Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Das siebente Opfer (1964)

aka The Racetrack Murders

Former judge Lord John Mant (Walter Rilla) is sweetening his retired life breeding racehorses. His star animal has the cute and innocent name of "Satan", and is the favourite for what I assume to be the National Derby coming up soon. But curious and threatening things happen around the horse: first, evil-doers throw a snake right into Satan's way, costing a stableman his life. Then, a trumpet player on one of Mant's parties who clearly knows something about the dastardly happenings is shot. Scotland Yard sends a certain Inspector Bradley (Heinz Engelmann) to take care of the matter, but the poor man soon has his hands fuller than anyone could have expected, for the series of murders is not only continuing, but the number of shady people doing dubious things in and around Mant's castle is remarkable.

There is Mant's enemy Ed Ranova (Wolfgang Lukschy), large-style bookie, owner of a club called "The Silver Whip" (alas, with no whips in its decoration and no musical number featuring whips or not), a man who once was nearly sentenced to death by the Lord, and who is now willing to do just about anything to hinder Satan from winning the derby, like for example paying off Satan's veterinarian Howard Trent (Harry Riebauer, as wooden as always) to sabotage the poor animal. The Lord's son Gerald (Helmut Lohner) is a rather dubious character too, with betting debts with Ranova and being a bit of a jerk two of his most problematic character traits. And why does that Reverend (Hans Nielsen) seem so much more interested in a valuable painting than in saving souls? Isn't that butler (Peter Vogel in a rather funny turn) a bit too two-fisted? If that's not enough to make an Inspector's life difficult, what about Avril Mant (Ann Smyrner), a poor relation living with the rich Mants? Isn't she a bit too good to be true? And what of the sudden, eccentric houseguest Peter Brooks (Hansjörg Felmy) who appears just after the first (of many) murders? Sure, Avril has "romantic female lead" stamped onto her forehead, as Brooks has "some sort of detective working under cover", but that still leaves a bunch of suspects with various complicated relations and quite a few different evil plans to unravel.

The excellent Bryan Edgar Wallace adaptation Das Siebente Opfer (which translates to "The 7th Victim", though in this case the English title "The Racetrack Murders" seems rather more fitting to what's actually going on in the film at hand) is another - as far as I can make out the last - of the krimis director Franz Josef Gottlieb made in 1963 and 1964 before he'd only ever make bad films and disappear into the bottomless quality pit that is German TV.

Even though Das Siebente Opfer contains most of the elements I know and love from most Wallace (no matter Edgar or Bryan Edgar) adaptations, the film often mixes them up in a pleasantly different way. To just take one example, there is the usual evil mastermind, but he/she is neither wearing a snazzy, thematically appropriate costume, nor is he/she a super villain; in fact, her/his motivation is so normal I have to admit it makes as much sense as anything in a Wallace krimi ever does. This is rather typical for a film that is a bit more of an actual murder mystery than most of its genre brethren - though, to my delight, a very pulpy one - with a whiff of Dick Francis. Here, rather normal murder methods and more improbable ones go hand in hand, and the forces of the law use the most unbelievable methods to reach their goal (like the old "oh, let's wait until most of the cast has been killed off before we decide on a suspect" trick), without that aspect of the movie breaking out into complete silliness.

Usually, I prefer the outright insane krimis to the more murder mystery styled ones, but Das Siebente Opfer is so sprightly directed and written by Gottlieb I just have to make an exception to the rule. The director really has wonderful sense of pacing, jumping through the (of course slightly awkward, this is still a German production) action scenes, the snarky dialogue sequences, and the - often surprisingly funny as well as surprisingly well-placed - humorous scenes, like an excited child who just can't wait to tell his audience what happened next; breathlessness has always stood a pulpy tale in good stead. Visually, Gottlieb goes for a rather dynamic style, with more camera movement and tighter editing than German movie law actually allows, all the better to provide a sense of excitement.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Fury of Hercules (1962)

Original title: La furia di Ercole

aka Fury of Samson

When Hercules (Brad Harris, as possibly the most likeable Hercules in any movie) arrives to visit a city state (whose name I found impossible to understand under the tape hiss and the English dubbing) ruled over by an old friend he hasn't seen in years, he finds things greatly changed.

The hero's friend is dead, and the city is now ruled by his daughter Cynidia (Mara Berni), who uses slave labour with such enthusiasm she looks evil for it even in ancient Greece to provide it with the best walls ever to grace a city. In truth, though, Cynidia isn't the true power in the city. The man behind the throne is the queen's counsellor Menistus (improbably played by Serge Gainsbourg, who doesn't do as much scenery chewing as I had expected of him), a man purely evil where Cynidia seems just misguided, waiting for the right manly man hero to come along and convince her of higher ethical standards. Menistus for his part is not satisfied with his role as grey eminence anymore and plans to have Cynidia killed. Unfortunately for him, his first assassination attempt - made by two assassins disguised as dancers disguised as statues no less - starts just when Hercules is visiting Cynidia.

Needless to say, Hercules drives the assassins away without breaking a sweat. Just as needless to say, Menistus doesn't like this disturbance of his plans, nor the fact that Cynidia nearly seems to have an orgasm whenever she just looks at Herc, and now plans to have the hero assassinated as well; which always works out well in Hercules movies.

Even worse for the bad guys is that the local hapless resistance movement as represented by Cynidia's servant Daria (Luisella Boni) soon makes contact with - and loving eyes at - Hercules to inform him of the true state of affairs in the city. Looks like our hero has his work cut out for him.

Gianfranco Parolini's Fury of Hercules is a strangely unloved peplum in large parts of the Internet, but, as is regularly the case, I have to disagree with public opinion. Sure, I generally prefer the more mythological (read: mad) peplums to the slightly more realist ones like Fury, but Parolini's film actually manages the feat of keeping a Hercules movie interesting without many scenes of people in monster suits or fights against adorable animals. Our hero may have a minor staring contest with a few elephants (spoiler: Herc wins), fight a lion (spoiler: Herc wins), and wrestle a guy in a fluffy ape suit (spoiler: Herc wins), these scenes, however, make up about five minutes of Fury's running time.

More often than not, this is a bad sign in a peplum about a mythological character, and signals total boredom in form of bad melodrama and a lot of tedium in the spaces between the few animal fights. And it is true, Fury has its share of melodrama, but much of it works in the context of the plot, and it's not the only thing the film has to offer. For most of Fury's running time is spent with many a scene of Hercules fighting through various human-sized dangers (so many of them spiky and pointy one can't help but think "penetration, Freud, oh my", or something of that kind), the bad guys doing bad things, and the plot actually moving forward with gusto for once in a peplum. Why, you could think the filmmakers cared about making this a rather exciting adventure movie.

Even better, Parolini seems to have worked under slightly more fortunate production circumstances than typical for this sort of thing. Fury was filmed in Yugoslavia (a part of it now belonging to Croatia), and makes excellent use of the opportunities landscape and buildings (I do at least assume part of the city in the film is a real place and not a set; if it's a set, it's a very convincing one) give him to make his film look more lavish. One also can't help but notice the surprising number of extras in the movie. I'm not talking DeMille numbers here, but it is not every peplum that can show several dozen attacking rebels on horseback at the same time. This slightly larger scale of everything (the interior sets - leftovers from a larger production, I would assume - follow suit) really helps to sell the film's story of oppression and rebellion, and make for a pretty exciting climax.

