Friday, July 27, 2012

Mildly Bad News From R'lyeh

Sisters, brothers and tasty morsels! The heat here in GermanyR'lyeh has dried out my typing tentacles, so there won't be any new content up on the blog until Wednesday.

Please amuse yourselves with today's column at WTF-Film until then. The usual stuff about Twitter (@houseinrlyeh) and email applies this time too.

On WTF: P.O.V. - A Cursed Film (2012)

Either there is a minor renaissance of decent POV horror movies happening in Japan these last few years, or I've just been very lucky with examples of the genre.
Be that as it may, today's example is Norio Tsuruta's POV, a film that turns out to be much better, and clearly more intelligent, than it sounds. My column on WTF-Film goes into more detail.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

In short: Sky Pirates (1986)

Initially, I was all up for doing my usual dance of beginning even a short write-up of a movie with a quipping plot synopsis, but then I realized that the plot of Colin Eggleston's Sky Pirates - a film not containing any sky pirates - is just too tedious to recount. Just think Indiana Jones rip-off about an Australian Word War II pilot, some stuff about a stone tablet made by the aliens who made the Moai of the Easter Islands with mystical powers, a random bad guy without any (not even a pulp villain one) motivation, and much boredom in between and you're good to go.

Now, I don't actually demand all that much of my Indiana Jones rip-offs: give me a quipping hero, a perhaps slightly competent heroine, fisticuffs, ruins, some stunts, and some mystic nonsense and I'm perfectly willing to overlook plot holes, dubious special effects, problematic representation of brown people and musical scores that attempt to out-copy the master of self-copy John Williams. However, I need to have the feeling the film at hand is actually trying to entertain me, which unfortunately isn't at all a feeling Sky Pirates provided me with. In fact, it's difficult to imagine a pulp style adventure movie that's more needlessly shoddy and apathetic.

I would not be surprised at all if the film suffered from some major production mishaps, for how else can one explain an adventure film where characters die or get kidnapped between scenes, and that also misses an actual climax; at least, I can't imagine anyone thinking the climax Sky Pirates does have is anything other than anti-climactic and boring. Of course, a boring climax somewhat fits a film whose hero (played by a completely emotionless John Hargreaves who may or may not have been asleep throughout the shoot and produced wistful thoughts about Richard Chamberlain in me) shows the charisma and excitement of a whitened wall, and whose villain (Max Phipps) lacks a master plan, a personality or even a single memorable trait. I'd say something comparable about Meredith Phillips's heroine too, but alas, she didn't even leave that much of an impression on me.

There's a deathly air of apathy surrounding the whole film that can't be excused by its comparatively low budget, for if there's one thing pulp cinema has taught me, it's that a sense of speed and excitement can be had on the lowest of budgets. A film just needs to work for them, which Sky Pirates never bothers to do. In feel, Sky Pirates reminds me of one of those late period El Santo movies where it's clear that neither the hero nor the filmmakers have even the slightest interest in the proceedings on screen, and even less interest in entertaining anyone.

How the hell Colin Eggleston (whom you may know as the director of the excellent outback weird tale Long Weekend) ended up directing a film this boring, I have no idea.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

In short: It Came From Beneath The Sea (1955)

Some mysterious creature kinda-sorts attacks the atomic submarine of Commander Pete "Pete" Mathews (Kenneth Tobey) nearly provoking an emotional reaction from the wooden-faced Navy man. Back home, scientists Professor Lesley Joyce (Faith Domergue) and her friend (who'd be gay in the remake) Dr. John Carter (Donald Curtis) are drafted to find out what exactly it was that attacked the submarine. After long and arduous scenes of science(!) it becomes clear that the US coastal regions may soon make the acquaintance of a rather large radioactive octopus or squid (the film uses both terms as if their meaning were interchangeable, of course) who has moved from the depths of the ocean to better places because its usual food can smell its radioactivity for miles.

At first, the authorities don't believe the scientists' findings, but once another ship is attacked by the squidtopus, it's red alert for the Navy. All the while, the tentacular sensation makes its way to beautiful San Francisco.

Like it is so often the case with 50s giant monster movies from the US, It Came From Beneath the Sea suffers from a bad case of "too much wooden doll romance, too little tentacle", with hours of the film's running time spent on the awful "romance" between Kenneth Tobey and Faith Domergue (with a possible love triangle situation that never becomes dramatically important and is therefore completely superfluous). Director Robert Gordon seems more interested if his hot piece of wood Ken Tobey and Faith Domergue will marry and have little half-wooden children than in Ray Harryhausen's GIANT RADIOACTIVE OCTOPUS (OR SQUID). Now, don't get me wrong, I do appreciate romance in my genre movies as much as the next guy, but 50s monster movies' idea of romance as "will the snarling square-jawed jerk subjugate the whimpering female" does not seem all that romantic to me.

To be fair to It Came, the film's script at least puts a little more effort into treating Domergue's character as a grown-up human being, and even lets a man give a little feminism speech on her behalf (surely, there's nothing at all patronizing about the film's decision to give that speech to a man while Domergue happily agrees with what he says), but then the film leaves it at lip service for Domergue's supposed independence and has the actress screeching whenever possible, never giving her anything to do that'll actually save the day, or at least a wooden man. Except for that one scene where she gets information by showing off her legs and flirting, of course; it's totally dignified. Totally.

Yet even when it isn't delighting its audience with "romance", It Came still has pacing problems. Scenes tend to go on too long as if this were a contemporary indie production, with many a shot that could have been left on the cutting room floor in favour of scenes where something actually  happens.

Which would probably turn It Came From Beneath The Sea into a satisfying movie, for whenever something does happen that concerns Harryhausen's giant monster, things suddenly turn interesting, even exciting. While Harryhausen had at this point not quite perfected his art (that would happen with 20 Million Miles to Earth, I think), the great man's sense of detail and the dynamism that makes his stop motion work so superior is already in place. It's just too bad his art is not standing in service of a movie that deserves it.


Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Savage Harvest (1994)

A group of meat is taking a trip to the woods to clear out some of the property of an uncle of one of them. Uncle tells them an old legend: the land they are on is supposed to be cursed by an evil Cherokee shaman. Demons are trapped in some very special stones one the property, but are dormant until a descendant of the Cherokee elder who killed the shaman for his evil ways will visit the area. After that, touching the stones will leave one open to possession for one among a number of animal demons, and the area will be surrounded by a force field that can only be destroyed by summoning up and killing the boss demon whose name, I'm convinced, is Rat Magoo. But fortunately, none of uncle's visitors is a Cherokee elder descendant, right?

This being a horror movie and all, there's a slight problem with that, so the demons will awaken, and soon enough, the last unpossessed teenagers will kill off their former friends with a certain degree of enthusiasm. Let's hope Rat Magoo is easy to find and kill.

