Wednesday, August 31, 2011

In short: Santo Contra La Magia Negra (1972/3)

In his part-time job as an agent of Interpol, most heroic masked wrestler El Santo (El Santo!) is given the mission to travel to Haiti and protect a certain Professor Jordan (Guillermo Galvez) and his new-found formula to transform uranium into something "worse than an H-bomb" from The Enemy.

As soon as Santo arrives, he is attacked by zombies. The local evil secret voodoo priestess Dejanira (Sasha Montenegro) - for inexplicable reasons called Bellamira in the subtitles - has thrown in her lot with foreign agents (as played by good old Fernando Osés and good old Carlos Suárez) and now tries her damndest to get rid of Santo, acquire the professor's formula, and dig up a lot of uranium.

Did I mention the Professor has a daughter played by good old Elsa Cárdenas? Well, you know what will happen to her in the end, though Dejanira does not use her to blackmail the scientist - she prefers her scientists zombified. Turns out dead people can do science pretty well.

In theory, the idea of El Santo, the idol of the masses, travelling to Haiti and fighting against zombies, an evil white voodoo priestess - there's a also good black(!) voodoo priestess -, and agents of what the dubious subtitles call "the orient", is one to let my heart beat a little faster with joy.

Alas, veteran director Alfredo B. Crevenna's film isn't the awesome pop cinema concoction I dreamt of. Rather, it's one of those movies where the film crew seems to have taken the opportunity of an international co-production to get in some choice vacation time - producing a film seems to have been a mere secondary affair. Expect a bunch of shots of Haiti, then another bunch of shots of Haiti, then a scene of Santo looking tired and bored, then a scene of a mock-documentary styled voodoo ceremony with a real animal killing (classy), then a minute of sped-up action, then Osés and Suárez being very relaxed, and then some more hot voodoo ceremony action, and so on, and so on.

I'm all for shooting a film like this on location and giving it a certain amount of authenticity and local colour, a sense of place, but Crevenna overshoots that goal with way too many scenes of dancing and the carnival in Haiti, until "look at this awesome place!" turns into more of a "let's take a long, long look at my vacation pictures!" situation.

It sure doesn't help that most of the actual action of the film is so pedestrian. Fights between a masked luchador and zombies just shouldn't look so damn disinterested.

On the positive side, there's some damn frightening 70s fashion worn by Montenegro and the horribly underused (yeah, I know, it's her vacation) Cárdenas, some Mexican-Haitian funk on the soundtrack (for once just possibly not library music), and at least half a dozen scenes that have the pleasant goofiness that is all I demand from my lucha movies - I'm especially fond of the zombie professor. It's just unfortunate that these joyful elements are buried under the nastiness of the unnecessary cruelty to a goat, and Crevenna's holiday videos.

 

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Gamera vs. Guiron (1969)

Original title: Gamera tai daiakuju Giron

(This is not about the Sandy Frank version, thank Cthulhu!)

Mysterious radio waves from space hit Japan's space telescopes. Space scientists theorize these might be messages from aliens, but since humanity's lacking in proper technology, the only way to meet our brothers and sisters from space would be if the aliens came to Earth. Oh well.

The space diplomatic state of affairs changes when one evening three children - siblings Akio (Nobuhiro Kajima) and Tomoko (Miyuki Akiyama), and their friend for the international market Tom (Christopher Murphy) - witness a mysterious object going down through their telescope.

Obviously, the trio goes off to take a look at where the object must have landed the next day, only to find a proper, empty two-person flying saucer (from space!). The boys manage to trap themselves in the ship, and hurtle into space through the judicious random pressing of buttons. Poor Tomoko has to stay home and try to convince her stupid mother and a not quite as stupid, mild-mannered cop (Kon Ohmura) of what happened in a boring subplot I don't need to bother with further.

At the same time, the boys are merrily flying on their way through space, have a meeting with everyone's favourite flying turtle thing Gamera that's just long enough for the big G to save their lives from a meteorite and take part in a little song, until their ship leaves Gamera behind and finally crashes onto a planet.

There, the boys first witness the local monster Guiron making mincemeat (you can take that pretty literally) of a Gyaos just like Butcher Pete with a sword instead of a head, and then have fun with teleporting devices and one of those conveyor belts Arthur C. Clarke once prophesied would replace all sidewalks.

Eventually, the boys meet and greet the only inhabitants of the planet they're stranded on, space girls (short capes! helmets with little horns! ray guns!) Barbella (Hiroko Kai) and Florbella (Reiko Kasahara) who tell them a rather impenetrable story about how their planet's nature-controlling computer malfunctioned, produced monsters, etc. The space girls thought themselves trapped on the planet forever, until they somehow located the little spaceship and brought it back via a remote control. Now, it'll soon be time for them to flee their home and make off to Earth with the boys.

Or rather, with the boys' brains in their bellies, because these space girls may be charming, but they sure are hungry - and also need to eat the boys' brains to understand Earth better, it seems. Oh well.

Fortunately for Akio and Tom, Gamera truly is the friend of all children and will soon arrive on the nameless planet and go out of its way to save them, even if it means to fight a creature as freakish as Guiron.

Of the two biggest series of kaiju cinema, Daiei's Gamera films did identify themselves much earlier and clearer as made for and possibly by children than Toho's Godzilla films, what with their annoying child protagonists, horrifying/funny songs and tendency to be very, very silly. I do suspect that part of the reason for the silliness (and even some of the childishness) was the films' shrinking budgets. It is, after all, much less work-and-money intensive to let one's monster suits trawl through a rocky planet in outer space with a handful of domes than let it crush famous and beloved Japanese landmarks.

As far as I understand it, Gamera vs. Guiron is the most childish of all classic Gamera movies. Generally, that would make the film very much not my thing, but besides its childishness, its annoying protagonists, and its total lack of plot construction, GvG also features two of the most important hallmarks of many of my very favourite strands of Japanese filmmaking: it's absolutely batshit insane and (on paper) completely inappropriate for the audience it was made for, what with the brain eating and monster body parts flying in all directions.

You might think my plot description might give a slight hint of the film's insanity, but the brain eating, the aliens' non-plans (1. get space ship 2. eat child brains 3. travel to Earth 4. profit!!!), and Gamera's stoned facial expression and eye-rolling are just the tip of the iceberg here. Especially Gamera's two big fight scenes against Guiron are a "wtf!" a second - no wonder with Guiron's (who looks like a cross of a little child's nightmare and a sword) main fighting techniques being to saw its enemies apart with its head and to shoot shuriken from its neck. Gamera's answer to that is hiding away in water a lot, bleeding, getting revived by the annoying screeching of children - wearing a facial expression that says "they don't even leave me in peace when I'm dead" - and showing off its horizontal bar gymnastics skills.

In other words, if you like your kaiju cinema dignified, this is probably not going to be the film for you, but if you always wanted to experience what would happen if a kaiju film were scripted by a little boy on drugs, and realized for said boy's pocket money, this is just what you're looking for.

 

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Dead-End Drive In (1986)

In the far-flung future of the early 90s, the quality of life in the Western world has taken a bit of a nose-dive following a series of man-made natural disasters and a large economic crisis (sounds somewhat familiar, doesn't it?).

The concept of law and order has changed a little too: the police seems only interested in keeping to the easiest targets (and probably, though that's not made explicit, protecting corporate interests), while the streets are dominated by garbage and roaming youth gangs known as Cowboys.

Hard-working young pizza delivery man Crabs (Ned Manning) still keeps to ancient protestant ideas of salvation through work and bettering oneself, but when he takes his girlfriend Carmen (Natalie McCurry) out to see a movie in a drive-in outside of town, and pretends to be unemployed to get in for less money, he still gets in trouble.