That climax is even more exciting because Parolini paces his film so well. Peplums in general tend to have rather sluggish pacing, yet Fury goes excitedly from one scene to the next as if the film just couldn't stop itself from showing its audience the next fun thing it has come up with.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

In short: The Ghost of Rashmon Hall (1957)

aka The Night Comes Too Soon

At a some sort of social gathering given by John (Alec Faversham) and Phyllis (Anne Howard), a certain George Clinton (alas not the Funkadelic mastermind, but played by Valentine Dyall) tells what he and his hosts call a true ghost story that happened right in the house everyone is gathered in right now.

As newlyweds John and Phyllis had trouble finding an appropriate home, or rather, any home at all for themselves. Finally, the couple seemed to be lucky when a reluctant country estate agent offered them big old Rashmon Hall (called by about three other names in the film, but hey, it might just be a British thing and not an inconsistency).

The man's reluctance became more understandable once the couple - who didn't wish for an old dark house but took what they could get - had moved into their new home. There was something that went bump in the night, and though the spooky manifestations that soon enough turned into actual ghosts weren't all that horrible they were more than enough to convince John to pack Phyllis off to a hotel (reason in a horror movie!) and call in Clinton for help.

Even though The Ghost of Rashmon Hall is based on the Victorian Era story "The Haunters and the Haunted" by Bulwer-Lytton (a writer who was neither as inept nor as uninteresting as certain circles pretend he was), it seems to me to stand more in the tradition of that school of the British ghost story that began with M.R. James and went on until the Second World War, after which stronger horrors were needed.

The Ghost is a rather strange production. It obviously suffers from a very low budget resulting in some awkward moments of corner cutting, and actors who - apart from Valentine Dyall who for his part was more of a popular voice of the deep, smooth and smug type than a popular actor - are clearly inexperienced and stiff; actually, I suspect some of the guests in the framing story were actually afraid of the camera. The film's shortness of only 49 minutes suggests a typical second feature, while the dark, scratchy and jumpy state (curiously with comparatively excellent sound, though) of the print available makes clear nobody connected with it found any interest or merit in the thing.

Which is a bit of a shame, for while much of the film is awkward (cutting to black to avoid repetition? Really?), there are also some quite interesting spooky moments on display. These moments look a bit as if they had been taken right out of a silent movie, with Dutch angles, deep shadows and simple effects work that must already have looked quaint in 1947 after Universal's classic films, Val Lewton's horror productions, the film noir cycle and others in the US had demonstrated how to take the achievements and techniques of the expressionist silent movies and make something all new out of them. In comparison, director Denis Kavanagh's work here looks not just outmoded but stunted because he seems just about able to copy the techniques of films made twenty to thirty years before but nothing more. Still, these scenes have a certain charm, and are at least made with a decent eye for copying; though I just might be a sucker for certain ways of blocking a scene.

The Ghost also has the dubious honour of being a pioneer of that most horrible element of horror filmmaking, the nonsensical twist ending of the "wouldn't it be awesome if…" type, logical consistency be damned. It's nice to be a pioneer of something, I suppose.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Three Films Make A Post: The Lashing Slashing Drama of the Hellions and the Town They Violated!

[Rec]3 Génesis (2012): I loved the first two [Rec] movies, but this one does everything wrong it can do wrong for me. Giving up on the first two films' POV gimmick turns the movie into just another zombie movie, with added generic horror comedy humour I really didn't ask for, and not a single good idea I haven't seen before in better movies. Worse, the other big selling point of the two earlier films, their peculiar religious zombie variant, here turns into the sort of babbling nonsense only the maddest of right wing "Christians" gibber before they attempt to burn somebody alive. There's also some nonsense about a freshly married couple "feeling each other" telepathically that is played completely straight and other stupid crap of the same type I find much too tiresome to get into.

Of course, I have endured worse things in films if they also had things to like about them; unfortunately [Rec]3 only has the dubious virtue of being professionally made, and therefore deserves the strength of my annoyance. At least the film - directed by Paco Plaza alone - answers the question which of the two directors of the first two films in the series was responsible for all that was good about them.

Hyenas (2011): Talking about crap, how about this thing about Costas Mandylor's epic fight against CGI were-hyenas, directed by Eric Weston, who, a long time ago, made one entertaining movie. This one often feels as if somebody had artificially grafted random scenes from two completely different scripts only connected by were-hyenas and their utter stupidity together, hired Costas Mandylor and Christa Campbell as the utmost in available star power, and then proceeded to film the actors' first run-throughs through said script(s). I'd love to find anything positive to say about this one, but what can you say about a horror film that is so ashamed of itself it even digitizes nipples away in its brief seconds of female nudity?

Die Seltsame Gräfin aka The Strange Countess (1961): One early and pretty minor entry in Rialto's Edgar Wallace cycle, directed by veteran director Josef von Báky with an assist by Jürgen Roland. It's much less pulpy as well as less pop than most of the other Wallace films and instead spends its time being a somewhat bland, very convoluted mystery movie that could have been made in the 40s (well, not in Germany, of course). At least, there's some fine "I'M MAD! I'M MAD!" acting by saintly Klaus Kinski, an expectedly decent hero turn by Joachim Fuchsberger and the shock of Eddi Arent playing neither a butler nor a photographer. Compared to today's other two movies, though, it's just golden.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

In short: Airborne (2012)

Flight control boss Malcolm (Mark Hamill) is just beginning the last shift before his retirement, and we all know what this means in a film so clichéd the first three sentences we hear in it are of the "sometimes bad things happen to good people" type: it'll at least be the worst shift ever.

And here things begin so well for him, with bad weather reducing the whole night's flight plan to a single flight. Alas, that flight is transporting trouble in form of an ancient Chinese vase containing a god of death, various violent psychopaths, a fake-out terrorist, and more stupidity than anybody could have thought possible. On land, Mal will soon enough make the acquaintance of two particularly badly acted SIS agents, and later suffer under the worst cover-up attempt ever (I have the suspicion letting the whole night shift of a flight control centre disappear might not work, dear THEY).

Oh dear, this is really not very good. I do appreciate the puppy-like excitement with which Airborne attempts to squeeze every movie cliché you might possibly conceive of into one airplane and a flight control station, but it becomes clear very fast that the film is categorically averse to doing anything of interest with its clichés. This is the kind of film were even the twists on a clichéd situation themselves are again clichés, possibly in the hope that all the been there, done that, bought no t-shirt gubbins will cancel each other out or perhaps that it'll reach a critical mass which will create a clichésplosion that'll awaken the Great Old Ones. Obviously, said twists are also so numerous and obvious I could not help but groan in annoyance when encountering them.

If you're now hoping to hear something positive to make up for the pain, I'll have to disappoint you; there's just nothing here beyond an incessant barrage of clichés without a sense of fun or one of irony. And even though Airborne is plenty dumb, it's never dumb enough to be funny.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Stranglers of Bombay (1959)

Indian during the times of the East India Company. Large numbers of people are disappearing every year without a trace, but since these people are Indians and of no commercial interest, the authorities, such as they are, don't care about them. At least, most of them don't. The rather decent colonialist Captain Harry Lewis (Guy Rolfe), not a man willing to just dismiss tragedies like the disappearance of the family of his servant Ram Das (Tutte Lemkow) years ago, has been assembling data regarding the disappearances for years, but - also thanks to the complete disinterest of his superiors in the matter - has only come to the rather vague suspicion that a cult could be responsible for the disappearances.

Unlike Lewis, the audience knows right from the title screen that the disappearances are murders, or rather ritual sacrifices, committed by the Thuggee cult of Kali, an influential and secret group that counts among its members the former regional ruler (Marne Maitland), as well as the potter from around the corner. Too bad nobody gives a toss.