The shot on video Savage Harvest - not to be confused with the others movies called Savage Harvest - is the first film in the by now surprising long line of movies directed (and written, and produced, and edited, and etc.) by Eric Stanze. Stanze is by now something of an elder statesmen of ultra low/no budget horror, and even though I'm not always convinced by his films (especially those from his arty torture porn phase), I sure am by the tenaciousness his body of work shows, as well as his clear ambition to make his movies as good as he can afford with the budgets he can scrape together. In this respect, Stanze's body of work is a fine example for the direct line that runs from my beloved local/regional filmmaking of the 70s to modern indie horror.

Savage Harvest is obviously highly influenced by the first Evil Dead movie, just with a less talented cast, an often awkward script, and a director who isn't a mad genius but rather someone who shows signs of having the talent to become a decent workmanlike director pretty soon, and possibly for more.

The film's main weaknesses are just about where you'd expect them to be in a film of its kind: the acting is earnest, awkward and not very convincing, and the film's first half hour crawls by at a snail's pace, introducing character relations that won't be of any import later on, and letting a moustached guy drone on and on and on with exposition that will be repeated again later on in the movie anyway; it's as boring as humanly possible.

After the painful (felt) hours of introductions, the film rather surprisingly increases in speed, with one awkward yet fun demon attack after the next, and little room for tedium. While a lot of the film sounds and looks pretty bad - something I'm not going to blame Stanze for, but rather the circumstances of production - the editing is pretty slick for most of the time, and the film actually has a decent flow. Sure, the action may often be awkward and slightly ridiculous, but it is awkward and ridiculous in a rather charming manner. There are also some moments of actual imagination, like the scene in which the scorpion demon shows off its sting tongue, or how the vulture demon possessed woman spends most of the film walking behind the other characters and eating what's left of demons and humans alike. I'm also very fond of the way Stanze creates a surprisingly convincing barrier around the area of the minor slaughter through the power of cheap editing suite effects; that part of the film feels properly Weird, and is also evidence of the film's willingness to go the extra mile as long as it can afford it. Most other films of this level would have settled for letting their actors mime touching an invisible barrier.

And even the script, slow as it starts, shows flashes of something that's more than just competence. The film even manages to have a properly foreshadowed and even somewhat logical final plot twist that explains some of the film's elements that seemed rather problematic while they were happening on screen; every horror movie fan has suffered through a billion films with much better paid script writers fucking that sort of thing up, so this part of the film actually working is something I found myself particularly enamoured of.

Of course, to enjoy one's time with Savage Harvest, one still has to fight through a painful first thirty minutes, cope with bad acting and that cheap SOV look, but I for one have coped with worse things in movies for less pay-off.

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Sunday, July 22, 2012

In short: Bloody Birthday (1981)

Three children are born during a solar eclipse (with an unfortunate conjunction of Saturn, as we will later learn) in the same US small town. This being a horror film and all, this accident of birth turns all three of them into nasty little sociopaths.

A few years later, the trio of kids (Elizabeth Hoy, Billy Jayne, Andy Freeman) begins a friendly murder spree, dispatching of random teenagers on making-out sessions, parents and people they just don't like using shovels, skateboards, pre-Home Alone evil kid handicraft powers and (yawn) a revolver. The police is unable to connect the various murders (and it sure doesn't help that the sheriff who is also one of the kid's parents is one of their first victims), so the nasty little buggers just go on and on killing.

Only Joyce Russel (Lori Lethin) and her little brother Timmy (K.C. Martel) are slowly getting suspicious, but who else would believe these angelic little dears to be brutal killers? The only thing Joyce and Timmy manage is to turn themselves into the evil trio's favourite new victims.

Ed Hunt's Bloody Birthday is a curious example of early 80s horror. Clearly meant as part of the slasher wave, the film's main claim to difference lies in its evil child trio premise. Unfortunately, that part of the movie is rather underdeveloped, with some astrological (yuck) handwaving meant to motivate a rather random killing spree that lacks any deeper connection that would make it more dramatic. Even poor Jason Voorhees has his motives, after all.

A more clever film would be able to turn exactly this randomness of the killings to its advantage; alas, Blood Birthday is not a clever film and just coasts on its not actually very transgressive killer kid transgression.

What's left are a few tight, and many more very very silly murder scenes, not very creepy acting by the child actors, a "dramatic" TV movie-like score that just never shuts up, and José Ferrer and Joe Penny in completely superfluous roles.

I think I'm sounding more nonplussed by the film than I actually am, though. There's just little about Bloody Birthday that provokes any strong reactions in me, be they positive or negative. There are boobs, there is blood, there are evil kids, and all of them are kind of okay.


Saturday, July 21, 2012

In short: The Vulture (1966)

The new school teacher of a Cornish village (Annette Carell) makes a terrifying discovery while taking a short cut over the local graveyard that leaves her in a state of shock and suddenly white-haired. Once she'll be able to talk again, she'll relate having witnessed a vulture with a human face and human hands having arisen from a grave. Can it be mere chance that exactly this grave has been described as being cursed by a lynched Spanish-British with a thing for his pet vulture in a freshly discovered parchment?
Scotland Yard, at least, thinks it is. Clearly, the school teacher is just being hysterical.

But US nuclear scientist Eric Lutens (Robert Hutton), arriving in the village with his wife Trudy (Diane Clare) to visit her uncle Brian (Broderick Crawford), has a more scientific explanation once he has learned of the legends and picked up a few feathers and coins. Obviously, somebody's experiments in "nucular transmutation" have gone horribly wrong, creating a man/vulture hybrid that is influenced by vengeful thoughts of the dead man from the ether. Even worse, Trudy's family must be in danger, for the dead man with the bad thoughts has reasons to hate them especially. SCIENCE(!) says so.

Curiously, nobody believes this deeply rational and scientific explanation, so Eric, Trudy, and local antiquarian Professor Hans Königlich (Akim Tamiroff) will have to solve the vulture problem all on their own. But why does Königlich always wear that ridiculous cape? And what's wrong with his feet?

As this plot synopsis should make perfectly clear, Lawrence Huntington's The Vulture is what happens when the basic idea for a British ghost story about vengeance from the grave crashes headlong into an especially ridiculous example of the 50s US monster movie. This culture clash might have led to an interesting little movie in the right hands, but Huntington - also responsible for the script - does not possess them. In fact, even if I were to ignore the script for a second, that would still leave a film as boringly directed as humanly possible (in fact directed in a style as if Huntington had never left the 50s), taking place in a few apathetically photographed locations and some sets so aggressively bland it's difficult to imagine someone actually designed them, played by actors who seem utterly indifferent to anything that's going on.

And with this I'm really leaving out the massive failings of the script. Just to take some examples: Huntington's problems to differentiate between nuclear physics and alchemy (really, the "science" here is about on the level of The Giant Claw just infinitely less hilariously put into dialogue); the obviousness of the film's bad guy whose identity seems supposed to be a surprise but could not fool a toddler; the slow, slow pacing - oh, the horrors go on and on.