A pair of cops steals the wheels off of Crabs's car while Carmen and he are distracted, leaving the couple stranded in an drive-in that seems peculiarly prepared for a situation like this. The next morning, it becomes clear what's going.

The government in its infinite wisdom has decided to use this and other drive-ins as internment camps for their country's young unemployed, keeping them fed with fast food, plied with drugs and entertained with movies. And because this works so well, why not load off some immigrants there from time to time, too? That way, the white clientele will have a convenient way to blow off steam without ever having to begin to think about the cause of their situation. Looks like Crabs and Carmen won't be able to leave their new home soon.

While Carmen (who is not the brightest) is quite satisfied with the state of affairs, Crabs is willing to do just about anything to get out.

In my long and storied career of watching movies of dubious quality and moral value I've encountered more than a normal person's share of bizarre set-ups, so the Australian Dead-End Drive In's pretty bizarre high concept is not the strangest a movie has ever inflicted on me. However, Brian Trenchard-Smith's film is surely still somewhere in the top 50 when it comes to conceptual weirdness.

What's even more strange about the film than the whole "drive-in as internment  camp" business is the script's decision to use that set-up for a pretty obvious, yet also earnest and honest leftish critique of the state of politics in the 80s (which, I shudder to say, is still unpleasantly applicable to the state of things today), presenting the audience with a former working class that lets itself be distracted from pushing for change by being fed and housed and given brown people to look down on and etc., and so on. Not surprisingly, this part of the movie is realized with what looks like real conviction to me, but also with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, leaving out complexities and complicities to make a point that's already obvious from the start so clear even the dumbest audience member will understand it.

Having said that, let's not pretend I don't appreciate a film about a drive-in prison full of bizarre cheesy 80s characters (with the required rather boring hero, played by a rather boring actor) whose mixture of political satire and exploitational values proudly stands in the tradition of Roger Corman productions of the 70s, or pretend that I don't agree with its political stance, more or less. It's just that I doubt that the film's on the nose critique of economical politics of the mid-80s will convince anyone who doesn't already agree with it; after all, its arguments are naturally rigged to prove the point it wants to make, and don't leave much room for other views of the world.

More problematic for Dead-End Drive In's success as a movie than its satirical obviousness, though, is its surprising reserve when it comes to providing exploitational value. There's only a wee bit of nudity, it is however at least equal opportunity nudity (something I always approve of in my exploitation), so the part of the audience not interested in breasts gets several good looks at Ned Manning's manly chest. The violence is rather minor, too - the film features one longish melee fight and a combined car chase/shoot-out ending in a nice big explosion, but that's more or less it. Roger Corman - well, pre 90s Roger - would have demanded more breasts and more blood and probably sharper dialogue, and he would have been damned right.

The only exploitational value Trenchard-Smith truly, ahem, exploits, is the bizarre as seen through the lens of the 80s in Australia, and it's difficult not to be at least a bit charmed by the film's lopsided ideas of youth culture that cross Mad Max-isms with 50s youth culture (Crabs's car is not a '56 Chevy for nothing), as well as the obvious love for details that went into everything. The latter, Roger Corman - again pre-90s Roger - would have highly approved of.

Now, although all this surely doesn't sound like the elements that make up an unmissable film, Dead-End Drive In is much too peculiar a film not to at least watch it once. Its world view might be too obvious, its satire too unsubtle, and its plot just not all that exciting, but the film's basic set-up, Trenchard-Smith's decent direction, and its fun aesthetics made Dead-End Drive In well worth spending 90 minutes on for me. Just don't expect too much from the poor, enthusiastic thing.

 

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Three Films Make A Post: Hell Hath No Fury...Like

Fieras Sin Jaula aka 2 Masks For Alexa (1971): When millionaire Ronald Marvelling's (Curd Jürgens) marriage to the much younger Alexa (Rosalba Neri) doesn't work out too well, he does the obvious - turning the bedroom in his vacation house in the Normandy into a steel cage where he commits suicide and imprisons Alexa and her lover Pietro (Juan Luis Galiardo).

Juan Logar's film may sound like a thriller or a giallo, but the whole middle part of its narrative is a long, long flashback that strictly belongs in the realm of the melodrama. Some of that is quite effective, presented with just the right sense of unreality, but there's an unpleasant tendency for moralizing finger-wagging that's never effective in an exploitation movie (see also: hypocrisy). The movie's final act then turns into a full-grown low budget delirium of sledgehammer visual metaphors, off-screen monologues, and arty ambitions that probably doesn't work like Logar wanted it to, but sure keeps things interesting enough.

And "interesting" is the word here: you'd be hard-pressed to call Fieras a good or a artistically successful movie, but interesting, it sure is.

The House In Marsh Road aka Invisible Creature (1960): It's the old chestnut about a husband trying to murder his wife for money (though the stakes here are comparatively low, financially speaking) and another woman (though the passion driving him looks not very passionate to me). To change things up a little, the heroine (Patricia Dainton) is protected by the family poltergeist.

Still, poltergeist or not, this is an exceedingly routine movie, directed by routine director Montgomery Tully, featuring routine actors, routine music and a routine script. There are certainly worse ways to spend seventy minutes, but excitement lives elsewhere.

Shirome (2010): One of the core questions of modern horror film is of course how to use the by now hoary old form of the fake documentary and still innovate. Koji Shiraishi (usually one of my favourites among the second tier of contemporary Japanese horror directors) isn't afraid of being a real innovator, and so gives us a fake documentary about the adventures of a teen idol girl group (played by a real-life teen idol girl group) in a haunted house, boldly uniting POV horror and idolsploitation. In some of his other films, Shiraishi had quite a bit of luck with using actresses and elements of idol culture (see Noroi), but those idols weren't a gaggle (or corps? a troupe? a squeal?) of teenage girls.

Not surprisingly, the movie at hand is pretty horrible, for the simple reason that, whenever it threatens to become even slightly creepy (Shiraishi, as you might know, can do "creepy" well), half a dozen teenage girls start to cry, squeak, shout, gibber, moan and play patty cake in the most headache-inducing manner and quite, quite independent of the creepiness or not-creepiness of what's happening around them, until nobody in their right minds wouldn't want these horrible, horrible girls to shut up forever (and probably die in a fire, silently).

On the positive side, at least the film's not in 3D.

 

On WTF: Der Todesrächer von Soho (1972)

aka The Corpse Packs His Bags

In my newly regained enthusiasm for watching Edgar Wallace adaptations, I've turned my eye to one of Artur Brauner's Bryan Edgar Wallace adaptations, in this particular case a Spanish co-production directed by the great, frightening Jess Franco.

It's Franco without the pubic hair zooms! What the great man put in their place, I'll relate over on WTF-Film.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Muscle Heat (2002)

Japan in the far-flung future of 2009. Apparently, the country has been in a horrible recession for twenty years, and Tokyo's suburbs have become lawless zones where poverty and gang lords rule. A comparatively new drug named Blood Heat makes matters even worse.

The gang of international evildoers selling and producing Blood Heat also make a bit of extra money by organizing cage matches to the death. After all, what's good for Tina Turner must be good for Masaya Kato too. In fact, the whole drug business is going so well for Kato's Rai Kenjin that he's planning on ruling the world some day. These plans also include blackmailing a scientist into science-ing up a new, improved version of the drug that turns the people who take it into insane fighting machines, but since the new version already exists when Rai is working on convincing the scientist, I really don't have a clue what that's all about. Neither does the script.

