Friday, November 30, 2012

On ExploderButton: Assignment Naschy - La Venganca De La Momia (1973)

aka The Mummy's Revenge

Fellow M.O.S.S. agent Kevin's WTF-Film has transformed into a shiny new beast made of pop culture and is now the less movie-centric, even more awesome ExploderButton. I'm still doing my weekly column there, so the Internet can rejoice/sigh with disappointment.

As anyone reading my blatherings for some time will know, I've developed a rather large enthusiasm for the body of work of Spain's sexiest (he did after all usually write his own scripts) horror actor/director/writer/enthusiast, the immortal Paul Naschy.

So it'll come as no surprise that my inaugural column on ExploderButton enthuses about Naschy's turn as that most well-dressed of monsters, the mummy. Please click on through to hear about the film's wonders.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

In short: El asesino está entre los treces (1973)

aka The Killer Is One Of Thirteen

Two years after the death of her husband in the crash of his private plane, rich widow Lisa Mandel (Patty Shepard) calls thirteen of his friends and associates - among them a bored looking Jack Taylor, Simón Andreu and other familiar faces - for a big reunion. On the group's first dinner, Lisa reveals that she has proof her husband didn't die accidentally, but was murdered, and that she's convinced one of the attendants is his killer. After all, everyone had motive and opportunity to do the deed, which she then proceeds to reveal. Let's just say that the rich in this movie really are involved in a lot of things, reaching from the rather more typical mass adultery, to art forgery, to deeply Freudian mother-son relationships, to drug smuggling.

Unfortunately, the motives and opportunities are so ample, Lisa has her difficulties deciding who actually is the killer, so she's obviously decided to just bring everyone together and wait until the killer reveals his or herself. It's a sound plan, as it turns out, for once everyone's secrets are revealed or hinted at, the guests spend the next few days with attempts at digging each other's holes deeper. And after a time, the killer cuts the phone lines, wrecks some cars in the knowledge nobody here knows how to walk, and begins to thin the herd of people who might know something about him.

In theory, Javier Aguirre's The Killer should be a rather pleasant mystery of the "rich bastards die in an isolated place" type, but in practice, it's mostly a bore.

I suspect the higher number of the guests here is an attempt to outdo And Then There Were None, but it really leads to a film with so many characters there's no room to properly develop any of them or to find time to amuse the audience with their decadent hobbies for more than five seconds. The only bits of decadence the film finds time showing are various deeds of adultery, but those are filmed as the sort of face rubbing that wouldn't be steamy in a 70s soap opera, with little of interest to the friend of sleazy entertainment nor the viewer in hope of anything visually or emotionally interesting. It's just a very bland film that even manages to waste an excellent set-up for Freudian shenanigans.

This blandness is further increased by the film's snail-like pacing, Aguirre's decision to tell his story as a series of overlong and perfectly boring dialogue scenes, and the fact that it takes an hour until the killer decides to finally off a member of the horde of suspects (of course in a bland and uninvolving manner). It's difficult to understand how the same Javier Aguirre was able to direct the insane Hunchback of the Morgue in the same year as this snoozer, but there you have it. As it stands, the only connection the two films have is the presence of beloved Spanish horror icon Paul Naschy, but where Hunchback is his film, this one sees him only doing a short guest star part in which he looks as bored as Taylor does.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

In short: April Fool's Day (2008)

Evil rich girl Desiree Cartier (Taylor Cole) and her evil rich brother Blaine (Josh Henderson) use the debutant ball of Torrance Caldwell (Scout Taylor-Compton) for an attempt to humiliate Desiree's arch enemy Milan Hastings (Sabrina Aldridge) with a properly unfunny April Fool's joke. Things get a bit more intense than planned, though, leaving Milan dead of an allergic reaction to a roofie and the fall from a balcony, and everyone involved rather scandal-plagued.

One year later, an anonymous message invites the inner circle of the movie's jerks to Milan's graveside. There, a message tells them that the one responsible for Milan's death shall confess his or her crime, or else they all will be killed during the course of this April first. Which is of course what happens.

The only thing The Butcher Brothers' remake of 80s kinda-sorta slasher April Fool's Day does right is to not actually make a remake of the original movie, but only steal the date and part of the final plot twist from it. The original is after all easily available, so a remake that actually changes things seems the way to go.

Unfortunately, the directors turn this version of the film into a bland and obvious whodunit where the most boring killer imaginable kills bland and uninvolving characters in bland and uninvolving ways until the obvious plot twists occur in the obvious way. It's one of those films where characters nobody can give a crap about because they're neither sympathetic nor vile enough to be interesting are killed off in ways so uncreative and filmed with such dispiriting disinterest (hello, Stan Lee!) it's impossible not be bored by what happens on screen. From time to time, the film tries its hand at satire, but that aspect of the film falls as flat as everything else, for the film's caricatures are too superficially drawn to interest, while the supposed satire makes Sesame Street look like a cesspool of cynicism.

Acting and direction completely keep inside the (soap opera) bland, uninvolved and boring trinity the rest of the film sets up. Watching April Fool's Day, I couldn't avoid the impression that neither the actors nor anyone behind the camera actually gave a shit about the movie they produced, which not surprisingly resulted in a movie I don't give a shit about. I (perhaps too) often decry lack of ambition in contemporary low budget horror, but this one really takes the cake in this regard. It feels as if the filmmakers didn't even have the ambition to make a movie.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

First Men In The Moon (1964)

The crew of the first moon landing by an UN expedition made up of British, Soviet and American astronauts stumbles onto a little British flag and a declaration of possession of the moon for Queen Victoria made out in 1899.

Hasty research on Earth leads to Arnold Bedford (Edward Judd). Bedford tells the UN the story of his adventure of a lifetime. As a hopeless playwright (which is the only kind of playwright someone can be who never actually writes a play), and well on his way to become a con-man of the sort who has no problems implicating his own fiancée, American Kate Callendar (Martha Hyer), in illegal affairs, Bedford learned that his neighbour Joseph Cavor (Lionel Jeffries) had invented a curious paste with the ability to shield objects from the influence of gravity.

Bedford lied himself into Cavor's trust because he, quite unlike the mad scientist, saw many useful and lucrative applications for the stuff. What Cavor really wanted with his paste was use it to fly to the moon. Bedford, only half a prick, let himself be swayed by Cavor's excitement and agreed to accompany the scientist.

Thanks to Bedford's cons and an accident, Kate also stumbled into the moon capsule when it was about to start, and they all ended up on the moon where trouble with the local population, the Selenites, arose.

When first I realized First Men in the Moon's existence a few months ago, I was quite confused why I had never heard about the movie before, seeing as it was directed by the dependable Nathan Juran, co-written by Nigel Kneale, based on an H.G. Wells novel (if not one of his best, if you ask me) and had special effects by Ray Harryhausen. Having now watched it, I'm not so confused anymore - there may have been a bunch of greats involved, but none of them brought anything even close to their best efforts to the film.

Juran's direction is bland, Kneale's script is - outside of the framing narrative that at least delights with its international moon expedition - devoid of the expected depth and breadth of ideas and never develops any element of the story that could be interesting any further than strictly necessary to let the film slowly lumber on, and the film's narrative is close enough to Wells's original to afford Harryhausen little opportunity to actually do what he does best in the effects area - even most of the Selenites are crappy costumes rather than stop motion creations.