Some of the film's problems can be somewhat amusing, of course. It's difficult not to crack up when Hutton begins to relate his scientific (cough) theories, or when everybody treats Königlich as if he were not obviously shifty; and witnessing Tamiroff in his full vulture gramps get up at the film's supposed climax is an astonishing example of why certain films should never show their monsters that can't help but grant one the gift of the giggles. However, for most of the time The Vulture is just boring and bland, aggressively avoiding everything interesting that could have resulted when the British ghost story met the 50s monster movie.


Thursday, July 19, 2012

In short: Mysterious Island (1961)

This adaptation of Jules Verne's novel whose plot will hardly need any synopsis is - like many a movie featuring the great Ray Harryhausen's stop motion animation - a childhood favourite of mine, so any idea of objectivity goes right out the window. However, I don't think Cy Endfield's movie actually needs the nostalgia factor to deserve praise.

After all, this is a film that begins with a rousing balloon escape, turns into a Robinsonade (and the kind of self-conscious Robinsonade that mentions Defoe's Robinson Crusoe to boot), shows off some dangerous giant stop motion animals - a crabby crab, a rude flightless bird, some peeved bees and a grabby chambered nautilus -, sinks a pirate ship, meets Captain Nemo (Herbert Lom), destroys a sunken city, blows up a volcano, and even finds time to invent what should be a steampunk fashion staple in form of the shortest goatskin dress of the 19th century; all in just 110 minutes of running time, directed by Enfield with a sense of excitement and an enthusiasm for the adventurous incident you don't get to see every day.

Somehow, the film even finds time to be silently progressive: Neb Nugent (Dan Jackson), the black member of our group of heroes, may not have as much agency as one would wish for looking back from times when this sort of this has become important, but is still treated as an actual person whose opinions and emotions are respected by his companions without any condescension, something that was not par for the course in 1961; the English noble woman (Joan Greenwood) is much more practical than her position in life or (again, in an adventure movie in 1961) her gender would lead to expect; in general class, gender and race lines are permanently being overstepped by the characters without it elucidating any comment, with the unspoken subtext that rational beings will overcome such artificial divisions when they have been given the opportunity to. One might find the film's politics naively optimistic, but if we don't even allow ourselves to dream of the improvability of humanity in our SF adventure movies, we might as well all step in line and pray to our corporate overlords. And isn't it a fine irony that Mysterious Island was in fact financed by some of those very same corporate overlords? But I digress.

On the level of pure filmmaking, there's little to criticize about Mysterious Island: Harryhausen's effects are pretty much perfect; Endfield's direction tight in that effective way that has no room for showing off and keeps brilliant direction all too easily from being called brilliant; the script is imaginative and more complex than it has any need to be; Bernard Herrmann's score is rousing and playful in turns. If I needed to find fault with something, it's probably the acting of Michael Craig and Michael Callan, respectively the movie's square-jawed hero and the teenage heartthrob, but they're not that bad, really. The rest of the cast fills their archetypal roles admirably.

So yeah, Mysterious Island. Watch it. It's still awesome.


Wednesday, July 18, 2012

In short: Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2011)

Wait just a minute, Internet! Wasn't the second Ghost Rider movie as directed by the terrible couple of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (shouldn't they have a better shared director name like "The Explosion Twins", by the way? Neveldine/Taylor doesn't really cut it.) supposed to be utterly dreadful?

To my surprise, I found myself highly entertained by the film's silly shenanigans and its clever dumbness when I finally dared watch it. Of course, my enjoyment of Ghost Rider: SoV might have something to do with lowered expectations, seeing as I did not expect anything from the directors of the overrated and annoying Crank movies and the improbably horrible Gamer, and surely not a movie that gets the dubious allure of Marvel's Ghost Rider character. That allure, as if I need to tell anyone, is that of a bad metal album cover; we are, after all, talking about a biker with a flaming skull on his shoulders riding a burning motorcycle, hitting people with chains and eating souls.

SoV gets that, and so mostly consists of CGI Rider doing appropriately burning and chainy things while clichéd guitar noises play on the soundtrack. Because that sort of thing might get boring once in a while, the directors also delight us with some nonsensical mythology (OMG! The Ghost Rider was the angel of justice before he was dragged into hell and corrupted by a diet of flashing TV violence!), dumb-clever quips, and Idris Elba as a French alcoholic religious bad-ass fighter.

And then there's Nicolas Cage. Clearly, the only directorial advice Neveltaylor (that's better, isn't it?) had for Cage was to tell him "go insane", so that's what he did, gibbering, grunting, chewing and spitting his absurd lines with the greatest enthusiasm while pulling his face into various monkey-like positions. It's quite a performance, even in a career that is as full of all-out scenery slaughter as that of Cage.

So, Dinotayl, I salute you (for once).

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Curse of Snakes Valley (1987)

Original title: Klatwa doliny wezy

More than thirty years after having stolen a statue and some scrolls from Indochina, soldier of fortune Bernard Traven (Roman Wilhelmi) - hopefully not related to the writer - finally finds somebody who can translate the language on the scrolls.

Polish orientalist Tarnas (Krzysztof Kolberger), working in Paris, is just about the only scientist who believes in the people who used that language, and he's just too happy to get an opportunity to translate the scrolls. One of them has a secret hidden inside - a map that "smells like the jungle", as Traven explains. The map points to a valley "of wisdom and power". Something's more curious about the map than just its smell, though, for once Tarnas has discovered it, he and Traven are attacked by poisonous yet strangling snakes, which, as far as I know, is not the sort of thing that happens often in Paris.

The snake attack awakens the interest of reporter Christine (Ewa Salacka), who won't leave Tarnas in peace, not even when Traven and he decide to go to the former Indochina (I suspect Laos, well actually, I suspect the writers didn't care) to look for that mysterious valley.

Christine isn't the only one interested in the discovery of the map. Shady people who may belong to an evil corporation or an evil secret service think the valley contains a powerful weapon. Not only will the two Ts have to travel with Christine, cope with the guys following them, or the fact that Traven is pretty untrustworthy himself, they'll also have to fight further snakes and some choice traps guarding the secret of the valley.

The Polish/Soviet co-production Curse of Snakes Valley demonstrates nicely that the Indiana Jones-alike adventure movie wasn't just the province of Cannon Films and the Italian genre film industry - basically, everyone who could put a silly hat on a man could play that game.

Production value-wise, Curse is above the sort of film somebody like (house favourite) Antonio Margheriti could have fielded. Mostly, because parts of it look like they were actually filmed in South East Asia, making the obligatory scenes of our heroes trampling through the wilderness and some old ruins that decisive bit more attractive. The film's effects, on the other hand, are pretty much sub-par. There's an especially stiff giant snake thing attacking in the film's final third that may be mechatronic but carries the whiff of bad puppet theatre, and an alien transformation sequence that's of the technical standard of the 1940s. Of course, even when the execution might be as dubious as it is here, I'm never really going to complain about statues that shoot laser beams from their eyes, giant snake things or alien transformations in my 80s adventure movies, because those are exactly the sort of thing my inner five year old desperately wants to see; and as you know, Jim, inner five year olds don't care about believable execution, which seems to be a value they share with the film's director Marek Piestrak.

