Thursday, May 31, 2012

In short: Las Garras De Lorelei (1974)

aka When the Screaming Stops

aka The Lorelei's Grasp

A sleepy German town by the Rhine is disturbed by a series of brutal murders. A rude amphibian is roaming the night, killing people (predominantly women) and absconding with their hearts. The local Hungarian blind hippie "gypsy" fiddler knows what's going on: the Loreley has risen from her grotto, turned into a horrible creature by the light of the moon to hunt for the hearts that will sustain her for the coming centuries. Surprisingly, nobody seems to believe that theory.

Elke Ackerman (Silvia Tortosa), a Professor in the close-by school for (pretty adult) girls is understandably disturbed by the murders, so she and the school decide to hire the professional hunter Sigurd (Tony Kendall) to protect the girls from what they believe to be a dangerous animals. Sigurd's impossible manliness brings its own problems with it, though. Not only are all the girls only too willing to make sweet, 70s eye and breast contact with him, even the virtuous Professor can hardly resist Sigurd's charms and falls into the classic movie behaviour of love-bickering with him whenever she sees him prancing around in the horrifying, yet formfitting fashion he decides to wear on any given day.

With his testosterone level now probably driven to a nearly lethal heights, it's no wonder Sigurd soon meets and falls in love with the human form of the Loreley (Helga Liné), who likes to pose by the Rhine in a tiny bikini. Loreley loves him back, too, but the love between manly men on a mission and were-Deep Ones can only lead to trouble, especially when said were-Deep One just can't let go of her diet of human hearts.

Spanish director Amando de Ossorio may be best known for his Blind Dead movies (with the first and the fourth one of that series clearly being his best films), but he did of course make other films.

One of these is this curious interpretation of the Loreley myth that turns the siren into the guardian of the treasure of the Nibelungs with the honest to Wotan Alberic (Luis Barboo) as her assistant who's there to give people a good whipping. I am of course a sucker for weird sideways interpretations of any sort of Western myth, and can't help but admire a film that turns the Loreley into a were-Deep One (or, as the mandatory Professor explains, some sort of were-throwback to an earlier human form that just happens to look like a bad rubber amphibian monster) and still has scenes that attempt to give it a serious dream-like mood, even though plot, dialogue and acting here can only ever achieve a cheese-like mood, quite like the moon.

The more mythical scenes are standing in stark contrast to much of the rest of the film which consists of Tony Kendall and various very attractive actresses strutting their stuff in horrifying pieces of 70s fashion or varying states of undress, and some very unconvincing gore.

De Ossorio films this fine mixture of sleaze and nonsense - the film also features a radioactive dagger, people acting like proper idiots, super dynamite, and Loreley's female servants (the Rhine maidens?) cat-fighting over Kendall  - in an exceedingly pretty style with sometimes pleasantly eye-popping colours and location shots of picture postcard quality.

Las Garras De Lorelei is not a film I can find in my heart to take seriously in the least, but it is one that does delight me as a fine - and oh so typical of the 70s - melange of cheese, sleaze and imagination.

 

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

In short: Don't Open The Door (1975)

After an anonymous phone warning that something evil is afoot with her grandmother, so-spunky-she's-actually-just-rude Amanda Post (Susan Bracken) returns to her ancestral home where her mother was murdered twelve years ago.

Grandmother really is in dire need of help too, for her doctor (James N. Harrell) is keeping the sick old woman so drugged she's never conscious anymore. The doc is working for the local lawyer Judge (yeah, they call the lawyer judge for some - probably southern-ness induced - reason) Stemple (Gene Ross), who wants granny's house for himself even though he is living in an awesome rail wagon (with a train sound effect tape!).

Because these Southern gentlemen are less than subtle about their plans, Amanda soon realizes what's going on, packs her granny off into a hospital and decides to stay at the house for a while to spite the Judge.

That isn't such a good idea, though, for a creepy caller begins to bother Amanda, a caller who seems to know way too much about what's happening in the house, and who might have had something to do with her mother's death.

But who is the mysterious caller: the Judge? The creepy, manikin-loving owner of the local history museum (Larry O'Dwyer)? Amanda's ex-boyfriend (Hugh Feagin)? Whoever it is, he won't stop at just using the phone to terrorize the not easily terrorized Amanda.

S.F. Brownrigg's Texan Gothic thriller is a bit weaker than his first film Don't Look in the Basement, because the comparative lack of crazies doesn't play to Brownrigg's strengths that lie more in creating a mood of strangeness than in creating a tight, suspenseful thriller plot.

It's not that Don't Open's suspense scenes are bad, though. In fact,  there are some rather effective moments shot in a style that reminds me of a very cheaply produced giallo, which surely is the best Brownrigg could hope to achieve in a strictly local production as this one; there's even a staircase of the kind Bava and Argento did love so dearly, and it's even put to a use these two would have approved of. Brownrigg's problem aren't these scenes, but rather his problems connecting them through some very awkwardly staged dialogue scenes - whose quality isn't improved by the fact that Susan Bracken's character may be more resilient than you'd expect but she just isn't a good enough actress to convince me of it - that stop the film dead in its tracks instead of keeping its plot moving forward.

It's a shame too, for whenever Brownrigg allows his weirdo actors O'Dwyer and Ross (who also played a mad judge in Don't Look) to chew scenery, or allows himself to speak in his very own visual language - a language strong enough to make a basically silly threatening telephone conversation feel at least somewhat creepy - Don't Open becomes a very compelling movie. These scenes don't come quite often enough to completely make up for the drab dialogue scenes and moments of nothing of import happening, but they keep the film worth watching to anyone not afraid of a bit of boredom and awkwardness.

Brownrigg's brand of off-handed creepiness and very personal feeling weirdness aren't something you get to see every day, after all.

 

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Hairy Beasts meets Assignment Naschy: La Bestia Y La Espada Mágica (1983)

aka The Beast and the Magic Sword

aka The Werewolf and the Magic Sword

This May the agents of M.O.S.S. throw their collective gaze (warning: may turn anyone into a lesbian vampire) toward everything hairy and beastly: Cerberus, the shirtless Bollywood actor of your choice and more. To stay up to date on our exploits regarding the matter, you can just follow this handy link.

Otto the Great (Gérard Tichy), ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, has beaten the Magyars decisively, but neither he nor his men dare execute their enemies' imprisoned leader for fear of being stricken by a horrible curse. The only curse-free solution would be a duel to the death, but nobody seems to be able to beat the Magyar in a fair fight. Only the Polish nobleman Irineus Daninsky (of course Paul Naschy, wearing such a frightening wig and false beard that this alone would qualify the movie for the Hairy Beasts month) dares risk his life in this way anymore. The Poles price for his heroic attempt at duelling is the hand of Otto's disturbingly young looking daughter, but hey, it's the early middle ages.

Irineus kills the Magyar in a hard-won fight, gets the hand and love (repeat after me: all women want Paul Naschy, even when he has hair on his head and in his face that makes him look like bigfoot) of the emperor's daughter, and everyone could live happily ever after, if not for the Magyar's witch wife, who some months later appears and pokes Daninsky's pregnant wife in the belly with a wolf's skull, cursing all future generations of the family with lycanthropy.

Half a millennium later, at the end of the 16th Century, the curse is still up and running, and Irineus's descendant Waldemar (also Paul Naschy, though with not quite as terrifying hair) appears with his "companion" (yeah, I don't know either) Kinga (Beatriz Escudero) at the home of enlightened Jewish alchemist, physician and wise man Salom Jehuda (Conrado San Martín), hoping the sage will be able to find a cure for the curse that's haunting him.

Alas, before Jehuda is able to help Waldemar (something he isn't even sure is possible), antisemitism and witchcraft fear strike, and some masked asshats murder the old man, only to be summarily dispatched afterwards by Waldemar's superior fighting skills. Jehuda has just long enough to live to ask Wally to take in his blind daughter Esther (Violeta Cela) - already in love with Waldemar like every woman in the world ever - and to send Wally and his harem on their way to the next enlightened man of science who just might be able to help: a man named Kian (Shigeru Amachi), living and working in Kyoto.