Anyhow, someone does seem to want to hinder Rai from becoming king of the world and hires former navy seal Joe Jinno (Kane Kosugi), who has suffered some sort of trauma from not shooting children, and former airborne ranger turned cop Aguri Katsuragi (Sho Aikawa!) to (probably) kill Lai. I think. Things don't go too well for our heroes (turns out just running into the bad guy's lair shooting and screaming is not a very good plan), and Katsuragi soon enough finds himself in one of those cage matches to the death against one of Rai's drug-enhanced humans. Hello, Sho Aikawa-style death scene.

Joe, who somehow escaped the gangsters will obviously take revenge for his dead partner, but before he can do that, he'll have to rescue an annoying little kid, befriend Katsuragi's cop little sister (Misato Tachibana), and kick a lot of people in the face. There's also some stuff about corruption and people living underground rising up against their drug lord oppressors, but really, who knows what that's supposed to be about?

In 2002, the dumb 90s action movie was alive and well and living in Japan, and featuring Sho Kosugi's horrible son Kane. Why hire someone who can use more facial expressions than a vacant stare, a vacant glare and a vacantly puzzled look, after all? To be fair, while Kosugi couldn't act his way out of a paperbag, and has the charisma of that paperbag, he is pretty good when doing action sequences. In a lot of action films, that would be more than enough, but Muscle Heat is indulging in the fine art of self-sabotage in two ways: firstly by wasting Kosugi's actual talent on action scenes that aren't really bad, but are bland and choreographed without much imagination. Although the action choreographer comes from China, the film's style seems more oriented on the worst aspects of US-centric martial arts movies of the 80s and 90s (you know, the sort of thing you just might have found Sho Kosugi in). If the best you can do for your final fight is a cage match (the most boring set-up in all of martial arts cinema), you're not really trying.

Muscle Heat's second problem is a bit more likeable - after all, it seems to be born from ambition and not the lack of it. For some reason, Tetsuya Oishi (who wrote the scripts for some good films, too) tries to shoehorn an incredible amount of plot threads into the film. There's the whole economical collapse story, the minor revolution, Kosugi's weird backstory, the attempt to make the film feel "international" by having the characters speak in Cantonese, English and Japanese (which of course backfires by having the actors frequently talk in languages they aren't speaking well at all), the whole drug angle - it's just an incredible amount of stuff that might have amounted to something interesting in a film that put as much effort in developing these threads, or even (fat chance!) turning them into a narrative that makes any sort of sense. Instead, Muscle Heat just heaps stuff upon more stuff without much rhyme or reason, until it nearly collapses under the weight of accumulated nothing.

This is not to say that Ten Shimoyama's (who can do better, too) film is completely without merit: there is - after all - Sho Aikawa chewing scenery for twenty minutes and doing not just one but two of his patented scenes of EXTREME DYING, a lot of the signifiers of cool used so badly they become utterly ridiculous (basically, everything Masaya Kato's character does, especially when it's happening in slow motion, which it frequently does), action movie physics (who knew you can throw a knife so hard your victim will be catapulted back and upwards by it?) and more throw back scenes into everything that already didn't work in action movies during the 90s than one could wish for - all presented with bad camera angles and editing that does not believe in things like cause and effect. Actually, I suspect without Kosugi's black hole-like charisma, I might have enjoyed Muscle Heat a lot more and would now be singing its praises as a ridiculously silly and entertaining piece of retro action cinema.

 

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Fury At Smugglers' Bay (1961)

The 18th century. An area of the Cornish coast under the dominion of country squire Trevenyan (Peter Cushing) has been invaded by the band of shipwreckers of Black John (Bernard Lee), who are sending many a ship to its doom.

The local honest smugglers - your usual poor bastards trying to survive over-taxation by breaking the law - under the leadership of Francois Lejeune (George Coulouris) are quite disturbed by the development, chiefly because smuggling's one thing, but murdering people quite another one. Yet there's also a - quite correct - fear the 'wreckers' activities will provoke Trevenyan into an aggressive response against crime that'll hit the smugglers just as hard as the wreckers.

In fact, Trevenyan's response will only hit the wreckers, for Black John turns out to be a former servant of the man carrying around a bagful of documents to blackmail Trevenyan with. Trevenyan's son Christopher (John Fraser), also the lover of Lejeune's daughter Louise (Michele Mercier), is quite distraught by his father's curious concentration on the smugglers instead of Black John's gang, distraught enough to get into a bit of violence that ends with the death of one of Black John's men.

That's a good enough reason for the squire to send his boy away "for his own safety". And once the boy's away, it's a good time to round up a few of the smugglers (I'm sure Lejeune being among them has nothing at all to do with Trevenyan's obvious dislike for his son's love for the man's daughter; it's a classist thing) and sentence them to deportation.

Fortunately, Lejeune has a good friend in the local honourable highwayman only known as The Captain (William Franklyn) who will move heaven and earth to help his friend and get rid of the wreckers in the process, too. Perhaps with the help of a returning Christopher, or even a late repentant squire?

Hammer-regular John Gilling - later to be director of the excellent The Reptile and The Plague of the Zombies, among others - was working under his own production company's name when he was making Fury at Smugglers' Bay.

As is probably clear, this is an adventure movie/swashbuckler of that particular British sub-genre concerning the exploits of smugglers and pirates who never seem to actually leave the land. Curiously, films of this sub-genre (for which there should be a better descriptor than "landlocked pirate movies") tend to be among my favourite adventure movies. Fury will, unfortunately, not become part of that exclusive club, not because there's much that would be particularly wrong with the movie, but because there's too little that's particularly right with it.

Although the script has its interesting moments (there's for example a somewhat complicated - very typical of UK cinema - argument about class and the dangers of a classist society running through it), Gilling's direction is solid with moments of actual class, and the acting's perfectly alright, Fury suffers from a lack of playfulness and passion that would not necessarily be as much of a problem in a film of a different genre as it is in a swashbuckler, but that leaves a film is this genre feeling somewhat lifeless and slightly bland.

I think this lack of charm is all too well embodied by William Franklyn's character, who is supposed to be a charming rogue, but never feels all that charming or rogue-ish, going through all the motions of his job description, yet never actually convincing me of being more than a guy who grins a lot and knows how to rob people. Bland Franklyn's casting is quite typical for a film that's too professionally made to be bad, yet lacking in feeling and a sense of excitement, the things that actual make an adventure movie an adventure movie instead of a movie about people discussing the weather.

Fury at Smugglers' Cove suffers from taking characters and situations that should be (at least slightly) larger than life, but treats them as if it all were just visits to a tea party.

 

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Ward (2010)

(Warning: there will be light spoilers you might want to avoid if you're planning on watching this one).

1966. Kristen (Amber Heard) burns down a farm house for reasons she can't or won't remember. She ends up in a rather peculiar ward of a mental institution under the supervision of one Dr. Stringer (Jared Harris). Since his style of treatment is somewhat experimental in its strange combination of the modern and the barbaric (good old electro shocks), Stringer only has a handful of patients beside Kristen, every single one of them a textbook archetype of a different construction of female identity - there's the "helpless little girl" Zoey (Laura-Leigh), the overtly sexual rich man's daughter Sarah (Danielle Panabaker), etc.

But something's not right at all in the ward - patients before Kristen have shown a tendency to disappear, never to be heard from again. Kristen gets her first hint at an explanation for the girls' disappearances in her first night in the institution. A rather dead looking girl enters her cell despite a locked door and plays grabs with her blanket.

The longer Kristen is inside the institution, the more aggressive the ghostly attacks become, and it doesn't take too long until the ghost makes a play for her life.

Kristen's reaction to the ghost is quite practical - it's existence is just another reason for her to try and break out of the ward as soon as possible, taking her co-patients with her. But all attempts at escape seem to end up making things worse. The ghostly enemy becomes stronger, more aggressive, and begins to kill the girls off one by one. Eventually, Kristen will have to learn the truth about who the ghost is and why it want to kill her and everyone else from her co-patients who might not be as innocent about what's happening to them as they seem. And even then, our heroine still has to understand what's happening to herself now has to do with her own burning down of the farm house, before things can turn out for the better.