In form and structure, Curse is just like an Italian Indiana Jones rip-off, with all the running around, the plot convolutions, and the dubious ideas about foreign countries that implies (though it has to be said that the film treats the teleporting South East Asian monk with a degree of respect, and actually disapproves of stealing treasures that belong to other cultures), some mild action sequences and a female lead who is mostly there to get snakes, corpses etc dropped onto here until the script gets around to remembering why she's in the film except for having breasts. The silly and fun ancient alien nonsense that underlies the whole affair is exactly what you'd expect from a film like this - it makes decreasing sense (just wait for the next to last scene and guffaw with joy), but it's not taking itself seriously enough to become annoying (unlike a certain CGI fest about a crystal skull). Even the soundtrack by Sven Grünberg fits into the Italian mold with generic minimal synth plonks puckering generically along, Grünberg's reputation as something of an avantgarde musician notwithstanding.

The only real difference between Curse and other adventure movies of its type is the immense passivity of its protagonist Tarnas, who never actually does much of any impact, not even the kind of impact a fist has when it meets a human face. I think that may be what happens when David Warbeck isn't around to take the leading role.

Apart from that, Curse of Snakes Valley is another film out to demonstrate that the common language of exploitation filmmaking is truly international. Since that means more 80s adventure movies for me to watch, it's clearly a good thing.


Sunday, July 15, 2012

Neon Maniacs (1986)

San Francisco during the 80s of the last century. Virginal high school girl Natalie (Leilani Sarelle) is the only survivor when a group of monsters, mutants or whatever they are supposed to be we must assume to be the "neon maniacs" of the film's title attack her nightly birthday night bash in Golden Gate Park. Since the bodies of her friends disappear - something the police only make sure of by an actual search the next morning - the cops don't believe a single word Natalie said about being attacked by monsters; clearly, it's all a high school prank. A prank that makes Natalie pretty unpopular with the relatives of her friends.

As if social ostracism weren't bad enough, the neon maniacs have developed a liking to Natalie, and begin to terrorize and try to kill her wherever she goes at night. Fortunately for her, Steve (Clyde Hayes), a guy who always had a crush on her, and horror loving kid Paula (Donna Locke), learn to believe in the neon maniacs too, and help her out. Eventually, Paula realizes that the monsters live inside the Golden Gate Bridge (one assumes the only feature of San Francisco writer Mark Patrick Carducci had heard of, seeing as he even misses out on including a cable car or a drag queen) and are lethally allergic to water. But will squirt guns be enough when the creatures attack our heroes' school's battle of the (horrible) bands?

I suspect that if you could distil the 80s teen horror movie to its purest form, Joseph Mangine's Neon Maniacs would be the result of your experiment. It's all teens (and "teens") in horrifying fashion, synth noodling on the soundtrack, light gore, dumb yet somewhat fun monsters and a plot that doesn't hold up even to the idea of logical scrutiny. It's also a fun enough film if you're in the mood for a horror movie that's as disposable as junk food.

Of course, the main reason to talk about a film like this is to wallow in its moments of perfect ridiculousness. Personally, I find it difficult not to be fond of a work that does make no attempt whatsoever to explain the existence of its monsters or give them any kind of motivation. Instead of that intellectual stuff Neon Maniacs puts the only bit of thought it is capable of into turning the (possibly) titular monsters into some sort of monster village people: one of them is dressed like a biker, another one like a surgeon; there are a soldier, an Indian and a monkey guy, too, of course, as well as a totally incongruous wee cyclops lizard thing. Other highlights include a police force so bad they don't even know that if you search a room full of vehicles, you need to search the inside of the vehicles themselves before you can declare the room monster free; let's not even talk about the whole "oh, somebody says half a dozen people have been murdered in the park, let's search it some time next morning after some useful rain will have washed away all clues except for some slime" business.

Then there's a trio of heroes who think it's a good idea to go to a battle of the bands while they are being hunted by monsters, as long as they provide as many people as possible with squirt guns, becoming responsible for the death of at least a dozen people in the process. Oops.

However, one thing about Neon Maniacs at least is utterly logical: the film's conviction that a horror movie loving kid is the most effective monster destroying force in the known universe. That this particular horror movie loving kid is a girl is worthy of a certain amount of praise, and comes as a bit of a surprise in a film as addle-brained as this one.


Saturday, July 14, 2012

In short: Lockout (2012)

A few decades into the future, the US - clearly not in a financial crisis - have opened a stasis prison in a space station orbiting Earth, with little regard for the fact that the dry-freezing process does not exactly improve the prisoners' mental health.

When the President's daughter Emilie (Maggie Grace, now making a career of being the kidnap victim in Europacorp productions) visits the station following her personal agenda of being the conscience of her Daddy (Peter Hudson), a series of coincidences leads to a real space prison break. Emilie becomes one of the hostages of the prisoners' leader Alex (Vincent Regan), and though the prisoners don't know it yet, it's only a question of time until they find out they've hit the hostage jackpot.

With such a high level meat shield, a frontal assault on the station is quite out of the question, so Secret Service boss Langral (Peter Stormare) sends in one of his former agents who was just about to be freeze-dried himself for stealing state secrets. That agent, a certain Snow (Guy Pearce), may just be one of the most unpleasant smart asses ever to take the lead in an action movie, so it comes as not much of a surprise somebody has framed him for the deed. Still, even threatened with thirty years in a freezer, Snow wouldn't agree to the job if not for the fact that the only man who could exonerate him is on the prison station. As it stands, saving the President's daughter and seeing a man about a suitcase could be profitably combined.

If there is such a thing as a typical Europacorp production, James Mather's and Stephen St. Leger's Lockout might be it. There's the cast of half a dozen character actors and one pretty woman centring around a Hollywood star who has seen better days, the slick perfection of the action, and the utter idiocy of a script that continues Luc Besson's fight against his old enemies: logic, probability and the laws of physics.

As nearly always in a Europacorp production, the whole plot hinges on a series of coincidences and on the fact that all the film's supposedly highly competent characters act like idiots in everything they do; the world building, while providing some moments of semi-cool (it's Die Hard in a space prison, after all), suffers from inconsistencies so obvious even I can see them. Also, Luc, that is not how space stations work.

One would hope that Besson's hatred of the laws of physics would at least be used to set up more than just one gravity defying action scene, but Lockout seems hell-bent on wasting most of the opportunities taking place in a fucking space station full of mad men provides.

This does not necessarily mean that the film's a total wash. Lockout is at least well paced and has more than enough scenes of people shooting each other (inside a space station, yes), running away, and crawling through the ever popular whatever-they're-for shafts to be mildly diverting, especially since I at least can't blame the directors for making a slow film. Plus, the film does give Grace slightly more agency than its basic plot would let one expect.