Next thing we know is that Kyoto is stricken by a series of bestial killings which always occur during the time of the full moon, for Waldemar isn't able to find Kian as easily as he hoped and now spends his time not doing anything to restrain his wolfman alter ego and moping about it afterwards like all Waldemar Daninskys do, the pricks.

Ironically, Kian is one of the people tasked with hunting down whatever and whoever is killing its way through town and country. It takes some time for the universally educated - he knows his Japanese culture but also Greek mythology, European werewolf myths and even talks about brain surgery later on - man to believe in something as ridiculous as a werewolf, but once he stares down Wolfman-shape Wally after a bordello massacre, there's no disbelieving for him. After the encounter, Kian doesn't need much time to find the Pole.

For inexplicable reasons, Kian then decides to find a cure for Waldemar instead of killing him outright, but, as it went for Jehuda, his attempts at finding a cure lead him nowhere. But hey, at least Kian's younger sister Akane (Yoko Fuji) becomes another woman who falls for fattening Paul Naschy's scriptwriting-induced charms, because Japan means "harem manga", right?

Things become even more difficult for Kian thanks to a would-be Jubei Yagyu (just look at the guy and his ninjas and don't tell me that's not what he's supposed to be even if he wears a different name) and his lust for vengeance for nothing in particular, and an evil sorceress (Junko Asahina) who - as women not falling under the Wally's spell always do - wants the wolfman as her new pet monster. The only question is which of the three girls lusting after Naschy's paunch will survive the film to kill him in the end.

Say what you will about Paul Naschy, but the man was as driven a filmmaker as anyone you could name, the kind of guy I wouldn't at all be surprised to find using something like Kickstarter for a financial infusion if he were still alive. As it stands, fanfunding was not in the cards during the early 80s, but even so, Naschy was not the kind guy who'd let himself be discouraged by lack of funding for his (perhaps unwise and dubious, yet also awesome) visions. If making a movie meant going outside of his native Spain and cooperating with Japanese producers, then Naschy would do that.

Naschy, never lacking in ambition and imagination, clearly wasn't content with just taking the Japanese money and running. His vision was obviously grander, and if he was working in Japan, then why not make a film taking place in Japan that was not just another of his Daninsky wolfman films but also at least in part a chambara?

Now, before any of my readers start dreaming about the awesome possibilities of a Naschy horror movie at its most dream-like crossed with the insane possibilities of Japanese exploitation, be advised that neither Naschy nor the Japanese genre film industry was at the height of power at this stage of their respective existences, so the ideas of La Bestia's incredible awesomeness you might possible have will have to be adjusted to a much more modest level.

For alas, this is one of those Naschy movies that - especially in its first half - does feature many more scenes of people telling each other the plot than scenes of said plot actually happening. While the European parts of the film may sound a lot like a medieval legend, their execution is rather bland and non-committal, with the more exciting moments sandwiched between many scenes of two guys in bad medieval costumes sitting stiffly in front of a nailed-down camera. It's clearly a budgetary problem this time around, for whenever things actually do happen, they are rather exciting.

Once we have arrived in Japan, there are still more "tell, don't show" moments to come, but the scenes of excitement and interest are getting quite a bit more numerous. Some of the action scenes are particularly good, with Naschy (surprisingly, when you keep in mind we are talking about a guy who writes himself as irresistible to all women in his scripts, though the Japanese producers may have had a hand in this for all I know) often stepping down and leaving room for Shigeru Amachi to kick ninja ass in not exactly inspired yet well-done scenes that have a lot more in common with action in Japanese films than those in Spanish ones, leaving me with the question which Japanese director was responsible for these scenes.

Even later in the film, once Waldemar visits the witch, even the irrational, dream-like mood one hopes for in a Naschy movie makes a late appearance and doesn't leave the film afterwards, as if it, once conjured up, were impossible to dispel again. The film's highpoint in this regard is clearly Shigeru Amachi's fight against a group of oni that's all moodily artificial light and strangeness.

La Bestia features other elements I found remarkable, like the fact that some of its true heroes are an elderly Jew and his daughter - both realized without much racial stereotyping - and a scientifically minded samurai, with the film using an exploitation film version of their respective cultures, yet clearly treating them and these cultures with a respect you don't generally find in exploitation films; as if the enlightened humanism these characters believe in would take over Naschy's often not quite as enlightened world view by their mere presence. A nice addition to that is a scene in which the sorceress (of all people) scolds Waldemar for being an egotist, not giving a damn for the people he kills during his wolfman escapades, and quite in love with his own tragic whining. Plus, there's a pretty dangerous looking scene of Naschy wrestling a tiger.

As it is often the case with Naschy's films, all the great moments and clever details don't really come together to make the great whole the director/writer/producer/star had already proven he could create if given the opportunity, but they're more than enough to make La Bestia Y La Espada Mágica a film worth watching. The trick, as always, is to treat every moment that works and every idea that succeeds as a moment where Naschy (the tragic and slightly unsympathetic hero even behind the camera) triumphs over the circumstances within and without that hold him back, and just live with the film's failures.

 

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Woman In Black (2012)

The young lawyer Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) has had a very hard time for the last few years. His wife (Sophie Stuckey) died during childbirth, leaving him to to raise his son Joseph (to be played by Misha Handley) alone with the help of nanny (Jessica Raine). The whole thing has left Arthur borderline suicidal, and has influence his job performance so much he's one mistake away from being fired.

His boss gives Arthur a - actually pretty harmless sounding - last chance assignment: to travel to a country village and check the documents one of the law company's female clients left behind in her house, Eel Marsh. Eel Marsh is connected to the village by a causeway that becomes impassable when the flood comes, possibly leaving anyone in it stranded far away from any help for hours.

Still, there's nothing dangerous in looking through documents, so the assignment sounds easy enough. To make good use of his unexpected stay in the country, Arthur plans to spend a nice weekend there with his son after his work there is finished, but that's before he understands what's really going on in the village.

For the place is plagued by a series of child deaths - all caused by the children themselves in one way or the other - that are connected to the ghost of a woman in black haunting Eel Marsh. Arthur will learn about that soon enough, though, and he'll feel bound to lay the ghost of the woman in black to rest to protect his own son.

While the output of the new old studio (that isn't really a studio as the old one was, of course) working under the revived Hammer moniker hasn't been without its problems, a film like The Woman in Black (adapting the same short novel by Susan Hill as the excellent - and very different - TV movie) goes a long way to convince me the people behind these films are taking the tradition they've positioned themselves in seriously.

The Woman (directed by James Watkins, whom I have now officially forgiven the script for the second The Descent movie) is a deliberately paced mood piece standing firmly in the tradition of the British ghost story and the gothic horror film (even if it takes place a few years later than usual in that latter sub-genre), the kind of film that takes its time building up its mood and clearly defining its characters before it lets the really spooky stuff happen, working hard and well for a sense of impending dread in its audience, until it culminates in a series of highly impressive scenes of horror that would never work as well as they do if they weren't so meticulously prepared through the build up.

The film also shares the often problematic obsession of contemporary scriptwriting with connecting its main character's background with what's going in the plot by any means necessary. For my tastes, this sort of thing often takes away from my enjoyment of a movie, because it - if it isn't applied exceedingly well - points out the how constructed a given plot truly is by going for an integration of all its elements that fits neither the way life works nor the way stories speak to me. Writer Jane Goldman (curiously also responsible for films as different from this one as each other as X-Men: First Class and Kick-Ass) mostly manages to avoid this feeling of overbearing artificiality (even though the film is of course as artificial as any other film), instead actually achieving - for most of the time, at least - the kind of thematic unity this sort of thing is always aiming for. Goldman's script - except for one moment of bad Hollywood kitsch right at the end that runs absolutely counter the mood of loss and dread running through the rest of The Woman in Black that made me roll my eyes and wait for a chorus of fucking angels, or at least Frank Capra's ghost - also allows itself to be very grim, seemingly sharing the feeling of loss hanging over its main character, not shying away from going to painful and unpleasant places without being gratuitous. It's really quite impressive.

