Thursday, October 31, 2013

In short: Curse of Chucky (2013)

One of the more peculiar facts in horror films is that the Child's Play/Chucky movies are one of the most consistent franchises in the genre. In quality, at least, the films never tend to disappoint, though they don't reach the quality of the very best entries of the more variable series. But then there aren't that many horror films on a level with the original Halloween. I suspect the main reason for their consistency is that the movies are still written (and in this case directed) by Chucky-creator Don Mancini, and not by some hired hand who couldn't give a damn.

After diving as deeply into the meta humour rabbit hole as possible in the last two movies, the newest Chucky film plays out rather more seriously and tightly, the still sardonic sense of humour this time around standing in service of what mostly is a tight, old-fashioned horror film taking for the most part place during the course of a single night and in a single place. That set-up is most probably just a way to cope with a limited budget, but, as good writers and directors tend to do, Mancini turns the flaw into a virtue and goes all unity of time and place on us, finding joy in perfectly executed old thriller tropes. In fact, the film's only weakness is the coda after the actual plot has run its course and the story of the movie is placed in the Chucky mythology (apparently, all of the films before are supposed to haven taken place in the same world, which leads to questions the film at hand can't even begin to answer) in a way that makes as much sense as anything but that is neither very interesting nor actually seems to belong into the highly focused rest of the film.

That rest, or rather main course, of the film, is very effective for its part, demonstrating what happens when you let a killer doll loose on a dysfunctional family (with Fiona Dourif as an excellent wheelchair bound and ill final girl). A priest is killed, other people are also killed of course, a few expectations are subverted, and Chucky quotes Nietzsche. It's all in a day's work in killer doll land, and it's a rather good day.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

In short: Frankenstein's Army (2013)

At the tail-end of World War II, a small squad of Russian soldiers is traipsing through Eastern Germany, all the while filmed by Dimitri (Alexander Mercury), a man in the process of making a propaganda movie that'll make Stalin happy, and that, of course, is providing the footage we are watching. The soldiers catch an emergency broadcast of other Russian troops and make their way to a small village seeking to help their comrades out.

Unexpectedly, the village is mad science central, and soon enough, the soldiers have to fight off rather lively and aggressive dead people with various metal parts screwed onto them. The situation doesn't improve when it turns out that one of them has kept some rather crucial information from them, and they can't just do what any sane person confronted with the kinds of grotesque nightmares they encounter would do and just run. And that's even before they meet the creatures' creator (Karel Roden), who comes from a long line of mad scientists.

Said grotesque nightmares really are the core joy of Richard Raaphorst's fine piece of low budget horror. Frankenstein's soldiers are created with such an obvious joy and love of detail, as well as a demonstrating such a good working idea of craziness, that I'm perfectly okay with how simple Frankenstein's Army's plot and characters are, and how "no shit, Sherlock" - though perfectly fitting the material - its theme (humanity is a horrible, self-destructive species; totalitarianism is the highest and most horrible expression of these urges, and look how horrible we truly are) is. We are, after all, here to watch bloody violence and improbable creatures (personal favourite: slug guy or the poor creature with an airplane propeller for a head), as long as the film gives us a tiny reason to watch them. For once, talking about "grand guignol" style filmmaking seems like absolutely correct terminology for a movie.

The film's POV stylings aren't truly believable but are realized with a love for detail comparable to that of the creature designs. While I don't buy the whole set-up at all - even after the mandatory plot twist - Raaphorst puts a lot of actual effort in to add visual artefacts appropriate to the era without ever going so overboard with them they become annoying. When it comes to the staging of scenes, the director generally prefers the effective or atmospheric shot to the believably in character, something which may annoy people who want their POV films to be "realistic" but which is an approach I prefer when used as it is here - to make the movie a more effective horror film. This also leads to Frankenstein's Army being one of the increasing number of POV horror movies where you get a good look at everything you'd care to see (and some things you rather didn't).

The film's final joy is veteran actor (seldom seemed that phrase more fitting) Karel Roden's absolutely unhinged performance as the film's big name mad scientist. It's not just a perfect bit of scenery chewing but really the only way the man who created the things we see throughout the film could have been played - not as a realistic mentally ill man, but a raving lunatic with tendencies to mock politeness.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

SyFy vs The Mynd: Ghost Shark (2013)

A series of ridiculous incidents and the vagaries of cliché redneck-ism result in a shark getting first slaughtered, then revived as a ghost by the magical cave close to a small Southern US coastal town. First, the newly born ghost shark eats the people who killed it, munches through their boat captain, the father of the film's mid-20s teenage heroine Ava (Mackenzie Rosman), and then proceeds to install its very own reign of terror.

The local mid-20s teenagers, led by Ava's no-nonsense stylings, very quickly accept the existence of a translucent shark that can manifest itself through even the tiniest bit of water (cue scenes of people dragged into toilets, and a very enthusiastic actor getting eaten from the inside after drinking the wrong cup of water). Alas, the authorities, represented by the mayor (Lucky Johnson) and the Sheriff (Thomas Francis Murphy) are no help at all. At first they don't believe the teens, and then they try to hush the situation up to (repeat after me) "avoid a panic".