Unfortunately, the action is never quite fast and exciting enough to let one overlook the lack of charisma Pearce has as an action hero, nor the basic stupidity of everything happening in the movie; there's never a moment that is awesome enough to just let one drop one's scepticism towards what's going and think "wow". While the action is competent, it's never truly gripping, leaving Lockout a film that's vaguely diverting yet also instantly forgettable.

Friday, July 13, 2012

On WTF: Wu Xia (2011)

aka Swordsmen

aka Dragon

From time to time, Hong Kong cinema still produces films to delight even the most jaded of viewers. Case in point is Peter Chan's wonderful, complex and exciting Wu Xia, a film that plays fast and loose with genre tropes, discusses philosophy and still finds time for some inspired action scenes where Donnie Yen can strut his stuff.

Read more excited rambling about the film in my column on WTF-Film!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

In short: Paranormal Activity 2: Tokyo Night (2010)

Original title: Paranomaru akutibiti: Dai-2-sho - Tokyo Night

Haruka (Noriko Aoyama) returns from a US vacation with both of her legs broken in a car accident, and the dubious prospect of being taken care of in the family home by her college-aged brother Koichi (Aoi Nakamura) for the next six months or so; their mother is dead, and their father spends most of his time jetting around the world for work. At least the siblings actually like each other, so apart from some teasing and the fact she's rolling around in a wheelchair, Haruka could have drawn a worse lot.

Alas, things don't stay that peaceful. One morning Haruka is confused that her wheelchair seems to have moved over night, but soon, she's treated to a grab bag of supernatural occurrences you may remember from the US Paranormal Activity movies - loud noises, slamming doors, the works. Of course, all of it becomes increasingly more frightening and threatening with each night, as Koichi records the proceedings with his trusty video camera.

Relatively early on, the siblings decide to call in a priest to purify their home of evil influences, but afterwards, the situation only deteriorates, until it all culminates in a first for a Paranormal Activity movie - an actual climax.

I think I must have mentioned my loathing for the Paranormal Activity movies a few dozen times by now, yet when I got the opportunity to watch the series' Japanese spin-off directed by Toshikazu Nagae, my masochist self could not let it pass by.

As it turns out, Tokyo Nights is the only Paranormal Activity movie I actually enjoyed; that's not how masochism is supposed to work, I think. Now, Tokyo Nights is not a great overlooked gem of the POV horror sub-genre, but unlike its US Paranormal Activity brethren, it's at least a decent film that avoids most of their pitfalls. There are also only about half as many plot holes, if you keep count.

Tokyo Night's superiority shows itself early on with Nagae's decision to let things begin to happen early on instead trying to pummel the audience into submission through sheer boredom; going with the grand tradition of the PA series does of course still mean that the paranormal activity on show for most parts of the movie is rather boring. Sure, there's an archetypal fright connected with scenes of people threatened by invisible forces in their beds, but broken glass and banging noises only get me so far when I'm witnessing them, because I'm not in those beds, hearing those noises. But hey, at least Nagae is better at pacing his fright scenes than the Americans, and he also attempts to give his film an actual pay-off that may or may not work for any given viewer depending on how funny or creepy she finds jerky movements.

Speaking of jerks, there's also a clear improvement in characterisation compared to the American films in that Tokyo Nights creates two not exactly deep yet vaguely likeable characters you don't necessarily want to see die or become possessed; I think that's called "not being Micah or how these assholes in the second film were called". Turns out that not wanting the main characters to die a painful and slow death makes a horror movie more suspenseful. Who'd have thunk?

So yes, Paranormal Activity 2: Tokyo Night is a film which mainly recommends itself by being produced with a certain degree of care and competence; for a Paranormal Activity movie that's more than I ever dared dream of.


Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Three Films Make A Post: Brace yourself for the ultimate transplant. The human soul.

The Devil's Tomb (2009): Take one bit of military horror, a spoonful of Event Horizon (but none of that film's glorious production design), a chattier version of the demons from Demoni, lots of running through corridors and a wasted Ron Perlman, shake, stir, add a bit of pus and gore and about two scenes that actually work as they are supposed to, and let cook until the plot becomes increasingly stupid but mildly entertaining in its wilful stupidity. One Jason Connery movie with extra cheese, coming right up.

Viva Riva! (2010): In a sense, the core of this Congolese gangster film is just as derivative as that of The Devil's Tomb, but transplanting the tropes of neo noir into the contemporary Congo produces changes in these tropes that shift one's perspective on them. This aspect of the movie is further improved by the fact that director Djo Tunda wa Munga just loves to give most of his characters hidden depths that are revealed in sometimes painful, sometimes enlightening ways and which keep most of the people on screen here away from just fulfilling their genre roles as written.

This isn't meant to say Viva Riva! doesn't work as a genre film. In fact, its slickly filmed mix of effective hyperrealism, a bit of the old ultra-violence and a sense of humour whose bitterness can become quite cutting with a twisty plot that actually works is pretty riveting. It's just nice to find these virtues paired with intelligence, playfulness, and the type of humanism that can't really believe in happy endings anymore.

The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians aka Tajemstvi hradu v Karpatech (1981 or 1983):

This film's director Oldrich Lipský is beloved by Czech language viewers for a series of more or less bizarre comedies that mix the corny with the grotesque and the surreal.

This example of Lipský's improbable art is based on one of Jules Verne's lesser novels, and uses this source material for a loving parody of adventure novel and gothic romance tropes that has just as much fun with its parodic elements as it has with showing off the grotesque inventions of its mad scientist (there's always a mad scientist). These inventions have a sort of proto-steampunk aesthetic, fusing the industrial with the weirdly aesthetic. Here - of course! - listening devices are shaped like ears and a scientist has replaced his hand with an excellent, brass-gleaming multi-tool.

If the film weren't told in the tone of a farce, it would actually be a macabre story about two men who can't cope with the death of a beloved woman and do immoral things to keep her with them in what has clear hints of necrophilia; as it stands, it's a very funny film that contains mad science, death, destruction and (in good Vernesian tradition) many a funny beard.


Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Eliminators (1986)

When mad mastermind Abbott Reeves (Roy Dotrice, whose British accent clearly denotes his evilness) doesn't need the pilot he turned into a memory-less cyborg he dubbed Mandroid (Patrick Reynolds) for his time travel experiments anymore, he tries to kill him. Fortunately for Mandroid, Reeves main scientist Takada (Tad Horino) has developed a conscience and helps the human garbage can escape, paying for it with his life.

Takada has given Mandroid (does it show how much I like writing "Mandroid"? Mandroid!) the name of a Colonel Hunter as his best bet for help taking Reeves down. Colonel Hunter turns out not to be a brilliant military lawyer but highly competent scientist Nora Hunter (Denise Crosby). Nora is shocked when she realizes that Reeves has used some of her inventions for EVIL. So off she, Mandroid and her little surely not R2D2-inspired scout robot that can turn into a ball of light go to Reeves base somewhere - and I quote - "in the wilds of Mexico" to kick evil mastermind ass.