However, once whole caravans of trade goods begin to disappear, and the British traders become rather angry, Lewis's boss Colonel Henderson (Andrew Cruickshank) starts to take an interest in the matter. Lewis hopes that Henderson will charge him with the necessary investigation, but is sorely disappointed when the freshly arrived upper class twat Captain Connaught-Smith (Allan Cuthbertson) gets the job based on his superior qualifications - that is, having gone to the right school and being the son of an old friend of Henderson's.

Even when Lewis by chance finally acquires some evidence that could actually get the investigation somewhere, Connaught-Smith dismisses it and him out of sheer classist bull-headedness. At this point, however, the case has become so personal for Lewis he decides to rather step down from his position in the East India Company immediately and make his inquiries as a private citizen than to cope with this bullshit any longer while people around him are dying.

Even though Terence Fisher's The Stranglers of Bombay will never win the coveted award of "Denis's favourite Hammer non-horror movie" it still is a very entertaining, often tight and exciting, film from a studio and a director pretty much incapable of making anything boring. In this particular case, lurid pulp adventure fantasy - the existence of an actual thuggee cult of the size and type parts of the colonial authorities bragged about destroying being rather dubious -, researched historical fact (this is the curious case of an historical adventure movie with an actual historical consultant in the credits), and thriller and horror elements make for a rather interesting mix and enable Fisher to stage the always loved "native rituals", some rather low-key action, as well as giving him the opportunity to include moments that would not be out of place in a straight horror movie. Of the latter, there's especially a scene of surprisingly explicit revenge eye-gouging that would have found a place of honour in any of Hammer's or Corman's pieces of Gothic horror.

Hammer's historical adventures are often a bit more thoughtful than they strictly needed to be, and Stranglers is no exception. At least, it's not the expected thing for a film made in 1959 to suggest that the East India Company's politics in India were morally dubious, and at best consisted of ignoring all problems of the areas they supposedly governed as long as their money flow wasn't hindered. It's even more unexpected to see this sort of critique uttered this clearly. This being a Hammer film, the evils of colonialism are also connected to the ineffectuality and plain badness of the upper classes; I'm a bit disappointed the script didn't also put a cowardly vicar in.

Of course, despite its at least in part quite progressive politics, The Stranglers is also still a film where all Indian roles are played by white people in brownface, where the only mixed race character is a cult member, and where the "Indians" who aren't evil may be treated with a certain degree of respect - they are generally persons with actual motivations - but are still treated as persons below the British characters by the film. Still, for a film made in 1959, especially an adventure movie made for an audience that probably couldn't care less about these things, The Stranglers is admirably willing to be complicated.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Night of the Sorcerers (1973)

Original title: La noche de los brujos

Post-colonial Africa, probably Kenya. A very small expedition is making its way through the countryside to do something ecologically important discerning the reasons for the dying out of the local animal population. The group consists of Professor Grant (the inevitable Jack Taylor), his younger colleague Rod Carter (Simón Andres) who will later turn out to be the kind of guy you really don't want to have on guard duty, Liz (Maria Kosty), the bitchy and whiny daughter of the rich man financing the whole business, Carol (Loreta Tovar), who is frequently nude, and Tunika (Kali Hansa), even more frequently nude and Rod's girlfriend. There's some jealousy plot or between everyone and their mothers, but it's never going anywhere.
When our heroes (cough) camp at their first point of interest, a trader in furs (living in exile?) named Tomunga (José Thelman) attempts to warn them off, for the area is supposed to be cursed by the ghosts of a dozen sorcerers once (as seen in the movie's first scene) killed by the colonial powers during a sacrificial ceremony meant to create a were-leopard. Supposedly, the sorcerers rise from their graves every night to do Very Bad Things™ to whoever they come in contact with - preferably white women they like to turn into wereleopards too.
The merry gang waves Tomunga's warning off, and - what do you know? - soon are one after the other killed or wereleopardized. Will anyone survive? Do I look like I care?
I harbour a deep and abiding love for Spanish director Amando de Ossorio's first and fourth Blind Dead film, and am therefore always willing to give his other movies a chance. Unfortunately Night of the Sorcerers is much closer to the much-hated third of said Blind Dead films, mixing a bit of the old ultra violence, stupid plotting, and huge amounts of sleaze into a concoction that's often pretty boring. I'd say surprisingly boring, but then I have been bored by a lot of things that sound exciting in movies.
As frequent readers of this blog will probably understand by now, I have hardly any moral qualms about violence and sleazy nudity in my films, so it's not that its mind is in the gutter that bothers me about Night of the Sorcerers. In fact, de Ossorio's desperate attempts to shoehorn nudity into the least fitting situations (personal favourite: a completely pointless "character moment" taking place with one of the female characters discussing her emotional life while sponging herself off) is one of the film's more sympathetic features. It's just too bad that all that sleaze stops the rest of the film dead in its tracks and really does a good job at hindering any attempt at mood building that could turn this into an atmospheric horror movie too.
It's not as if the film did not have other problems: there's the sluggish pacing, characters who only ever act like idiots, a male hero who is responsible for people's death by skipping his guard duty for a long sex scene with his girlfriend not once but twice, and the little innocent fact that an actual plot only makes an appearance in the film's last thirty minutes or so. Before that, it's all women undressing, a bit of murder, and people doing and saying nothing of consequence.
Ossorio also attempts to use some of the stylistic tricks that worked so well for him in the first Blind Dead movie made the year before, but never manages to get the all-important details right that would let the film work on that rewarding non-naturalistic level. In fact, I don't think de Ossorio actually realized why the respective tricks did work in his earlier movie. Just take the use of slow-motion: where the blind dead in their decrepit state are made more threatening and unreal by being filmed in slow motion so often, the skimpy fur bikini leopard women are only ever made more ridiculous (and the acting surely doesn't help) and less threatening.
Where the earlier film oozes a strange and dream-like quality all of its own, Night only ever works as more than a mild piece of softcore sleaze in a handful of scenes during its final thirty minutes: there, Ossorio seems to find his lost horror filmmaker again. Suddenly, the director shows the return of a murdered character as a zombie in a red-lit scene (again very reminiscent of another scene from the first Blind Dead film) that is actually as dream-like and frightening as its content deserves, treats the abduction of another (sleeping-pill addled) character by a leopard woman as a moment right out of a fairy tale or dream, and - in an imaginary moment that for once positively reminds of the strange rules the Blind Dead have to follow - explains why the leopard woman all wear little green collars round there throats.
These few scenes aren't exactly enough to turn Night of the Sorcerers around - there's still a very dumb climax standing in the way, and too much boredom before - they do however make the film worthwhile beyond the ogling of pretty women and Jack Taylor (if he floats your boat), and demonstrate how strong a director of the fairy tale-like and strange type of horror de Ossorio could be when he applied his talents to it.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

In short: Enter Nowhere (2011)

One by one, three people strand in a cabin in the deep dark woods. First there's Tom (Scott Eastwood), a young man with no discernible character traits. Then comes Samantha (Katherine Waterston), newly pregnant and rather timid and proper. Finally, Jody (Sara Paxton) arrives. Jody's rather cynical and rude, and, as we know thanks to the film's beginning, has shot a man in a botched gas station robbery with her boyfriend.

The trio is trapped in the middle of nowhere with freezing temperatures at night that would make an escape very difficult, and really no good idea how to get back to civilization. But something's not right about their situation anyhow - whenever they try to leave, even taking the straightest line through the woods leads them back to the cabin, as if something just didn't want them to leave there. Once they get to know each other the three realize other peculiarities about themselves and their situation I won't spoil here. Just let it be said that they have something in common and will possibly have to do a life-changing deed.

