glad to tell him), is that studio 6 is supposed to be haunted by the ghost of another DJ who took his life right there. What nobody except Busu's viewers can tell Shogo is that the DJ 30 years ago didn't exactly commit suicide, but was the victim of a ghost from his past for whose death he was responsible.

Strange things begin to happen during the course of Shogo's show. Peculiar noises come from the studio speakers, a woman's voice repeatedly calls the DJ a liar, and everything that can go wrong with the show does go wrong. Some of the things that are happening might just be practical jokes of Shogo's crew, whose members have all been victims of the DJ's tendency to act like a jerk in varying degrees, while others just might be products of his own guilty conscience.

What Shogo feels guilty for slowly becomes clear during flashbacks caused by the stories his show's callers tell him. Looks like he killed his girlfriend while he was breaking up with her, and then ran; not in cold blood, but leaving her dead all the same.

Soon enough, the accidents, the strange happenstances and his own mind lead Shogo to the edge of a breakdown.

The Booth is the last film Yoshihiro Nakamura did in the early part of his career that was predominantly dedicated to the horror genre. Most of these early films Nakamura directed aren't too easily available outside of Japan, leaving the director's name more connected to his scriptwriting for films like Hideo Nakata's Dark Water in our parts. Now, Nakamura writes and directs very particular comedies like the absolutely lovely Fish Story.

Although Busu (also written by Nakamura) isn't exactly a comedy, there is still something blackly comic about watching Shogo's quick descent from professional calm and charm into first inadvertent honesty and then what once was called a nervous breakdown, while the flashbacks are getting clearer and clearer about how much of a jerk (and true misogynist at heart) the DJ really is. But Shogo's character being what it is without any actual insights into his psychology (people usually have reasons for being like they are) also results in the film's biggest flaw in my book in that it makes it difficult to feel much more about what happens to the man than grim satisfaction. The film shows the DJ's final destiny as comeuppance for someone who truly had it coming, and though it's nice to see him squirm, his basic loathsomeness makes it difficult to feel much else about what happens.

There's just not much that's disturbing about this particular horror movie, unless one counts not being disturbed by terrible things happening to a terrible person as disturbing, which would be an interesting direction to go into. Alas, I don't think that's an emotional reaction the film is actually trying to evoke, but more me being the soft-hearted kind of guy I am.

Still, unpleasantly enough, it is satisfying to see Shogo squirm, as it is satisfying to see Nakamura use his probably extremely tight budget to make an equally tight film.


Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Shocking Dark (1990)

aka Terminator 2

aka Alienators

Gather 'round me, children, for I have a tale to tell! Once upon a time it came to pass that an Italian movie producer realized that he was in the position to legally name one of his films Terminator 2, and bring it into the cinemas way before the (less entertaining) James Cameron film of the same title would hit - at least if he could find someone to make the film right now, in the space of approximately two days of shooting and with no budget except for what petty cash the producer had lying around. Fortunately for the history of the cinematic art - though not the sanity of mankind - our mysterious producer knew just the right candidates for the job, the dynamic duo of Bruno Mattei ("director") and Claudio Fragasso ("writer"), two men completely without professional standards or shame.

But what the producer could not have imagined about the two was that their lack of standards and shame hid a very peculiar sense of humour (or, if you believe some scholars, a very particular kind of insanity). So, while they agreed to make the producer's dream of a cheap Terminator rip-off come true, Bruno and Claudio then proceeded to film a rip-off of that other excellent James Cameron movie, Aliens. Claudio, full of love and respect for Cameron's work, even took it upon himself to quote whole bits of dialogue from his hero's film, although usually in places where they made neither structural nor plain sense.

Yet despite the shared genius of Bruno and Claudio, their work was still plagued with problems. Surely, they could not afford more than one monster costume while still providing for their own meagre livings on the budget the producer had provided them with! But how, oh how, could a whole squad of professional soldiers be conquered by one pitiable rubber suit monster? Claudio, always cleverer than his peers, went back into his chamber with the script, and turned the squad of soldiers into !MegaForce!; now, even a single rubber suit looked like more than enough of a threat for his film's heroes, their shoulder pads and motorcycle helmets.

But when the producer arrived at Claudio's and Bruno's home the next morning to read their script, he was very angry about what Claudio had written. "There is no Terminator in my Terminator movie! What, oh what have you done!?" he shouted. Claudio and Bruno looked at each other, giggled, and explained they would turn their film's most wooden actor into an android by directing him to babble in the most monotonous voice and never to change his facial expression. "It will be just like Schwarzenegger!" Bruno added. The producer, recognizing sheer genius when he saw it, was mightily pleased by this and allowed Bruno and Claudio to begin shooting their masterpiece.