They have to fight through evil lesbian river guides, a tribe of Neanderthals, Reeves's security force that isn't led by Richard Lynch but by a fat guy named Ray (Peter Schrum) who is fond of lumberjack shirts and a suspected escapee from a Burt Reynolds movie, and their own lack of a decent plan.

Fortunately, the duo also makes new friends in form of roguish river guide Harry Fontana (Andrew Prine channelling his inner Han Solo), and Takada's son Kuji (Conan Lee) who just happens to be a badass ninja. But will even the awesome power of cyborg, scientist, rogue and ninja combined be enough once Reeves - as part of his plan to go back in time to ancient Rome and become god king of the world - has turned himself into Cyber Cesar?

I know I'm beginning at least two thirds of my write-ups of Charles Band productions that don't feature dolls, puppets, or muppets with declarations of happiness regarding their absence, but you know what? Eliminators does not feature dolls, puppets or muppets, and I am pretty happy about it. Even better, Eliminators is that rare exploitation film that keeps the promises its marketing material makes, as it does in fact feature a team of a cyborg, a mercenary, a scientist and a ninja in an awesome attempt to try and milk (at least) four slightly different exploitation markets at once, just as its poster promises.

It's awe-inspiring to say the least. Of course, that sort of character mix can only lead to a movie full of classical comic book silliness (a fact the film even jokes about) with cartoonish humour, cartoonish characters, and a decidedly cartoonish plot. Naturally, if you go into a movie like Eliminators expecting anything else, the joke's on you right from the start.

I for my part was mostly surprised by how generous director Peter Manoogian provides all the semi-thrills his budget allows for, with quite a few not exactly riveting but enthusiastic fights (when your only vaguely talented on-screen fighter is Conan Lee, you have yourself a problem; let's not even start talking about him not being Japanese), equally enthusiastic action scenes, and a whole lot of moments of gratuitous strangeness. While the former two elements make for a pleasant enough watch, it's the last which truly brings Eliminators charms to the surface. This is, after all, a movie that shows Roy Dotrice donning a plastic version of the Iron Man armour without a helmet but with a red cape as part of his plan to go back in time and conquer Rome all on his own, and a film whose Mandroid is a) called "Mandroid" and b) in possession of an awkwardly awesome tank "mobility unit" (off go his legs and on goes the rest of him onto a mini-tank thing) that to describe properly goes beyond my abilities and that will turn out to be good for nothing but making him less mobile.

You can't argue with that (nor with a tribe of Neanderthals that has invented whooshing powder and bow and arrow), and really, why should you? Eliminators is a movie that enjoys its own cheapness but isn't lazy about including everything it can afford, leaving a boy like me with the pleasant impression of having watched a film made by people who may make horrible nonsense but who also care about making said nonsense as entertaining to their audience as they can.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Amok Train (1989)

aka Death Train

aka Beyond the Door III (and in no way other than being produced by Ovidio Assonitis connected to the first two films, of course)

A group of US college students (I think) makes a trip to a picturesque, muddy, creepy Yugoslavian village to witness "an authentic Slavic ritual for only $800", as their teacher (who for some reason - cough - isn't joining them) explains. Obviously special among the students in that she possesses some character traits is Beverly Putnic (Mary Kohnert) who has Serbian parents herself. Beverly is shy, virginal, frequently mocked by her travelling companions, and, as the film will soon enough disclose, marked by a birthmark on her belly as the chosen bride of Lucifer.

And wouldn't you know it, Professor Andromolek (Bo Svenson), the Yugoslavian teacher who made all that ritual watching possible is the chief Satanist, with said "Slavic ritual" actually being Beverly's marriage to his boss, Satan. With a sideshow of college kid slaughter, of course, because nothing could be more romantic.

The Professor and his muddy village full of Satanists aren't very good at their job, though, it seems, for their attempt to murder Beverly's friends in their sleep only leads to most of the gang escaping their evil clutches onto a train that is surprisingly enough not populated by Satanists.

Alas, that auspicious circumstance notwithstanding, the train is soon enough under the control of supernatural forces that first gorily get rid of the train personnel, then leave behind two thirds of the train, turn the rest of it into a havoc causing vehicle of transportation bureau confusing dimensions, and then begin to slowly kill off our protagonists in awesome and improbable ways. Will anyone be able to ruin Lucifer's wedding?

By 1989, Italian horror films like this weren't actually made anymore, for budgets and public interest in the genre had dropped disturbingly. Fortunately, there are outliers to every rule, which leads us to Amok Train. This is nominally an Italian/American/Yugoslavian co-production, but the spirit the film was made in clearly belongs to Italy. Apart from director Jeff Kwitny (whoever he is), all important roles in the production are filled by staff experienced in the ways of the Italian genre cinema industry, and it's all dubbed into the dubious and slightly loopy English we know and love from Italian productions.

But what makes Amok Train a movie worth gushing about isn't that it's a dream-like and wonderfully gory Italian horror movie made this late in the game, it's that it's one that does everything one could hope for so well. There's hardly a minute going by when nothing interesting, loopy or slightly crazy is happening with a scene in which our heroine has a vision of her dead mother, hairless and in white body paint and a goat between her legs (it's a metaphor, don't you know?), and the ickiest kiss scene - with a few worms, of course - I have seen in a long time as only two of the film's highpoints. Amok Train delights with toothless witches and a polite chief Satanist who dresses like Dracula, a monk who plays a flute that sounds like a synthesizer, an especially long-winded set-up for the strangest death by train I can remember seeing (watch out, that train's amphibian!), and more wonders than I can count.

I was also very impressed by finally having found a film that thinks of the simple solution to the problem of being the virgin Lucifer wants to marry - just have consensual sex with the ghost of a Saint from the 11th Century, and that rather picky Satanic gentleman will not want to have anything further to do with you, the hypocrite.

And all this are the glories Amok Train provides without me even having mentioned the half an hour or so when the gory horror movie grows a parallel plot right out of a disaster movie as if it were an evil twin, with very dramatic Yugoslavian officials trying desperately to hinder the train of evil from crashing head-on into a more standard train. I think even George Kennedy would have had trouble coping with an AMOK TRAIN that doesn't need rails, so it's probably better for man and myth neither he nor Chuckie Heston are in this wonderful piece of art. The film is overwhelmingly fantastic as it is already anyway.


Saturday, July 7, 2012

In short: The Squad (2011)

Original title: El páramo

Colombia. A squad of soldiers is supposed to secure the perimeter around a fog-shrouded mountain base of their own forces their HQ has lost contact with and wait outside the base until reinforcements arrive. After one of the men - following another of his colleagues who is racing up the mountain to enter the base against all orders - steps onto a mine that blows up his leg and the squad's radio, it becomes necessary for them to bring him into the base's infirmary or let him die.