"Impressive" is a proper description for most of the film, really, be it the decayed and truly creepy production design (milking the horrors of Victorian and Edwardian interior design and toys for all the horror they are worth), the sound design, Watkins ability to pace scenes of horror that could be unintentionally hilarious instead of frightening if done wrong just right, to Daniel Radcliffe's surprisingly nuanced and un-showy (generally, the worst mistake mainstream movie stars can make when actually having to act is trying to impress their audience with their seriousness and dedication to looking as if they're incontinent) acting, there's hardly anything the film doesn't do right.

I don't even mind the handful of jump scares. Which really is the highest compliment I can give a horror film.

 

Saturday, May 26, 2012

In short: Science Crazed (1991)

Mad Scientist Doctor Frank injects a woman in a garden chair with a green serum that's supposed to induce a 21 hour pregnancy in her. Or something.

The crazy science works, at least in so far that it produces a baby that somehow kills his mother, and then grows up into a mutant man who is also a (science crazed!?) killer in the space of a few minutes/hours/whatever.

Clearly, the guy's bound to go on a very slow killing rampage, beginning with Doctor Frank and continuing through a lot of women. It's the job of the only cop in town and two of Frank's former associates to hunt the mutant down by standing and staring.

Brothers and sisters! The good news is here! The good news is that Science Crazed is everything the Gods of Movies With Problems have promised us. The film (and I use that word in the broadest possible meaning) was supposedly shot on video in beautiful and talented Canada by a man named Ron Switzer, but in truth, it was etched onto video tape by the angels of madness themselves, resulting in the sort of incoherent, anti-filmic mess you either stare at with unwavering awe, or run away from as fast as you can.

As a veteran of watching things like this, I did of course enjoy myself immensely; there aren't after all, too many films this proudly displaying the flag of the Land of Gibberish.

The glories Science Crazed delivers unto us are many. Just imagine a film consisting to about fifty percent of shots of feet and shoes, with the rest is made up by animal grunting, a way too loud soundtrack, ten minutes of fitness training (I am neither joking nor overstating the matter), five minutes of the camera circling around a woman saying inaudible things on a darkened stage, a woman trying to sex the film's monster (he seems pretty buff, though the bandages on his face and the bloody ripped shirt should be a bit of a turn-off), and more peculiar random crap. There are, for example, a cop who works from a video store, people who can't outrun a monster that moves at the speed of a turtle (not Gamera), and much more strangeness.

Switzer lights many of these scenes with a single spotlight (again, I'm not making this up), while the camera is either nailed down or moving in an erratic and illogical manner, which seems a perfectly reasonable way to film things like a "suspense scene" that consists of ten minutes of two women doing fitness training intercut with the walking feet of a guy wearing jeans (and that's not the only time Switzer will use that technique); the sound consists of way too loud synthie music, tape hiss, and badly post-dubbed dialogue that is a) insane, b) completely out of sync and c) graced with sound levels so inconsistent it's surreal. But hey, every emotion on the actors' faces is held for minutes, so the sound fits what we see pretty well.

In combination, Science Crazed's bizarre decisions, technical tics, and mind-boggling script add up to what may be a genius piece of outsider art, a very bad drug trip, a religious experience or just a very bad movie. There is no way to really judge a film like it - one can only watch, experience, and react.

 

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Friday, May 25, 2012

On WTF: Merantau (2009)

While most of the world is celebrating Gareth Evans's Indonesian action movie The Raid, I'm catching up with the past and watch the director's first team-up with his star Iko Uwais.

Lucky me, because Merantau just happens to be a pretty fantastic martial arts movie well worth anybody's time. My column on WTF-Film goes into a bit more detail, so why not click on through? (Please don't answer that in the negative).

Thursday, May 24, 2012

In short: Proteus (1995)

The yacht of some drug smugglers on the run with assorted girlfriends sinks in a joint-related accident. Their life boat carries the idiot gangsters and their girlfriends to safety in form of an oil rig.

But something doesn't seem to be right with the place at all. There's no crew to be seen anywhere, the lights in most of the rig's innumerable corridors are out - this just might be a ghost rig.

Our intrepid non-heroes soon stumble into the resident genetic mad science lab, manage not to see the pulsating goo patiently waiting to infect them in a corner, and come to the conclusion that something's not right with the place. Could it be that experiments with artificial genes (don't ask me) and a shark have created a horrible monstrosity out to assimilate and eat people, and that our non-heroes look really tasty to it?

Oh yes, it's an Alien/The Thing variant with a bit of Invasion of the Body Snatchers on an oil rig! Where do these filmmakers get their ideas from? Despite lacking any ideas of its own, and being pretty dumb, Proteus is a serviceable example of its particular breed of horror film. From time to time director Bob Keen (better known as a special effects guy) manages to create a somewhat suspenseful scene, and while there's nothing happening here that will surprise anyone, the film is at least decently paced.

Of course, to be as mildly entertained by Proteus as I was, one will need the ability to appreciate scenes and scenes of (pretty vile yet uninteresting) people running through dark corridors. That's the late 80s and 90s version of all those running through the woods scenes we all know and love from 70s horror films, and was probably created when producers realized that an important part of their audience just fucking hate trees (stupid trees); plus, corridors can be even darker, so you never need to shoot more than one take in them, because your audience can't see what's happening in them in any case.

But where was I? Oh, right, Proteus. Seeing as Keen's a special effects guy, I was a little surprised by the badness of the climactic monster encounter, when the monster of the appropriately evil name of Charlie - Sheen, one supposes - appears in its full shark/t-rex glory, as a barely mobile animatronic thing that looks about as threatening as Neil Gaiman. The rest of the effects are pretty okay, though, if, again, lacking any creative spark as well as the willingness to actually go for the body horror elements that just scream for some tasteful tastelessness.

Or, to use the immortal word the Internet likes so much: meh.

 

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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Three Films Make A Post: A freak of nature whose crimes go beyond your wildest terrors!

Chronicle (2012): Turns out there is still life in the POV movie style. Josh Trank's semi-realistic "what if actual teenagers got superpowers" (in this case a pretty hefty dose of telekinesis) movie does some rather clever stuff with the whole POV angle and even uses said superpowers to find a reason to have more camera angles as normal in the style. There is, in fact, a lot that's clever about the film: the treatment of an abused character and his abuser is deeply pessimistic yet also believable, and the development of the relationship between the film's three main characters seems authentic.

Having said that, I also have to say the film didn't really move me emotionally as much as I wanted it too. While I appreciate most everything Trank does on an intellectual level, I never connected to it much on an emotional one, without being able to actually pin down why.

Intruders (2012): Ah, third act plot explanation (the more long-winded brother to the third act plot twist), old enemy, we meet again. Thanks to you, what begins as a moody, well-acted (especially by the child actors) examination of childhood fears turns into a tedious game of "explain everything" that doesn't actually add anything to what the film did up to that point, sucking the whole film dry of ambiguity and anything that might actually disturb or confuse an audience. In this particular case, the twist is certainly well constructed, but - as is often the case with these things - does seem to belong into a different movie than the one I watched up to that point, turning everything else in the movie into nothing but a long-winded set-up for an equally long-winded punch-line.

Paranormal Xperience 3D (2011): Honestly, that's the title. The film carrying that title is even worse. It's about a ridiculously vile group of medicine students visiting a ghost town for parapsychological research, and (hooray!) getting slaughtered. As is traditional. There is, of course, also some kind of plot twist, but I don't think anyone didn't see that particular one coming. For once, the twist can't ruin much anyway, for this is the sort of trite and boring horror that has no tension, atmosphere or sense of fun to be ruined by a twist; the only memorable element is an amount of product placement you generally only see in James Bond movies. Why Sony is so desperate to be connected with this particular piece of crap is anybody's guess.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Absentia (2011)

Callie (Katie Parker) arrives at her pregnant sister Tricia's (Courtney Bell) small house in the suburbs to help Tricia finally end a very difficult time in her life. Tricia's husband Daniel (Morgan Peter Brown) one day seven years ago just disappeared, leaving Tricia's life something of a shambles. Not that Callie's life is a bed of roses. She has a history of drug abuse and bad life decisions, as well as the tendency to just pack up and disappear when things get too rough for her.