Their casting director was desperate. "Where, oh where will we find actors who will work for food?" he cried. "Nothing easier than that!" Bruno and Claudio answered, and proceeded to lure a group of American tourists onto their "set" - for this is what the artists called the darkened factory and the service tunnel where they made movie magic happen - with promises of cameras made of gold. Before the Americans could realize they had been lied to, Bruno and Claudio dragged them in front of their camera for "a screen test", letting their new-found partners read Claudio's script aloud. Afterwards, the wily Italians sent the tourists home, telling them they'd call them once filming would start. In truth, they knew that they had already filmed all the performances they would ever need.

And so, having found a solution for each of their problems, Bruno and Claudio brought their film into the cinemas, where it was loved and adored by the masses. Even James Cameron was so moved by the boys' love for his work that he decided not to sue them. And because there are no costs to cover when one's film hasn't cost anything to produce in the first place, the producer, Bruno, and Claudio became very rich from their work's earnings. And they all lived happily ever after.


Tuesday, February 15, 2011

In short: La Momia Azteca Contra El Robot Humano (1958)

aka The Robot versus The Aztec Mummy

It's five years after our last visit to the land of the Aztec Mummy. Good old Doctor Almada (Ramon Gay), who is by now married to Flor (Rosa Arenas) and still keeping Pinacate (Crox Alvarado) as his secret lover or assistant, informs two visiting Doctors of what happened in the first two Momia Azteca movies - though in a version peculiarly different from what movie one and movie two in the series showed - through the power of endless flashbacks. But his tale doesn't end with the malevolent Dr Krupp aka The Bat (Luis Aceves Castaneda) being thrown into his own snake pit by an angry mummy. It turns out that Krupp was able to escape the pit through a secret escape hatch (note to other supervillains: always have an escape hatch in your death traps - there's nothing that could go wrong with that), and was in action again just a few nights later.

Krupp used his powers of remote hypnosis to get the living Mummy detector that is Flor to show him where the Mummy strolled off to with her breastplate and her bracelet (the ones that should lead him directly to the treasure of the Aztecs, remember?). Krupp still really, really wants to steal the Mummy's stuff and use it to steal even more stuff, but he's now quite afraid of the dead guy. What to do in a case like this? If you're a professional mad scientist like the Bat, you decide to just disappear for a few years and improve your Tampering in God's Domain skills. Almada is convinced that Krupp has returned now, and does his best (that is, not much and getting himself caught) to obstruct Krupp's plans.

Krupp hasn't returned alone, though. The mad scientist now comes with his new secret weapon against mummy-dom - a half-human/half-bicycle-headlight/all-hand-made radioactive robot. Whatever could go wrong?

In the beginning, Momia Azteca vs. Robot Humano puts up quite a fight, actively hindering even a tolerant viewer like me from enjoying it. There's not much that can stop a film dead in its tracks faster than a twenty minute flashback (including one whole musical Aztec number) to its two predecessors, closely followed by another twenty minutes of Ramon Gay and Crux Alvarado playing detective by talking not very interesting nonsense at each other. Up until that point in the proceedings, it was a bit difficult not to drift off into the land of sweet, sweet dreams for me, with Krupp's Extreme Scenery Chewing™ the only thing that kept me awake.

But then, very suddenly, the films final twenty minutes turned into everything its title promised: a mad science lab full of adorable mad science stuff! Gay and Alvarado getting manhandled (yay!)! Krupp turning into the perfect serial mad scientist! A guy in a robot suit of the most boxy degree! Monster wrestling that looks a lot like hugging, only with a bit of steam coming out of the robot (who might have teakettle parts inside, as far as I know)! It's psychotronic movie perfection.

Of course, it's twenty minutes of psychotronic movie perfection that follow forty minutes of dullest dullness, so I'm not sure how much of a recommendation this actually is.

No, wait, who am I kidding? Of course it's a recommendation! If you're the kind of gal/guy who is going to watch a film called The Aztec Mummy versus The Human Robot, you're not the sort that can be held back from pure bliss by the threat of a mere forty boring minutes. I certainly wasn't.


Sunday, February 13, 2011

Black Noon (1971)

The Old West. Reverend John Keyes (Roy Thinnes) and his wife Lorna (Lynn Loring) are crossing the desert on their way to the good reverend's new place of employment. Alas, John is a preacher and not a ranger, and consequently the couple soon enough loses their way.

They'd probably die of thirst, if not for the sudden fortunate appearance of Caleb Hobbs (Ray Milland), his mute daughter Deliverance (Yvette Mimieux) and their factotum Joseph (Hank Worden). They rescue the preacher couple and bring them into the town Caleb's mayor of, picturesque - if slightly un-frontier-like looking - San Melas (see what they did there?). John recovers from his near-death experience speedily, but Lorna seems to have been hit a bit harder by dehydration and exhaustion, so the couple will have to stay in town for a bit before they can continue on their journey.