So it falls to Ava and her fastly shrinking cohort of incompetent sidekicks to solve the town's ghost shark problem. The question is just how. Alcoholic grumpy lighthouse keeper Finch (a Richard Moll who can't get enough of that tasty scenery) seems to know something about ghosts and the town's dark secrets, but will he help? And why am I asking this?

If you can cope with the utterly ludicrous basic idea and the broad strokes its characters are drawn with, Griff Furst's Ghost Shark is a whole lot of fun. Furst is one of the more individual directors of SyFy originals, and when working in this function produces either films I pretty much adore - like the glorious Swamp Shark - or loathe - like the dreaded Arachnoquake, depending on the balance between ridiculous/awesome set-up, horror film fun, and "irony".

Thankfully, Ghost Shark is more like Swamp Shark, taking its stupid basic idea and playing it half straight, or at least straight enough not to feel the need to break every scene of curious carnage up by winking and nudging. This doesn't mean there's no irony or humour in the film. Ghost Shark does after all feature more than one toilet related death as well as a scene that sees bikini clad women scrubbing a car getting ghost-sharked; it just doesn't feel the need to film these scenes as comedic set pieces, which actually makes them much funnier and much more fun as they would be if Furst pointed their craziness (and comparable stupidity) out any further. Also, a lot of the film's jokes are actually funny.

Furst does show a lot of imagination in his treatment of the shark's water-related super powers, rescuing his film from becoming just another shark movie. Sure, gravity and logic, and ghost shark power consistency have to sit the film out, but I sure didn't miss them while watching. In fact, what Furst's approach to the murder and mayhem remind me of most are the first Nightmare on Elm Street movies; the bathtub attack even looks to me like a conscious homage to Freddy's first escapade.

Add to that the enjoyable and regular nature of the carnage, Furst's good grip on pacing (the "never a boring scene" approach to filmmaking) and Mackenzie Rosman's classically likeable final girl, and you have yourself a very fun film.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Dyatlov Pass Incident (2013)

aka Devil's Pass

Warning: while I'm not going into too much detail here, there will still be spoilers!

The by now proverbial group of student filmmakers (Holly Goss, Matt Stokoe, Luke Albright, Gemma Atkinson and Ryan Hawley) mysteriously disappears while trying to shoot a documentary solving the mystery of the Dyatlov Pass Incident. The footage we see is of course supposed to be the footage the students shot, freed from Russian military servers by hacktivists.

Turns out that, not surprisingly, the group's project did not stand under a good star, particularly once they set out in the direction of the Pass. Early on, still on their way to the pass, they are disturbed by curious bare footsteps in the snow around their tents, as well as by a mouth-less tongue lying around. Once they arrive at the place where the 1959 expedition died, things really get freaky, and soon, secret history starts repeating itself, or in a certain way actually starts happening.

For the first fifty or so minutes of its running time, Renny "Where Did I Go Wrong?" Harlin's Dyatlov Pass Incident (I disapprove of the Devil's Pass title that suggests an assumption of audience stupidity from the producers) plays like a slicker version of your typical POV horror movie, just one with more snow (snow makes everything better), not very shaky camera, sometimes suspiciously good camera angles on the action, and simple yet deft characterisation. Consequently, I made the rather obvious assumption that the rest of the movie was going to consist of tearful monologues into the camera, lots of running around in the dark, and screaming.

We do in fact get a bit of running around and screaming, yet Harlin goes for a somewhat different end game, replacing the more sub-genre typical inexplicable mystery with a big wallop of Forteana highly appropriate for something called The Dyatlov Pass Incident, a small bit of conspiracy thriller flair (it's not a Harlin movie when nobody shoots a gun, after all), and characters who actually fight for their lives (which is a bit more improbable than the usual POV horror whimpering messes but makes for a nice change anyway).

Sure, the hokum Harlin uses is far from original but it actually makes sense in the context of the movie, and sets up the thing POV horror very seldom has: a traditional ending that ties up most of the plot's loose ends and that leaves the audience with a pretty good picture of what has been going on. Now, while I love some mystery and weirdness in my endings, a lot of POV movies in the last few years seem to have used that sort of ending as an excuse not to have to think about what's going on in them, not caring if the open ending actually fits what came before in what it is difficult not to call cargo cult scriptwriting. Harlin's ending, on the other hand, actually fits his film well, while still suggesting some rather unpleasant ideas about the way the universe his characters live in (or not) works. Even better, if you think a little about what has happened in the movie after you have understood what's going on, there's a strong suggestion of a Lovecraftian universe at play here, even without tentacles, and a pessimism that has a lot more in common with 70s horror than most contemporary films that often don't seem to mean their kicker endings and only use them because they are a convention of the genre.

On the visual side, Harlin is clearly a friend of the philosophy I've seen in a few of the more recent POV horror films that an audience should get a good look at the interesting stuff in a film even when it is supposedly shot by amateurs. It works well for Dyatlov Pass Incident, even though the film's monsters do look a bit too much like cheaper, more aggressive versions of Gollum, or like less believable versions of the creatures in Neil Marshal's The Descent. There are some rather clever camera set-ups, and one or two moments in the film's last stages where the camera work will stretch belief to the breaking point for viewers who want their POV horror movies to be realistic instead of right. Harlin's action movie past shows itself in his very un-POV horror sense of pacing where every scene has (quite appropriately, one would think) an actual function in the movie, which again, is more "right" than it is "realistic".