Still, troubled as their relationship may have been at times, both sisters are trying to be there for each other. So Callie is doing her best to help Tricia make the final steps in having Daniel declared dead in absentia, and attempts to finally move Tricia out of the house she shared with Daniel, convincing her to start living again.

What Tricia doesn't tell Callie is that ever since she's started the process of declaring her husband dead, she's been having nightmares and hallucinations (or are they?) of a very angry Daniel. This sort of thing can of course be explained by trauma and stress, but soon enough weird things begin to happen to Callie too.

Everything that happens to the sisters seems to be connected to a nearby pedestrian tunnel and the unreasonably high number of disappearances of people and animals in the area, but is really something supernatural at play, or are people just leaving behind their troubles one way or the other?

Now, if every piece of indie horror were like this instead of being a part of a seemingly never-ending series of bad gore movies (I'm making unfair generalizations, I know, and apologize to all indie horror filmmakers who make more inspired films), I'd probably dedicate my whole blog to indie horror, never to look at anything else; at least for a week.

But honestly and in all appropriate enthusiasm, Mike Flanagan's Absentia is a film that hits all the right notes for me, a film that plays as if it were written by someone with a direct line to my brain. As it is in cases like this your mileage with the film at hand may very well vary even more than normal (after all, no two persons ever see the same film anyway). So it's probably best if I just indulge myself and count all the ways in which Absentia is awesome, without any pretence of critical distance.

First and foremost, there is Flanagan's direction and editing, inventively and with great intelligence keeping a film that in large parts plays out in three rooms and a tunnel into something visually dynamic and interesting without ever falling into the trap of getting showy with it. Flanagan has a fantastic sense for building up mood, treating the moments of dread and horror with the same sure hand he uses for the moments of intimacy. The latter does of course make the horror moments even stronger.

I was also pretty much floored by the film's sense of place. Sure, we're talking about a film taking place in the most quotidian suburb imaginable. However making such a place believable not only as a place where people could believably live quiet, quotidian lives but also one where the layers between the day-to-day and the outside - and possible the layers between people's inner lives and what is surrounding them - have literally and figuratively grown thin is an achievement all of its own.

Absentia also shows some very convincing acting, with especially the lead actresses being as flawed and sympathetic as one could wish for in a film like this. Again, there's a complete lack of showiness in their performances. I'd use the dread word "authenticity" if I weren't conditioned not to. Suffice it to say that Parker and Bell (as well as the actors in the smaller roles) do a fantastic job selling Absentia's more difficult moments, leaving the audience not much room to doubt the strange things happening to them.

The script is just as good as the rest of the movie too. The film's idea of a supernatural menace is clearly influenced by the Weird Tale tradition of horror (with nods in the direction of Lovecraft, Machen and Blackwood, and I don't use these names lightly), yet Flanagan's film does not stop at the point of imitation, and instead places (like many of the best writers of the contemporary Weird Tale do) the concepts of the classic Weird Tale in the context of contemporary urban life and the experiences of contemporary people. That's a fine position to explore concepts like loss, the wish to leave everything behind, and the horrors of what leaving everything behind might actually mean from, and Absentia knows well how to use it.

 

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Bulldog Drummond (1929)

The former soldier Hugh "Bulldog" Drummond (Ronald Colman) is quite bored with his new life as useless upper-class lazypants. So, as you do in such cases, he puts an advertisement into the Times, looking for adventure.

Said adventure does indeed come in form of a girl named Phyllis (Joan Bennett) who invites our hero to a conspiratorial meeting in an inn in the country. Understandably, Drummond can not resist that sort of invitation. When they meet, Phyllis, who turns out to be young, pretty and quite a friend of dramatic hand-gestures, describes her troubles to Drummond. Her father is being held captive by the evil psychiatrist Dr. Lakington (Lawrence Grant) and his cronies, the brother and sister pair (or are they?) of "Pete" Peterson (Montagu Love) and the vamp Irma (Lilyan Tashman), who torture (Lakington will turn out to be quite the fan of electricity) the old gentleman into giving them access to his money.

Clearly, this sort of thing isn't done on Drummond's watch, especially not when there's a pretty girl to impress, so he - alas with the help of his mentally handicapped friend Algy (Claud Allister) and his butler as a horrifying un-comic relief double-whammy - goes about given the blackguards whatfor.

If you ask me, early talkies like Bulldog Drummond are more of an acquired taste than silent movies ever were - after all, the silents often have a dream-like quality to make up for their theatricality the very early talkies couldn't aspire to for technical reasons. Fortunately, this free adaptation of the first adventure of Sapper's crypto-fascist, racist hero makes liking it pretty easy.

Especially since it removes the fascist elements and most of the racism and replaces them with the universal language of the more friendly elements of pulpy fun and a large amount of silly witticisms. If you ever asked yourself where the Thin Man style of mysteries in the movies came from, this might be an auspicious place to start, for the dialogue - at least whenever Algy's not concerned - is generally charming and often really funny.

It sure helps that Ronald Colman seems perfect for Drummond as the film interprets him: highly competent, difficult to perturb, and never without a witty repartee. Colman's acting is quite different from that of most of his peers on screen. Allister and Grant - if in very different ways - are both of an annoying, stagy theatricality (exactly the type of acting you expect of actors working at a point in time when the rules for sound acting on screen were still being written) which only is enhanced by the more easy-going charm Colman oozes. Bennett and Tashman, for their parts, are all over the place. There are moments when Colman seems to pull the actresses away from the old ways of stiffness; at other times, you'd find pieces of wood who are more expressive.

Of course, this sort of thing is to be expected of a film from this period, and it's rather more sensible to concentrate on Colman's approach - that pretty much carries every scene he is in anyway - than on all that stiffness.

F. Richard Jones's direction is pacy, and more than once, framing, use of shadows, as well as the production design by William Cameron Menzies hint at the influence of German expressionism and make the film more interesting to look at than I had expected. Some scenes seem to pre-figure Universal horror and noir, even though these films would end up to bee completely different in tone. Plus, there's a minor mad scientist lab with a torture chamber and an electric door of which our scientist is inordinately proud.

Which is symptomatic of exactly the sort of pulpy thrills Bulldog Drummond offers when it's not letting its hero run his mouth. Plot contrivances, chases and minor fights are the name of the game, and are - as such things go - completely timeless. Well, for me at least.

Seeing as the film was made in the wonderful pre-code times of 1929 (although it doesn't belong to the classic pre-code era; this stuff is more complicated than algebra), it also has the opportunity to add other timeless things that delight me, like hints of (fake) incest, double entendres, dominant women, sexually "deviant" (read "not boring") villains, torture and everything else that's fun in the movies and (disregarding the torture) in real life.

I don't want to end another write-up with the question "what's not to like?", but really, what's not to like?

 

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Hairy Beasts: Der Hund von Blackwood Castle (1968)

aka The Monster of Blackwood Castle

aka The Horror of Blackwood Castle

Warning: there will be spoilers.

This May the agents of M.O.S.S. throw their collective gaze (warning: may resurrect the dead as mid-tempo zombies) toward everything hairy and beastly: King Kong, cuddly little dogs and more. To stay up to date on our exploits regarding the matter, you can just follow this handy link.

Der Hund von Blackwood Castle, despite a title that translates to "the hound of Blackwood Castle", only barely qualifies for the "Hairy Beasts" theme, because it may contain an evil dog, but it's really treating the poor thing strictly as a murder weapon that could be replaced by just about anything.