Their hosts sure don't mind. It's been quite a while since a preacher has been in town, and the populace is just all too glad to have the chance to get some holy vibes. When he's not staring at Deliverance in a way quite unfitting for a married preacher, John obliges his hosts' wishes of doing some preaching for them with a vengeance. Why, look, his first smug sermon even manages to heal a lame boy! And while he's being heroic, he also puts himself against the lone gunman (Henry Silva) who has been terrorizing the town.

Now, given his good qualities, the townsfolk would really like John to stay for a bit longer, perhaps as their new preacher. John is tempted to oblige that wish, but Lorna has a bad feeling about that, as she has about the whole place.

She's quite right, too. Not everything in the oh-so-subtly named town is quite right. Why does John have strange nightmares and even daytime hallucinations of a bleeding man since he has come to town? Why does Lorna get worse instead of better the longer she is staying in town? Might it have something to do with the witchcraft Deliverance practices in her free time? Or is it all part of a Satanist conspiracy? One thing is sure, John's moral compass is pointing in more awfully un-priestly directions the longer he stays.

Black Noon is a very neat little TV movie directed by long-time TV director Bernard L. Kowalski, and written by TV western specialist Andrew J. Fenady. As I have mentioned before, I'm very fond of films attempting to mix the western and the horror film, and finding a rather obscure example of a film mixing the Satanist conspiracy sub-genre and the western is the sort of thing that makes my day.

Even better for that day is that Black Noon has merits beyond its mere existence. Nobody will ever call a US TV movie from the 70s stylish or visually exciting, but Kowalski is the sort of professional director who can make the visual straightforwardness the TV format demands from him work to his film's favour; and if the situation demands it, like in the dream sequences, Kowalski is even able to use cheap old dream sequence standards in an effective way Roger Corman would have approved of. If nothing else Kowalski brings a tightness to the visuals as well as the pacing that fits the at its core very simple story well.

Fenady's script really has its moments too, never showing the silent and inescapable corruption/seduction of the priest and his beliefs with too grand a gesture. In the end, Black Noon's tone seems to imply, what we witness is terrible (and frankly a bit unfair) in its consequences, but in the end nothing unusual in the history of humanity; pithy corruption's just a normal, daily occurrence. Good old honest 70s bleakness didn't even stop from infecting TV movies, it seems.

But even when it's not about the basic weakness of people, the Black Noon's script does its best too avoid becoming overtly melodramatic. Of course there are louder scenes, but these scenes are actual emotional turning points the film worked up to while hinting at their underlying emotional complexities. This hinting at the film's themes does work so well not only because of Fenady's writing, but also because Black Noon's ensemble cast is rather great. Everyone (well, except for Henry Silva's porn moustache, but what can you do?) seems out to treat a set-up that could be played as a carnival side-show with earnestness and concentration, strengthening the human side of the story in favour of the film's potential for camp.



Saturday, February 12, 2011

In short: Demon of Paradise (1987)

Hawaii. A couple of dynamite fishers awakens an ancient fish-person with their antics. The fish guy does not approve of their ecological dubious methods and kills them, and - now that he's awake - decides to pop up from time to time to kill other people, usually by pawing at them from the water.

The local herpetologist Annie (Kathryn Witt) is soon convinced that the murders and disappearances are being committed by a prehistoric amphibian. Her attempts at convincing Keefer (William Steis and a cowboy hat), the local chief of police of her theory aren't too successful. Keefer falls in love with her, but not her brains, and continues to think the killer is a simple human serial killer. And Keefer's got to know, seeing that he once was "the High Sheriff of Reno", and lost his job there when he couldn't catch a serial killer (yup, that's the film's main attempt at character psychology).

Keefer does at least care about people getting murdered, which is more than can be said of the mayor of AmityCahill (Laura Banks), a local hotelier who uses the newfound monster mania to improve her business and cart more tourists into her place. As is traditional in films like this, she, like the guys who sold the dynamite to the explosive fishermen, will be sorry later on.

One cannot overstate the importance of Cirio H. Santiago as a producer of Philippines-made exploitation movies for the US market and as a partner in crime of Roger Corman; one also cannot overstate how painfully boring the movies Santiago directed himself were. There are a few exceptions to the latter statement, like the mad and wonderful TNT Jackson, but the larger part of Santiago's output suffers from the man's frightful ability to turn perfectly fun exploitation ideas (vampire hookers, for Cthulhu's sake!) into slow-moving abominations (Vampire Hookers, for Cthulhu's sake!).

Demon of Paradise was supposedly shot in Hawaii, but the omnipresence of Filipinos before and behind the camera suggests a shooting location a bit closer to Santiago's home. And Hawaii looked quite different in Lost, too.