Jack Heller's SF-in-the-Twilight-Zone-sense-of-the-term movie Enter Nowhere comes as a pleasant surprise to me, seeing as this specific format seldom seems to work well for full-length movies. It's also a film I find difficult to talk about without spoiling some of its - well-placed and well-paced - plot twists; which would be alright if what I had to say were of especially deep insight or important to warn other potential viewers about.

It's not even as if these plot twists were all that surprising. In fact, I called much of what was going on in the movie about thirty minutes in. However, I called it because the film is playing fair with the information it gives its audience and its characters, and not because it's badly constructed. Heller also manages to let the characters take much more time to get to the core of what's happening to them than the audience needs without letting the characters feel slow or dumb. Unlike us, the characters don't know they are in a movie of the fantastic persuasion, and one doesn't generally expect the weird to hit one quite as heavily in daily life.

My only real problem with Enter Nowhere is with its ending, which I found a bit too pat for my tastes, with a warm and fuzzy solution to the characters' problems that just seems a little too nice, as if it weren't enough for the film to fix the characters' very fucked up lives, but just had to turn them perfect instead of good. I'm sure it's meant to leave the audience with the warm feeling of things having been put right, but I would have preferred an ending that leaves the characters on a less Frank Capra level of happiness.

Fortunately, the way to that ending is paved with a solid script, tight direction of the subtly effective type, and solid acting performances, so there's no possibility of it ruining Enter Nowhere.

Friday, August 17, 2012

On WTF: Agon (1964)

As any fool knows, Japanese giant monsters are the best, so it's of utmost historical importance when fansubbers dive into the depths of the archives to dig out things like Fuji TV's Agon, one of the more brazen and direct attempts to rip off Godzilla for a TV format.

This week's column on WTF-Film will tell you how that attempt turned out for everyone involved.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Three Films Make A Post: MONSTER MACHINE VS. HELPLESS BEAUTY!

Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (1956): Despite its climax in a pretty awesome battle for and semi-destruction of Washington (effects by the glorious Ray Harryhausen, of course), and its status as a demi-classic I've never been that fond of Fred F. "The Giant Claw will forever overshadow all those decent movies I made" Sears's Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. I think it's actually some of the film's virtues that drag its entertainment value down for me. The comparative lack of nonsense science (apart from a bit of "that's not how time works, guys!"), the avoidance of the usual horrifying romance by letting hero Hugh Marlowe and heroine Joan Taylor already be married, and other elements like them do look good on paper but the film doesn't offer much that's interesting or entertaining in their stead before it's time to destroy Washington DC. Sure, there's the usual "the aliens are communists" subtext, but that's neither interesting nor commendable - and worked better in much crazier films.

The Haunted Sea (1997): The only remarkable things about this decidedly boring horror movie are a) the curious fact it needed two directors b) its idea that cursed Aztec gold can turn a man into a were-snakeosaurus c) the clear enthusiasm with which its early scenes look for pretences for Krista Allen to take her shirt off, and d) the appearances of James Brolin and Joanna Pacula who are slumming even below their usual slumming standards. The rest is an especially uninteresting case of corridor horror that can't even be saved from the tedium and stupidity of its plot by those scenes of Krista Allen taking her shirt off.

The Haunter of the Dark (2011): One of the most pleasant aspects of keeping track of Lovecraft fandom is that one will again and again stumble upon decidedly awe-inspiring pieces of fan-driven art like this computer animated short movie adaptation of Lovecraft's final story (freely available to watch here). There's so much obvious love and passion oozing out of every minute of the film it seems somewhat churlish to criticize it for anything; helpfully, there really isn't much about the short to criticize. The animation gets a bit rough from time to time, and not every voice actor is doing quite as good a job as Richard Grove does as Robert Blake, but that's the sort of minor complaint a film like this transcends by doing so much right.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

In short: King's Game (2011)

Original title: Ousama gemu

A Japanese high school class is suddenly drawn into a peculiar, supernatural game. Someone or something calling himself The King (no Elvis impersonation implied), is sending everybody in class emails containing tasks one or two of the kids are supposed to fulfil, lest a punishment will be issued. At first the tasks are silly school kids stuff the class finds fun enough to do, but after a short warm-up phase, they begin to take on a nasty edge that is clearly meant to drive the kids apart. So it doesn't take long until the first of them do not want to play anymore, and do not fulfil their tasks.

As a punishment, the perpetrators are erased from existence, with all their physical belongings and all memories of them people outside the class had disappearing; only their classmates remember them.

The kids attempt to find loopholes in the King's orders, but generally only make the situation worse whatever they try. Attempts at finding out the identity of the King (who may or may not be part of the class) are made, but will anything come from them before the class has turned into the smallest one in Japan?

I was just praising director Norio Tsuruta's newest movie POV a few weeks ago, so I was pretty optimistic going into King's Game (by the way a movie that is, like all Japanese movies and anime of the last few years, based on a light novel; and no, I still haven't heard of heavy novel adaptations). The film's basic set-up sure carries promise too. While it does have the overt artificiality of all that rules-based fiction contemporary Japanese pop culture has been obsessed with for about a decade now, it also seems a good fit to explore the dark sides of the inner lives of high school kids, and the pains of growing up in a dramatic manner.

Unfortunately, King's Game's script rarely uses the opportunity to dig deep into the depths of its characters' psyches, and instead opts for stock character types (would you believe the intellectuals are wearing glasses and the preppie queen a tiara?) that never stray even a millimetre from the expected actions and reactions. This not only heavily impacts the film's emotional weight (as in, it has none), but also just makes the mystery at its core much less exciting. Why, after all, should an audience care about stock characters that never do anything to surprise? On the other hand, the acting quality is at a level that makes it doubtful the young actors would actually have been able to do anything deeper than the film asks of them; most of them are already quite stretching their abilities with stock characters and stock emotions.

Tsuruta's direction here is not strong enough to make up for the failures of his script. The film is well enough paced to never become boring, but there's little visual imagination or conscious mood-building on display, which comes as quite a surprise from a director whose POV showed many of these traits on an equally low budget and in an even more codified sub-genre.

As it stands, King's Game is an okay enough way to while away eighty minutes (I'm pretty thankful for it not being any longer), but it's also deeply disappointing when one thinks about the possibilities inherent in the material.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Corridor (2010)

Tyler (Stephen Chambers) has just been released from a mental institution where he was treated after a violent paranoid episode following the suicide of his mother.

His best friends - Everett (James Gilbert), Chris (David Patrick Fleming), Bob (Matthew Amyotte) and Jim (Glen Matthews) - are going to spend his first weekend in freedom together with him in his family's cabin in the woods. There, cracked trusts are supposed to be mended and the ashes of Tyler's mother released into the wilderness.

But when Tyler goes out into the snowy woods alone to release the ashes, he encounters a strange phenomenon he at first believes to be a hallucination. There is something milky and peculiar floating in the air that seems to build some kind of (see-through, walk-through) walls of what may be a room but soon enough grows into something akin to a corridor; Tyler also sees his dead mother.

Fearing a return of his illness, Tyler is showing his friends what he has discovered. To his own surprise, they also see the phenomenon. However, exposing yourself to whatever it is the men are exposing themselves to inside the corridor might not be the best idea, for while the corridor may open the doors of perception to them more authentically than any acid trip, it also fastly increases everything that keeps them apart, and drives them violently insane. Ironically, only Tyler - thanks to the wonders of psychopharmacology - is somewhat resistant to what is happening to the men. But will he know how to close the door he helped open again?

Evan Kelly's Canadian horror film The Corridor is another of those independent productions made in the the last few years that mix the sensibilities of non-genre indie filmmaking with lovely elements of the capital-w Weird. I can't help but imagine these movies to be the children of Larry Fessenden, even if they don't necessarily are made under the umbrella of that man's production company Glass Eye Pix.