When Jane Wilson's (Karin Baal) estranged father, Captain Wilson (Otto Stern), dies, he leaves her run-down old Blackwood Castle and a bunch of problems she surely didn't expect.

For one, there's Wilson's shady lawyer's (Hans Söhnker) heavy insistence on Jane selling the castle as soon as possible (but only to the people he chooses, which would be him), there's a cellar full of snakes, and there's the Captain's former factotum Grimsby (Arthur Binder), all dress-sense a few centuries out of fashion and threatening demeanour, and these are just the problems Jane learns about early on in her stay.

Among the mysterious occurrences surrounding her Jane doesn't yet know about is the start of a series of murders; various shady people taking residence in the nearby inn of Lady Agathy Beverton (Agnes Windeck) and her brother Henry (Tilo von Berlepsch) meet a horrible end when walking the moors by the fake (and pretty ridiculous looking) poison fangs of the titular hound. The hound's victims also have a tendency to disappear afterwards.

That is, until one of them finally re-appears right in Blackwood Castle's living room. Jane, being the heroine of the piece, calls Scotland Yard, but to the audience's disappointment, there's no inspector available, so Sir John (Siegfried Schürenberg) and his secretary Miss Finley (Ilse Pagé) take on the case personally. Poor Jane.

Sir John will for once actually have to use his own brain to cut through the mystery. And I haven't even mentioned the added complexity of the case provided by the not murdered shady residents of Lady Agathy's inn (Wallace inspector actors Heinz Drache and Horst Tappert, among others), or by the suspicious manner in which village doctor Doc Adams (Alexander Engel) and Sir Henry act. Only one thing is clear: there must be something quite valuable hidden in or around Blackwood Castle, and whoever knows of these valuables is willing to murder people with a hound.

I am tempted to call Alfred Vohrer's Hund von Blackwood Castle an archetypal example of the German Edgar Wallace Cycle that began in the 50s, but that would only be half true.

Sure, half the film's cast can also be found in about half of the other Wallace movies, and the film's plot is a variation on all the usual Wallace themes - there's the innocent woman inheriting money and a whole lot of trouble from a shady relation, the mysterious killer who murders other nasty people by bizarre means, the typical assortment of secret doors, threatening animals, and other signs of pulp cinema, and a plot that is so convoluted it becomes difficult to keep track of the cast and their motives (which isn't helped by the fact that people's actions only barely make sense even when you take their hidden agendas into account).

On the other hand, Herbert Reinecker's script puts some work into using some of these elements a bit differently than usual. Firstly, while using Siegfried Schürenberg as the main police detective gives the man a bit too much room for a comedy shtick that is generally more amusing when used sparingly, it also gives the movie the opportunity to eschew the whole "male hero romances the heroine" business that nearly always is a weak point in films of the series completely; it's just too bad that the script doesn't use this opportunity to make Karin Baal's character more active, but since this is a German movie and not one made in Hong Kong, that would be too much to hope for.

Secondly, Der Hund confuses the role of its hero even more by casting actors like Tappert (seriously playing a man called Donald Fairbanks) and especially Drache (his character name is Connery, Humphrey Connery) who would usually play the male hero as some of the film's bad guys. To make matters even more self-conscious, Drache does seem to play his usual inspector/private eye/etc working incognito part for large parts of the movie, only to finally be exposed to be just as evil as everyone else is.

Thanks to this twist, Der Hund has the rather curious distinction of being a movie in which every character apart from the heroine is either an idiot (hullo Sir John, hullo Lady Agathy), evil, a snake, or a dog with ridiculous fake teeth. Which would put Der Hund's world view right next to that of the more pessimistic noirs, if its inherent silliness and the self-conscious winking at the audience Vohrer so loved in his movies wouldn't suggest that to be an indulgence in over-interpretation.

On the directorial side, Vohrer seems most alive here when he can indulge in his love for silly gadgets (I still don't have a clue how that sarcophagus/chess set contraption is supposed to work - it's awesome anyhow) or slightly bizarre sight gags (Vohrer truly loves making jokes about monocles and eye patches). The director's treatment of the suspense scenes seems less enthusiastic this time around: while the scenes of dog attacks and people sneaking through the moors aren't done badly - Vohrer probably being too much of the professional for that - I couldn't help but think his heart wasn't really in them while I watched the movie.

Which, in combination with the high self-referentiality of its most interesting elements, makes Der Hund von Blackwood Castle quite typical of the decadent (colour) phase of the Rialto Wallace krimis. It's not exactly a film I'd recommend to people starting out with the series, but one that reserves its charms for an audience (pretty much like its contemporary German audience that had been eating these films up for a decade by then, and would continue to do so in TV broadcasts for decades to come) well versed in the ways of the Wallace cycle.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

In short: 23:59 (2011)

1983. A group of young soldiers are on the last leg of their national service, spending the last few weeks in a training camp on a jungle island.

There, strange things begin to happen. At first, it's only Tan (Tedd Chan), the group's supposed coward, who is affected by visions of two ghosts - a child, and woman with a hole where her face should be - which doesn't exactly strengthen his position among his peers. Tan's only actual friend among the group is his childhood friend Jeremy (Henley Hii), but even Jeremy seems to be at the end of his tether with Tan's often rather hysterical behaviour, especially since Jeremy is your typical horror movie sceptic denying his own past connections to the supernatural. Jeremy, you see, has the Third Eye and can let ghosts speak through him, but he is convinced that power is something his father invented to milk fools for their money.

But even Jeremy will change his tune when Tan dies on a cross-jungle march under mysterious circumstances, and the rest of their platoon begins to be plagued by ghostly appearances, dreams and even possession.

I might be wrong about it from my far-off perch in Europe, but it seems as if there's by now coming a minor but steady trickle of decent horror movies from Singapore. Enough of them at least, to awaken the hope in me there'll come one exceptional horror film from there that will start a whole wave of movies trying to copy it, bringing with it a load of crap but also quite a few pearls, as it always happens under circumstances like this.

Gilbert Chan's 23:59 is not that film, but it is a cheap, short and competent of little horror movie that knows what kind of story it wants to tell and goes about that business in a straightforward, mostly effective manner without using too many cheap tricks, losing itself in comic relief, or swooping in with a third act plot twist.

If that sounds like a bit of a conservative approach to horror to you, I won't disagree there, but it also seem to be an effective way to make a movie that works pretty well in its own, unassuming way. It's not a horror film out to change the world or scare your pants off, it is however one quite decent at building up the proper mood of a place and time where the barriers between the living and the dead have grown thin. Plus, it's so unassuming, not even the "teach the unbeliever the truth about the spirit world" parts of the plot manage to annoy me. While the film is probably out trying to convince its audience of its philosophical outlook, it's fitting its plot and characters to that outlook instead of imposing it on them.

As somebody not from Singapore, I found myself also quite fascinated by the cultural and temporal background the film shows in - again - a very unassuming yet quietly effective manner, the mixing between more traditional Asian concepts and mores and Western influences, as well as the slightly different outlook Chan has on these things than what I'm used to from other South-East Asian films.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Black Angel (1946)

When bar singer Mavis Marlowe (Constance Dowling) is murdered, quite a bit of circumstantial evidence points to her lover Kirk Bennett (John Phillips) as the murderer, enough so that the glorious American justice systems sees fit to sentence him to death.

Ironically, the only one who believes Kirk's insistence on his innocence is the one he's been lying to all along, his wife Catherine (June Vincent). After the sentencing, June decides to put all her energy into finding the only piece of evidence that could exonerate Kirk, a heart-shaped broach Mavis's killer took with him. Her investigation leads Catherine to Mavis's estranged husband, the pianist and composer Marty (Dan Duryea). Something about June pulls Marty out of the alcoholic stupor that is his usual state of mind, and convinces the alcoholic to help the desperate yet gutsy woman.