Anyway, as my attempts to avoid talking about the actual movie at hand might hint at, Demon is one of Santiago's truly bad movies, if "bad" is the correct term to use for a film that you could very successfully sell as medication for most forms of insomnia. As is to be expected, the film's boring from beginning to end, with boring-bad acting (Steis's hat might be the most charismatic actor on screen), a boring and draggy script, a boring monster in a bad yet boring suit that is involved in intensely lackluster (and boring) murders, boring sub-plots with more boring characters, boring dancing, a boring scene of monster versus helicopter (resulting in a boring explosion) and even boring nudity. Whenever a scene threatens to become mildly exciting, Santiago applies his awesome skill at entertainment prevention by doing some insane stunt of directorial self-sabotage, like, just for instance, intercutting a fisher fighting against the monster's attempts at pulling his whole boat under (it sounds more exciting than it looks anyway, to be honest) with some folkloric "Hawaiian dancing".

I rest my case.


Thursday, February 10, 2011

In short: Smile Before Death (1972)

Original title: Il sorriso della iena

Sixteen year old Nancy Thompson's (Jenny Tamburi) mother has died in the sort of "suicide" only the movie police will ever take to be an actual suicide. Not that it matters all that much to Nancy, seeing that she's spent her whole life in various boarding schools and hasn't seen her Mom in years anyhow. Plus, her mother's death has made Nancy very, very rich, although her stepfather Mario (Silvano Tranquilli), who has never even seen Nancy before her mother died, is supposed to take care of her money until she's eighteen.

Nonetheless, Nancy is leaving her boarding school and moving in with the aging gigolo and his long-term lover, fashion photographer Gianna (Rosalba Neri). It becomes clear quite early on in the proceedings that Gianna and Mario are responsible for the death of Nancy's mother, and that they are planning on getting rid of the girl, too, to get at her money.

Nancy's no dummy, though, and, after the first failed assassination attempt on her, starts a very peculiar campaign of self-defence by playing games of seduction and merry mind-fuckery on her would-be killers. Of course, there are further plot twists lying in the future.

Smile Before Death's director Silvio Amadio is one among the astonishing number of Italian back row genre filmmakers who was always working in whatever genre was in fashion at the moment, so his filmography features a peplum or two, a spaghetti western, and a few giallos like Smile. As happens with his type of director more often than not, most of Amadio's films are competent and routine but lack the sparkle or conviction of films made by someone who cares about more in his films than finishing them on time and on budget.

That isn't to say his films are unwatchable, one just needs to keep one's expectations on the appropriate medium height to enjoy them. If you're able to do that with Smile Before Death, you'll probably have some fun with it.

At least, the film contains the mandatory amount of nudity, mostly Jenny Tamburi's nudity. Don't worry, the actress wasn't really sixteen when this was shot, so nobody has to feel like too uncomfortable when the camera lingers and lingers and lingers on her while the film's blasted theme song plays. It's only another day of mild sleaze in the Italian film industry.

When Amadio's camera can tear its gaze away from Tamburi, some mildly thrilling thriller stuff and a load of mightily improbable, yet appropriately cynical twisting and turning happens. From time to time, the film even manages to be blackly funny in its merry disregard for propriety; this never leads into the depths of class, politics and social morals some of the best films of the giallo genre are exploring, but does keep one distracted from further repetitions of the same thirty seconds of music.

I usually do like the technique of playing a jaunty, cheesy lounge pop song while rather decadent or plain unpleasant things happen on screen, but Amadio overuses the little music one Roberto Pregadio composed for his film so much that I'm not even sure if he isn't trying to pull off a Tokyo Drifter-like joke on his producers. Unfortunately, Pregadio's little ditty isn't good enough to be used this intensely and soon (after its tenth use or so about twenty minutes into the movie) becomes so close to sonic torture that it threatens to pull the rest of the film down with it.

Still, if you're nerves are strong, or your ears weak, Smile Before Death is a perfectly decent little movie.


Wednesday, February 9, 2011

My Soul To Take (2010)

Sixteen years ago, a serial killer, imaginatively dubbed "The Ripper", terrorized your usual US small town. In the end, the killer turned out to be a loving family father with one daughter and another child nearly born, but also a lot of voices - one of them rather nasty - in his head. In good old slasher movie tradition, the guy took some killing, too, when the police finally caught up with him, surviving various close range shots, knife cuts, and a self-inflicted ambulance collision until he finally ended up in the local river, never to be seen again.

Now, sixteen years later, the seven children born in the night of the Ripper's death - all of them played by actors age twenty-one or older - are holding an improbable ritual of wrestling a representation of the killer back into the lake on the anniversary night of his death. And no, the film never explains how this tradition got started, and so lets its audience picture the main characters as toddlers wrestling representational evil.