Then there's the fact that the film's first half consists of scene after scene of unfunny comedy that. Does. Not. Stop. It's also less than pleasant how little the movie seems to realize that Bedford is a total tosser and not the charming rogue it thinks he is, so if you hope for some sort of payback for him for all the immoral, illegal, and just really assholish stuff he does, or at least some sort of character development away from being what he starts out as, you will be sorely disappointed. And I don't know why Kate is even in the movie, for she sure as hell is of no import to anything that goes on. Not even her kidnapping by the Selenites is actually important to the plot, making her even less than the usual helpless female stereotype.

It's not all bad though. Once we finally, finally, leave Earth, the "comedy" slowly but surely recedes into the background, and the film turns into your typical fantastic voyage movie with all the basic entertainment value that genre carries in its genes. You'd really need to put a lot of effort into ruining scenes of people in diving suits meeting aliens on the moon, and while nobody involved seems to have had a very good week creatively, they're still experienced professionals enough to not ruin what's left of the film.

First Men also has a secret weapon in form of John Blezard's art direction that shows an eye for the beauties and charms of proto-steampunk-ish devices, giant multi-coloured tubes and curious alien (well, Selenite) cave systems. It's an enthusiastic and wonderful effort in a film that is mostly just coasting on genre standards, and is for me what made First Men In The Moon worth watching beyond my completist impulses and the basic decentness of every cinematic fantastic voyage.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

On WTF: A Black Veil For Lisa (1968)

Original (much better) title: La morte non ha sesso

I'm not much of a fan of police procedurals, but I'm making an exception for one that's as great as this one by Massimo Dallamano, particularly when it's also a police procedural that turns into a giallo.

Click on through to my column on WTF-Film to learn more (and you really, really should)!

Saturday, November 24, 2012

In short: Anguish (1987)

Original title: Angustia

Ophthalmologist's assistant John (Michael Lerner) is losing his eyesight and his mind. Assisted and/or hindered through the hypnotic influence of his mother (Zelda Rubinstein), John begins to remove the eyes of various unwilling donors. His killing spree eventually leads John into a movie theatre where he goes to work with particular relish. However, the mommy's boy and his serial killer habit are only a movie inside of a movie.

Teenage girls Patty and Linda (Talia Paul and Clara Pastor) are sitting in their own movie watching John's, but their mix of popcorn-munching and naked panic in reaction to the peculiar happenings on screen - respectively - is just the beginning, for someone starts killing off the patrons of their cinema, though in a less sexy style than John is using. The borders between movies, or between movie and reality, become exceedingly porous for everyone involved.

Spanish director Bigas Luna's Anguish is a fascinating movie, and one of the most interesting and successful attempts at that whole "horror movie inside of a horror movie" thing. When films go as meta as this one does, they sometimes tend to put too large of an emphasis on the ironic or the satirical elements, leaving any chance of an emotional connection (and I do think a film absolutely needs this kind of connection as much as it needs an intellectual one) with its audience by the wayside.

Anguish for its part works on all levels it reaches for at once. Taken completely at face value, it's two fantastic thrillers at once - the eyeball killer one a giallo style experience in exciting weirdness, the other one a more naturalistic piece made with the same expertise and sense of style. Yet it's also a film which questions even the realism of its supposedly realistic parts, permanently asking questions about not just the nature of reality, the nature of realism, the influence of movies on reality (which of the two movies we see is really mirroring which?), but also the question if the per definition more realistic also is the more real. After all, these borders tend to blur when the murderer of one movie kills for the approval of the mother of the other movie's murderer, even more so once it becomes quite unclear if the first movie's murderer doesn't have the ability to enter the second one, though he might do so only in a character's mind. And that's before we come to the ending titles where another movie audience watches said titles. It's all rather complex, and yet Luna never loses control over his material, with every (stylish, brilliant) shot clearly made for a reason.

On another level, Anguish is also a film about the power of the Weird over mainline reality. This aspect of the movie is perfectly incorporated in Rubinstein's performance. Her character, in all her ambiguous oddness, has no trouble drifting through the movie screen into the minds of the audience (both the real and the imagined one), changing the reality of those she comes in contact with in one way or the other. It is after all the nature of the Weird to infect reality until ideas of order, of cause and effect begin to disappear.

This moment when the quotidian transforms (deforms?), is what Anguish is all about for me; that it's also a great meta-thriller is nearly beside the point.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

In short: Night School (1981)

A killer in black motorcycle garb is murdering women in Boston, depositing the heads of his victims in whatever water is closest at hand. Police lieutenant Austin's (Leonard Mann) investigation leads him to a girl school where several of the victims were students. The cop's suspicions quickly concentrate on anthropologist professor and jerk Vincent Millett (Drew Snyder), who does not seem to have student he hasn't slept with (must be the hot anthropologist sex into which we will be given unwanted insight by the movie, because it sure as hell can't be his looks).

When he's not sleeping with his students, Millett lives with his research assistant and lover Eleanor (Rachel Ward), with whom he shares a deep interest in the headhunters of Papua New Guinea. Oh, and all of the victims had something to do with Millett. Despite everything about the case being pretty damn obvious, it'll take quite a few dead bodies, and heads in sinks and toilets until it can be closed.

In 1981, the slasher movie genre wasn't quite as codified as in the years to follow, so it was still possible for a movie to (sort of) belong to it without being about a bunch of teenagers getting slaughtered in the woods or a dilapidated building. Ken Hughes's Night School differs from many other slashers by trying to incorporate elements of an actual mystery, where the killer's identity stands in question. Even red herrings make an appearance. I assume a more direct influence of the giallo than usual. This theory is compounded by the styling of the killer with its shade of Strip Nude For Your Killer, some very typical shots of spiral staircases, and the rather bizarre way the mystery is set up.

This may sound like quite an exciting combination, for what's better than a slasher that comes to the genre from a different direction, but the killer's identity is so obvious, and the whole investigative aspect so undercooked, it's difficult for me to conjure up much enthusiasm.

It doesn't help Night School how unbalanced a film it is. Tonally, it jumps from neatly done stalk and slash sequences, to bad melodramatic acting, to tasteless and overlong suspense scenes based on the question "where will they find the head this time?", to boring police procedural, to unfunny humour and back again, without ever reaching the point where these elements come together in entertaining, interesting, or dream-like ways. It's as if Hughes couldn't (or wasn't allowed to) decide what type of horror film he was trying to make and so ended up trying to make all of them at once; this seldom ends well for a movie or its audience.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Three Films Make A Post: Come to the get killed!

V/H/S (2012): I actually think the anthology movie is a logical direction for the POV horror sub-genre to take, but despite the inclusion of directors like Ti West and Adam Wingard, V/H/S isn't really doing much for me. It's clear the stories that make up the film are attempting to use the immediacy of the form for some urban legend style horror with a bit of a messed up ick factor, but the end product leaves me cold at best. It's difficult to bring up much interest for stories that tread well-trodden horror movie paths even when they are going for surprises, and it's equally difficult to have any interest for what happens to characters when they are only some mumbled dialogue, some shaky close-ups and nothing else; especially when most of the episodes go out of their way to also look like utter crap. I know, that's a stylistic choice (and the only time the word "style" can be used when talking about the film's aesthetic), but I'm really more interested in films that make stylistic choices about the way they picture the things their audience sees rather than the choice to shake-shake-shake that camera and put some mock-VHS post-production effects on.