I really enjoyed myself with The Dyatlov Pass Incident, certainly because I'm always happy with POV horror that tries to add some variation to the style, but also because Harlin is just a fine storyteller.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

In short: Hallowed Ground (2007)

Designated heroine Liz (Jaimie Alexander) probably didn't expect running away from the death of her child in the traditional American way of driving westward would lead her to a little town whose inhabitants are members of a cult that takes her to be the baby mother of the rebirth of their sainted a-century-dead evil murdering-through-scarecrow-crucifixion favourite preacher. Nor that she'd have to fight off not just mad cultists but also a possessed scarecrow. But there you have it.

And while this sounds all kinds of awesome (though pretty stupid), David Benullo's resulting film is just a bit okay, the sort of middling horror film that doesn't dare go too far in any direction. So Hallowed Ground is a bit weird but not Weird; it's a bit bloody but never really gory; it's slightly cheesy but never goes all out. It is - in brief - the sort of film clearly produced by people with decent technical abilities yet no visible affinity to what horror movies are good at or good for, or just lacking the ability to bring that affinity on screen. Even the walking scarecrow - generally something that should automatically be at least slightly creepy - just misses the mark, as if Benullo just couldn't quite grasp what makes a walking scarecrow creepy instead of just a guy dressed up like a scarecrow.

Hallowed Ground isn't quite apathetic enough to be called boring or to annoy me but it is so middling in, well, everything I have a hard time finding any reason for it to exist at all.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

SyFy vs. The Mynd: Grizzly Rage (2007)

Four dudebros (one of 'em's a girl, making it three dudebros and one dudebronette I suppose) celebrate their graduation (I dare not speculate what they are graduating from) by communing with Mother Nature. Which is to say, they drive around in a four-by-four after ignoring a no trespassing sign and cutting a chain. Not surprisingly, this doesn't end well, for they run over an innocent grizzly bear cub.

Mama Bear is displeased, so soon it's time for our protagonists to face her…grizzly rage. Of course, idiocy leaves them stranded in Mama Bear's realm but that goddamn animal really takes its sweet time killing them.

It is never a good sign when a film produces wistful thoughts about William Girdler's Grizzly in a boy, and that's exactly what David DeCoteau's film at hand does. Trying to articulate everything that's wrong with the it would waste too much of my time, after watching the film has already cost me enough of my life, so I'm just going with a few highlights here.

How about the film's insistence on providing his characters not with  a single discernible character trait, again producing wistful thoughts in me, this time around remembering the awesome complexity of slasher archetypes like The Jock, The Slut, The Virgin, The Intellectual; at least those you can tell apart.

Then there's DeCoteau's complete inability to make the few shots of grizzly the film actually contains even the least bit threatening. In fact, the director shoots the animal in ways bound to undermine every possibility of threat from the get-go. Seldom has a bear in a horror movie looked this small.

Last but not least, I also have to complain about GR's soundtrack. It's not enough that it attacks the ears with the usual SyFy and co synthie non-music music (seriously, that stuff is clearly not composed but generated), it also has to add about half a dozen horrible "alternative" rock tracks by bands whose great ambition in life seems to be to become just like Nickelback.

So yeah, avoid this at all costs.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Three Films Make A Post: A NEW - AND GREAT - MICKEY ROONEY!

Kronos (1957): Kurt Neumann's movie has some rather interesting ideas and features a lovely cubist giant monster, but gets dragged down again and again by an inability to escape the conventions of 50s SF/horror movies. The film is far from being an unwatchable mess but I find it rather irritating when a movie shies away from using its full degree of imagination (something a movie concerning a giant, energy-sucking robot thing surely possesses, particularly one that's casting Morris Ankrum as a psychiatrist instead of a general) only to follow genre conventions that are just not very interesting. If you're able to watch the film that's actually there, and have a tolerance for this sort of thing, you'll probably enjoy yourself enough, though, because Neumann and co surely are competent at what they are doing.

American Mary (2012): This, on the other hand, is on quite a different quality level. Unfortunately, Jen and Sylvia Soska's film is one of those films I don't really have to say anything of interest about, apart from obvious stuff like "it's really fantastic" and "is Katherine Isabelle great here, or what!?", so you know, it's really fantastic, and Katharine Isabelle is particularly great in it.

Il Prato Macchiato Di Ross aka The Bloodstained Lawn (1973): Riccardo Ghione's horror-based satire on the doubtful charms of the bourgeoisie suffers from a rather sluggish pace, a lack of actual incisive satire, and a certain lack of imagination in its direction. It's a bit of a shame too, because whenever Ghione (also responsible for the screenplay) manages to move his eye from the obvious towards the weird, his film awakens to life. It's too bad that a rather tepid and soft-footed approach dominates the film, for in the hands of someone more (intellectually and visually) daring, this could have been quite the film. As it stands, it's a somewhat interesting curio.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Fright Night 2 (2013)

Not to be confused with that other Fright Night 2.