The trail leads the new partners to bar owner Marko (Peter Lorre, obviously having a lot of fun with his pasted-on cigarette). Marko may or may not have had good reasons of his own to kill Mavis. Catherine at least is convinced Marko is hiding the broach in his safe, so she and Marty develop a plan to get closer to the man and his safe 70s Bollywood would approve of: they turn into a singer/pianist duo (quite like that of Mavis and Marty once were) and hire on in Marko's establishment. Things don't go as planned, of course.

Ray William Neill's Black Angel (based on a novel by Cornell Woolrich, like so many other noirs) is a very fine, b-list Universal noir that contains so many elements typical of what we now think of as part of the noir genre, listing them may make the film sound like a parody, or at least as a pretty dumb series of clichés. Thanks to Neill's atmospheric direction and a script that contains quite a few moments of cleverness and hidden depth, nothing could be further from the truth, for if you do it right, you can make clichés sing like the truth, while certain improbabilities of plotting always seem to be rather the point of film noir anyway.

Of course, when it comes to helping me ignore improbabilities and clichés in a movie, a nice ensemble of actors like the one working here is useful too. Duryea, Vincent and Lorre in a good mood - like they are here - would be more than able to convince me of much less believable things, like politicians not in the pocket of big media corporations.

While the film contains more than enough inventive visual moments - Neill sure loves transitions that are more than just cuts to the next scene, and does put an equal amount of effort in meaningful framing of scenes, which gives the whole affair a pleasant visual flow that only breaks when it is supposed to break - this isn't one of those noirs where the emphasis truly lies on the visual side of things.

Neill seems more interested in the subtextual load his script offers, and the way it plays with and sometimes against certain noir stereotypes. Just to take an obvious example, this isn't a film where a male main character is seduced or beset by a femme fatale (though one could argue that the typical male lead in these films really seduces himself), but rather one where the absence of the femme fatale creates a void at least one of the male characters needs to fill.

From a certain perspective, Black Angel is a film exploring its lack of a living femme fatale. It is certainly no accident that Marty seems to attempt to turn Catherine into a woman very much like his dead wife, nor will it come as a surprise that Catherine loses more of her scruples the longer she stays in the role men seem to want her to play. The film's not so crass as to have her turn "bad", but it's still a clear part of the set-up. I'm of the opinion that the femme fatale in most noirs isn't so much the deadly and infinitely ruthless monster the films pretend she is, but a useful foil on which the genre's male main characters can project their own weakness, and Marty's creation of his own private femme fatale here looks like a point in favour of that idea to me.

 

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Dragonslayer (1981)

In your basic medieval fantasy world (it's never quite clear if it's supposed to be a secondary one very close to out own, or our own world with a bit of added magic), magic is one the wane, leaving Ulrich (Ralph Richardson), an elderly wizard as one of the last - if not the last - of his kind. The rest of Ulrich, his even older servant Hodge (Sydney Bromley), and his magically not very competent apprentice Galen (Peter MacNicol) is disturbed by a group of peasants from the far away country of Urland.

The group, lead by a rather ambiguously gendered young man named Valerian (Caitlin Clarke), has come to ask Ulrich to slay the dragon who has been plaguing their country for years. Urland's king, Casiodorus Rex (Peter Eyre) has struck a deal with the dragon, sacrificing a virgin determined via a lottery to the creature two times a year so the dragon won't burn down half his kingdom.

It's not a satisfactory state of affairs, really, even if you're not completely against virgin sacrifices, for it just so happens that the virginal girl children of the upper classes of society never get chosen by the lottery. Why, one might think the system is rigged against the poor!

After some old-mannish hemming and hawing, Ulrich agrees to help his visitors. Alas, before he has even begun the journey to Urland, the wizard manages a pretty impressive suicide by proxy, said proxy being in the form of the king's henchman Tyrian (John Hallam), said suicide being by way of the wizard letting himself being stabbed with a dagger to prove his magic and dying of it. Oops, as they say outside of fantasy worlds.

While poking around in his former master's possessions, Galen realizes that he can use a magic stone to make his minor magics much more powerful than they usually are, and decides, for reasons the film never really makes its audience privy to, to take on Ulrich's dragon slaying mission.

The whole process starts out well enough, what with Galen burying the dragon's lair under a landslide, but the situation deteriorates once the young man meets the rather displeased Casiodorus and realizes that the dragon isn't as dead as everyone (except Casiodorus - one imagines a dragon to be quite a useful distraction from internal political problems, especially before the term "terrorist" was invented) hoped. Surprisingly enough, Galen will turn out to be more tenacious and courageous than anyone could have expected.

Matthew Robbins's Dragonslayer (co-written by Robbins and future adventure game developing legend Hal Barwood) may be a Disney production, but if you expect the sort of slick, sugary-sweet and ethically as well as politically conservative confection much of the studio's output is, you will be sorely disappointed. Dragonslayer falls right into the middle of a phase when Disney's film arm - like a mouse and copyright terror based version of Hammer - seemed rather confused about its position in the market place, and gave immense amounts of money to projects made by people who actually cared about more than box office numbers and teaching children not to be uppity. For once, Disney was a studio that took artistic risks, perfectly willing to finance a film like this, an often dark fantasy movie with more than one clever idea, and politics of a sort you would never expect to find in a Disney production.

Robbins and Barlow, with the help of the best, coherent and believable production design money can buy, obviously put a lot of thought into their film's world building, realizing how important it is to sell a fantasy world - even one close to our own past - through convincing details that make it looked lived in. Dragonslayer's world feels and looks believably medieval except for Galen and Valerian, who are blandly American (and not too well acted to boot). Of course, when were the heroes in Hollywood movies hoping for a young audience not?

Thankfully, the film's story - the sort of Hero's Journey that takes the whole "killing of the father" quite literally in a very ironic way - takes place in front of an interesting background that's fit to distract from its boring protagonists. The world of Dragonslayer isn't just at a point where magic begins to disappear from it, but also at one where pagan religion is beginning to be replaced by Christianity.

The film is clearly on the side of the pagans here, for all Christian priests we get to see are of the nasty, probably pope-pleasing, type whose main traits seem to be arrogance and hypocrisy; the only victory Christianity achieves during the course of the movie is based on falsely taking credit for the effect of some good old pagan magic.

This savaging (or in one case, roasting) of the Church is part of a political subtext that's so anti-authoritarian you'd have a hard time convincing me of being in a Disney movie or a traditional cinematic fantasy tale if I hadn't watched the film myself. All figures of authority - apart from those very few willing to sacrifice themselves instead of others - are figures of derision here, kings and priests aren't born to rule, but people who are loathsome, casually brutal, and sometimes funny in their ineptness. The film doesn't make this point subtly, but it's not a point that needs subtlety.

Dragonslayer's script has some other features I find rather pleasant. There's a willingness to go to places you would not expect in a Disney movie or most other Hollywood productions of this type, a readiness to be grim and brutal when it is appropriate without falling into the trap of becoming grim and brutal only for the sake of being edgy.

In addition to its very interesting script (that is even interesting enough to distract me from the whole Hero's Journey thing), its fine production design and good acting by anyone but the youthful protagonists (who are more often neutral than actively bad), Dragonslayer also presents a very fine dragon, created through a mixture of animatronics and technologically enhanced stop motion that manages the difficult mission of creating a dragon that looks exactly as impressive and fearsome as it is supposed to be.

What else could one ask of a film?

 

Saturday, May 12, 2012

In short: Naked Killer (1992)

As regular readers of this blog know, I'm not an admirer of the horrible Wong Jing. The man's general attitude towards movie making, which can be summarized with "I don't care enough to make an effort", just rubs me the wrong way. Additionally, unlike the man, I don't think rape jokes are very funny.