This year, though, teenage meanness chooses our designated hero Bug (Max Thieriot) as the wrestler. Now, Bug's a little on the fragile side and so doesn't do his job before the police comes to break up the whole affair. Obviously, this has the expected consequence of someone dressing up in the Ripper costume going around and slaughtering teenagers. Is it just the return of a killer, or some under-explained crap about wandering souls?

I don't really share the love for Wes Craven a lot of other horror fans seem to carry around in their hearts. Admittedly, I do like his original Nightmare on Elm Street in its role as supernatural slasher movie with a brain quite a bit (as is only fair and proper), but I usually describe Craven's two early exploitation classics as "the one with the Keystone Kops" and "the one with homicidal Lassie", and loathe Scream for its responsibility for a host of movies confusing irony with an excuse for lazy writing. (I don't blame Craven for all the mediocre films in between, though. Nobody only makes important films.) Consequently, I didn't go into My Soul To Take expecting anything better than another teen slasher, probably slickly directed in a boring mainstream manner, with ill-advised "humour" to make the director look more clever. Apart from the visual slickness, that's not at all what the film delivers, though.

Sure, Craven's film is a variation of the old teen slasher formula - although one that seems strangely disinterested in the actual violence, and even dares to let some of the murders happen off-screen - with added doses of black high school comedy only a guy in his early seventies would write, but it's also completely, ambitiously insane in the most unexpected ways.

It's pretty clear Craven had ambitions of making My Soul more than just your run-of-the-mill slasher film, but I honestly don't know what kind of movie the director was trying to make instead. An air of uncertainty hangs over the film, showing itself in the film's moments of utter unpredictability hindered by its moments of complete predictability (try to guess the order of character deaths in this one, and you'll be dead wrong; try to guess the nature and identity of the killer, and you'll be dead right), in the way the characterisation swerves from stupid teen cliché to surprising complexity and back again in the course of a single scene, in the blatant idiocy of the finale (really, shouldn't a film - something that is supremely visual - try to get something visually interesting out of the soul transfer nonsense?), and in jarring tonal shifts a director and writer of Craven's experience can't have included without a purpose. Alas, what that purpose beyond weirdification might be remains completely unclear to me.

In a sense, this does of course turn My Soul to Take into a minor catastrophe, the sort of movie only people with a healthy (or unhealthy, depending on one's perspective) love for the skewed will appreciate. It's not an effective horror movie, it's certainly not a effective comedy, it's just baffling and its existence improbable beyond belief, but it's also a fascinating experience in its strangeness. There aren't many films coming out of the horror mainstream this peculiar, and while I don't think "peculiarity" is what Craven was going for (he seems much too well adjusted for that), I can't help but approve of the fact that peculiarity is what he achieved.


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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Things I Learned From Watching Paranormal Activity 2 (2010)

(Well, it was either this, or a long and annoyed rant about how wrong this and a bunch of other POV horror movies got Blair Witch Project. I chose what's better for my blood pressure.)

  • Retcons are alive and well and now living in crappy horror prequels.
  • If there's one thing demons like, it's haunting annoying and boring people. See also movie number one. You go, demons!
  • The life of a Magical Latina ain't easy.
  • That shot of the swimming pool in which nothing happens isn't getting more exciting by permanent repetition.
  • Astonishingly enough, the same goes for all those other repeated shots where nothing happens. That's not how suspense works.
  • Doors still aren't scary. Well, not Paranormal Activity's doors.
  • Automatic pool cleaners are like, totally fascinating. Just ask the demon. Or this movie.
  • If a Ouija board was used in the first movie, you gotta have one in the second one too, or else the audience will become confused by the daring differences between the two.
  • Ghosts aren't persistent, unlike demons, who are like, evil.
  • "Oi! Stepmom! Did your Granny make a pact with a demon for wealth and sold the life of your firstborn son?" is not the sort of question a wholesome American girl will ask her stepmother directly. Or else this film would be a lot more entertaining (and probably shorter, but that's the same in this case) than it is.
  • Opening kitchen cupboards is an especially evil and disturbing thing for a demon to do. I'd recommend taking out the  garbage once in a while, too.
  • When a demon wants to play fetch, it really wants to play FETCH.
  • There are stupid explanations a sequel delivers for what happened in a first movie, and then there's what Paranormal Activity 2 does. You just gotta love it when a sequel makes its predecessor retroactively worse.
  • Micah was killed on October 8th, 2006. And I remember being pretty happy about it.
  • There's nothing wrong with this movie that couldn't have been fixed by a total re-write and some imagination in the direction. Or just not making it at all, but that would of course be asking too much.


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Sunday, February 6, 2011

Sticenik (1973)

A young man (who will later turn out to be) named Michael flees in panic through the countryside, slowly followed by a strange figure wearing a cape. Let's call the latter "The Man" from now on. Ooh, symbolism.