I don't even want to know why the sequel to the Fright Night remake of 2011 is another reboot, and file it under "Things Man wasn't meant to know" like grandpa HPL taught me. Particularly, I see no reason to whine about it in a film I found much more entertaining than the remake it remakes without the boring US suburbia stuff that is so overplayed in horror.

Anyhow, I think we can leave out the usual synopsis and just say that Charley Brewster (Will Payne) again sees a vampire, nobody believes him, and the lamest incarnation of TV host Peter Vincent (Sean Power, whoever he is) comes to his help or not. Just this time around, the movie takes place in Romania where our teenage heroes are taking some kind of guest study course, and the vampire is Countess Bathory herself (Jaime Murray), moonlighting (tee-hee) as an art professor.

While this is all highly derivative of the other Fright Nights and every vampire movie ever, director Eduardo Rodriguez uses the possibilities of producing a direct-to-video movie with what I assume to be quite a budget for this sort of thing, at least comparatively, with aplomb, and stylistically very much in the spirit of European horror of the 70s.

Until now, all of Rodriguez's films I've seen were visually very bland, shot in the yellow, desaturated colours I've grown to loathe over the years, so it comes as a bit of surprise to not just find the director use colours in the classic, mood-enhancing ways we all know and love from European gothic horror but to use them very well, clearly aiming for the dream-like end of the horror spectrum where camera angles become as strange as the plot, and where an atmosphere of weirdness and the bizarre is much more important than coherence or logic. It's really the only direction to go with a script as plain silly as Matt Venne's (this is a compliment, obviously) whose finale surprisingly doesn't go for a huge plot twist and has the feel of something made up as the film went along. It's overcomplicated, it's strange, and it's rather a lovely thing in a film world full of movies constructed so tightly to after formula it's impossible not to know everything that will happen in them, and how it will happen, after one has seen their first acts.

There's a bit more sleaze and gore than I would have expected, too, both used effectively and enthusiastically. Direct humour does take a bit of a back seat compared to the other films in what I now have to call a "franchise"; in fact, the three actual horror comedy scenes stick out as if they belonged in a different movie. Add to that how much this Peter Vincent version lacks in personality, and that he might as well just not be in the film for all the importance he has, and it's difficult to shake the feeling that the script wasn't always a Fright Night script.

On the acting side, the film's a bit of a mixed bag, with Power as boring as his character, Chris Waller and Sacha Parkinson bad in a fun to watch way, or rather bad in different fun to watch ways as a comparison of their respective vampire scenes will show, Will Payne appropriately hysterical, and Jaime Murray doing a bang up job of overacting in a fun and conscious way and looking weird yet attractive.

I'm sure a lot of people will loathe Fright Night 2 as just another film that isn't the original Fright Nights, but I'm rather glad it isn't. If I wanted to see those, I'd just pop in their DVDs and watch them. Instead, Rodriguez delivers a film that might be a bit of a mess, but a mess in all the right, interesting, and strange ways, the sort of film that stands as a reminder that you can take the prospect of something as dispiriting as a remake of a remake, and end up with a fun, imaginative film. Plus, it's also a film that has a lot to teach regarding the dangers of overcomplicated occult rituals, and the existence of vampire sonar. What more could I ask of a direct-to-DVD movie?

Sunday, October 20, 2013

SyFy vs. The Mynd: Headless Horseman (2007)

A wagonload of teenage meat has decided on a very bad day to take a short cut leading through the backwoods town of Wormwood to arrive in time for a Halloween party somewhere else. For all seven years, Wormwood is haunted by a headless horseman, whose pact with Satan assures him of a shiny new head if he manages to off seven teenagers during one day and one night. And would you believe it, in a total coincidence our teenage heroes number seven?

Not surprisingly, Headless kills the teens off one by one, absconding with one head after the other to throw into his own private hole leading to hell. Apart from an unstoppable undead killing machine, our heroes - obvious final girl Ava (Rebecca Mozo) and obvious final guy Liam (Billy Aaron Brown) are the only ones I am going to name - also have to cope with Wormwood's human inhabitants who feel obliged to help Headless out by keeping his victims inside the town limits by any means necessary. Only pseudo-jailbait Candy (Lizzie Prestel) might be on their side.

Anthony C. "Sharknado" Ferrante's Headless Horseman, a NuImage production that premiered on the SciFi Channel (on Halloween, of course), starts out less than promising. It begins as one of those particular annoying slasher movies very much in the tradition of Scream that think pointing out a cliché but then still using it is the height of wit, so it delivers all the usual slasher cliché characters, but does it "ironically". Which is to say, absolutely unfunny in its humour and way too much in love with its own cleverness to bother with building up any interest that might make an audience root for them or care about them at all. The mostly dreadful standard of the film's acting doesn't exactly help its case there, either, because "cleverness" of this kind is bad enough, but "cleverness" delivered as if by idiots tends in the direction of the insufferable.