But I've always made an exception for the Wong Jing written and produced Naked Killer, for it is a movie that shows what can happen when the frightful man does bother to apply himself. It's not as if the script for this one made that much more sense than anything else Wong Jing has written, but it does at least tell a story with a recognizable beginning, middle, and end, instead of playing out as what feels like random scenes from different movies haphazardly stitched together, which is the usual Wong Jing feel. Furthermore, while Naked Killer takes place on a planet where traumatized hero cops begin to puke whenever they touch a gun (and suffer from erectile dysfunction only looking at Chingmy Yau can cure, but let's not go there), other cops are named "Dickhead", where part of the killer training consists of getting locked up in a pop art cellar with a chained rapist, and where people dress in the awesome primary-coloured (remember when movies had colours?) things the actors wear here, the crazy for once does make just enough sense to be entertaining. It's like the adaptation of a men's adventure novel about a killer where all the testosterone-y men have been replaced by women. The audience of this sort of thing (hullo Mum!) does like after all two things the most: ridiculous violence and staring at sexily clad women; as Carrie Ng's character here would agree, there's no need at all to feature men at all. Though Naked Killer is at least trying to cover all its bases by also featuring a Simon Yam masturbation scene.

A lot of what's fun about Naked Killer - and it's really a very, very fun movie - I blame on director Clarence Ford. Ford has the early 90s HK aesthetic down to an art, featuring the expected mix of blue light, fast edits and Evil Dead-inspired camera work most directors working for Wong Jing always seem to bored or tired (now, what happens in Jing's production house, inquiring minds want to know) to use consistently or as exhilarating as Ford does here. If people aren't fighting, there is - of course - more footage of Ng, Yau, Yiu Wai and Yam in ridiculous poses that often look like an alien's idea of sexiness to me than any sane person could ask for, giving the film an overheated mood as if nobody involved could think about anything but sex, even when thinking of sex seems totally inappropriate in a given context. In part, we can thank a "no breasts" clause in Yau's, Ng's, and Yiu Wai's contracts for the film's ridiculous imagination when it comes to the sexiness; it is, it turns out, possible to turn anything into softcore.

Friday, May 11, 2012

On WTF: Hairy Beasts! Santo Vs. Las Lobas (1976)

The month of hairy beasts continues when I encounter what may be the best film ever made: Santo vs. Los Lobas. It's not just a duel of the ages, but also a seriously strange, and very serious horror movie as they were only made during the 70s. The inclusion of Santo is icing on an already incredibly tasty cake.

My column on WTF-Film continues with the appropriate gushing, so you know what to do.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

In short: Outpost: Black Sun (2012)

Now, having read my less than amused ranting about Nazis at the Center of the Earth you may believe me completely opposed to the use of Nazis as pulp movie bad guy fodder. Nothing could be further from the truth. I just think you should do so without pretending concentration camps are funny (while Hitler, obviously, is a very good object to make fun of).

Steve Barker's sequel to his own pulp-y Nazi zombie movie Outpost (alas lacking Ray Stevenson for obvious reasons) does most everything right when it comes to the treatment of his pulp Nazi zombies. We are in classic B-movie territory here, so expect the Nazi zombies to be just like Nazis zombies always are, doing Nazi zombie things for decrepit old Nazi war criminals, while a couple of civilians - one the mandatory plucky young woman (Catherine Steadman) who proves her pluckiness by being responsible for the death of an octogenarian war criminal in his rest home, the other the just as mandatory guy of dubious moral standing (Richard Coyle) and an incompetent (they never met a perimeter they wanted to secure) British special forces unit try to destroy the mysterious Nazi zombie making machine before the military nukes the place from orbit (it's the only way to be sure, or so I've heard). The whole thing doesn't go too well, of course.

Disappointingly, Outpost BS is filmed in the usual colour-drained way every horror movie in this decade is bound by law to use, so expect your colourful comic book action horror nonsense to happen in sickly green, grey, and brown, and me to be a bit bored by that particular aesthetic dead end.

However, it at least is colourful action horror nonsense, with a plot that begins halfway believable - I'm talking believable for the realm of the Nazi zombie movie here - but gets crazier and ever more pulpy fast. I wish somebody would give Barker a bit more money for one of his next projects, so that he could really let his highly entertaining imagination loose. As it stands, Outpost BS is still a film full of Nazi zombies, an evil Nazi plan that seems to consist of "make Nazi zombies, hope they'll take over the world before elderly Nazi boss dies of old age", a tortured scientist who talks like Gollum and shoots electricity while hanging over the Nazi zombie making machine (which really could use a snazzy name like "The Nazi-Zombificator™), a Nazi zombie knife fight, and the Nazi zombie sister of Left For Dead's witch. Even with all the green and grey, that's more than enough to keep any sane viewer entertained.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Black Magic 2 (1976)

An unnamed city in South-East Asia. A series of peculiar, medically inexplicable and really rather horrible illnesses (of course featuring worms and ugly sores) and deaths has confused the world view of physician Shi Zhen Sheng (Lam Wai-Tiu) so much, he's now convinced they are caused by black magic. Shi invites his doctor friend Qi Zhong Ping (Ti Lung) and his wife and partner in science Cui Ling (Tanny Tien Ni) to town, in the hope that the couple can help find a way to break the spells.

Not surprisingly, Qi Zhong and Cui Ling are sceptical concerning their friend's talk of magic and spells; instead of going witch hunting, they prefer to investigate the cases scientifically. These investigations don't lead to any results, though, for Shi Zhen is absolutely right - there is a black magician, a man named Kang Cong (Lo Lieh) in town, using his powers to acquire the two most important things in his life, money and breast milk (which he needs to drink fresh from the breast to keep his youthful appearance despite an age of 80). And now, Kang Cong has decided that Shi Zhen's wife Margarete (Lily Li) looks like an excellent breast milk donor to him. Even after the magician has put a spell on Margarete, causing her to get highly pregnant with an ugly lump of flesh ("It's a freak", Ti Lung diagnoses) in just a few hours, Shi Zhen's friends aren't convinced of the existence of magic.

For that, they propose a test: hire Kang Cong to cast a spell on Cui Ling. Would you believe it's not a very good idea put oneself into the hands of a black magician and that consequently, things go very badly for the people of medicine?

Despite its pioneering status when it comes to Hong Kong horror films, I never cared too much for the first of Meng Hua-Ho's Black Magic movies, perhaps because the gross out one looks for in one's HK horror took place well enough, but it and the weirdness that is the other half of this very special horror sub-genre never found a way to work together all that well there.

That's not something I can say about the sequel (also by Meng Hua-Ho, with the same actor base playing different characters). Black Magic 2 brings the gross-out and the weirdness together in the most pleasantly entertaining ways, at least if you're like me and can find entertainment in things like maggots, and worms and pus and Lo Lieh stealing pubic hair to get at that valuable breast milk; "I needed breast milk" is now my favourite new excuse for doing evil.

If these things don't row your boat, how about Lo Lieh's cellar full of zombies he awakens by hammering big nails into their heads? Ti Lung eating the eyes of a self-declared wise man and consequently getting more manly? Lo Lieh throwing his cat at someone to get some much-coveted blood for evil spell-work from its claws?

Clearly, every sane person reading about these elements of joy will want to run awayout and acquire Black Magic 2 as quickly as possible, but wait, there's more!

Like the fact that the acting ensemble is in a pretty awesome mood, with Lo Lieh having a lot of fun with sneering, making bug eyes, and spitting blood at corpses, Ti Lung being his knightly self, Lily Li undressing and Tanny Tien Ni knowing how to use a hatchet.

And the fact that Meng Hua-Ho directs the whole mess of pus, insects, nudity, bad back projection, and a pulp horror finale (complete with a small army of the undead and a burning house) of the highest degree with a great eye for the pretty; seldom has a close-up of a festering wound full of worms looked this photogenic. Some of the more creatively realized scenes of horror hint at an influence of mid-period Hammer and Italian horror through their careful lighting and the moody photography, giving the quite outrageous (yet not as insane as these films would become in good time) pulp horror story the audience witnesses a veneer of class that stands in delightful contrast to Black Magic 2's highly exploitative nature. Do I love the movie and its director for it? I sure do.