A lot of people online seem to be pretty down on John Carpenter's return to long form film The Ward, but I don't think I agree. Admittedly, the film at hand is not as great as Carpenter's best films, but expecting the guy to produce a Halloween, a The Thing or a In the Mouth of Madness every time he steps behind the camera seems patently unfair to me - I'm perfectly fine with a movie like this that knows what it is, knows what it wants, and works well, but not spectacularly well, in its confines. And really, compared to the stuff other old heroes like Tobe Hooper and Dario Argento crap out now, this is an earth-shattering masterpiece just by virtue of being good.

Argento seems like a rather interesting point of comparison to me in this case, because I think there are a nods to the giallo and giallo style of storytelling in The Ward, reaching from the obvious in form of Mark Kilian's (and what's up with Carpenter not doing his own score?) extremely Goblin-esque soundtrack to the less obvious in the way Carpenter treats sensationalized psychiatry, or the general plot construction that not always makes practical sense, but seems ever conscious of the demands of mood and metaphor. Some of the elements of the film that seem particularly unreal or illogical will be explained quite nicely through the semi-twist in the end, but - as is traditional in the more complicated giallos too - the explanation of what's really going on does not fit the facts so snugly it is convincing as "real" and not a construction inside of a movie; emotionally and conceptually, however, the twist seems quite fitting to me. Of course, Carpenter's idea of what makes a twist is quite superior compared to the twist ending style of contemporary horror, where you throw any old nonsense at your viewer, disregarding that it neither works as part of what came before nor has any connection to themes or mood of your movie.

Visually, The Ward is as much a John Carpenter movie as one could hope for. Carpenter is neither the type of experienced director who feels the need to suddenly use stupid jump cuts and other horrible trappings of bad direction to look hip, nor is he going for any sort of retro aesthetic. The film is the work of a man obviously pretty comfortable with his own talents as a director, not unwilling to change elements of his style up a little, but mostly interested in using his style to tell the story of his film properly. Though there are quite a few typical Carpenter moments on screen, there's no pointing at his own brilliance, yet also not a single moment that's actually brilliant. If Carpenter's style as a director in The Ward were a shoe, it were a well-loved, well-treated pair of sneakers, comfortable, probably even a near perfect fit, yet also a bit unexciting.

That "a bit unexciting" really seems to point at The Ward's major problem. There's a certain feeling of distance about the film, a lack of urgency even in the small handful of murder set pieces that made it impossible for me to really get excited about anything that was happening. The Ward never hit me on the more visceral or emotional level a horror movie should hit me on. This is not to say that The Ward is not enjoyable, rather, it's me complaining that it's not more than enjoyable and pretty interesting.

I'm not going to complain about the performance of Amber Heard, though. In the last few years, Heard has played in quite a few genre and semi-exploitation movies, and she's always convincing, likeable, sexy and believably competent without going the scream queen route of only selling the sex but not the acting, nor the superior "I'm a real actress" route. There's a dignity to an actress (or an actor) doing her best in whichever film she's in (even if it's that boring remake of And Soon the Darkness), the kind of dignity a mainstream Hollywood star doesn't have and doesn't need, but that's closer to what I'm looking for in actors than an aura of stardom.

 

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Giant From The Unknown (1958)

A series of mysterious property damages culminating in a murder in an area called Devil's Crag has the small Northern Californian mountain community of Pine Ridge quite disturbed. I don't think the fact that the local Sheriff, Parker (Bob Steele), is a terrible policeman even for a 50s monster movie helps the situation much.

Parker has a favourite suspect for the murder in form of geologist Wayne Brooks (Ed Kemmer), but the good Sheriff has nothing at all on Brooks except for an unreasonable dislike bordering on a paranoid fixation.

While Parker is still walking around pestering Brooks instead of doing his job, the archaeologist Frederick Cleveland (Morris Ankrum) and his daughter, coffee cook, sandwich maker and professional love interest Janet (Sally Fraser), arrive in town. Parker is looking for evidence that might help him prove his theory about the appearance of a giant conquistador named Vargas in the area's past. The spot where Cleveland is planning to look is - of course - Devil's Crag. Despite the Sheriff's dire warnings, the Clevelands, accompanied by Brooks who has become fast friends with them and has begun "romancing" Janet faster than you can say "eww", make their way up to the dangerous place.

There, they find more of Vargas (Buddy Baer) than anyone could ever have suspected, for some local geological anomalies have kept the conquistador in a state of suspended animation, and of course their poking about is going to wake the dead man up again. Vargas will turn out to be decidedly rude.

Richard E. Cunha's Giant From The Unknown is a mildly entertaining, yet pretty weird - thanks to the nature of its monster - example of the especially low budget 50s monster movie. This is the sort of thing I can watch with interest and without rueing the loss of 80 minutes of my time or so, but I do have a particular soft spot for films like it, and find their 50s mores more entertaining than annoying, as little as I share any of their values and ideas.

You might have noticed the film's biggest problem right up there in the plot synopsis: since Vargas is only awakened with the scientists (or "scientists") poking around over his grave (at least that's how it looks to me), there's the little problem that the audience never learns who committed the murder the Sheriff wants to hang on Brooks - perhaps the square-jawed one is actually guilty? And while I'm thinking about the script - what exactly is the reason for Vargas serial killer behaviour? Did he have bad dreams while he was doing the Snow White thing? Or is it all just because poor make-up genius Jack Pierce was slumming in this production after having been fired from Universal, and somebody wearing monster make-up designed by him must necessarily begin killing sooner or later?

This scripting gaffe is pretty typical of a film filled with a cornucopia of mildly amusing errors and continuity problems (obvious favourite: the railing our monster crashes through in the end is magically complete again in the next shot). Given the extreme constraints of the film's budget and Cunha's inexperience as a director, this isn't something that should come as a surprise. I'd argue the film's fallibility is a feature, not a bug, and mainly responsible for its slight charms.

However, there are also things (beyond Pierce's monster design, that is cheap, effective and makes perfect use of Billy Baer's physique) that work out well for Giant From The Unknown. First and foremost among them are the decent performances given by the main cast. Nobody would ever confuse Bob Steele or Ed Kemmer with great actors, but they are getting through the ropey dialogue and the loopy science with dignity intact, which is quite an achievement, given the stuff we see and hear. The actors playing the side characters are the absolute dregs, though, wooden enough to even fence a giant conquistador in.

The rest is 50s monster movie by numbers: there's the icky romance where I'm not completely sure if the hero is romancing the woman or romancing her father; the caveman idea of what women are there for (sammiches and kidnapping!); an excellent geological lab that can't even afford the mandatory multi-coloured fluids; the hero being something of a dick; racism (hi, Indian Joe); and a not-all-that-giant monster with a taste for killing and another taste of kidnapping the heroine.

In short: this 50s monster movie sure is a 50s monster movie.

 

Saturday, August 20, 2011

In short: Snuff-Bottle Connection (1977)

The peaceable and humble China is again threatened by dastardly foreigners. Because no buck-toothed Japanese could be found, and the British are busy wondering who that Wong Fei Hung is (the devil?), it's time for the Russian menace (in form of guys in vaguely "Russian" clothes speaking English with fake Russian accents, of course) to arrive. Seems like the Russians are trying to somehow acquire ports that won't freeze in winter, and send a certain Colonel Tolstoy (Roy Horan) to China, supposedly as a diplomat, but in truth to conspire with Chinese traitors, when he's not writing really long books, I suppose.