As much as I do like a bit of gore and senseless violence from time to time, I'm glad there's an actual throughline of indie films not mainly involved with zombies, slashers and torture (well, and strippers, obviously).

As I already said, The Corridor is heavily inspired by the Weird literary story of the supernatural, and will as such probably be even less a film for everyone as other movies are (yeah, I know, saying a film's "not for everyone" is a truism, but sometimes it still needs to be said). It's somewhat cryptic - though not so cryptic I'd agree with the reviewers who call it "impregnable" or something of that kind -, slow-moving and really not willing to stop and exposit and explain to viewers who can't keep up with its ideas; though I'd posit that it's more unwillingness to engage with the film on its own level than any actual flaw of the film that could stop anyone from understanding it.

At its core, this is a film that uses the ab-natural (Hodgson's term sometimes just works better than the old "supernatural", I think) to explore the rifts, the small and the big lies that unite and divide a group of friends, and to try and find a metaphor for the complexities of guilt. However, as with any good tale of this sort, The Corridor's strange phenomena are never just metaphors, but always keep a layer of the truly inexplicable and mysterious, so that the film never turns into the movie equivalent of an algebra problem.

I'm not quite as convinced by the film's dramatic resolution as I am by the rest of it. It's not so much the conception - for the resolution we get makes as complete sense as these things ever are supposed to make - as it is the execution that puts me off a little. Not in a concrete way where I could point at a particular part of the resolution and say "this doesn't work", but on a very vague and emotional level that is generally unhelpful when one is trying to write up a movie. The ending just doesn't feel quite right.

However, having an ending that feels "not quite right" as only point of criticism surely isn't a big problem for a feature debut by a young director working in a field that is - see also, Sturgeon's Law - full of crap, and I can still recommend The Corridor to anyone who hasn't been turned off by this rather evasive write-up.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Krabat: The Sorcerer's Apprentice (1978)

Original title: Carodejuv ucen

Lusatia in the late 17th or early 18th Century. Krabat is an orphan, roaming the countryside, getting by rather badly. One day around Christmas time, talking ravens lure Krabat to the Black River Mill. The mill's one-eyed master - who just happens to speak with the same voice as the one-eyed leader of the ravens - takes the boy into his service as an apprentice. The master keeps Krabat and his eleven other apprentices as virtual prisoners.

That might be because, as Krabat soon enough learns, the master is not really teaching his apprentices how to be millers, but how to work black magic, especially how to transform into animals. Once a year, the master challenges the best of his apprentices to a duel, for there can only be one master in the mill. The duel's conclusion, however, is always foregone because the master keeps his grimoire and with it the greatest magical powers to himself, giving the whole affair the air of a particularly cruel ritual. Attempts to escape are always thwarted by the master's superior magical powers and punished with imaginative cruelty.

One day around Holy Saturday, when the apprentices are allowed to leave the mill to spend a night at a place where someone died a violent death, Krabat sees and falls in love with a beautiful singing girl. This love will change the course of Krabat's fate, for love may turn out to be stronger than the forces of magic.

Krabat is based on the book by German Otfried Preußler, who is still a widely read author of the sort of children's books that give a certain type of conservative conniptions, what with them often including elements of the fantastic and not always painting witches, nor sorcerers in the worst light, and actually acknowledging the less pleasant sides of life. I'd not be surprised if the early contact with Preußler's often folkloristically inspired books - Krabat's story is based on a very specific folk tale - were in part responsible for my taste for the macabre and the weird in literature. But I digress.

This Czech (with some financial help from German TV) animated version of Preußler's tale was directed by the great Karel Zeman, an animation pioneer and owner of a wholly personal style of filmmaking whose earlier works - among it some breathtaking adaptations/homages to Jules Verne and a singular version of the Baron Münchhausen tales - often mixed real-life actors and his splendid cutout animation technique.

Krabat does not include live action elements (well, except some water and smoke), but has the look and feel of old woodcuts come to life, with the shadow of one of Zeman's great artistic idols, Gustav Doré, not far. This form is ideal for a story that is in turns simple, naive (though there is still the same fable about the lures and horrors of power and how to escape them at its core as in Preußler's book) and optimistic, as well as gruesome and macabre in some of the things it shows, and even more so in those things it implies, because it makes it easy for Zeman to change Krabat's mood at a moment's notice. Moments of quiet charm and peace, moments of pure imagination and moments of the grotesque are transitioning into each other, suggesting that the film shares the world view of the folktale its based on twice removed; things horrifying and things evil are as much parts of the human experience as are love and laughter, though the latter just may be what makes us human more than the former.

One particular accomplishment of Zeman's film (and something Zeman always was particularly good at) is how it manages to filter the director's own imagination through the lens of a rural late 17th century worldview without ever making the impression of one part of the film's philosophy overwhelming the other; it's all Zeman, yet it's also all Krabat.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

In short: Damnation Alley (1977)

It's the end of the world (again). After World War III (don't worry, Americans, the evil commies have shot first) has left most of the planet a radioactive (don't worry about that either, it's the kind of radioactivity that does not touch movie protagonists at all) wasteland, tilted the Earth's axis, and changed the surviving fauna in new and exciting ways.

After a porn-induced accident (seriously) has destroyed most of their base and killed all but four men (two of them the drop-outs of the facility), the survivors decide to pack their bags, throw them into an awesome ATV, and make their way to Albany in the hope of finding the source of some taped radio messages. Soon enough, the four are three, namely Major Denton (George Peppard), the kind of military hard-ass that doesn't even leave the service after the third World War, Tanner (Jan-Michael Vincent), who is some kind of rebel (but don't worry, not the kind of rebel who actually rebels), and Keegan (Paul Winfield), who is a) much too good for his role, and b) as the mandatory black character not long for this world. On their tour across the continent, the boring trio has to cope with all the vagaries of post-apocalyptic life like really bad weather, big damn scorpions, irradiated hillbillies and killer cockroaches (I repeat: killer cockroaches); but at least they also pick up a French woman named Janice (Dominique Sanda) and later on a stone-throwing teenager (Jackie Earle Haley quite some time before this city was afraid of him).

Director without a personality Jack Smight's Damnation Alley is based on one of the least loved books of US SF/F writer Roger Zelazny, and generally does not have much of a reputation either.

However, Damnation Alley is a film that can be quite a fun time when watched by a viewer with adequately adjusted expectations. If you go into the film expecting even halfway poignant scene of post-apocalyptic distress, or interest in the causes of all the destruction beyond thirty seconds of vague yet dignified sloganeering by Paul Winfield, or even just some character development and dramatic escalation, you will be sorely disappointed, for this is a film where even the death of a man's best friend isn't worth an emotional scene.

If, on the other hand, you are in for a one-damn-thing-after-the-other tale about people in a silly yet awesome ATV having stupid yet entertaining adventures while saying stuff like "Tanner, this is Denton! This whole town is infested with killer cockroaches! I repeat: killer cockroaches!", you might have stumbled upon a new favourite movie.

Beyond many moments of earnest silliness - which is always the best sort of silliness - the film also features a some excellent post-psychedelic skies and a use of colour-filters to intensify colours until the film's world really looks as strange and changed as it is supposed to be and which looks nearly hypnotic to eyes used to the desaturated look of all contemporary movies. Why, I might even say the sky and weather effects are the film's biggest selling point - even better than the irradiated hillbillies. Well, I would say that if not for Jerry Goldsmith's fantastic score that mixes typical Goldsmith-isms with bits of classic Hollywood scoring and weird noises that fit the films skies much better than its rather standard post-apocalyptic adventure plot does.