Dead Hooker In A Trunk (2009): This indie movie by and with the Soska sisters Jen and Sylvia on the other hand seems to have its style well in hand, despite an obvious backyard budget. What this one has going for it are a sense of fun, an often rather uncontrolled imagination and the resulting weirdness. It's far from slick, but a great reminder what's actually good about the possibilities of contemporary filmmaking: that a handful of semi-professionals (I had too much fun with the film to use the term amateurs, plus there's more professional filmmaking coming from this direction) can just go out and make a movie full of private jokes, silliness and bits and pieces of the films they love, and it might even be one other people will be able to enjoy too like Dead Hooker. In this particular case, the film works via energy, attitude, some decidedly clever low budget direction and editing, and the fact that at least half of its jokes are pretty funny.

Toshi Densetsu Monogatari Hikiko (2008): A one-part OVA that looks like ass, full of characters with plastic faces and horrifying teeth that move through low detail backgrounds with all the grace of zombies while pulling faces that don't have anything to do with humanity as I know it; in other words, visually, this is your typical piece of CGI animation.

However, what the piece lacks in visual graces, it contains in its script (and voice acting), telling a creepy and rather disturbing tale of quotidian bullying and abuse, just as quotidian cowardice and the inability to face up to the truth. That tale is emphasised by expertly timed ghostly going-ons which mirror and amplify the short film's more natural horrors. It's a demonstration of the concept that timing and an intelligent script can make up for a multitude of flaws in a movie.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Special Mission Lady Chaplin (1966)

Original title: Missione speciale Lady Chaplin

Minor evil mastermind Kobre Zoltan (Jacques Bergerac) plans fiendish things with a sunken US nuclear submarine. Most of the elements of his plan are executed by his right-hand woman, the titular Lady Chaplin (Daniela Bianchi), fashion designer, thief, and spy, and the kind of girl who wears a parachute under her clothes just in case her boss throws her out of a plane. She's what we in the Biz call true marriage material, and - one suspects given her actual competence compared to her boss's incompetence - the main reason for Zoltan's criminal success.

The CIA puts Dick Malloy (Ken Clark) on the case. Dick - despite working for the CIA repeatedly called a policeman in the film, by the way, which might hint at some character-changing shenanigans in the English dub - needs about half of the film to come to the no shit Sherlock realization that Zoltan doesn't want to steal the wreck of the sunken submarine, but has already absconded with what interests him about it: a bunch of nuclear missiles he is trying to sell to "a foreign power" represented by a certain Hilde (Helga Liné). And here I thought World War II was over.

Fortunately for the future of the Free World™, Dick has three things going for him: a) Zoltan is a raging incompetent, b) Dick is excellent at punching and shooting people and c) Lady Chaplin is all too willing to change sides when she realizes the authorities know about Zoltan's little plan. Or is she lying?

Special Mission Lady Chaplin is another highly entertaining Eurospy movie by Alberto De Martino that makes me wish the director had worked more in this particular genre. I'm not sure, though, how much of the film's entertainment value is his work, and how much that of the three action directors listed in the credits. In any case, much of what's fun about the film happens in the numerous and expected chases, shoot-outs and punch-offs.

De Martino and co. put a heavy emphasis on semi-gritty hand-to-hand fights that surprisingly do not include any fake martial arts performed by white non-martial artists. Instead they give Ken Clark - who might be not the greatest actor alive but is really good and even more enthusiastic at this sort of thing - and his co-actors and stunt people opportunity to throw themselves into somewhat rougher, and more stylishly filmed, interpretations of serial action. It's often really rather exhilarating.

In another surprise, at least half of the film's action happens in actual locations instead of the usual cardboard sets, which enables De Martino (or whoever was behind the camera of any given scene) to make the fights more dynamic and attractive simply by having more space for them to take place in; turns out verticality is a good thing in an action scene to have. It's all still clearly made on the kind of budget that probably wouldn't have paid for the hairdressers of a contemporary Bond movie, but De Martino really puts everything he can on screen and makes up for any theoretical problems the film's silly plot could cause with pacing and enthusiasm.

De Martino doesn't forget the second leg a Eurospy movie needs to stand on beside the action: women wearing various awesome fashion catastrophesilliness, curious plans, and gadgets. Lady Chaplin isn't quite as brainfart-y as some other Eurospy movies I love, but it's still a film where the villains smuggle experimental missile fuel (can't these "foreign powers" produce anything themselves!?) in form of atrocious red dresses that tend to explode when shot at, where murders are committed via armed wheelchair and taxi-shaped gas chamber, and where our hero appears to the prelude to the final fight with a harpoon gun that shoots explosive cartridges that can kill henchmen that haven't even been caught in the explosion. That's more than enough to keep me happy.

The film's only major flaw lies in its main villain. Zoltan, to be perfectly honest, is a bit of a crap villain, lacking the menace or the cackling mania the bad guy in this kind of film needs. Instead, he's just a bit of a smug jerk (quite like the heroes of many Eurospy films are, actually) with big plans. It doesn't help that Jacques Bergerac's English language dubbing voice (going by the accents, at least some of the actors dubbed themselves, but he didn't) is provided by one of those guys…who…make curious pauses…at…the…most…inappropriate times. On the plus side, Daniela Bianchi (or should I say "former Bond girl Daniela Bianchi" which is certainly want the producers would want me to say?) seems to have a whale of a time kicking ass and wearing dubious fashion, as befits the title character of a film.

Lady Chaplin provides additional little jolts of joy with a fine, jazzy Bruno Nicolai score that would have me whistling the main theme if I did in fact whistle, and the appearance of various European genre movie mainstays like Evelyn Stewart and Helga Liné in smaller roles.

It's quite a package for anyone even slightly interested in Eurospy films.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

L'assassino… è al telefono (1972)

aka The Killer Is On The Phone

aka The Killer Is On The Telephone

Warning: spoilers are unavoidable in this case

When successful theatre actress Eleanor Loraine (Anne Heywood) arrives at the Bruges airport she accidentally meets a bald gentleman (Telly Savallas) whose mere appearance causes her to scream and faint. When Eleanor awakes, she has lost the memory of the last five years of her life. She neither remembers the supposedly accidental death of her boyfriend Peter five years earlier, nor the fact that she's married now, nor the reason for her sudden breakdown. Eleanor seems to have had a more minor case of amnesia after Peter's death, too, and clearly hasn't been in the best mental health despite professional success during the past few years, so her family and her acting partner Thomas Brown (Osvaldo Ruggieri) are rather slick and practiced in their attempts to help her come back to the present again, but Eleanor is understandably unwilling to trust anyone.

The only thing Eleanor is sure of is that she not only needs to remember the life she led in the past five years but finally has to remember the circumstances of Peter's death she repressed five years ago. This project would become all the more urgent for her if she knew what the audience knows - that the bald gentleman who caused all this is a professional killer, and that he is now stalking her, as if he'd feel the need to get rid of a witness to one of his murders…

Alberto De Martino's L'assassino (whose titular telephone habits aren't actually important to the movie's plot, by the way) is a giallo about confusion and uncertainty. Eleanor - as picture-perfectly played by Heywood - spends the largest part of the film utterly confounded by what is going on around her, unsure not only of the meaning and truth of her surroundings, but also of her own identity, trying to interpret herself and her life through what other people tell her and her fragmentarily returning memory. While the audience knows a bit more than Eleanor does, and can guess even more, that surplus knowledge is never concrete enough for us to feel superior and secure in that knowledge. We may be pretty sure that Telly Savalas's sneer is that of a killer, but we know as little as Eleanor does about how the world she tries to understand truly works.