The Emperor's officials aren't sleeping on the job, though, and send out their excellent agent Shao Ting Shang (John Liu Chung-Liang) to ferret out the traitors and get rid of the Russians. Shao for his part knows that he could use an expert knife thrower to conquer Tolstoy's horrible modern pistols, and so seeks the help of his friend, the kind-hearted rogue Kao (Yip Fei-Yang), who is perfectly willing to put his life on the line for Emperor and country. Kao comes complete with his own kid sidekick, the frighteningly agile Xiao Do Sze (Wong Yat-Lung). This being a Taiwanese movie, the child might very well be doomed.

Together, the trio kicks, punches and perforates through masses of henchmen until a pair of valuable snuff bottles the conspirators use for identification and the obscure snake-hawk fighting style some of their enemies prefer leads them to the brain behind the traitorous operation, General Shantung (Hwang Jang-Lee in the obligatory white wig). Then it's time for more kicking and punching.

Snuff-Bottle Connection (directed by Dung Gam-Woo and Lily Lau Lap-Lap) won't go down in the annals of martials arts cinema as a movie doing anything of interest with its plot, its characters, or its drama. One could in fact argue that the film is slight in these respects even by the rather loose standards of martial arts cinema, seeing as it does not even try to make its plot look complicated, does not contain character development that I'd know of (I'm not even sure it contains characters, now that I think about it), and only goes for the simplest ways of affecting its audience emotionally - patriotism and the killing of children.

In this film, plot is something you only need to string your fighting sequences together, and the film really contains a lot of fights.

Fortunately, much of the fighting is really pretty darn great thanks to performances of a cast of kung fu cinema experts and the action direction of the great Yuen Wo-Ping. Snuff-Bottle Connection's fights aren't among Yuen's most creative works (this film was made in the year before Drunken Master and Snake in the Eagle's Shadow would let Yuen come fully into his own), but they are already acrobatic, fast, and done with a loving eye for detail. It's a bit like witnessing the point where Yuen turns from a good action choreographer to the guy who reinvented part of the body language of martial arts cinema.

As an added bonus, Yuen is also able to do the nearly unthinkable in Taiwanese and Hong Kong cinema, and lets the white guys look relatively good in fights (an ability that would much later surface again when the poor man had to make immovable objects like Keanu Reaves look lively).

So, while there's really nothing about Snuff-Bottle Connection except for the fighting, the fighting's so swell that theoretically film-destroying problems aren't much of a problem in reality.

 

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Three Films Make A Post: Don't believe the rumors about all the dead bodies... They're the people who fainted watching!

Source Code (2011): If you need proof that yes, you can make a mainstream SF film in Hollywood that works as a piece of entertainment as well as a humanist reminder that neither the boring cynicism of the Bruckheimers of this world nor the Spielbergian kitsch school is the be all and end all of filmmaking, Duncan Jones has you covered. While Source Code is quite a bit more Hollywood (in a Frank Capra makes a thriller sort of way) than Jones's wonderful first film Moon, it's the sort of film that moves so well inside the best of Hollywood's parameters that complaining about it would be like complaining about Captain America dressing up in a US flag - rather missing the point of the whole thing.

The point is, obviously, that you can still make a film with a brain and a heart, taking what's good about the conventions of the thriller and the undercover SF film (that is, the SF film mainstream reviewers won't ever call SF because it doesn't include squid in space), and just leaving out everything else.

Death on the Fourposter aka Sexy Party (1964): Jean Josipovici's film (original title Delitto alla specchio) is another one of those Italian movies from the early 60s that tried to bridge the gap between the Italian Gothic films and what was already beginning to become the giallo genre. It's not very successful at it - way too much time is spent on decidedly not sexy sexy-times that will delight hardcore lovers of camp but left me wishing for something to actually happen. Once (after half of the movie is already over) the actual plot starts, the film gets a slightly more exciting, at times even a bit clever, but I don't think a handful of scenes of gothic atmosphere is worth fighting through forty-five minutes of dubious sexiness. As a historical artefact that's nearly a giallo of the "rich bastards in a castle/mansion", the film is mildly interesting, as a movie much less so.

Scream of the Banshee (2011): As if I needed another reminder how crap so-called horror can get (though I have to admit it is pretty horrible), along comes this derivative, badly written stinker whose sole saving grace is that Lance Henriksen is in it for a bit. It's still crap, though.

 

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

In short: Super (2010)

Diner cook Frank (Rainn Wilson) loses his wife Sarah (Liv Tyler), a recovering drug addict, to the minor local drug lord Jacques (Kevin Bacon). Frank's clumsy attempts at getting her back lead nowhere, until his house's ceiling opens, God's tentacles open up Frank's brain pan, and God's finger touches his brain. Frank has a vision of Christian fundamentalist superhero the Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion), and is inspired by him - and his local comic shop - to become a superhero himself.

Calling himself the Crimson Bolt, Frank first tries to wait for crime, then - after an informative visit to his local library - seeks it out himself, and hits real or imagined evildoers - or just people who don't think standing in the back of a line applies to them - with his trusty wrench, following the logical catchphrase "Shut up, crime!"

But even in his new improved Crimson Bolt persona, Frank is no match for Jacques and his men, who are after all actual gangsters using actual guns. When he gets shot in the leg, Frank seeks shelter with comic shop employee Libby (Ellen Page), who had already identified him as the mysterious madmen/hero with the wrench. Soon enough, Libby turns into Frank's overenthusiastically violent "kid" sidekick Bolty. I'm sure crime will shut up now.

By all rights, I shouldn't like James Gunn's Super at all, seeing as the film belongs to the type of comedy selling itself through transgressive violence and randomness. But I found - quite to my surprise - Super to be pretty darn great.

The reason for that is not just the fact that the film's use of randomness and violence is often actually funny, but that there's an actual heart beating below the film's often cynical surface. Where your typical superhero satire of this type would be satisfied (and way too satisfied with itself for it) with pointing at its hero and sneering, Gunn's film does its outmost to also humanize him. While Frank is the butt of many a joke (as well as a violent psychopath), he's just as often treated with actual compassion and sympathy, especially in the flashbacks to his short relationship with Sarah. Impressively, most of the groundwork for said sympathetic characterization happens in the most random seeming scenes of the film. Often, Gunn manages to make his scenes at once awkward, funny, and touching.

At the same time, Super can be as tasteless and crude as anything coming from US transgressive comedies of the last few decades (or the Troma bubble Gunn started out in), with jokes about bodily fluids aplenty.

It's as if Gunn had read Mark Millar's Kick-Ass, and decided to turn it into something that's more than just an entertaining excuse for masturbatory cynicism.

 

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Stake Land (2010)

It's the end of the world as we know it. Vampires (of the rude, animalistic sort that has a lot in common with the fast zombies of the last decade) have overrun the world. Governments seem to have stopped existing, and most of the new plague's survivors are huddling together in locked down communities.

The vampires are not the only threat to the survivors in this rough new world, though. An apocalyptic, racist cult calling themselves the Brotherhood sees the vampires as their god's way of "cleansing the impure". Its members spend their days helping the godhood out by raping, pillaging and attacking the locked down zones, when in doubt even by throwing vampires into them out of an helicopter.

There's also some hope. Canada has supposedly - rumour having replaced fact quite some time ago - become New Eden, a giant, vampire-free evacuation zone.

Stake Land follows the teenager Martin (Connor Paolo) and the hard-ass, damaged vampire hunter Mister (Nick Damici, also co-writer), who has taken Martin in after the death of his parents, on their way north through the United States trying to reach New Eden.