Because "funny" teen slasher victims aren't bad enough, the film then very quickly introduces "funny" backwoods people clichés, and proceeds to go the annoying way of all "ironic" horror movies up until about its halfway point, when it suddenly decides that, you know, it might as well become a pretty cool slasher movie for those people in the audience who were brave enough to get through the "humour" with gnashing teeth and pulling out their hair (if applicable). Suddenly, Headless Horseman develops a certain dramatic pull, starts to go through the repeated confrontations between teen and supernatural killer with actual imagination, adds some rather cool elements to Headless's backstory, and even allows its characters to make surprisingly ruthless efforts to get rid of the monster, rather more like people instead of ironic representations of movie clichés fighting for their lives.

Being who I am, I particularly enjoyed lovely crude details like the way Headless's head regrows bit by bit with each killing (I don't think I've seen that before), the pleasantly mythical aspects of the backstory, and the film's low-level yet insistent gore made more out of rubber than CGI. Most importantly, once the Headless Horseman's mood turns, and it lets go of most of its attempts to distance itself from its contents (which always makes one wonder why a film doesn't go for content the people involved feel fine with from the very beginning), it becomes  a classic thrill ride horror movie fun with nary a boring second.

If Headless Horseman had shown these qualities right from the start, I'd call it one of the major underrated low budget slashers I've seen, but even in its more heavily flawed incarnation, it's a film that deserves better than the usual jaded "meh, another NuImage/SyFy movie" reaction it typically gets, probably by people who understandably didn't bother getting through the forest of "irony".

Saturday, October 19, 2013

In short: Die Schwarze Kobra (1963)

aka The Black Cobra

Truck driver Peter Kramer (Adrian Hoven) is having a bad week: his latest cargo turns out to be drugs oh so cleverly disguised as washing powder, the owner of the cargo, a gangster known as The Corse, makes a very rude front-seat passenger, and then a competing gang working for the Syndicate kills the Corse right in front of Peter's eyes to boot. Which of course makes poor Peter a risk for the gangsters.

Soon enough, Peter finds himself alternately fleeing the Syndicate, the former gang of the Corse, and the police. Because this is that kind of movie, what ensues is mostly a series of kidnappings and re-kidnappings of Peter's girlfriend Alexa (Ann Smyrner) by the various factions, while Klaus Kinski betrays one gang to the other so he can snort that sweet, sweet coke. Also an appearance make Klaus Löwitsch as "Boogie", the violent pumped-up coke fiend to Kinski's snivelling one, a mysterious police undercover agent, a mute thug named Goba (Michel Ujevic), a knife-throwing Herbert Fux, mildly eccentric policemen (Paul Dahlke and Peter Vogel, the latter doing a milder version of the traditional Eddi Arent bit), Peter's former box champion now roadside rest stop animal show owner friend Punkti (Ady Berber), and a cobra (well, for one scene).

Obviously, Rudolf Zehetgruber's Die Schwarze Kobra is another non-Edgar Wallace krimi attempting to catch a bit of the commercial fire of the Rialto movies. Despite being shot in Vienna and at least nominally being an Austrian film, Zehetgruber's film features many of the usual faces in the more or less usual roles. The German language genre film world wasn't big after all, and really, when you can hire Kinski to do some snivelling, you do hire Kinski to do some snivelling.

Stylistically, this is - of course - much less intricately styled than the Rialto films were, with some okay sets and locations but also a handful of rather impoverished looking ones. The visual influences of and parallels to noir and gothic are mostly rather minor; moodiness, it seems did not stand high on Zehetgruber's list of things to include. Instead, the director does his best to make up for a very silly and often inappropriately melodramatic script (so one quite typical of German as well as Austrian genre writing), by getting as energetic as genre films of its place and era got. He's not quite as elegant at it as Harald Reinl was in comparable Wallace movies but the resulting film still is pleasantly fast-paced and action-filled. Sure, the fight choreography and quality of the stunt work (such as it is), isn't anything intricate, but the film had no problems convincing me that watching two big, slow man ponderously and very visibly not hitting each other in a fight was a rather fun thing, soon to be followed by other fun things, which is really all I expect of pulp-y krimis.

After having seen Die Schwarze Kobra I'm not at all surprised Zehetgruber would go on to direct a few of the Komissar X movies. While not being quite as enjoyable and pop as the later films, Die Schwarze Kobra is clearly the product of exactly the sort of sensibility best suited to bringing to live that particular series of cult film fan favourites, and therefore a fine way to spend ninety minutes.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

In short: Curandero (2005)

This Mexican horror movie directed by Eduardo Rodriguez (him of the atrocious El Gringo) took ages to get proper distribution, despite being quite as hopeless than your usual low budget black magic movie, featuring El Mariachi Carlos Gallardo himself in the title role giving a not unexpected performance between wooden-facedness, machismo and a certain human fragility, and providing a generally non-horrible ninety minutes, unlike a lot of independent horror films of much lower quality that have no problems whatsoever finding distribution. If I were of an unfriendly bend of mind, I'd assume a film full of Mexicans speaking Spanish (the English language dub is of course horrible) and not wearing sombreros is just too much for certain people to take.