One of the film's more ridiculous but effective moments comes when Eleanor confuses her real life with elements of a theatre role she was playing, an idea that is absolutely fantastic on a thematic level but becomes more problematic if one attempts to apply the rules of normal reality to it. Realistically, Eleanor should remember playing a femme fatale in a stage play, not being a femme fatale, even if one takes Eleanor as an intense lover of the Method.

It is, however, this feeling of irreality, of a lingering, dream-like confusion that makes it difficult to separate truth, dream, memory, and stage play from each other that is L'assassino's great strength. It's not about being realistic, but about sucking the audience into the same state of mind Eleanor - and sometimes, it seems, also the killer - is in. Here, the giallo is an engine of confusion and doubt that only works all the better because it leaves consensus reality behind.

De Martino's often stylish, sometimes melodramatic and sometimes surprisingly subtle direction furthers the project of turning the movie into something close to a dream. As photographed by Joe D'Amato in a very good mood, Bruges looks like the least real place on Earth, and therefore the perfect place for Heywood to look in turns confused and determined in while the Stelvio Cipriani score swoons rather hypnotically.

On the negative side, I could well have done without the evil lesbian explanation at the film's end, but then I'm not living in Italy in 1972. On the other hand (I think it's number three), this is a giallo where the heroine solves her problems under her own powers in the end, so L'assassino's politics aren't quite as conservative as one would fear. I'm not even sure that should come as much of a surprise in a film this devoted to letting its audience share the state of mind of said heroine.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Three Films Make A Post: IF STARK TERROR WERE here would be sheer bliss!

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012): In my book, the good silly movies are often those that may know about their own silliness well enough, but still decide to treat their stupid (and possibly tasteless) "high concepts" with a face so straight and earnest, you can't really be sure they really do know how silly they are.

Case in point is Timur Bekmambetov's film with the self-explanatory title, the axe-swinging Lincoln and the very stupid yet entertaining action sequences. The whole thing treats seriously what can't be taken seriously by anyone, and is more like a comic book than most films actually based on comic books. Plus, there's an awesome moment where Mary Elizabeth Winstead suddenly does excellent dramatic acting as if this weren't a film about a vampire hunting Lincoln but about actual people, which is the sort of thing actors earn my never-ending respect with.

I was highly entertained by the whole thing, though your mileage may vary depending on your emotional closeness to the US Civil War and your tolerance for stupid ideas. When in doubt, just look at the title. If this sounds like the sort of thing you might enjoy, you probably will.

Skull Soldier (1992): Musician/actor Masaki Kyomoto attempts to sleaze up the the tokusatsu genre in a direct to video project written and directed by himself, with himself in the lead role. On paper, I could totally get behind adding blood and boobs to the Japanese costumed hero biz (like Garo would later do quite a bit more successfully), but unfortunately, Kyomoto is one of those Jennifer Lopez/Kenneth Brannagh "multi-talents" who does everything, but is not very good at any of it, proving that egos can be bigger than talents anywhere on the globe. Acting-wise, we're in the same territory as with the hair brigade in Hong Kong; direction-wise, it's verve-less crap; music-wise, pestilential soft jazz plays in the most inappropriate moments; and writing-wise, horrible comic relief drowns out the already not very exciting rest of the script.

Life's just too short to waste time on an ego-trip this boring.

The Thompsons (2012): The Butcher Brothers on the other hand clearly don't set out to bore with the sequel to their vampire movie The Hamiltons. The vampire siblings from the first part have gone on the run in Europe after a very unfortunate incident that left their bloody faces all over the news. In the more civilized part of the world, our sentimental vampires try to find others of their kind, and a little bit of help. When brother Francis (Cory Knauf) makes contact with a British country vampire family (with location shots at least in part actually shot in the UK for a change, and with actual UK actors that spare us the expected fake accents), things do seem to take a turn for the better, with peace and discipline promised by the family's elders, and romance for still brooding Francis by their mutant daughter Riley (Elizabeth Henstridge). Alas, it seems a bloodsucking monster family can't even trust another bloodsucking monster family anymore.

While the film does from time to time descend into scenes of very silly fang-baring and snarling like an even less convincing True Blood, this is for the most part a successful attempt at a) fleshing out The Hamilton's particular vampire mythology in a somewhat slicker film, b) philosophising about the nature of monsters and family, and c) spicing things up with blood and boobs in a much more effective way than Skull Soldier does.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

In short: Spasmo (1974)

One suspects rich ne'er-do-well Christian Bauman (Robert Hoffmann) does expect a rather different night than the one he gets when he picks up Barbara (Suzy Kendall) while his supposed girlfriend is watching. What he gets is a gunman (Adolfo Lastretti) assaulting him in Barbara's bathroom while he's shaving off his beard (don't ask). Christian manages to shoot said gunman with his own gun, but then decides that going to the police would be much too complicated and goes on the run with Barbara.

Next up is breaking into an old tower that belongs to one of Barbara's friends, because what would be more logical? This is only the beginning of a rather bizarre time for Christian. Soon enough, he as well as the audience will have to question his own sanity, everyone else's sanity, and the probability of really dumb conspiracies. All while people die and someone leaves very creepy latex dolls picturing murdered women lying around everywhere.

Generally, director Umberto Lenzi's and my sensibilities are in complete opposition to each other; and that's when I just ignore how boring I find many of the man's films. Spasmo, however, is the sort of film to provoke me into rethinking a whole body of work thanks to the sheer power of its wrong-headed awesomeness.

The Italian giallo is often criticized for having ridiculously illogical, random and obtusely constructed plots (even I as a fan of the genre won't deny these criticisms completely), but in Spasmo's case, Lenzi and his four co-writers seem to have decided to pretend to treat that criticism as a rule, to see how far weird yet intense acting, a fantastic Morricone score that gets increasingly strange with the increasing strangeness of the film, and oodles of style can take a film whose narrative decisions are based on characters always doing the least probable thing, with a plot that makes less sense the more of it is explained. Turns out the place a film reaches this way is also known as "my heart", for how could I not love a film that consciously revels in being as insane as possible (because half of its characters are supposed to be insane, which really isn't much of a spoiler) without ever returning to the land of logic and boring normal plotting?

It can be dangerous for a film to be as weird for the sake of weirdness as Spasmo is, but this is an Italian film, and if there's one thing the country's genre films were good at (let's just ignore their usually fantastic aesthetics for the sake of argument here), it's being weird for the sake of weirdness in a natural and organic way, as if strangeness weren't something they strive for, but their natural state of being.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

In short: Atrocious (2010)

It takes a certain type of filmmaker to call his movie "Atrocious", for there's more than just a small risk of lazy or dissatisfied reviewers using exactly this word to describe it if they don't like it. In the case of Fernando Barreda Luna's Atrocious, it's also a rather unfitting title. On the other hand, who would call his movie more honestly yet certainly less excitingly "Quite Effective" or "Pretty Good"?

Plotwise, this Spanish/Mexican co-production concerns a family going on holiday in the mother's country family mansion. Right next to it, and locked off by a gate, is a labyrinth of wood paths. There's a ghost story about the woods in the area too. A ghostly girl named Melinda is supposed to haunt them, either - depending on the variation of the story - leading people traversing the woods at night astray or showing them the way.