Travelling, the pair meets and kills a lot of vampires (Mister doesn't just kill the creatures in self-defence, but goes out of his way to destroy them, in reaction to some trauma in his past the film will only ever hint at), runs into trouble with the Brotherhood, witnesses the best and the worst of human behaviour, and picks up other survivors like a nun (Kelly McGillis) and the pregnant Belle (Danielle Harris). Martin will have a lot of growing up to do before - and if - he and Mister are going to reach their goal, and not everyone will survive the journey.

If you're like me, you'll probably remember Jim Mickle's microbudget "rat zombies in Brooklyn" movie Mulberry Street with fondness. Stake Land (again, like Mulberry Street, co-written by Nick Damici) turns out to be even better than the earlier movie, in part because the film's budget this time around isn't quite as micro, but only low (thanks to Larry Fessenden's Glass Eye Pix whose only price seems to be a mandatory cameo by Fessenden), which enables Mickle and Damici to give their film a more ambitious scope. "Ambitious" is of course a relative word: don't expect the film to be a tour through the post-apocalyptic tourist attractions of the USA. Mister and Martin make their way through the back roads and side streets of rural and small town USA, but really, after the hundredth film showing the deserted streets of a major metropolis, taking a look at other parts of the post-apocalyptic landscape can only be a good thing.

In Stake Land's case, it's even an especially good thing, for Mickle really has a fantastic talent for finding a sense of loss as well as a very sad kind of poetry in pictures of dilapidated buildings and beautifully photographed landscape devoid of humanity. In an interesting development for contemporary filmmaking, Mickle seems to belong to the small group of directors who actually know how to put the unending fad for colour-desaturated photography to good use: turns out a thoughtful director can use the hated blue tinge in scenes where it is useful to set the mood, and not use it where more natural colours are more appropriate, using the technology for the good of his film instead to demonstrate that he hates all colours.

Stake Land's ability to find beauty as well as terror in the landscape of the world it takes place in reminded me of Monsters, which is about as big a compliment as I can make a movie. Both films also share an emphasis on showing the relationship between their characters and the worlds they have to live in, a clear love for political commentary that (for the most part) is beyond preaching, and their disinterest in the supposed narrative need for tight plotting.

The big difference between the two films is that, where Monsters doesn't go for "action" at all, Stake Land alternates its calm moments with scenes of the old ultra-violence. These scenes are - quite in contrast to the composed down-to-earthness of the film's other half - more on the pulp action movie side of the equation, instead of coming from the "dirty realism" school I would have expected. Surprisingly enough, the action never hurts or overwhelms the film's more thoughtful side and does in fact strengthen it through the power of contrast. It certainly helps that Mickle realizes his action scenes with the same expertise he has for long, sad looks at what's left of humanity.

The only time the film's action side loses me is in what I'll just call the boss fight so as to not spoil too much for anyone. It's just way too pat, the sort of thing that probably looks good on paper because it closes certain circles in the script, but feels a bit trite and artificial in a film that's otherwise as organic as Stake Land is.

For most of the time, this is a film with a script that doesn't go in the easiest directions. Much of the characterization is based on the importance of small gestures and trusts the actors to make them, and the audience to understand them. Most of your typical mainstream movies - for example - would give us a major flashback into Mister's past somewhere around the film's last thirty minutes, probably with some shouting of "noooo!" and a tearful breakdown. Stake Land trusts us to understand without the melodrama. The only other exception to this rule is Martin's occasional voiceover monologue. It's not really necessary, does tell us things we see happening on screen, and gets a bit purple now and again, but it's used sparingly enough not to be anything that could ruin the film.

And really, if what I think are the movie's two bad decisions are a five minute scene and some voiceover work, than there's nothing at all wrong with it.

 

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Kyofu

aka The Sylvian Experiments

Since she, her husband and her two little daughters caught a glimpse of what she and hubbie interpreted as the afterlife while watching old film reels of cruel brain experiments during World War II, neuroscientist Etsuko (Nagisa Katahira) has been obsessed with finding a way to take these experiments of stimulating the Sylvian area of the brain with electricity directly applied to the brain tissue even further. This obsession costs her the life of her husband and the love of her two daughters.

After years of research, the mad scientist has formed a conspiracy out of various younger members of the medical profession who think they owe her enough to take part in insane, highly illegal experiments. The group sets up a fake suicide club and kidnaps its four members to continue their fascist predecessors' nasty little experiments. As luck (or is it planning?) will have it, one of Etsuko's victims is her own daughter Miyuki (Yuri Nakamura).

Miyuki and the other girl among Etsuko's four victims react all too well to the treatment. A bubble of nightmarish feelings begins to surround the girls as if the membrane between this world and somewhere else were growing thin all around them. Eventually the girls just disappear from their cell.

While all this has been going on, Etsuko's other daughter Kaori (Mina Fujii) has been trying to find the kidnapped Miyuki. Thanks to her psychological connection to her sister, Kaori too starts suffering from strange visions and a growing feeling of dread, and is inexorably drawn into her mother's secret experiment.

Kyofu, directed by Hiroshi Takahashi, who was as a writer responsible for the scripts to Hideo Nakata's wonderful Ringu trilogy, is the sort of Japanese horror film I would not have dared to hope for in these times when even Takashi Shimizu's talent is slowly dissolving in front of our eyes. It's slow, carefully and cautiously directed and written, philosophically dark and either very cryptic or very ambiguous.

My synopsis really doesn't do the experience of watching Kyofu justice. While the above might sound relatively straightforward and clear, the film's actual execution is anything but. The film's beginning half hour does not tell its tale in linear, chronological fashion, but seems to circle around the story it is telling, compelling the audience to share the feeling of falling and confused unreality its characters are experiencing. Once the set-up's done, the film's structure grows calmer and more direct, Miyuki becoming the story's protagonist.

Yet even then, Takahashi keeps up his pressure on the audience's expectations of what is real and what not, never making clear how real the things Miyuki sees and experiences actually are, what exactly is dream, what vision, and what reality. The director mostly achieves this effect through stylistic decisions that might just kill Kyofu for the impatient. Primarily, Takahashi keeps everything that happens on screen slow. Every camera movement, every edit seems to happen with a calmness and distance to the proceedings so deliberate and cold that a viewer will either slowly begin to share the character's dread and their feelings of stepping into somewhere else, or just feel bored by it. Depending on a viewer's tastes, one of these effects will be further strengthened by the movie's acting style. Takahashi has clearly convinced his actors to underplay their roles heavily, quite in contrast to the favoured Japanese acting style of the hour that sometimes seems to be based on constant mugging. Hardly a facial muscle is moved, bodily movements are slow and ponderous, and everyone's enunciation seems - at least as far as I understand it - too precise and unnaturally deliberate.

Most of the actors are giving surprisingly effective performances with this technique, giving the impression of people caught somewhere between sleepwalking and facing a dread so far outside their ability to verbalize it that they can hardly function as human beings anymore, if, in fact, they ever could.

I'm not as convinced by the dialogue, which does at times sound rather silly. Though I'm - for example - sure "please wipe away the smell of my sister's blood" is an invitation to hot sexy times somewhere, I'm quite positive it's not on our planet. How much of this problem (and it's a minor one to me), is caused by the fansubs I saw the film with is quite another question entirely. I'm pretty hopeful that Lionsgate's official English language release will do a bit better in that respect.

Another definite weakness are the film's special effects. It's the type of CG effects that I can appreciate on a conceptual level, but whose realization is hardly anything to be proud of or be impressed by.

On the positive side, haters of dark-haired ghosts (something I never understood, by the way - you don't go into a zombie movie complaining it's about zombies either, or do you?), will not have to dirty their pure, pure eyes with even a single one of them. Instead, Kyofu's horrors are more of the mostly unseen, often formless type I can't help but take as a Lovecraftian influence. This is, after all, a movie stating that there's nothing for us waiting on the other side, but that nothing will still eat us. Which is a concept that I find much creepier than a normal (even be-tentacled!) monster would be.