On WTF: Hundra (1983)

As we all know, John Milius's Conan had quite a few unexpected consequences, many of them rather painful to watch. However, as nobody expects the Spanish inquisition, nobody could have expected Hundra, a surprisingly fun semi-feminist exploitation sword and sorcery movie that has its way with certain sword and sorcery traditions.

So this week, my column on WTF-Film contains womanly belly-laughs, unpleasant sex stuff, weird sex stuff and lots of kicks in various balls.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

In short: Moonfleet (1955)

During his time in Hollywood, especially his final years there, when his energy for fights with producers as well as the studio system were on the vane, the great director Fritz Lang took on some rather unexpected projects.

Case in point is Moonfleet, a film that may include all most elements fit for a swashbuckling adventure movie, but is filmed as a gothic melodrama, with all the darkly lit sets, gloomy weather, dark double lives and even darker pasts that genre necessitates. All these elements are of course the sort of thing Lang felt especially at home with, as evidenced by many a silent movie thriller, western and film noir.

So, unsurprisingly, as long as Moonfleet tells the story of charming rogue and smuggling ring leader Stewart Granger being reminded of his better nature by the trust of a child (Jon Whiteley), getting in trouble with the law (that has been hounding him for quite some time) and stumbling onto the trace of a hidden diamond supposedly protected by a ghost, via a mood of slight dread and as the story of people living under the shadow of their pasts, Moonfleet may not be a masterpiece but a quite effective, if somewhat slow-paced, part of the gothic adventure genre, with the expected flashes of visual genius. Ironically, the film becomes at its least exciting (and interesting) whenever it actually turns into a swashbuckling movie.

Lang seems to have neither interest in, nor real talent for, the scenes of fencing and daring tricks Moonfleet's script from time to time asks of him to realize, so whenever his film takes on the outward signs of things that should be straightforwardly exciting, it becomes rather drab, never even making much use of Stewart Granger's talent for and experience at exactly that sort of thing. It's not a catastrophe, though, for the script (at least as it shows on screen) does not put too much emphasis on these aspects, preferring the gothic as much to the swashbuckling as Lang seems to do.

One of the positive surprises of the film is how comparatively unsentimental it treats Granger's change by contact with little John Mohune, even - very Lang and very un-Hollywood, that - more than just suggesting it's not the boy's innocence that wins the smuggling dandy over, but more the shared past with the boy's mother (this being a Hollywood film from 1955, there's no hint at the boy possibly being Granger's son, even though it would fit the film's backstory quite well), and mere chance.

As a whole, Moonfleet is a film I find easier to respect than to love. I absolutely adore Lang's visual treatment of the gothic, and do appreciate the film's slightly cynical undertone but I find the treatment of human emotions here a little too abstracted to completely convince me; I never can shake the feeling Lang sees human psychology as a much more mechanical thing then is helpful to create breathing characters. Admittedly, that's a problem I have quite often with the man's films, so this might not be so much a failing of Moonfleet, but a philosophical difference between Lang and me.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

In short: 20 Million Miles To Earth (1957)

A US rocket that has secretly visited Venus crashes down in the ocean near a small fishing village in Sicily. Courageous fishermen manage to rescue two members of the ship's crew from their sinking rocket - a scientist who will die soon enough of the after-effects of some peculiar quality of Venus's atmosphere, and the square-jawed Colonel Calder (William Hopper). Also on board was a container carrying the egg of one of the native reptile monkeys of Venus. Said container is washed ashore and found by fisher boy Pepe (Bart Braverman). Pepe sells the egg off to a zoologist (Frank Puglia) who is visiting the area, to be able to buy himself a nice cowboy hat. The scientist, Dr. Leonardo (Frank Puglia), is quite excited to have found a specimen that is unknown to science. He'll be getting even more excited when the reptile monkey hatches and grows with ridiculous speed.

While Leonardo is dreaming of the Nobel Price for zoology, Calder and the most diplomatic general ever encountered in a 50s monster movie (Thomas Browne Henry) start looking for their lost specimen. Alas, once they've gotten on the trail of Leonardo, the ever-growing reptile monkey has already escaped and is politely terrorizing the Italian countryside. And even after our heroes manage to recapture the poor thing with his greatest enemy - electricity - there might be another opportunity for it to grow, wrestle an elephant, and destroy the Coliseum later on.

If there's one thing typical of the films the great Ray Harryhausen made his stop motion effects for during the 50s, then it's the fact they aren't all that deserving of the quality effects Harryhausen could provide. For my tastes, 20 Million Miles To Earth is the point where this particular problem of Harryhausen's career stops.

While the film is of course decidedly silly in theory and practice, its director Nathan Juran (veteran of many a film - and soon TV show - containing large monsters) does manage some rather impressive feats. First and foremost, he keeps the film moving at a rather sprightly pace pretty atypical of 50s monster movies which all too often preferred scenes of square-jawed people talking mock science nonsense to scenes of Harryhausen monsters doing their thing; one suspects Juran to have had a clear idea of who was the actual star of the picture (hint: it's not square-jawed), and who was only there to support that star (hint: he's quite square-jawed).

20 Million Miles still contains a lot of the elements that can make 50s monster movies from the US a bit annoying, but most of them are reduced to a minimum: the snarly-voiced off-line narrator shuts up after the film's credits; library footage isn't used to lengthen the film's running time but only to enhance some of its action; the mandatory sickening "romance" is kept to the side-lines as much as possible (plus, the film contains that most rare of scenes in a 50s movie: the jerky hero and the bitchy heroine apologizing to each other for being jerks), and is not quite as sickening as usual; the cultural stereotypes are actually quite underplayed, too;  even the usual realistically war-mongering US military is trying to keep the creature alive for as long as possible. I wouldn't go so far as to call 20 Million Miles To Earth the beatnik version of a 50s monster movie (if we're honest, it's just a cheaper variation on motives of King Kong played as a 50s monster movie), but it sure does keep everything that can make its sub-genre problematic down to a minimum.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Krakatit (1949)

An anonymous man whom we will come to know in his fever dreams as the chemic Prokop (Karel Höger), is found ill and delirious on the streets of Prague. While the doctors are trying to save him, the audience becomes witness to what at first seem to be his memories, but what later on can only be read as the feverish way of Prokop's subconscious to ponder what his invention of a horrifyingly powerful (the film makes heavy atom bomb insinuations the novel it is based on couldn't have made) explosive he dubbed "Krakatit" (after the volcano, you see) means to the world and him.

In his fever dreams, Prokop will find himself feverish, frequently losing parts of his memory and doubting his sense of reality. He will be betrayed by a former colleague, have a bucolic interlude that sees him breaking a girl's heart because he clearly prefers less innocent companions, get into the hand of a foreign industrial power who wants to reinstate monarchy, exchange explosion metaphors with a femme fatale princess (Florence Marly), get roped into a capitalist conspiracy, and destroy large parts of the world.

I don't know much about Czech and Czechoslovakian film history, but I do know that Krakatit's director Otakar Vávra is quite a problematic case as the sort of opportunistic survivor character who'd take on the mantle of any ideology, and lick the appropriate boot to get his film's financed; Nazis, communists, he just didn't seem to care.

Of course, bad (depending on one's definition of "bad", of course) people can still make good art, and it's impossible for me to watch Krakatit (based on a novel by Karel Capek, who is an important figure in a type of early SF that always bordered on the Weird) and not call it good art, Vávra having licked Goebbels' s boots or not. Ideologically, the film makes it easy enough for a Western leftist (or pinko communist, for you American readers) like me to not get too annoyed with it. In Krakatit, the upper classes, rich people and especially so-called nobility are generally bad, building weapons that can destroy the world is not a good idea, and scientists should work to improve the life of humanity instead. It's not exactly the most complex view of the world, but it's also one I find difficult to disagree with very much as it is presented here; at the very least, it's far easier to stomach than Leni Riefenstahl glorifying the NSDAP or D.W. Griffith telling us how awesome the Ku Klux Klan is.