The family's teenage children, Cristian (Cristian Valencia) and July (Clara Moraleda), are fascinated by ghost stories, so it's not much of a surprise when they disregard parental warnings and spend a day exploring the labyrinth with their trusty cameras, whose footage is of course the basis of the film. As one might expect, terrible things will soon enough start happening, and our protagonists will have good reason to make the mistake of visiting the labyrinth by night.

Surprisingly enough, Atrocious isn't completely going where you'd expect it to after a very Blair Witch-ish beginning. The film isn't exactly pioneering new ground for the POV style horror movie, but it's far from being one of those films of the sub-genre whose only ambition is to copy the films that came before it, but worse. Right now, POV horror can be easily divided into two groups: the films that want to be Blair Witch and those that want to be (Cthulhu protect!) Paranormal Activity, with the few films that want to be neither (because hey, they already exist) usually the ones worth watching. Atrocious has one foot in the territory of the first group of films, and one in the third, and it's exactly that point where one of its strengths lies. I've been so inundated by films without any ambitions of their own that something like Luna's film that uses the semblance of a Blair-Witch-alike to make its own simple story more effective works by virtue of not ending exactly like I expected or feared.

What sounds quite a bit like me damning it with faint praise isn't the film's only strength, though. Luna also shows a good hand for pacing, knows when and how to escalate the plot, how to keep things pleasantly, sometimes even suspensefully, tight, and even finds space to have a rather timeless big fear lurking in the thematic background. It's more than enough to make for a clever, entertaining little movie.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Devil's Nightmare (1971)

Original title: La plus longue nuit du diable

aka Vampire Playgirls

A group of seven travellers (a glutton, a seminarist, an unfaithful husband and his rich and greedy wife, an old grump, an oversexed young woman and another one who really likes to sleep a lot) on a bus tour lose their way and have to spend the night in the castle of Baron von Rhoneberg (Jean Servais). While the baron is welcoming the seven with open arms, they soon realize something's not right with the place. The creepy butler Hans loves telling the guests about the violent deaths that happened in each room, all connected with the von Rhoneberg family curse that turns the firstborn daughter of every Rhoneberg generation into a succubus. So it's probably for the better the film showed the present Baron murdering his infant daughter in the pre-credit sequence.

The castle has a curious influence on the guests: they all indulge in their various obsessions - all part of one particular Deadly Sin - a little more openly, and suddenly, than people usually do. Most everyone's behaviour turns from strange to downright crazy once Lisa Müller (Erika Blanc), another tourist in dire need of a room, appears. It's pretty obvious Lisa is a servant of the Devil (Daniel Emilfork) himself, so it will not come as much of a surprise when the tourists die one after the other by her hand while indulging in their favourite sin. But will Lisa be able to bag herself a seminarist, too?

Leave it to a cooperation between Belgium and Italy to make the most Catholic 70s European horror movie I've seen that isn't about possession but about a succubus really doing very traditional devil's work by enabling people to indulge in their sins and then killing them before they can be absolved of these sins. How serious director Jean Brismée and his writers take the theological content of their film is of course questionable, for Devil's Nightmare is an exploitation film through and through, which means it is a film very much in the business of tut-tut-ing at people indulging in behaviour it tells us is morally corrupt while spending all of its running time showing us this behaviour with great enthusiasm.

I have seen sleazier movies made in Europe in the 70s, but The Devil's Nightmare still has more than enough room for close-ups of a guy over-eating, mock-lesbian shenanigans, Erika Blanc's attempts at seducing a seminarist, infidelity, Erika Blanc in simple yet effective demoness make-up, breasts (though it has to be said that the film's sex scenes, at least in the cut I watched, are rather on the harmless side and only interested in showing off a little naked actress rather than in the simulated sex they have), and a wee bit of violence.

Devil's Nightmare isn't quite as stylish, or crazy, or sleazy as some of its (especially Italian) counterparts in the European horror game of the era. I wouldn't call its aesthetics exactly conservative, but from time to time, I wished it would indulge its own flights of fancy a little more. Some of its sleaziness just feels a bit awkward, especially in the lesbian sex scene and the final seduction attempt of our seminarist hero Blanc indulges in, rather than like it should feel - an attempt to be sleazier, or cruder, or more tasteless than all films that came before, and certainly sleazier than the audience expects.

As it stands, the film is at its best whenever it comes closest to the feeling of a dream (which is especially appropriate for this particular film for plot reasons), or involves some actual fairy tale tropes. There's a scene of a deal with the devil right out of a (Catholic) fairy-tale that I found particular effective in that regard.

Taken as a whole, Brismée's film is taking up the middle ground of this particular type of European horror movie. The Devil's Nightmare is not quite outrageous or colourful enough to win my heart completely, but contains enough of the good stuff to be worthy of my time.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Berlino - Appuntamento per le spie (1965)

aka Spy in Your Eye

A death-ray inventing scientist is shot while trying to leave East Berlin for greener pastures. Now everyone is after the scientist's daughter Paula (Pier Angeli), assuming she knows her father's final - and probably awesome - formula. The Americans send in Bert Morris (Brett Halsey), an agent with only minor smugness problems, to free Paula from Russian hands.

But even after he's rescued/caught her (an American agent wearing a fake hunchback kitted out with in-built blade for a novel interpretation of backstabbing and a radio, and construction equipment are involved), Paula still assures Bert and his buddies, as she did with the Russians, that she knows nothing at all about any formulas. Why, she can't even remember telephone numbers. Of course, nobody believes that, so the Russians, the Chinese (whose agents all wear bowler hats for some reason, and whose boss of course is named Ming - Fu Manchu wasn't available that day, I assume) and the Americans take turns in kidnapping, re-kidnapping, freeing, torturing and trying to sweet talk Paula. The poor woman changes hands so often, you'd think it's a handball match. When the various agents aren't treating Paula as their favourite object, they're jetting around the globe to follow up on other hints regarding the formula.

Curiously, the Russians always seem to know what the Americans are going to do next. The explanation is as simple as it is ridiculous: they've implanted a camera with integrated microphone in the eye of Bert's boss Colonel Lancaster (Dana Andrews), and are now listening in on him out of the reddest and most conspicuous vehicle they could find. You can't even trust doctors putting experimental artificial eyes into your eyeholes anymore, it seems.

Yes, Berlino (a film that does not spend much time in Berlin, by the way) is another case of a Eurospy movie that lives from and dies of its ability to press as much excellent nonsense into its running time as possible.

Structurally, the film is a total mess, so episodic the things that happen on screen never cohere into an actual story, with characters appearing for ten minutes or so only to never be mentioned again, and plans and motivations changing on a moment's notice. Fortunately, my cult movie addled brain has long since given up on a need for coherence, so if I encounter a film like this where every second scene seems to stand alone, I just attempt to enjoy what these barely connected scenes have to offer.

In this particular case, these offers are ridiculous and manifold.There's the usual number of bad martial arts fights, punch-ups, chases and shoot-outs, of course, all realized by director Vittorio Sala with somewhat bland professionalism.

At the very least, I can't complain about a lack of variety, be it geographically or otherwise, for there's some actual location work on display in material that might even have been shot for the film at hand. Large parts of the movie do take place on Italian soundstages, though. These aspects of the film are okay enough, though would make it nothing to write home about if not for the film's real strength.