Once at the base, the squad nor only finds the place empty, but also left in a state that suggests violence and something that's more off than just a guerrilla attack. One of the base's store rooms is filled with scrawled protection spells and has a bloody chicken foot hanging from the ceiling, suggesting madness or something worse. A little later, one of the men realizes that there's a freshly built wall in the store room. Walled in behind it is a tied up woman (Daniela Catz) who seems utterly crazy, which does not exactly come as a surprise given the circumstances. She soon escapes the not very tender mercies of the soldiers, leaving behind the corpse of their sadistic sergeant. After that, the already high tensions and unspoken troubles between the men begin to mount even further, and soon, they begin to crack in different ways, all of them slowly losing their minds just as the men who were at the base before them seem to have had.

It's interesting to realize there are by now enough movies about small groups of soldiers getting stranded in isolated areas with possible supernatural influences and being confronted with their own flaws and guilt to make up their own little sub-genre of generally psychologically complex, often capital-w Weird horror movies. Obviously, this type of horror movie is all too fitting for a time when the illusion of a good war fought by honourable men is something only right wing creeps still possess.

Jaime Osorio Marquez's Colombian variation (part of what looks like a minor horror wave from that country) on the form and the expected themes is a very fine film, putting heavy emphasis on a decrepit and doomed mood and characterisation that is more subtle than I at first expected. How supernatural the supernatural agency in this particular case actually is kept ambiguous until the bitter end; it's never completely clear if the soldiers are punishing themselves or if they have stepped under the influence of a punishing force; if the woman they find is a pitiable victim of men just like them, or something come to punish them, or just a shared hallucination.

Marquez keeps the reasons for the soldiers' guilt ambiguous for a long time too, and when it's time for him to reveal them, he's not going the long-winded flashback route and instead trusts his audience to understand things even if they aren't explained in excruciating detail. Not surprisingly, it's a decision that makes an already strong film even stronger and more emotionally resonant; the details of the soldiers' war crimes aren't - after all - important when it comes to showing us their guilt and their descent into open madness. The film seems to suggest that the protagonists were already "mad" when they did what now comes to haunt them, but that this hidden form of madness is really what is expected of soldiers; losing one's humanity is par for the course.


Friday, July 6, 2012

On WTF: Der Schwarze Abt (1963)

aka The Black Abbot

Apart from Alfred Vohrer and Harald Reinl, some other directors did work on Rialto's Edgar Wallace cycle too. One of my favourites among this number is Franz Josef Gottlieb, who directed six krimis in two years and did no direction work worth one's eyes before or since.

Der Schwarze Abt features KINSKI!, a particularly convoluted plot, and lots of shots of people looking through holes. My column on WTF-Film takes a peek at the movie.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

In short: The Quiller Memorandum (1966)

This semi-realist spy movie about secret agent Quiller (George Segal) trying to find a post-war Nazi base while the Nazis are trying to find the base of the British secret service at work in Berlin suffers from a bizarrely week script by dramatist Harold Pinter where the supposedly highly successful agent Quiller acts like an incompetent tool all of the time. Barely ten minutes into the movie, our supposed hero is falling deeply in love with a highly suspicious school teacher after having known her for about ten seconds (alright, she's played by late 60s Senta Berger, so there is something of an excuse for that).

Quiller walks through the film like a fool, never doing anything that makes him look like a professional, or at least like someone who vaguely knows what he's doing - his plan for finding the Nazis is after all to wander around, ask questions, look suspicious and permanently whine to his superiors for no reason the film ever makes its viewers privy to (usually it's a class thing in British cinema, but this is not a film fond of actually developing anything). Of course, if anyone in the film would not act like a total idiot (don't get me started on the Nazi plan to get Quiller to give them the information they want), Pinter's plot would break down at the first sign of competence.

The wasted actors (there are Alec Guinness playing a higher up in the British secret service hierarchy, and Max von Sydow as the Nazi boss) do their best with their pancake-flat roles, while director Michael Anderson manages to improve things with a lot of excellently moody shots of the non-tourist parts of Berlin. If you're able to not think about the script's basic lack of believability (I'm sure somebody is going to tell me Pinter meant the whole thing metaphorical and just ignored that he also needed to construct a world and characters an audience can believe in because that would have disturbed his precious metaphorical level), there are also some rather tense suspense scenes late in the film that would have been even more excellent if their basic set-ups (again) would not ask for ignoring a bit too much of their logical weakness.

These plot holes (I can't believe this film makes me of all people complain about plot holes) would not be much of a problem if the film itself wouldn't go for a semi-realist mood. Silly nonsense works well enough in a Eurospy film that wants to be pulpy fun and out-Bond Bondian silliness, but if you're going for a mood that's much less larger than life, you need to keep that mood consistently, something Anderson and Pinter fail to achieve.


Wednesday, July 4, 2012

In short: Driving Force (1989)

aka Roadwars

The Future. The US have hit an apocalyptic economical crisis, even further deepening the divide between the rich and the poor. Law enforcement is corrupt and unavailable if you aren't rich enough, and everyone hustles somehow to survive.

Well, at least gas is still cheap, or that's how I explain that former engineer Steve (Sam Jones) has finally found a new job as a tow truck driver to keep himself and his little daughter, sugary sweet Becky (Stephanie Mason), in bread. Sam's a basically decent chap, so it does not take long until his classical view of the tow trucking business comes into conflict with a trio of rogue tow truck drivers led by the psychopath Nelson (Don Swayze, Patrick's even less talented brother). Nelson and his crew are what happens when the no-good post-apocalyptic punks of other post-apocalypse films finally get a job: tow truck drivers who cause the accidents they survive on themselves and blackmail people into paying them. In the end, the streets won't be broad enough for Steve and Nelson's crew.

As if a trio of psycho punks weren't enough of a problem for our hero, he is also fighting a custody battle for Becky against her grandparents, who are rich and evil and will therefore get their dirty, manicured hands on Becky sooner or later.

Somehow, Steve still manages to romance good rich girl Harry (Catherine Bach) during all this, but their love story is as boring as it is trite.

By 1989, when the Filipino/US co-production Driving Force was shot, everything had already been done in the post-apocalyptic movie genre. Or nearly everything, as director Andrew Prowse and screenwriter Patrick Edgeworth must have decided in a moment of genius/madness. Really, who wouldn't want to see a movie about post-apocalyptic tow truck drivers? (As always, don't answer that, please).

As goofy as the film's basic idea sounds, as basically decent seems its early execution. This is one of those movies that are more inspired by the first Mad Max film, taking place in a post-apocalyptic world where the old social structures have not entirely broken down, but are deteriorating fast. Thanks to its world still being so (uncomfortably) close to the world as we know it, the movie gets by fine with a few shots of grubby back roads, run-down buildings and people in dirty clothes to set up a somewhat satisfying idea of what this particular post-apocalypse is all about. Even the evil tow truck brigade makes a certain degree of sense in a pulp fiction kind of way.

Unfortunately, Prowse doesn't seem to know what's actually good and entertaining about his film, and adds that stupid custody battle storyline and that unpleasantly cutesy kid to the whole she-bang. Whenever the custody plotline starts, the movie turns from a mild, yet entertaining exploitation movie into Lifetime Channel family movie fodder that drags the film's pacing and my patience down very quickly. I blame Over the Top. The added love story is not much better.