Curandero does have its problems, though. First and foremost among these is that Rodriguez seems to attempt to win the price for the most piss-coloured film made in the decade of piss-coloured films. It's a decision that really ruins any aesthetic attraction the film may have, with everything in it being either absolutely desaturated (blood in this pretty bloody movie is not red but dark brown like, well, crap) or yellow, yellow and yellow. People with yellow skin (seriously) walk under a yellow sky, through colourless and yellow locations. It's like a black and white movie made by someone who doesn't want to bother to think about the differences between light and dark and hates shadows, and it really costs the film most of an ability to build up any kind of coherent mood.

A coherent mood would be quite helpful for it too, for not all of the script's tonal shifts from black comedy to horror to the sort of Mexican direct-to-video fodder which usually starred one of the Galindo brothers and back again work quite as well as they should, giving the film a more disjointed feel than its comparatively straightforward plot would suggest. The film's pacing is, as they say, erratic, repeatedly going from slow and ponderous - with scenes that go on way too long (the problem of real low budget independent horror beside problematic acting in minor roles) - to semi-fast in a way that makes it difficult to get really excited about the film or lose oneself in it.

On the other hand, despite these flaws, Curandero had no problem in at least holding my interest, if only to see what slightly weird flourish Rodriguez would give the next scene, and what gory hallucination/vision its hero would have next. There's a basic low budget movie charm to Curandero's version of magic and the supernatural that makes it difficult to resist the film completely, and while I'd have thanked its director pretty fucking much for putting a bit of thought into the basics of its visual presentation, I can't say I didn't enjoy watching it on that level of my tastes that appreciates sudden outbreaks of surrealist gore even if it is yellow.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

SyFy vs. The Mynd: In the Spider's Web (2007)

Because bullet points are the best thing ever, even better than Power Point presentations, I'll bullet all the points (I'm doing this right, right?) that make this SyFy movie about people walking back and forth through the jungle until the plot progresses to them going back and forth through a cave (oh, and spiders) an entertaining thing to watch. There will be spoilers concerning the fate of some characters, so if you like to complain about that sort of thing, don't read on, please.

  • India is beautiful! It also looks a lot like Thailand, and like a sound stage.
  • Consequently, India is also filled with Thai people dressed in pretend-Indian garb. I blame the confusing influence of elephants on the producers' brains.
  • There are also elephants in the movie.
  • One of two Indians actually played by an Indian actors is a pudgy, semi-comic relief cop played by Sohrab Ardeshir. In a rather surprising turn, he also shows a degree of competence and survives the movie.
  • Speaking of unexpected survivals: the film's black character (as played by Lisa Livingstone) survives too! And that despite not being the heroine (that job goes to Emma Catherwood).
  • It's also rather surprising (after this, I'm all out of thing I was surprised by in the film, though) that one of the characters you wouldn't expect to find that sort of end does suffer a rather 70s horror downer kind of fate that seems rather incongruous with the tone of general good-natured idiocy the film demonstrates elsewhere.
  • Lance Henriksen eats spiders. Lance Henriksen has an unexplained claw hand. Lance Henriksen is called "Dr. Lecorpus". Plus, Lance Henriksen.
  • There are three kinds of spiders in this world: real ones, those made of rubber, and those made via digital magic by people who don't know how spiders look. All three of them are in the movie.
  • This is not a film satisfied just featuring a particularly unconvincing spider cult led by Lance Henriksen doing its work in the jungles of India. So this is also a film featuring a particularly unconvincing illegal organ harvesting operation led by Lance Henriksen.
  • Said organ harvesting operation uses spider venom and spider webs and what looks a lot like old heating equipment.
  • Speaking of spider webs, spider webs can also be used to dampen one's fall, or as bridges. They are also the vines of the cave world.
  • Lance Henriksen's disfigured brother (for some reason, wee CGI spiders seem to live in the hole where one of his eyes should be) wears a sack made out of spider web over his head. Because why not, right?
  • In the Spider's Web contains one of the most embarrassing evil cult rituals I've ever seen. Seriously, I can't help but imagine director Terry Winsor directing some bored Thai bit players to "go nuts, kinda" and then just filming the result, while Henriksen uses all his enormous powers of professionalism not to laugh.
  • The ritual is then followed by one of the most embarrassing daring escapes I've ever seen. It is very inspiring for us couch potatoes, because we too could escape daringly if that's all the effort it takes.

Ladies and gentlemen, bullet points!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Nothing Left to Fear (2013)

Warning: structural spoilers ahead

Pastor Dan (James Tupper), his wife Wendy (Anne Heche), and their children Rebecca (Rebekah Brandes continuing the tradition of people nearing their 30s playing teenagers, which certainly makes for better acting but also leads to a curious gap between the visible adultness of the actor and the not quite as adult behaviour of the character), Mary (Jennifer Stone), and Christopher (Carter Cabassa) are moving into a small Midwestern town so that Dan can take over the job of the place's old pastor, Kingsman (Clancy Brown).