That strength is of course a love for - often quite inexplicable - nonsense. There are not only the whole camera business, the particularly cheap yet silly gadgets, and the final explanation for the location of the formula to stare in delighted disbelief at, Berlino includes so much more. Take for example the Russian plan to kill Brett by letting him activate the knifing modus of a wax figure representing Napoleon; or the fact that the Russian agents seem to carry Napoleon around with them wherever they go, even after their fiendish attempt failed. One would assume more than one of the film's five scriptwriters to had realized neither the plan nor the whole Napoleon wax figure mascot thing make any sense at all, but somehow wax Napoleon still made his way in to put a smile on my face; possibly even to induce me to giggle.

This is symptomatic for the whole film: nothing ever makes sense, and when the writers find a way to shovel in stuff like the Russian's final secret lair whose interior moves about awkwardly, slowly and very loudly when things need to be hidden (that feature is of course controlled by an eminently visible row of buttons, and will cost the female Russian agent her life when it turns out she doesn't know how to jump about fifty centimetres upwards onto a slowly moving piece of furniture) instead of something sensible or logical, they will.

It's all more than enough to let the willing viewer get over little things like that lack of coherence or sanity.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

In short: Upperseven (1966)

Original title: Upperseven, l'uomo da uccidere

aka The Spy With Ten Faces

aka The Man of a Thousand Masks

British super agent Paul Finney aka Upperseven (Paul Hubschmid) and freelance agent of evil Kobras (Nando Gazzolo) have been clashing repeatedly, even though poor Kobras doesn't even know his best enemy's face thanks to Upperseven's love for those spy movie rubber masks that perfectly simulate real faces.

Their enmity comes to a head when Kobras and his equally evil girlfriend Birgit (Vivi Bach) get involved in the plans of "an oriental country" to prevent the creation of Pan-Africa. These plans for some reason involve the poisoning of a Swiss water reservoir, the theft of US money, and the building of a rather fantastic missile base in Ghana.

Of course, Upperseven is on the case soon enough, using his ability to dress up as whatever seems appropriate or fun, and his other ability of being quite good at punching people in the face to save world peace. Our hero is assisted by CIA agent Helen (Karin Dor), an expert in needing to be rescued. Together, there's no trap they won't stumble into but survive. Will Rosalba Neri pop up in an inconsequential role? Will Upperseven disguise himself as Kobras and seduce Birgit while Helen waits for him in a cell during the course of the movie? Will the villains' lair explode? You bet.

Upperseven is a fine demonstration that the right director can make even the most threadbare Eurospy movie (this is an Italian/German co-production fortunately and obviously creatively dominated by the Italian side) a fun time for its audience.

And threadbare the movie really is: Italy has to stand in for half a dozen countries including Ghana, the film's secret spy lairs are made out of soundstages, warehouses and blinking lights, and the plot makes particularly little sense even in a genre that is based on turning the utter nonsense of the Bond movie plots into even greater nonsense.

On that surface level, the only thing Upperseven has going for it is a very game cast. Sure, one could argue that Hubschmid is a bit too suave, and Dor her usual pretty but totally boring self, but then one would have to find time for thoughts like this in a film as hell-bent on entertaining its audience with every Eurospy movie cliché available.

Director Alberto De Martino (a typical Italian genre director with a filmography containing much of the ridiculous and the boring, yet also of the sublimely ridiculous and the fun) obviously realized that the one thing standing between his film and a bored and frustrated audience was his willingness to never let his film stop throwing something cheaply entertaining at his audience for a single second. Consequently, De Martino bombards us with one enthusiastic fistfight, mock martial arts battle, car chase, motorcycle chase, scene of rubber mask wonder, change of country while actually staying in the same country, and so on and so forth after the other, all driven by an archetypical - and therefore wonderful - Bruno Nicolai score. Taken isolated from each other, there's nothing special about any of the film's elements, but De Martino presents them with so much conviction, sometimes with what feels like a barely held in check desperation to entertain, they can't help but add up to a hundred minutes of pure Eurospy fun.

Friday, November 9, 2012

On WTF: The Pact (2012)

One of the true pleasures in horror of the last decade or so for me has been a resurgence in tales of ghosts and hauntings. Sure, not all of these films are great, but regularly, one will stumble upon a fantastic example of the sub-genre.

Case in point is Nicholas McCarthy's The Pact. Click on through to my column on WTF-Film and hear me gush!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

In short: Jinrui wa Suitai Shimashita (2012)

aka Humanity Has Declined

As the title of this twelve-part anime show states, in its nearly post-technological future, mankind has entered a state of stagnation and decline, with the remainders of humanity living a rather bucolic and peaceful looking life. It's a very soft apocalypse, where no punky raiders ride around in dune buggies to rape and pillage. Instead, what's left of humanity takes its own end with a slightly melancholic shrug of their shoulders.

The new dominant species (or as the show calls them "the new humanity") on Earth are the Fairies, weird yet probably well-meaning little creatures with a thing for hats and sweets and horrifying and/or cute ever-smiling holes where their mouths are supposed to be. Oh, they also can do magic. And science. Or something.

The show's nameless, pink-haired protagonist returns to her home village (humanity can't do the whole "city" thing anymore) to work as an UN mediator between humans and fairies. She's really rather good with the fairies, but she still gets into a bunch of strange, hair-raising and often wickedly funny (on more than one level) adventures, like having to thwart the world-domination plan of naked chickens, or becoming trapped in a manga where she has to survive the horrors of actual Japanese manga magazine culture, or surviving the the mandatory "Groundhog day" time vortex episode (which does not take up ten episodes, and includes a most curious tea party). It all ends up in a surprisingly poignant and complex boarding school adventure that would be the stuff of a whole season in most other shows.

As the show merrily jumps around in its internal time line, there's no major plot developing. Storylines usually take up two episodes and merrily take from the part of otaku culture the show's producers want to explore, send up, or work in this week. These genre detours get plenty crazy, but they never lead to a show that only consists of pieces of other shows or cultural artefacts. Instead, Jinrui manages to take these bits and pieces and make them intrinsic parts of itself; I'd even say it could stand on its own for a viewer who doesn't even get half of its winks and nudges.

Still, that structure should by all rights lead to a rather random show, and if you only look at its very surface, Jinrui is rather random (like its fairies). On a thematic and emotional level, though, there is more than one through-line to the show, with melancholic yet hopeful acceptance the emotional tenor between all the craziness the show can come up with.

Surprisingly, all that randomness also manages to add up to the sort of somewhat coherent worldbuilding where even the more bizarre elements begin to make sense once you put them in context with each other. Of course, the show expects its viewers to do large parts of that effort themselves, so if you don't, it's just adorably random, which is also well and good.