All this - the good and the bad - does of course lead to a film that will clearly just not work at all for some of its viewers. I'm pretty happy with just going with a very slow and deliberate film, and just stepping into the world of idea's Takahashi is building on screen, but even I can see that this will not be true for anyone. For me, Kyofu's mood of dread and dire expectation just works, its flaws and peculiar directorial decisions come together into a fascinating artefact, but films based on mood and ideas alone are always in danger of only working for people who can consciously decide to get into them.

I could, and so I'm all too happy to recommend it.

 

Saturday, August 13, 2011

In short: Delitto D'Autore (1974)

Professional heiress Milena Gottardi (Sylva Koscina) has just returned to her provincial home town after having spent three years in the big city to hide her marriage to Marco Girardi (Pier Paolo Capponi) from her aunt Valeria (Wilma Casagrande), who has her hand on the family's purse strings. Valeria, you see, doesn't approve of Marco at all, and seems to have made it clear that this disapproval could make one a very skint heiress.

Shortly after Milena has arrived, threatening things begin to happen. Someone follows Milena everywhere and records her conversations; possibly the same mysterious person makes threatening phone calls; somebody leaves a pair of black gloves in Milena's bed.

Eventually, Milena is kidnapped and held for ransom, her aunt murdered and a possibly valuable painting stolen. It's clear to the police there must be more than one criminal, seeing how at odds kidnapping someone but then killing the person who is supposed to pay a ransom would be, yet knowing that and actually arresting anyone are two different things.

Delitto D'Autore is one of the more obscure giallos you can stumble onto, and can therefore only be found in a beat up print with colours so faded you'd think it was filmed in 2010.

Not that I'd expect a better print to be the film's saving grace - there's too much wrong with it to make it salvageable that way. Delitto's main problem is a disturbing lack of everything that makes a giallo worth watching: acidic commentary on the upper classes, stylish visuals, a sense of madness or the air of a dream all are absent. What's left to see is some random nudity, lots of scenes of cops talking in a room, and even more scenes of director Mario Sabatini just waving his hands pretending to do anything beyond somehow filling up the running time.

Where the good films of the genre swagger and wink and flash their stuff, proud of their sleaze, their style and often their absurdity, Sabatini's Delitto is tepid and timid and just sort of there, not even able to get any interesting performances out of a perfectly serviceable cast (Luigi Pistilli and Krista Nell are also in it, and both pretty much wasted).

The film's transformation from an exceedingly boring example of the giallo into an exceedingly boring example of the police procedural might come as a surprise (possibly the only one you'll experience watching it), yet it is not the sort of transformation that leads anywhere besides, perhaps, to a soundly sleeping viewer.

All in all, Delitto D'Autore is one of those films that languish in obscurity because they just don't have anything of interest to offer.

 

Thursday, August 11, 2011

In short: Wings of Danger (1952)

aka Dead on Course

Permanently scowling American Richard Van Ness (Zachary Scott) is working for a small British freight airline mostly operating between Guernsey and the UK main isle as a pilot, hiding away the fact he's having regular blackouts and will someday soon crash and take who knows how many other people with him. Ladies and gentleman, our hero!

The only other person who knows about Richard's little problem is his buddy - and brother of his girlfriend Avril (Naomi Chance) - the womanizing sleazebag (actually, the film pretends he's boyishly charming, but I just don't see that) Nick Talbot (Robert Beatty). Right in the first scene, oh so charming Nick uses this knowledge to blackmail Richard into letting him make a flight to Guernsey despite reports of really bad weather coming up.

Not surprisingly, Nick's plane doesn't survive the contact with said weather and ends up in the ocean, with Nick presumed dead.

Richard isn't completely sure about that, though. The pilot also has questions concerning the reason for Nick's actions. Did Nick risk and lose his life only to deliver some orchids to Alexia LaRoche (Kay Kendall), Guernsey's local femme fatale? Why is a weasely blackmailer now sneaking around Avril? And what does all this have to do with the smuggling and counterfeiting ring Richard's acquaintance Inspector Maxwell (Colin Tapley) is looking for? Richard won't be able to rest until these questions are answered.

Wings of Danger belongs among the number of noir films the UK's Hammer Studios produced before they came upon their Gothic horror gold mine. The film was - like quite a few movies Hammer made at this time - produced in cooperation with US cheap-skate movie mogul Robert Lippert, who provided Hammer with money and the American lead actor supposedly helpful in selling films in the US. What audience, after all, could resist the star power of Zachary Scott?

Not that Scott is doing a bad job here - he's quite good at playing the rude noir hero with the unpleasant voice (the Internet says "gravelly", I say "sounding as if he were permanently berating the people he's talking to"), and does even work the suicidal melancholia the script by John Gilling only hints at yet never develops deeply enough to be really convincing into his performance a little.

In fact, nobody concerned with Wings of Danger's production did a bad job at anything, everything's solid, professional, and well done. Unfortunately, everything is only solid, professional and well done, from Terence Fisher's - who could do so much more when he wanted - direction to the solidly paced script that always stops short of doing something exciting or surprising, leading to a film that is much blander than the sum of its parts should be, and that is disappointingly lacking in the feelings of desperation and nihilism, the free-floating weirdness as well as the heated emotions which make the difference between a mediocre noir and a good or a great one. Emotionally, Wings isn't dishonest, but too polite about everything to excite me.

 

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Nine Guests For A Crime (1977)

Original title: Nove ospiti per un delitto

Twenty years ago, a quartet of men with guns first shot a young man for the sin of sleeping with a woman of their family on the beach of their private island, then buried him alive. Might this become the reason for a few killings later on in the movie?

Now, rich patriarch Ubaldo (Arthur Kennedy), his three sons, their respective spouses and their mad aunt Elizabeth (Dana Ghia) go to the very same island for a nice summer holiday.

As this is a group of rich people in a giallo, everybody spends his or her time either bitching at one another, uttering melodramatic monologues, sleeping around with other people's spouses in the same room where one's own spouse sleeps, or just masturbating in an open air shower.

While these fun and games are going on, a mysterious person wearing black leather gloves - as mandated by giallo law - murders the sailors manning the family's yacht and drives it off somewhere. All that arguing and sleeping around is pretty distracting, so the family only realizes the absence of their transportation when family member Carla (Flavia Fabiani) drowns, her body never to be found, and they need to call the police.

And oh, somebody seems to have stolen the spark plugs of the cute red motorboat too.

Of course, Carla isn't the last family member to die. Soon enough, Ubaldo himself is dead of poisoning, and it's time for everybody to give up on the sleeping around and concentrate on calling each other a murderer. And, going by the continuing body count, one of the family members might very well be one.

Nine Guests is another entry in one of my very favourite giallo sub-genres, the Rich-Bastards-Get-Theirs film that's an unholy, sexed-up update of the Dark Old House genre (though the house in this particular case is - ironically - pretty modern and bright) and/or Agatha Christie, just with class politics that would have driven the conservative old writer into conniptions.

This particular sub-genre of the giallo seems to be made to strengthen my own classist prejudices as someone coming from sub-working class circumstances, demonstrating that yes, indeed, all rich people are murderous bastards and deserve to die, and then proceeds to show their deaths in great and lavish detail. This sort of film is to rich people what the slasher is to very old teenagers.

Although playing only to its audience's basest instincts is not something I really approve of in a movie, it's difficult to disagree with the lurid charms of Nine Guests. Directed by Ferdinando Baldi - who is a very hit-or-miss director for me - the film is so obviously having fun with its own trashiness that it's impossible for me to not have fun watching it, too.