Michael manages to escape to a large building, and right into the arms of a psychiatrist. Looks like the young man has stumbled into a clinic for milder cases of mental illness. The psychiatrist decides to take care of Michael for a time. Though the Man stops his pursuit once his victim has reached the clinic, the psychiatrist still catches a look of the strange pursuer and realizes that something is going on that's not quite right.

Nonetheless, talking with the young man makes it clear to the psychiatrist that his guest is in dire need of more than just physical shelter, and that his clinic is not prepared to help a man like him. But, before the psychiatrist can get Michael someplace else, he will have to win the young man's trust.

Michael's stay isn't quiet, though. There is something about the young man and his fears that disturbs the other patients terribly, as if his nightmares were somehow dripping into theirs, but that's not even the strangest thing about the situation. The Man hasn't give up on his pursuit, it seems, and starts to appear outside the clinic, or even on its roof, willing to use violence against people getting in his way. Later on, the Man accosts the psychiatrist when he is walking down a lonely country road and tries to convince the doctor that he is Michael's guardian, and has every right to get his hands on him, but the obvious strangeness surrounding the Man does seem to make his words rather difficult to believe.

Finally, the psychiatrist makes a decision. It never becomes quite clear if he decides to give Michael to the Man or just to transfer him into a more fitting clinic for his case as he says (who treats supernatural pursuit anyway?). In the end, the nature of the psychiatrist's decision will not be important at all, because Michael makes one all his own.

Yugoslavian (Serbian) director Djordje Kadijevic has quite a few films treating models of the literary fantastic in a very particular way in his filmography. Some of these films, like Sticenik, have fortunately found the interest of fansubbers, who are doing everyone interested in the cinema of the fantastic quite a favour.

Sticenik is based on a short story by Serbian Jewish writer Filip David, and achieves a strange, dream-like, yet precise mood of the inevitable. The film utilizes black and white pictures to reach a point (and a mood) lying somewhere between the type of Gothic achievable on a TV budget in Yugoslavia in 1973 and the clear symbolism of the more daring part of Eastern European arthouse cinema.

I find the work of directors like Kadijevic, whose ideas of what fantasy cinema is for and how it is to be made are very different from those of Western (and inevitably more commercial) directors, as fascinating as it is difficult to write about. Sure, I could give you an interpretative rundown, giving my opinion on what the Man symbolizes and what the rocking chair in the garden is a metaphor for, but this approach to writing about film (or any art at all) isn't for me, because it sells the actual experience of watching a movie short and turns movies into crossword puzzles with one clear solution that I'll tell you about to demonstrate my intelligence, leaving you with little reason to actually watch the damn things on your own other than to disagree with me or praise my awesomeness.

Some things are better experienced than explained, so I'll just leave you with my recommendation for Sticenik as a film that perfectly makes everything that is good and interesting about Eastern European fantastic literature as I know it come alive, and that's well worth seeking out.


Saturday, February 5, 2011

In short: The Last Shark (1981)

aka Great White

aka The Last Jaws

Original title: L'ultimo squalo

Just a few days before a surfing regatta is supposed to be held there, the little US coastal town of Port Harbor is struck by a series of shark attacks. The local experts in such things - author and hobby sharkotologist Peter BenchleyBenton (James Franciscus) and "Scottish" sea bear Ron Hamer (Vic "Yup, it says here I'm from Scotland. This is how Scottish people talk, right?" Morrow) - deem the perpetrator to be an exceptionally large Great White. Their recommendation is to postpone the regatta until the shark problem has been solved. Unfortunately, the town's mayor William Wells (Joshua Sinclair) is trying to get himself elected state governor, and as we all know, that's not a position you can achieve when you are known as level-headed and putting the greater good before your private interests in an emergency, so Wells decides to go through with regatta anyway.

We're not in Amity here (no, honestly, please don't sue us!), though, and while Wells does his best to keep the shark killings out of the news, he still does try to protect the competitors in the regatta by surrounding the area of the competition with a net no normal shark could bite through. Additionally, Wells assigns Benton, Hamer and a bunch of fishermen (surely all experts in animals they don't usually meet) as his anti-shark crack troop.

Not surprisingly, none of Wells' ideas protects anyone, and Port Harbor's beach and the surrounding seas stay an all-you-can-eat buffet. That is, until Sharkie makes the capital mistake of nibbling off the leg of Benton's daughter.

In 1981, much beloved Italian action specialist Enzo G. Castellari must have been in desperate need of some fast money. At least, that's the only explanation I have for the director signing on for a project like this late-coming rip-off of Jaws at a point in his career when he otherwise seemed unable to make a bad film. But bad The Last Shark is, there's no doubt about it. Seldom has Castellari shown himself as indifferent towards making a watchable movie as here. The pacing is sloppy and slow, half of the film's scene are copied as closely from Spielberg's film or from its lamentable sequel as possible without getting sued (which didn't help Last Shark - there was a lawsuit by Universal, and the Italian film's producers lost it), and the other half just doesn't seem to have much of a reason to exist.