The show's main director Seiju Kishi and composer (aka lead writer) Makoto Uezu belong to the type of contemporary commercial anime workers who seem to be doing just about any kind of show, with no philosophical through-line I could find, so it's impossible to position Jinrui in the context of a body of work, seeing as most of what they have done lacks any personality of its own as far as I can tell . Jinrui wa Suitai Shimashita on the other hand, is all personality.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Three Films Make A Post: IN BLOODY PANIC COLOR

Prometheus (2012): I was going into this completely willing not to believe any critical word I've read about Ridley Scott's Alien prequel, for when have mainstream film critics ever gotten genre films? Unfortunately, this one really is as dumb and ill-thought out as they say, with some basic plot ideas that could have made for an interesting piece of visionary SF/horror, like Arthur C. Clarke meets Lovecraft, if any of the lavish detail that went into the production design had found its way into the script. Instead, there are character who aren't even clichés (wasting a great cast) acting like idiots, characters who also are not even vaguely believable as people, ideas that are never explored, a plot that's driven by everyone being an idiot, random crap that just came into the writers' heads and a painful willingness to be as tedious and uninteresting about everything as possible, and dialogue that could be improved by having the actors make farting noises instead. I'd go into more details, but then I have already wasted two hours of my life on this.

Chernobyl Diaries (2012): As far as horror movies about stupid, self-centered American tourists visiting Eastern Europe and dying of stupidity and because All Eastern Europeans Are Evil™ go, this one's kind of watchable. It just suffers from a way too slow build-up, with long long minutes of getting to know the main characters - turns out there's no reason to give a crap about them -, useless exposition (or do Americans really not know about Chernobyl?), and being co-written by Oren Peli, who, as I by now know, could not write a sympathetic or interesting character or an ending that's not absurdly dumb to save his life. But some of the pissed-off mutant stalk (get out of here, Stalker!) and attack scenes are realized quite well by director Bradley Parker and the locations are mildly creepy, so there is some entertainment to be had here.

I also have to give the film credit for going for a very bleak ending, even though it stretches the limits of my belief even more than the radiation mutants do.

Storage 24 (2012): A handful of people find themselves locked in with a very rude alien in a 24 hour storage facility. Unfortunately, before any monster movie fun can be had, lead actor and co-writer Noel Clarke aka Mickey from Doctor Who will have much space for a love triangle with two equally annoying partners, and many dispiriting soap operatics will occur. That part of the movie would be easier to stomach if the film bothered to make its characters interesting or even just give them actual character traits beyond "Noel Clarke is straight, and whines a lot, but he also wrote the script, so he will be our hero". As it stands, the film already had burned through all of my goodwill once the theoretically fun bits started, and just annoyed me with its alien monster by numbers, its drama by numbers and its plot by numbers, all told without any verve.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

There Was A Little Girl (1981)

aka And When She Was Bad

aka Madhouse

aka Flesh and the Beast

aka Scared to Death

When she was a kid, Julia (Trish Everly) was abused by her twin sister Mary (Allison Biggers) so heavily, it comes as a bit of a surprise she actually managed to grow into a sane and caring teacher for deaf and hard of hearing children. One suspects her breaking off all contact with her sister as soon as she was able helped there.

But a few days before their shared twenty-fifth birthday, Julia's uncle, the priest James (Dennis Robertson), convinces her to visit Mary in the hospital where a now disfigured and deathly ill sister will probably spend the rest of her days. The meeting doesn't go well, to say the least. Mary's still crazy as a loon and promises Julia she'll make her birthday as horrible as she and her dog did when they were children.

The very next night, Mary and a security guard disappear from the hospital - actually, the security guard is killed by a dog, but that's a fact only the audience and the killer is privy to - and someone sneaks into the empty apartment above Julia's.

Soon, people around the teacher begin to disappear, and her new secret neighbour threatens her in circumspect ways. Of course, the father figures in her life - Father James and her boyfriend Sam (Michael MacRae) - don't believe Julia when she reasonably assumes that something very bad is up, and this something most probably has something to do with her sister. Otherwise, things couldn't culminate on her birthday.

I'm not sure if Ovidio G. Assonitis' There Was is an attempt to giall-ify the slasher or one to slash-ify the giallo. What I do know is that the result of the director's fiendish experiment in unholy movie genre surgery suggests the crossing of the two sister genres is one of those Things Man Isn't Meant To Do.

The film begins rather promising, with many a well-photographed scene, decent acting, and just the right note of hysteria in the way the plot develops. It's not exactly "believable" in the naturalistic interpretation of that word, but the film's early stages work well as one of these "your worst fears come to life" deals for our poor, beleaguered protagonist. Though the first cracks begin to show early on too: Riz Ortolani's soundtrack starts out like a standard giallo/thriller deal, but whenever the killer stalks his/her victims, the music turns into an unending series of decidedly videogame-y pew-pew noises that suggest the children Julia is teaching aren't the only ones deaf here. Needless to say, it's a highly original way to sabotage a film's suspense scenes.

The longer the movie goes on, the worse its pacing becomes. What begins sprightly enough turns tedious at about the halfway mark. After the killer is unmasked for the audience (as if there ever was any doubt), the stalking scenes become longer and longer but not more inventive. The film's special low point is an endless cat and mouse game between the killer and Julia's landlady that isn't just tedious, but also suggests both the killer and the landlady to be the two stupidest persons alive.

And while I'm talking about the killer, the final nail in the film's coffin is the fact that, once he's unmasked, Assonitis decides to give him endless space to ramble, sing (oh, the singing) and play crazy until a character that should be relentless, menacing and creepy turns into a pure annoyance. It's never a good sign when the first thing a viewer wants from a killer in a movie is to just finally shut up and kill someone. But hey, at least there's a scene concerning a door, a badly faked dog head and Sam wielding an electric drill.

It's a bit of a shame that particular ridiculous set piece is the film's only late act highpoint, for its early stages suggest Assonitis would have well been able to make a suspenseful giallo/slasher hybrid; it's even more of a shame how much of the film's final breakdown is self-inflicted by the inability of its director to realize when a character really needs to shut up.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Crypt of Dark Secrets (1976)

Crypt of Dark Secrets' director/writer/producer Jack Weis is one of my personal favourites among regional US independent filmmakers - may the appropriate Godhood have mercy on me - but even I have to say that Crypt (by the way not a movie containing any crypts, unless "crypt" is now the word used to describe one awkwardly fake gravestone), unlike Weis's masterpiece Mardi Gras Massacre, is predominantly a masterpiece of awkwardness. But a masterpiece is a masterpiece, so there's that.

To call the film's plot loose would be pretending it to be quite a bit tighter than it actually is. As it stands, a Korea and Vietnam War vet (as the film's characters never tire to explain, he was a Ranger) named Ted Watkins (Ronald Tanet) whose particular talents include never moving a facial muscle, showing off his chubby chest, and keeping his money in a bread box, moves into a house on a haunted island in the Louisiana Bayous. Said haunting is an immortal woman named Damballa (Maureen Ridley). Damballa likes to spend her time jazz-dancing (when in doubt naked), swimming a lot, awkwardly levitating, and turning into a snake.

From particularly awkward flashbacks and awkward cop exposition we learn she's an Aztec (from an Aztec culture that has nothing whatsoever to do with actual Aztec culture, of course), spending a few thousand years on the island until a man will appear there on whom she will practice naked jazz-dancing and to turn him into someone moving between life and death as herself, which will certainly have some sort of effect on, um, something. Anyhow, did you know the Aztecs invented voodoo?

There are also some local yokels trying to kill Ted for his money after they learned of his bread-boxing habits in a bank so excellent, its owner asks a new customer where he stores his money right in front of other customers, but that only ends in them being voodoo-ed to death by a voodoo priest servant of Damballa's who for some reason first sends them looking for (and finding) the treasure of Jean Lafitte. And to an inexplicable scene of Damballa nakedly and somewhat obscenely jazz-dancing over a sarcophagus.