There's dubious 70s interior architecture to gawk at, softcore sex of the rubbing kind to laugh at, and decadent evil rich people being hatefully decadent, evil and rich until they are killed off in various bloody and photogenic ways - what more could I ask of a movie?

On the negative side, the first half hour or so is actually a bit too loaded with the softcore sex, going from breast rubbing on a terrace to breast rubbing under the shower to breast rubbing in bed until the sceptical viewer might begin to think this movie experience is a bit lacking in diversity. However, that's only because Baldi needs to load all the mandatory nudity into his movie's first thirty minutes so that he doesn't need to take a break in the melodramatic arguments and the killings for more breast rubbing later on. Thanks to this genius idea as well as some suddenly pretty stylish direction, Nine Guests' final act even develops a solid feeling of suspense.

Sure, the identity of the killer is quite obvious, and the explanation for everything that's going on is more than just a bit silly, but Nine Guests For A Crime is consequent, a bit cynical and so well-clad in its chosen pop trash guise that I'd need to be a much grouchier person than I am to not overlook these minor problems and enjoy it.

 

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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

In short: Kazuo Umezu's Horror Theater: Snake Girl (2005)

aka The Harlequin Girl (yeah, I don't know either)

Original title: Umezu Kazuo: Kyofu gekijo - Madara no shojo

After a teacher at her school was murdered by a student, the mother of teenager Yumiko (Arisa Nakamura), decides that it would be best to have Yumiko spend the next school holidays with relatives in the country to distract her from what happened.

Alas, when Yumiko arrives, things aren't as good as one would hope. Her uncle and her aunt don't even bother to pick her up at the train station, and once Yumiko has found her way to their home, they are acting distant and would really prefer her to be not there at all. The only ray of light for Yumiko is her cousin Kyoko (Ruriko Narumi), who is all sugary sweetness.

Kyoko explains the behaviour of her parents with a prophecy made by the local shaman about a snake bringing doom when a strange girl will come to town. In combination with quite a lot of snake-based superstition, that's the sort of thing bound to make relatives unfriendly.

Things become even tenser for Yumiko once Kyoko and she go to the shaman's house to find out what's actually up with all that snake business: Kyoko disappears to nowhere, while a snake woman attacks Yumiko. Let's hope her bite is infectious enough to spare us  the twenty minutes of mawkishness that follow.

When Noboru Iguchi, one of my favourite contemporary directors of Japanese weirdness, adapts the work of Kazuo Umezu, one of my favourite not quite as contemporary manga-ka, beautiful and strange things should result (and writer Chiaki Konaka is no slouch either). Instead, this episode of Kazuo Umezu's Horror Theatre is just really damn bad.

The short film's troubles are too numerous to go into them all, or else I'd spend a thousand annoyed words on writing up something that's not even an hour long while foaming at the mouth, so I'll only complain about the two most egregious ones.

Firstly, while I adore Iguchi's work, he's not at all the director to hire when you want anything even vaguely resembling subtlety. Iguchi is to subtlety what Ryuhei Kitamura is to the staging of dialogue scenes, so obviously letting him adapt a manga short that could only be saved from becoming cloyingly mawkish by the most subtle of directorial treatments leads directly to a catastrophic mess of kitsch, bad make-up effects and children saving other children from their hatred through the power of hugs and singing. Now, reading this, you might think - and I wouldn't blame you - that Iguchi's making fun of all the sugary sweetness, but if he does, he's showing it in a way absolutely identical to the thing he's making fun of.

The second factor of horrible badness, and just as bad as Iguchi's performance, is what goes for acting here. I'm perfectly willing to cut kid actors some slack, but what the two (and a half) lead actresses deliver here is the sort of thing I couldn't tolerate in a school play, much less in a supposedly professional (if cheap) film.

But I think I've kicked this particular dead pig enough already, so I'll just stop and go cry bitter tears of disappointment about the wasted opportunity Snake Girl presents.

 

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Devil's Rock (2011)

It's the night before D-Day. New Zealand commandos Ben Grogan (Craig Hall) and Joe Tane (Karlos Drinkwater) are sneaking onto a Channel Isle close to Guernsey to destroy a German artillery emplacement as part of a plan to distract the enemy military from the actual direction the invasion is going to come from. Or that's what the titles tell us.

It's pretty clear right from the start that Joe isn't long for this world. He talks about his girlfriend a lot, which is nearly as bad as the old "only one week until I retire" routine for a horror movie character. Grogan, for his part, doesn't have problems like this anymore, for he has lost his wife in a German air road on London, and has obviously not gotten over her death. He might even be a bit suicidal.

So it only comes as a mild surprise when Grogan decides to take a look at the source of the female screams coming from the bunker next to the guns, instead of just placing his explosives and be gone.

Inside bunker, something horrible must have happened: there are exceedingly dead German soldiers - most of them mutilated - everywhere. Soon enough, Tane meets the only survivor of the German troops, Colonel Meyer (Matthew Sunderland), who is only to happy to shoot him.

The good Colonel also manages to capture Grogan, but is distracted from his following torture efforts by something or someone he has shackled in another room whom he feeds with body parts. That's enough of a distraction for Grogan to turn the tables on his Nazi counterpart, but a little game of cat and mouse between two soldiers is the least of his and Meyer's problems.

Turns out that Meyer has done what half of all movie Nazis do, and has summoned a succubus from hell to become the Nazi's secret war-winning weapon, without taking into account how enthusiastic demons can get when it comes to their work. The gal from below likes to take on the form of her potential victims' loved ones, so she's going to spend most of the film as Grogan's dead wife Helena (Gina Varela), trying to seduce him into letting her loose.

Eventually, Grogan might have to team up with Meyer to send not-Helena back to hell. But is a convinced Nazi really a better partner than a demon?

Often, when special effects people turn to the director's chair, they tend to put a pretty heavy emphasis on the effects side of their movies - that's after all the stuff they know most about - and don't really show all that much interest in the acting or writing side of things.

Not so in the case of WETA Workshop's Paul Campion (whose fine short film Eel Girl made the rounds some time ago). While Campion's The Devil's Rock has his share of fine make-up effects, and delightfully gruesome looking dead bodies, it is not a film about these effects. In fact, it's not difficult to imagine the movie made under slightly different circumstances and just not containing any effects at all, instead trusting in the solid acting and the equally solid script to convey everything there is to say to its audience. I don't exactly think the effects are superfluous - and I sure as hell wouldn't want to miss the charming head-munching scene late in the movie - I just have the impression that Campion uses them to embellish a straightforward yet effective little story, and not the other way around.

"Straightforward yet effective" does not necessarily mean "original", of course, and all the elements Campion's film is made of are well-used in decades of comic, pulp and movie storytelling (the film itself nods at least in the direction of the Indiana Jones movies, and house favourite Hellboy), some might even say overused. I'm always a bit sceptical when a film goes into a place that has been so often visited as occult Nazi shenanigans, but watching The Devil's Rock, I found myself mostly delighted by the fact that even the hoariest chestnut can still be quite exciting when presented with enough conviction and an eye for the telling detail (even the German used is - for once in an English language film - mostly correct, even though the "Germans" are all clearly no native speakers of the language and have accents as horrible as mine when I'm speaking English).

There's a pleasant sense of (certainly also budget-friendly) minimalism about the film. It features one bunker, three main characters, lots of dead bodies, and the occurrences of a single night, and Campion isn't trying to give his film an "epic dimension" or something in this ruinous vein. The Devil's Rock is a product of classical low budget filmmaking methods of the good sort, where solid technical expertise (in acting, camerawork, editing, and so on) is used to make a film that knows exactly what it is and what it wants to be.