While their parents are taking to the country like ducks to water, the teenage (cough) girls aren't too happy having to leave the city, idyllic as their new home may be. Rebecca can at least console herself with a blossoming romance to local boy Noah (Ethan Peck). Something, however, is off with the town and its inhabitants, and it's not just Noah's at times curiously elusive behaviour, or Rebecca's equally strange nightmares. The audience realizes quite early what the characters will only find out when it might be too late - that they have been invited into town for a rather different role than taking over a parish.

Anthony Leonardi III's Nothing Left to Fear is a bit of a slow-burner, taking its time to build up a mood of slowly increasing wrongness, insinuating much before starting to show anything, and introducing its audience to the cast with perhaps more care than the not very complicated characters need. Mostly though, the film's early slowness looks like concentration to me, the carefully built base the film needs to increase audience expectations of the horrors to come. At least for the film's first two thirds, this approach pays off well through a feeling of true suspense.

Once the horrible creature crawls out of its hole, the film suffers a bit from a rather too conventional threat and escape structure that makes its ideas of big-lettered EVIL feel less overwhelming than its philosophical underpinnings suggest. The "creature's" design also follows the visual style of contemporary US supernatural horror (think Insidious) a bit too much for my tastes. It's certainly effective enough, but feels a bit too familiar for what it is supposed to be, particularly after having been built up so well while off-screen.

Despite this weakness, Nothing Left to Fear does get around to packing a bit of a punch in the end, breaking one of the bigger taboos in horror movies (at least horror movies with mainstream actresses like Anne Heche in them) before turning what would feel like one of those annoying kicker endings into something that fits the film's ideas about ritual cycles well and is just rather horrible.

Like Cabin in the Woods - of which it reminds me more than just a little in its willingness to go for cosmological consistence rather than affirmation of its audience's hopes in the end -  Nothing Left to Fear is a film rather easily read as allegory on politics or religion. Where Cabin in the Woods sees its system of unfair and cruel sacrifice breaking down in the end to ironically dire consequences (I can't help but read this as "if the price for saving the world is this high, the world might deserve what it gets"), Nothing Left to Fear's system is still holding. The film even shows the final victim of its system of oppression becoming complicit in it, which is probably a pretty realistic outcome, and most certainly one befitting a horror film.

Obviously, I really rather enjoyed Nothing Left to Fear, what with its emphasis on mood, its story about what amounts to a rural cult a bit like a very faint American echo of The Wicker Man, its cosmology that contains supernatural evil only held back by ways just as bad as the cosmic evil itself, if on a smaller scale, and its willingness to see things through to the worst possible ending. Clearly, everyone will agree with me there, and there will be no IMDB reviews titled "Boring!".

Sunday, October 13, 2013

SyFy vs. The Mynd: Robocroc (2013)

The set-up of Arthur Sinclair's (whoever he might be) "increasingly robotic crocodile on a highly localized rampage" movie is so bog-standard for a SyFy film I can just skip details like character names, keeping completely in the spirit of a movie that might just as well have done the same.

So, a military satellite crashes over a zoo, and mild-mannered but large crocodile Stella is infected with one of those "behind the enemy lines" weapons without a sensible way to get rid of them once they have slaughtered the enemy - civilians, military, and people who surrender alike. In this particular case, said weapon are nano robots that turn their victim into an indestructible killer machine. The military can't quite cut it fighting the menace, of course (one suspects they are spread rather thin with murdering brown people in various countries across the globe), and the mad scientist who invented the things (played gleefully by Dee Wallace as the only person who was actually awake during the shoot of the film) is secretly helping the robocroc. So the fight against the metallic menace falls to zoo keeper Corin Nemec and "the new biologist" Lisa McAllister. The latter, alas, is a girl, and therefore not allowed to do anything of interest. There's also some stuff about Nemec's scrawny teenage son being menaced by the croc, so Nemec has a bit of motivation for his heroism, and the film an opportunity to show us another one of those mysterious American "spring break" rituals.

Theoretically, all this could make for a rather fun monster movie; in practice, though, Robocroc feels like a film made on auto-pilot. The script, as the whole film, is mostly boring, with no fun ideas except one scene where (the) robocroc picks a helicopter out of the air, which I have seen done better before (and first) in Mega Shark versus Giant Octopus, and even lacking the energy to get up to the usual SyFy "estranged family gets back together" shenanigans.

If you're hoping for any kind of imaginative flourishes, jokes funny or unfunny, or even the smallest sign of life behind the camera, Robocroc will disappoint you, or rather, will lifelessly look at you and perfunctorily mumble "boo", or at most try to distract you with the least interesting romance I have seen in a SyFy movie (which actually might be an achievement, now that I think about it).

If I sound bored and a bit disappointed by Robocroc's lack of visible effort, that's exactly what I am.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Three Films Make A Post: Don't Forget You're Lunch

Lost Voyage (2001): Ah, the early years of SyFy/Sci Fi movies, when there wasn't a little ecosystem of companies producing movies just for the Channel, and they mostly just bought independent productions that would otherwise have landed somewhere on the farthest shelves of video stores (remember those?).
Christian McIntire's film is one of the better outings of that era, telling its conventional story about a ghost ship in the Bermuda Triangle and the fools entering it for news, redemption, or salvage with the bare minimum of mood you can hope for.