But really, it's not so much the film's ideology, nor its ideas about the responsibility of science that make Krakatit worth watching, but rather the film's visual power. Vávra has obviously drunk from the same well as the American film noir, transforming expressionist techniques into a thing of his own, letting shadows and abstract and consciously artificial framing choices become metaphors for its main character's state of mind. Unlike most American films of this style, Krakatit does explicitly position much of what happens in it as fever visions instead of just being feverishly, a-realistically intense. It's never clear how much, if anything, of what Prokop dreams has actually happened, and what is only metaphors and symbols for his fears, what expressions of a guilty and doubtful conscience. There is also a strong sexual undertone to everything in the film, be it explosions - all these eruptions clearly have something very sexual for Prokop - or Prokop just looking at women.

For the most part, Vávra handles this aspect of his movie very well, slowly easing his audience into the dream narrative with a comparatively naturalistic beginning that turns more and more symbolic and unreal the longer the film goes on, with plot elements that could be used as straight forward pulp adventure (there's the evil foreign - clearly German - power, two femme fatales Prokop has conflicted and largely unhealthy feelings for, explosions, a conspiracy of rich people) turned into something at once even more heated than pulp usually becomes, and more symbolic.

In its effect, Krakatit works splendidly as the metaphorical fever dream it is supposed to be, melodramatic, difficult and energetic like a serial that has taken a wrong turn some time before it could introduce a mad gorilla.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Exit Humanity (2011)

The end of the US Civil War marks the beginning of the zombie apocalypse, at least in Tennessee, where Exit Humanity takes place. Six years after the beginning of that particular end, veteran Edward Young (Mark Gibson) returns from a hunting excursion to his cabin in the woods to find his wife a zombie and his little son gone.

Edward begins to roam the area around his home until he finds the kid, also as one of the walking dead. After Edward kills has killed him, he at first tries to kill himself too, now that everyone he loved and everything he believed in is gone. But a not quite successful attempt at that, and the look at a picture of a waterfall many days of travel away that gave Edward hope all through the war changes his mind. Before he'll die, he wants to throw his son's ashes into the waters to give him at least some semblance of peace.

On his travel there, Edward meets a man named Isaac (Adam Seybold), whose sister Emma (Jordan Hayes) has been abducted by former General Williams (Bill Moseley) for his pet "doctor" Johnson (Stephen McHattie) to experiment on, the witch Eve (Dee Wallace), and just possibly reasons to regain his own humanity.

Whenever I think a certain sub-genre of horror movies has finally reached the point of oversaturation, that nothing of further interest can be done in it anymore, a movie like John Geddes's Exit Humanity appears and actually manages to be a fantastic zombie movie at a point when such a thing seemed increasingly improbable to me. Exit Humanity also manages to be yet another excellent entry among the growing number of horror westerns.

What makes this particular film so special are a handful of things. Most obviously, there's the film's unhurried pacing that isn't caused by the typical indie horror problem of a script that's burying its core themes and plot in boring minutiae, but really is what the film's mood and its characters call for. There are long and important scenes of Mark Gibson alone with nature that are quite a bit more exciting than anyone could have expected. Geddes knows when and how to end scenes (another of my indie horror pet peeves is that too many directors don't seem to know how to do that at all), which slow moments to show because they are important for an audience to understand the characters, and which dramatic moments not to show.

Exit Humanity is a handy reminder that the quality and rhythm of a movie are determined as much by the things one leaves out (we never get to see Edward killing his undead wife, for example, but only witness the aftermath) as by those one includes. I was also very impressed by Geddes's ability to provide the film with a sense of place and time, making impressive use of the landscape of Ontario that may not be strictly authentic as a portrayal of woods in Tennessee but feel real and alive to me; the rather lavish (and free as in beer) nature of the landscape also provides Exit Humanity with the best enhancement of its bleak yet hopeful mood a film could hope for.

Additionally, the director makes two decisions that sound horrible on paper, yet in practice work out very well. Showing some of the film's more dramatic sequences in pretty rough animation may be a budgetary decision (or it may not be), but it's a decision that just works, giving these moments a quality of the mythical or the nightmarish that is perhaps more effective than just another action scene would have been. Strangely effective directorial decision number two is to have large parts of the plot and philosophical musings of Edward being narrated by the off-screen voice of Brian Cox. I generally hate off-screen monologues, but - again - Exit Humanity's mostly just works. Cox has just the right voice for the monologues he's given, and the film seldom falls into the trap of only telling its audience the things it is already seeing. The primary reason for the voiceovers may be to fill in some gaps in the plot, yet his voiceovers don't feel like an inorganic stop-gap; in fact, it's hard to imagine the film working as well as it does without them.

The acting is Exit Humanity's final trump card. The well-known actors in smaller roles (a traditional element in independent horror movies) are doing a fine job here, with nobody just slumming for a cheque for a day's work (so no Michael Madsen). The true stars are the lesser known Gibson, Seybold and Hayes though. The trio go through the film's more difficult moments with grace and style, always keeping their characters from becoming the horror movie clichés they could have been in less capable hands.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Three Films Make A Post: TEEN-AGERS ZOOM TO SUPERSIZE AND TERRORIZE A TOWN!

Detention (2011): Look how clever I am! Look how clever I am! Look how clever I am! Look how clever I am! Look how clever I am! Look how clever I am! Look how clever I am! Look how clever I am! Look how clever I am! Look how clever I am! Look how clever I am! Look how clever I am! Look how clever I am! Look how clever I am! Look how clever I am! Look how clever I am! Look how clever I am! Look how clever I am! Look how clever I am! Look how clever I am! Look how clever I am! Look how clever I am! Look how clever I am! Look how clever I am! Look how clever I am! Look how clever I am! Look how clever I am! Look how clever I am!

Nyarko-san: Another Crawling Chaos (2012) aka Haiyore! Naruko-san aka Haiyore! Nyarlko-chan: Sometimes, it would be easier to be among the number of people who can declare movies - or in this case anime shows - to be a guilty pleasure, something to look down on from on high and enjoy ironically. Sadly or fortunately, I don't have that sort of barrier protecting me from actually enjoying stuff, and so it can happen that I'll go out and shout at all the world that'll hear it: "Oh boy, this generic, clichéd and low-brow anime romantic comedy - with mandatory fourth wall breaking - is often really funny, at least if you enjoy laughing about its millions of Lovecraft/Cthulhu Mythos and pop culture related jokes per episode!". Then, people look at me funny and at best mumble some crap about the show probably being "so bad that it's good", when it is in fact good enough to make me laugh. Repeatedly.

The Clairvoyant (1935): Music hall clairvoyant Maximus (Claude Rains) suddenly develops actual prophetic powers when in the presence of a woman (Jane Baxter) not his wife. After various melodramatic happenings, our hero's marriage to a pre-blonde Fay Wray is on the ropes, and he's standing in court for causing the catastrophes he foresees.

Let's start with the positive: Wray and Rains really play well with each other, and Wray's more naturalistic acting style often helps reign in the cinematically less experienced Rains's tendency to just stare at the camera and declare his (pretty terrible) dialogue melodramatically like a bad stage actor. Unfortunately, that's about it: as a supernatural melodrama, the film's just not very interesting. The melodrama seems far-fetched, things happen because they are in the script instead of having the fated feeling they are supposed to have, and the film's treatment of the actually pretty fine ideas at its core is buried beneath tonal insecurity and complete lack of characterization (just try and describe Rains's character with a different word than "melodramatic").