Castellari tries to pep things up a bit by adding utterly random slow motion shots and a bit of dynamic editing, but for about the first hour of the film's running time, nothing to get excited about happens. It sure doesn't help the film's excitement level during that phase that the shark is either represented by an adorably bad model or through library footage that doesn't fit what is supposed to be happening on screen at all, and very often doesn't even show a Great White (see the word "white" here, Enzo?).

Fortunately for people who have already wasted an hour of their lives at this point, the film gets sillier going into its final act, and begins to show scenes poor Spielberg would not have dreamt of. The shark munches on a helicopter, the shark kidnaps a bunch of people, the shark gets blown up by an inadvertently mined corpse and happiness returns to my living room. It's not enough to rescue the film, or even in the slightest what one would hope for from Castellari, yet it stills shows the film and its director willing to entertain the audience instead of inflicting pain to it.

Friday, February 4, 2011

On WTF: Bay Rong (2009)

aka Clash

From time to time, I still get excited about attempts at reviving the Heroic Bloodshed genre. Case in point is the Vietnamese Bay Rong featuring Thanh Van (Veronica) Ngo and Johnny Nguyen being pretty awesome.

As always on a Friday, my write-up on WTF-Film will detail the many reasons to be excited about the movie.


Thursday, February 3, 2011

Three Films Make One Very Sleepy Guy: There's No Waking Up From The SLEEP OF THE DEAD!

Ölümsüzler (1971): This Western is not exactly a shining example of the virtues of Turkish pop cinema. Though there are certainly some things to recommend it - among them Erol Tas, yes Dr. Seytan himself, mugging charmingly as the main bad guy - there's an atypical dragginess to the film's pace, and a painful fascination with scenes of people riding, riding and then riding some more while needle-dropped music you just might know from somewhat more effective Westerns plays that make it difficult to enjoy the film.


Red (2010): Action comedy very freely based on the graphic novel by Warren Ellis (who was able to buy his daughter a pony from the money he got out of this, so there's at least that to say for the film) and Cully Hamner. It's all highly paid actors of the good sort, silly action and flat jokes all the time, presented with exactly the type of Hollywood slickness that makes my feet fall asleep. It's quite an inoffensive film in that it is perfectly watchable, but also a terrible waste of talent and theme (what happens to men and women of violence when they get old?), seemingly too cautious or just too damn disinterested to make something out of its budget (you know, an amount several dozen indie films with ambitions could be made from). It's mainstream cinema at its most riskless, and neither as fun nor as funny as it pretends to be.


Dead Clowns (2003): Of course, having none of that big time Hollywood money does not necessarily save a film from being a bore. As it turns out, in the wrong hands, even zombie clowns can get frightfully boring. Ölümsüzler might drag through the sheer power of its riding scenes, but that's still better than being like Dead Clowns and dragging through the sheer power of various actors and "actors" holding incredibly tedious monologues until they are killed off by clowns. A plot that might just be enough for a twenty minute short film gets blown up to ninety horrible minutes, contemporary scream queens (= actresses who are probably great people, but haven't been in anything worth watching in their lives) appear and die or do exposition and die, there's no editor in sight, and why am I feeling so sleepy all of a sudden?


Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Gallants (2010)

Low-level real-estate agent and pathetic loser Cheung (Wong Yau-Nam) has been exiled by (for six weeks without pay) by his company into the outskirts of nowhere to help out with some sort of shady business deal there. It turns out that the guy he is supposed to work with is Mang (Ou-Yang Ching), who was the victim of Cheung's bullying ways when they were kids, but is now the junior boss in a modern and successful (= good for nothing) martial arts school. Now that things have turned around, more than just one initial beating seems to lie in Cheung's future.

A part of the vague business deal are Mang's attempts to acquire the lease to the building of the former martial arts school of Master Law (Teddy Robin Kwan) that is now a tea house belonging to Law's former top students Dragon (Chen Kuan-Tai) and Tiger (Bruce Leung). The two old men have been beaten and battered by life, but are still taking care of the place and their master who has been lying in a coma for thirty years now.

One of Mang's attempts at getting the lease does not get him what he wants, but instead awakens Law from his coma. As these things go, Cheung has sort of stumbled onto the old men's side with vague ideas of learning kung fu from them.

The martial arts master seems somewhat confused, and takes Cheung to be both of his former students. Tiger convinces the young man to play his and his friend's role for Law, while they pretend to be his students. Obviously, this is the beginning of some growing up - for Dragon and Tiger as well as for Cheung.