It's always too bad when a film so clearly neither knows what it wants nor where its strengths lie, but that's exactly the case with Driving Force. It's a film that permanently sabotages itself, and becomes unnecessarily boring over long stretches.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Der Mönch mit der Peitsche (1967)

aka The College Girl Murders (which seems to have been re-cut for those poor, slow Americans)

aka The Prussic Factor

A series of peculiar murders committed with a new-fangled poison gas that is either shot from bibles or contraptions that look - depending on your taste - like ray guns or like hair dryers shakes a girls' boarding school populated by girls who are fastly nearing their thirties in Edgar-Wallace-England.

What neither Scotland Yard's - now psychologically educated for a new running gag - Sir John (the inevitable Siegfried Schürenberg), nor poor, beleaguered gum-chewing Inspector Higgins (Joachim Fuchsberger) know - but may or may not find out - is that the murders are committed by prisoners who are carted in and out of their place of imprisonment as if an open door policy were in place.

Behind it all stands - or rather sits - a shadowy mastermind with an excellent villain lair full of colourful light, alligators, aquariums, snakes and blue cat statues. Apart from the prisoner of the day and an evil chauffeur, said mastermind also has the titular Monk with the Whip working for him, an impressive henchman dressed in a red monk's habit with a red Ku Klux Klan hood, wielding a white, movie-magically neck-breaking whip.

Higgins and Sir John of course have to deal with the usual gallery of suspects in form of various shady, perhaps even sleazy, teachers, a definitely sleazy writer (the always wooden Harry Riebauer), and the main suspect in any cosy piece of crime fiction, a deeply suspicious gardener (Claus Holm). At least, our heroes also have the assistance of girls' school good girl and prospective girl detective Ann Portland (Uschi Glas), who also makes an excellent kidnapping victim; we all know how important that trait is in a Wallace adaptation.

Will Higgins crack the case as long as there are still girls alive in the school?

Now this is the good stuff when it comes to Rialto's cycle of Edgar Wallace adaptations. As its title (which translates to "The Monk with the Whip") promises, Wallace main-stay Alfred Vohrer's Der Mönch mit der Peitsche delights with an eye-poppingly coloured pulp villain with an iconic dress sense working for an evil mastermind with an iconic lair sense (yes, the aquarium/zoo/light show combination is that delightful), doing pulp bad guy stuff that may not make all that much sense as an actual crime plot but is much more fun to watch than something that would make sense.

Vohrer, who sometimes tends to step over the line of winking self-irony a bit too long in these films, here finds the perfect balance between knowingly showing the silly elements (see the plot synopsis as well as a hundred things not mentioned there) of his film as silly half of the time, and just as knowingly accepting the silly as if it were the day-to-day for the rest of the time; it's pretty beautiful, in its own, peculiar way.

Visually, Vohrer has room to indulge in many of his obsessions: there's gothic, incredibly bright fog, colours often nearly as artificial as in a Bava movie (yes, it's that villain lair again), quite a few shots of eyes peeping through various holes (even after having seen the movie, I'm not always sure whose eyes are poking through these holes at all times, since everyone in a Vohrer movie is something of a voyeur - villains, Scotland Yard and would-be girl detectives alike), and camera angles that often point out their own artificiality. It's like a - somewhat provincial, we are still in German pretending to be the UK, after all - pop art dream of a pulp novel made film.

If there is something to criticize about Der Mönch then it is the film's surprising lack in actual action. Joachim Fuchsberger (who was pretty good at this sort of thing, actually) has not much opportunity for fisticuffs or even running around girls' school corridors. He's there to chew gum, crack the case after large parts of the cast are dead, and give the straight man to Schürenberg's - surprisingly funny - "I'm a psychologist now" shtick, but isn't involved in much action. Which is a bit of a strange thing for a film that feels as pulpy in every other respect as Der Mönch does.

However, the film's pacing and style never leave much breathing room to be disappointed in the lack of pulp-appropriate chases and brawls. If done right, and Der Mönch mit der Peitsche does it oh so right, it turns out, it's the mood and not the fist that makes a film part of pulp cinema.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

In short: Chichibu Demon (2011)

aka The Mountain Incident

Despite the incredible dangers of this type of project (as witnessed by a gazillion horror films that taught me that documentary filming is the only job more dangerous than babysitting), a daredevil quartet of Japanese moviemakers is producing a documentary about the copious paranormal phenomena and urban legends in the mountain area around the city of Chichibu.

After a few leads (among them the legend of a human-faced dog) that don't go anywhere a mysteriously disappearing man points the intrepid filmmakers towards a suspension bridge over Chichibu Lake. The bridge is a suicide hotspot, and also meant to be a place from where will-o-the-wisps are sighted that infect the observer with bad luck.

In fact, the filmmakers witness a man jumping off the bridge when they arrive for a nightly exploration. Bizarrely, the man seems to stare at a point up in the sky when he's jumping; even though he isn't telling it at once, the crew's assistant director sees strange lights in the direction the man is looking.

Later on, it will be revealed that he saw the same lights in the sky there while on a family picnic as a little child, and it might just be that this repeated contact with the supernatural is not too healthy for him.

After following various traces that produce hints regarding the lights' unhealthy influence on everyone who sees them, the surprising number of accidents in the area, and some stuff about Sumerian writing, the crew makes the genre-mandated doomed expedition into the woods where they will encounter further mysteries, get lost, and may or may not disappear.

Unfortunately, I have to present today's movie without any context. Chichibu Demon is so obscure that I can neither produce the name of its director, nor those of its actors. The IMDB says it's a direct to DVD affair, but since that's the only piece of information the site has on the film at the time of writing, it may just as well be a TV production. We can be reasonably sure about the film's low budget, at least. If somebody out here can tell me more about the film, please do so.

Anyhow, this air of mystery and vagueness fits the style of POV horror Chichibu Demon belongs to well enough, providing a certain frisson of possible authenticity for the credulous and the hopeful.

We are very much in the realm of the POV horror film by numbers (more in the style of Blair Witch Project than in that of Paranormal Activity, though) here, with all the possibility of Weirdness - I don't think I have to explain the obvious parallels between certain classic tales of the Weird and this sort of film - and all the vagueness that implies. At least, Chichibu Demon is well structured, mostly eschewing the meandering pace of many a POV horror film, instead providing its audience with about one new mysterious hook every ten minutes. Thanks to that, the film is pretty entertaining for most of its running time, unless the prospective viewer is too burned out on this type of movie.

Once or twice the combination of the rather spooky mood of Japan in November, the film's vague hints at a ab-natural horrors, and its obvious enthusiasm for the sort of urban legends Japanese culture seems to produce like German culture arrogant racist swipes towards Greece, even came together for me well enough to produce a mild shudder. That's more of an reaction than the first two Paranormal Activity movies got out of me, so I see no reason not to be thankful towards Chichibu Demon's mystery director.