Honestly, I have no idea what I just watched, but I do know I now have a better opinion of jazz-dancing.

But let's talk about Crypt's awkwardness a little, or rather, let me explain my two favourite bits of awkwardness from the movie (not including all the awkwardness I already mentioned, for repeating that would be rather awkward). Firstly, there are various forms of incredibly awkward acting, reaching from the "aw shucks I was born in the swamp" mock-naturalist acting of the yokels, to the Joe Friday stiffness of the cops who won't ever stop expositing things they've either already told us or we've already seen (or both), the Jim Caviezel facial paralysation stylings of Ted, to Maureen Ridley's inexplicably slow and pause-heavy line delivery that suggests she's reading her lines from some helpful cards but alas can't read very well. It's all very inspiring in a "everyone can act" kind of way.

Secondly, there's the dance choreography for Ridley (and sometimes for what we must call her voodoo ballet). Now, it's pretty clear Ridley knows much more about shaking, shimmying and writhing than she does about acting, and in that regard, being the kind of guy I am, I find it difficult to criticize her. Yet all of her dance sequences are so, well, awkwardly and weirdly choreographed it's difficult to find them as erotic as they are probably supposed to be. Perhaps Weis was going for a Jess Franco effect here, where the bizarreness of a given dance is often meant to emphasise and enhance its fetishist aspects. The dancing in Weis's film mostly had me staring at the screen with my patented "what the hell" face I usually reserve for French gore movies from the 80s and Weird Fu films from Taiwan.

It's obviously all enough to make a boy like me ponder if "awkward" and "awesome" aren't interchangeable, and that's before I have even mentioned the excellent (though awkwardly placed) swamp photography of the film that provides the always important local colour, or explained that I felt amused, befuddled and confused for the film's whole awkward seventy minutes.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

In short: Alien Factor 2: The Alien Rampage (2001)

Somebody has stolen some uranium and a Porsche from a nuclear plant somewhere in Maryland. A pair of FBI agents (soon-to-be dead Joe Ripple and Patrick "My character name is Agent Love" Bussink) are hot on the thief's trail through the backroads, but when they catch up with him in the woods near an idyllic small town, they learn that he's a) female and b) an alien (played by LauraLee O'Shell) who is very good at playing possum. Because Agent Love plays with the alien's spaceship remote, a deadly force field surrounds the woods and the town, and a bad-tempered cyborg (Bill Ulrich) soon goes on the titular rampage.

Will the local Sherriff's department (George Stover, Shannon Butch, Steven King) and their boss Allison Smith (Donna Sherman), a couple of tourists (Jaime Kalman and Jonas Grey), and Agent Love manage to protect the free world from the alien menace?

In the early 00's, Baltimore's greatest son Don Dohler, king of the provincial rubber suit monster movie, must have gotten bitten by the movie bug again, for he wrote, produced, and in two cases directed, another handful of horror films.

Alien Factor 2 is a non-sequel sequel whose plot has nothing to do with the film it's supposedly following up on; even the returning actors play different roles. In spirit, Alien Factor 2 is a true sequel, though, filled to the brim with all the things you love or loathe about Dohler's films. Firstly, the film is full of the expected stiff and awkward acting, with many cast members enunciating their (generally silly and stiff) lines as if they were afraid the words would bite them, and others indulging in various versions of off-beat scenery chewing or acting as if they'd prefer themselves to be part of the scenery. Character-wise, the film has the usual assortment of curious local stereotypes (there's little less threatening than Dohler-style bikers) acting oddly, suggesting the film's alien and her cyborg to be not the only ones not from planet Earth on screen.

Secondly, Dohler's sense of the dramatic didn't much improve in the intervening years between his classic phase and this one. The film is still full of non-sequitur scenes of people doing nothing of import and little interest, jumpy transitions, and a general feeling of awkwardness, as if the script were barely held together with spit, chewing gum, and good intentions. From time to time, the Very Dramatic™ synth score attempts to convince the audience how exciting the things happening on screen are, but always finds itself deserted by the slightly awkward staging of the action scenes and the general laid back feeling of the film.

On paper, all these Dohlerisms make for a terrible movie, but in truth, Alien Factor 2 is as charming and amusing as the movies Dohler made in his prime. The film's inability to be slick, the way it turns a (sort of) alien invasion into something manageable on the scale of a handful of small-town police, two tourists and a useless FBI agent, the way it smells and feels like a particular place and time, all are characteristics generally frowned upon in filmmaking, but they give Alien Factor 2 a personality and an individuality I find impossible to resist.

Friday, November 2, 2012

On WTF: Der Fälscher von London (1961)

aka The Forger of London

Perhaps the greatest problem the German Edgar Wallace adaptations made by Rialto Film had was the intense family resemblance of many of the films. Once you've seen enough of them, they become a confusing mass of masked villains, smirking detectives, bowler hats, fog, Eddi Arent, evil reform schools, Klaus Kinski and young heiresses in need to be kidnapped.

That's not a problem Der Fälscher von London shares with the rest of the series. What the film puts in the stead of many of the usual elements, I'll tell you in my column over at WTF-Film.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Three Films Make A Post: Half-man half-beastbird... swooping on his human prey... drinking blood... mutilating flesh!

Blackaria (2010): This is the other low budget homage to Italian horror cinema and the giallo by French directors Francois Gaillard and Christophe Robin, but where Last Caress was mining the totality of the giallo and Lucio Fulci-style horror, this one is a love letter to Dario Argento from Deep Red to Phenomena. Unlike Last Caress, this one also has an actual plot, but given the roughness of the script, the - how shall I say? - problematic intelligence of said plot, not to speak of what I can only read as its rampant misogyny, that's not necessarily a good thing. Again, you'll also need a high tolerance for amateurish acting and a non-professional feel, but just might be compensated for your patience by the film's cheap yet loving art direction, the excellent editing and a lot of style. This is clearly again a film made by fans of Italian horror for other fans of it exclusively, so you'll probably already know if Blackaria is for you or not.

Gun Crazy: Episode 2 - Beyond the Law (2002): Atsushi Muroga is one of the better directors of Japanese 90s/00s direct to video action fodder, and while this concoction about a cute, idealistic female lawyer (Rei Kikukawa) finding herself trying out the at first rather more simple seeming law of the gun isn't exactly a hidden gem, it's among the more watchable films from this part of the Japanese movie industry. The problem with these films is often that they're produced so cheaply they can't actually afford all that much action - which is a bit of a problem in supposed action films - and have to replace it with weirdness (if you're lucky), melodrama, and empty warehouses. Muroga generally knows how to handle these things with a certain degree of style, and here avoids the genre's all too typical boredom by judicious application of slow motion, entertaining pseudo-philosophy, and choice moments of leather and guns porn. It's not great filmmaking, but it's entertaining enough.

Cosmopolis (2012): Not to sound like one of those people who hate any movie with intellectual ambition, but nearly two hours of expressionless puppets declaiming stiff (I'd bet taken one to one from DeLillo's novel) dialogue that confuses depth and obtuseness are nothing to endear a movie to me, particularly when nothing the film has to say is all that complicated or deep. In fact, I can't help but suspect this is a case of a film hiding its lack of intellectual rigour behind gestures to suggest DEEP ART. My disillusionment with Cronenberg continues apace. At least the soundtrack is pretty great.