Derek Kwok's and Clement Cheng's Gallants belongs firmly into the camp of Hong Kong movies of the last few years trying at once to be love letters to classic martial arts movies and to pull the genre that just disappeared with the arrival of the hair brigade in the city back into relevance. Ironically enough, Gallants does its updating (that at times borders on loving deconstruction) by letting great old men of the genre like Chen Kuan-Tai and Bruce Leung take centre stage again. Fortunately, this does not happen in the Hollywood way that would just ignore aging action heroes' ages except for making a joke or two about it, but rather by letting the film be about what it means to be old and cantankerous and not very happy about what one has done with one's life. Cheung's story is basically just there to set the stage for the changes that finally come to Tiger and Dragon. Cheung's growth process has its place in the film, but the show really belongs to the old men, something that the film really drives home once Mang's elders begin to appear.

And once you've seen what Chen Kuan-Tai and Bruce Leung are doing in their fight scenes, or how enthusiastically Teddy Robin plays their somewhat outrageous (this is, after all, a comedy, if one a lot less slapstick heavy than I feared) old master, you don't need any nostalgic connection to their body of work to think that centring the movie around them is the right decision, because these guys don't just have the martial arts abilities to carry a movie, but have also learned to carry themselves with a hard-won dignity that is a joy to watch, even when they are doing something silly.

While all this - as well as the film's very loose structure - is perfectly in keeping with the standards of classic martial arts cinema, there is no confusing Gallants with a mere exercise in nostalgia (like a film like Coweb seems to me) or that terrible word "retro", nor is the film falling down the irony hole. Instead, Kwok and Cheng have taken much of what was great in the martial arts films they probably grew up loving, but given it it a spin that belongs to them and the now. In the end, their film's moral is quite a bit different from what I'm used to from martial arts cinema, with an ending that is interpreting "winning" in a way seldom seen in the genre. Oh yes, Gallants is that frightening thing - a film with a moral, but said moral isn't preached at the audience but actually grows organically; and into a direction martial arts cinema seldom wanders, to boot.

The only thing the film is missing is a strong female martial artist/actor. Jiang Lu-Xia is unfortunately still wasting her talent on making barely watchable crap with Dennis Law (see the limp Bad Blood or the unfocused and incredibly pouty Vampire Warriors), and there don't seem to be any other takers for the female martial arts star position in Hong Kong right now.


Tuesday, February 1, 2011

In short: Terminatrix (1995)

Original title: Mizutani Kei: Insatsu no toriko

In a dystopian future, the new Japanese government, never having heard of contraception, mercilessly controls the population's sex lives to do something against the horrors of overpopulation. But a small band of rebels under the leadership of a certain Hanako resists. The rebels must be quite successful, too, or there would be no reason for the evil government to send a penis-crushing sexbot (Kei Mizutani) into the past to get a hold of Hanako's father's sexual organs before Hanako can be conceived.

The rebels for their part send a girl named Kaoru into the past to protect Hanako's father Kota from the most horrible mutilation of them all. But Kaoru's work is more difficult than anyone could have expected, for Kota is the kind of guy who'd jump any woman even just vaguely willing. As the audience will learn soon enough, he's stretching the word "willingness" to mean "women I've gotten so drunk they just can't defend themselves anymore" when need be, putting my personal sympathies right on the side of the Terminatrix. Not surprisingly, the leech also doesn't believe a single word of what Kaoru tells him about the future and his important role in the destruction of the world through overpopulation. Things may get easier for Kaoru once enough penis-crushed men sharing Kota's name have been found, yet that alone will not get rid of the Terminatrix, who's absolutely not willing to take no for an answer when it comes to the crushing. That's what electrified vibrators are for.

Given the things I've seen coming from exploitation filmmakers around the world, I'm not exactly surprised to see a pinku version of James Cameron's first Terminator movie (aka the good one), I'm only surprised that it took director Mikio Hirota until 1995 to make it, a point in time when even the second Terminator (aka the sappy one in which that Schwarzenegger guy tries to act again, without any success, as always) was already a few years in the past.

Quality-wise, Terminatrix is about what you'd expect when hearing about a Japanese softcore terminator, although not as mad as I had hoped for. Actually, while two (if you squint three) set-pieces of the original movie get an okay sexed-up update (with the vagina-oriented reworking of the self-repair sequence probably the film's highlight), Hirota doesn't seem to put a lot of energy into his film and instead of letting loose with the weird and the kinky coasts on the basic idea of "Terminator, but with sex instead of shooting" without adding much exciting of his own.

The film's also a bit too tame for comfort, with mostly quite unenthusiastic sex scenes that (again) don't do a lot with the robotic castration angle, or the fact that Kei Mizutani's outfit and makeup here should be enough to keep most guys un-penis-squashable (that's the technical term).

I'm usually quite easily amused by stuff like this, but I expect this type of cash-in movie to show a bit of enthusiasm for what it's doing, even if it's only pretend-enthusiasm. Terminatrix unfortunately doesn't do enthusiasm.


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