 

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Nesting (1981)

During the production of her newest novel, writer Lauren Cochrane (Robin Groves), never exactly a picture of mental health it seems, has developed a serious case of agoraphobia. She decides that the best way to cope with her condition is for her to move from her native New York to the country for a time.

Out in the boons with her friend Mark (Christopher Loomis), Lauren feels strangely drawn to a place where she finds an old, dilapidated, yet beautiful mansion that looks exactly like the house she had in mind when she was writing her latest book, "The Nesting". Fascinated, Lauren decides that the house is to be her new country home. The owner, a senile old coot named Colonel LeBrun (John Carradine in a horrible state) would be quite willing to rent it, yet for some reason, taking one look at Lauren is enough for him to suffer a stroke that leaves him speechless and unconscious for most of the rest of the movie; fortunately, his grandson Daniel (Michael David Lally), rogue physicist, is there to take care of the renting business.

In a turn of events that'll come as no surprise to anyone but Lauren, her new dream home leaves something to be desired. Once the writer has moved in, her nights are disturbed by nightmares and peculiar dreams full of sexual undercurrents, grasping hands and a see-through Gloria Grahame. Initially, these dreams make the writer quite happy, for she has never been able to remember her dreams at all, yet now does so quite clearly. That happiness soon gives place to hysteria, when it becomes less and less clear to Lauren that her dreams actually only are dreams, and not ghostly apparitions. Soon enough, these ghosts find their first victims.

If you know him at all, you'll probably know The Nesting's director Armand Weston for a series of exceedingly dark and intense porn movies made in a time and place when hardcore porn directors had ambitions to make actual movies that just happened to include lots of sex, and weren't at all afraid to make sex look anything but enticing. As every ambitious porn director must, Weston also tried his hand at the horror genre, resulting in this, a pretty strange mix of haunted house movie, evil country yokel film, Southern Gothic not actually taking place in the South, and psychological horror that just might be the most Italian horror movie of 1981 not made by Italians or in Italy.

During its first thirty minutes or so, I thought I had The Nesting pegged as a cleverly directed (say what you will about Weston, but the man knows how to frame scenes so that they show the mental state of his characters) haunted house movie of the type where the haunting and the inner life of the main character are so inextricably entwined there'll be no telling what's supernatural and what mental illness. Sure enough, that's a card the film will continue to play later on, too, as well as trying its hand at pretending to be the story of a woman cleansing herself from post-natal trauma, but at that point, it will have already exploded into a series of increasingly bizarre scenes of screaming and mild mayhem that start with the physically dubious death of Lauren's psychiatrist (it's all very Freudian, really), make a little stop over at the house of a mad country person, guest star a flying cradle, and so on and so forth until its quite impossible to make out what the film really is supposed to be about, or for what kind of mood Weston is going. There's an explanation for most of the film's spooks late in the film, but the reason for Lauren's haunting and the way it actually plays out don't make a lick of sense when brought together, really putting The Nesting on the same level of merry what-the-hell-ness as, say, the films of Lucio Fulci.

Apart from the American movie's much lower level of gore and blood, Fulci's body of work truly is the best comparison I can come up with: there's the same love of sideways melodrama, people acting so weird they are more embodied mental states than characters, actors that can go from terrible to very convincing from one scene to the next, batty dialogue, plot lines disappearing and reappearing out of and into nowhere, explanations that fall ever so slightly short of making sense, flourishes (like Daniel's physicist job) that don't seem to have a reason to exist, and supernatural attacks often disturbing through their wrong-ness. And just like with Fulci, it's all presented in stops and starts, yet imbued with a deep, lingering sense for creating mood, an atmosphere of decay that is only increased by the film's logical missteps and weird pacing.

Now, Weston's film isn't quite as good as those of the maestro at his best. The mood is not quite lingering enough, and the weirdness not quite outré enough to keep a viewer as deeply engaged as Fulci's films can. However, for a film that was probably shot on a shoe-string budget to make use of a fantastic looking haunted house somebody in the production team stumbled upon (I'm speculating wildly here, so if I'm wrong, don't sue me), The Nesting is quite the thing. It's also proof - if anybody needed more of it - that US directors can succeed at the whole "horror as illogical, over-excited mood piece" approach to filmmaking nearly as well as we Europeans do, if they only apply themselves.

 

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Assignment Naschy (Slight Return): La Cruz Del Diablo (1975)

aka Cross of the Devil

Some time in the 19th century. English writer Alfred Dawson (Ramiro Oliveros) suffers from a bit of writer's block. One may make his love of his hashish pipe responsible for that, as his girlfriend Maria (Carmen Sevilla) clearly does. Be it as it may, Dawson's publisher is getting rather cross with him.

So it's quite useful - if certainly disturbing - when a letter from Alfred's sister Justine (Mónica Randall), who lives with her husband Enrique (Eduardo Fajardo) in his native Spain, arrives, in which she tells him about having had a miscarriage and now being quite at odds with her husband who'll "never forgive her". As a devoted brother, Alfred decides to travel to Spain at once; as a devoted girlfriend and being of Spanish heritage herself, Maria decides to come with him.

Once the couple arrives in Spain, they find Justine dead, supposedly murdered by a vagrant who will all too soon hang himself while in jail. Alfred is not convinced of the man's guilt, suspecting Enrique and his incredibly shady secretary Cesar del Rio (Adolfo Marsillach) of having murdered his sister. In fact, if Alfred were aware of a short scene between Justine and Cesar that reveals she had an inexplicable affair with Cesar and suggests "unnatural experiments" committed by the secretary, he'd be even less convinced of the official story.

Justine wasn't killed close to home, but at something called the "Mountain of Souls", supposedly a place cursed by having been the location of the final stand of the ever evil Templars. Alfred feels so drawn to the place he convinces Enrique and Cesar to travel there with him, possibly in the hope of provoking the true killer to reveal himself. But what Alfred learns there when he and his traveling companions arrive is much stranger than he could ever have expected.

Hammer veteran (among other things - he's also responsible for Mother Riley Meets the Vampire, but it's better not to think about that) director John Gilling's final film after some years working exclusively on British TV shows was produced in Spain, shot in Spanish, and was cast with Spanish actors.

I had expected it to be a piece of Gothic horror in the Hammer tradition, just shot on a lower budget and with less lavish looking sets, but La Cruz Del Diablo is standing with both feet in the tradition of the continental cinema of the fantastic, eschewing the comparatively logical dramaturgy of British horror in the Hammer style for a languidly paced narrative that's so ambiguous it never becomes clear how much of what happens in it only takes place in its protagonist's rather drug-addled mind (I know hashish doesn't work that way, exactly, but the film pretends it does) and how much is truly supernatural horror.

I'm pretty sure Paul Naschy, co-writing under his Jacinto Molina name, is in part responsible for the film's not always logical progression and its dream-like mood, for that's the sort of thing Naschy included in most everything he did with more personal involvement too. I also suspect that it was, at least in part, Naschy's idea to make a film based on themes and motives of Spanish post-romanticist/romanticist (whichever website you want to believe - I'm not knowledgeable enough about Spanish literature to have an opinion here; I only know that the little I read of the writer reminded me of the sensibilities of German romanticist E.T.A. Hoffmann, if clearly coming from a different cultural background) Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, putting the film into a place far from any interest in realism.

Surprisingly enough, Gilling, whom I usually see as a competent professional with moments of greatness (he did direct two of my favourite Hammer films with the Cornish duo, after all) acquits himself very well in the unfamiliar surroundings and makes a film as fog-shrouded, confusing and strange as any native Spaniard. Even though Gilling's direction isn't flashy, he manages to imbue the slow proceedings with exactly the kind of macabre and decrepit mood they need to suck a viewer in. There may be little happening for most of the film, but it does that with such a weight I found myself quite excited by La Cruz.

But then I do have a weakness for films more interested in building a strange and dreamlike mood than in telling a clear and linear story, so if anyone not quite as in love of mood for mood's sake will be as excited as I was while watching La Cruz Del Diablo is probably doubtful.