Friday, August 3, 2012

On WTF: Zemlya Sannikova (1973)

Lost World movies are a most excellent thing, seeing as they mix the already wonderful adventure genre with all sorts of improbable and exciting elements.

The Soviet Zemlya Sannikova wears the marks of its genre proudly, and even though it avoids dinosaurs, black magic and aliens, it still manages to stuff in all kinds of (ideologically approved) awesome nonsense, including one of the silliest bad guys I ever had the pleasure to watch. Read my column on WTF-Film to learn more!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

In short: 407 Dark Flight (2012)

Flight SA 407 from somewhere in Thailand to somewhere else is what a professional would call a troubled flight. There are motherfucking ghosts on this motherfucking plane, and they are very very angry for no particular reason. Well, some of 'em are angry because flight attendant New (Marsha Wattanapanich) - character names from the subtitles so don't blame me - once survived another haunted flight in a not particularly nice manner, but what the problem of the dozens of other ghosts (existing in every shape and form, from a traditional Thai dancer to a white guy in a body bag) on board is, I do not know, nor does the film tell me.

Apart from New, there are some of the mainstays of disaster cinema on board: a troubled family whose teenage girl member wants to become a pilot when she grows up (alas, the film misses out on having her actually land the plane), a very gay flight attendant, a heroic airplane mechanic (Peter Knight), a cowardly monk, an old lady suffering from fear of flying, and nasty white people. All of them are ready to break out into melodramatics at the most inappropriate moment, so hurray for disaster movie characters.

Anyway, the ghosts sabotage oxygen reserves and suffocate people, and then try to drive the rest of the cast insane so that they'll kill each other off, which seems a bit unnecessary, seeing as the ghosts are also attempting to cause an airplane crash. Will the ghostly plans succeed?

Isara Nadee's 407 Dark Flight (3D, in theory) is a movie that raises the age-old question of "intentional or unintentional comedy?". The answer may forever remain a mystery. On one hand, there are many unfunny moments in the movie that are clearly meant as "comedy", on the other, there are just as many hilarious moments that are played so straight they can't be meant as comedy. Especially the film's killing scenes become more ridiculous the longer it goes on, ending on a series of kind of low rent Final Destination semi-accidents with pointy objects, which gives a good indication of which movies the ghosts have been watching on the flights they weren't haunting. On the third hand, this crap - a term I suggest is a fitting description of 407 Dark Flight's plot, script and acting - can't be meant seriously? For once, I find myself baffled by the purpose of a movie.

There are things I do understand about 407, though, namely that it's a damnably entertaining movie if one is willing to indulge in a dumbness so big it might be contagious, giggle helplessly at shoddy CGI, laugh tears when characters so clichéd you want to applaud when they die are cut to pieces with one of these practical handaxes most flights carry around somewhere (for firewood for the first class fireplace, I suppose), and stare in wonder when the crazy stuff stops for five minutes of utterly serious melodrama, as if solving one's family problems were a priority when one's flight has been hijacked by ghosts. 407 is the mutant child of bad disaster movies and bad rollercoaster horror films, and it has come to liquefy our brains; at least that's the only explanation I can find for its existence.

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Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)

Freshly knighted Scottish geologist Oliver Lindenbrook (James Mason) more or less stumbles upon the last words (and pointer to an exciting adventure) of the Icelandic geologist Saknussem, who disappeared while trying to find an entrance to the centre of the Earth decades ago.

Despite his seeming unworldliness, Lindenbrook does not take too long to decide that giving fine lectures in Edinburgh is well and good, but finding an entrance to the hollow Earth would be something quite more exciting, so he makes his way to Iceland, accompanied by his insufferable favourite student Alec McKuen (Pat Boone, doing a Scottish accent about as authentic as his music is rough). Please ignore the romantic subplot about Al and Lindenbrook's daughter (Diane Baker).

After some to and fro, Lindenbrook actually finds the entrance to the planet's hollow core, and goes on his adventurous way accompanied by Alec, Carla (Arlene Dahl), the widow of his former rival Professor Göteborg (please ignore the subplot about Göteborg's mildly evil shenanigans, too), and a large Icelandic gentleman (Peter Ronson) of the peasant persuasion who has an unfortunate and clearly illegal relationship with a duck. There will be wonders, dinosaurs, and the mad great-great grandson of Saknussem (Thayer David) waiting for them.

Henry Levin's adaptation of Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth is a bit of a weird one: despite some horrible flaws in its early parts and a bloated running time, the quality of its second half turns the film into quite an admirable peace of 50s SF/adventure movie. One only needs patience to get through a first hour that could have been cut by about thirty minutes without actually losing anything of interest.

Especially the romance sub plot between Boone and Baker is horrible, seeing as it gives Boone an opportunity to musically mangle a Robert Burns poem, and provides the film even more opportunities for cutesy and desperately unfunny humour regarding the couple; later on, Jenny is used to cut away from the actually interesting parts of the film to give us some peeks at her looking sort of depressed. This would be bad enough with an actual actor playing the student, but Boone's acting is as atrocious as his Scottish accent, and it's utterly impossible to believe that this slick, emotionless guy is a poor Scottish student in love with a girl and science.

Because the film wastes so much time on this sub plot and other "funny" business, it takes nearly an hour until the extraordinary voyage it is supposed to be about actually begins. Fortunately, once the voyage does begin, the up to that point tiring movie turns into something that is a joy to watch. There is a sense of wonder and joy about scientific discovery and strange adventures running through the film's second half that is completely in the spirit of Verne's less pessimistic phase, the kind of feeling that turns the simple discovery of a glowing part of the underworld into a moment of beauty, and that lets the film's sillier moments glow with a sense of fun.

Journey's excellent set design certainly makes a large contribution to the film's mood and sense of awe; as unrealistic as the effects work might look to the modern eye, there is such a sense of excitement on display the question of realism just doesn't seem to matter, as is only proper for this sort of movie. Sure, the dinosaur attack scenes do suffer from the "dinosaurs"' reality as poor reptiles (animals were, alas, harmed during the making of the film) with glued on fins, and can't help but produce the wish somebody in charge had hired Ray Harryhausen instead, but a dinosaur attack is an intrinsically excellent thing in a movie, even if it looks less than probable and is morally dubious.

On the characterization side I was pretty surprised by two things. Firstly, the open way a film from the conservative 50s treats Hans's very alternative lifestyle, as if being in a (clearly sexual) relationship with a duck were no big thing; okay, the film just isn't realizing it argues for bestiality, but one can't help being surprised.

Secondly, an quite a bit more seriously, the film does manage to show Carla Göteborg as a headstrong, intelligent and independent woman without feeling the need to permanently dismantle her. If you're dreading the horrible scenes every 50s SF movie with an actual woman character has where she has a complete breakdown and surrenders to the alpha male forever, rejoice, for that scene doesn't actually come; I suspect after the way Dahl holds herself for the whole of the movie, nobody would have believed that sort of scene anyway. Of course, Carla still isn't allowed to do quite as much as her male companions, but for 1959, her role is quite a satisfying one.

The script, she, and Mason even salvage the usual "two people permanently at odds with each other must be in love" romance between Göteborg and Lindenbrook by actually managing to give a lot of their squabbling the feel of coming from two persons too stubborn and set in their ways to easily fall in love, and by not confusing romance and love with forever giving up one's personality. That's not too bad for an adventure movie that begins with Pat Boone pretending to be Scottish.