It also features Judd Nelson as a parapsychologist making surprised bug eyes at everything and Lance Henriksen being perfectly wonderful, as is his wont. There's little else to say about this one. It's the sort of thing you can watch and feel mildly entertained by, and that's about all it aspires to as well as all it is good for.

Death Race (2008): I was all up and ready to hate Paul W.S. Anderson's remake of the much superior Death Race 2000 but once I had accepted that this is a much less politically interesting, less funny, and less imaginative film, and took it as the more normal kind of cheesy low budget action fodder it was meant to be, I started to enjoy myself quite a bit. There are some nice supporting performances, particularly Joan Allen's version of the "evil woman in a business suite" cliché, Jason Statham is as dependable for this kind of role as expected, and the writing, even though (or because) it is steeped in cheese and stupid conspiracy theories, does provide a nice forward moving piece of nonsense.

Ironically, the film's weakest point are the car racing scenes, which, though exciting in a videogame-y way, use way too much shaky-cam, random zooming, and quick editing. It's always a bit of a shame when you can't actually see the stunt work that presumably goes on. Still, I had a lot of fun with this one, and at least Anderson didn't show any of the races in backwards slow-motion.

Dark Angel aka I Come In Peace (1990): Speaking of films that are dumb but fun, this Dolph Lundgren vehicle directed by Craig R. Baxley during the height of the horror that is that buddy cop genre comes to mind. Dolph is of course the rule-breaking cop (who in these films are always right, because fuck cops who respect the law), while Brian Benben gives an uptight FBI agent. Together they fight crime in form of an alien drug dealer harvesting endorphin, and killing people with a flying CD despite owning an explodo gun, and in form of the FBI trying to harvest an alien.

It's worthwhile in that typical late 80s/early 90s US action cheese way, with many an explosion, decent stunts, and one-liners and "quips" always trying to out-stupid the earlier ones. The film's a lot like a hamburger, really: dumb, fattening, and a sign of all kinds of cultural deficits, but also pretty satisfying before it kills your digestion.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Universal Van Damme: Replicant (2001)

A serial killer known as The Torch (Jean-Claude Van Damme in a stupid wig, and giving a surprisingly boring performance) has been working in beautiful Seattle for the past three years, punishing women for not being excellent to their children. Not that the police have actually gotten this far in understanding his motivation, for our protagonist, Detective Jake Riley (Michael Rooker, in his incarnation as a consummate professional who really doesn't care what crap a script throws at him, he'll pretend to take it seriously), might very well be the Worst Police Ever, what with his propensity for sudden, uncontrolled violence and his inability to catch a killer who even phones in regularly.

Fortunately for the public, Jake is retiring from his job; unfortunately, The Torch doesn't care and keeps on calling. But don't fret, people of Seattle, the government in form of something called the NSF (so not the infamous data sponge and hater of civil rights) is on the case. Well, actually, they just want to help out on the case to test out their newest program against terrorism, which consists of making clones of terrorists, or in this case our killer, building up a telepathic connection between the clones and the originals, and using the clones as some kind of human blood hounds. Because this isn't stupid enough, our NSF friends decide that the best man to play the replicant Torch's (also JCVD, but doing his puppy-eyed shtick, and gymnastics) handler is Jake Riley. At least it's keeping with the spirit of the rest of the program.

At first, Jake is - of course - abusing the child-like innocent killer clone even when he's not demonstrating a propensity for violence and near-rape (but don't worry, the prostitute falls in love and becomes part of the film's happy end, so there's nothing to see here, right? Right!?), but he is eventually won over by the power of buddy cop movies or of JCVD making puppy eyes at him. But will the RepliTorch still become like his original, or is the much superior nurture of getting abused by a (probably alcoholic) cop instead of getting abused by one's mother going to keep him on the path of angels?

So, let's not put too fine a point on it - as you will have realized, Replicant is not just rather on the stupid side (and I've left out more stupidity than I left in in the above, like the scene in which Rooker's mum basically tells him that he's a poophead, or the "humour" of Van Damme as the replicant trying to understand the guiding principles of toilet paper), it's also thematically and ethically confused like a dog trying to decide if it should dive into that tasty, tasty trash can or rather do what its master says and abstain. As far as I understand the film's morals, abuse is okay when you think your victim is evil, but when you later decide otherwise, the former abuse is no big deal (and your victim will become your best bud); attempted rape isn't so bad when you're a virginal clone (and your near victim will be really into you). Seriously, I don't even know what to say to that, much less how to criticize it in detail. So I won't.

On the other hand, if you go into Replicant and are - like me - somehow able to not find yourself provoked into angrily throwing food at the TV screen, nor into crawling into a corner to shake and whimper to yourself, you might actually have quite a good time with it. There's something very alluring about the film's desperate attempts to hit all the the plot beats of buddy cop movies, include all of the trademark elements of every Jean-Claude Van Damme film ever (the scene of random beefcake, the double role, the puppy eye tragedy, the gymnastics, the idiotic wig on the killer and so on, and so forth), add as many elements of serial killer movies, shake, stir, and look surprised when the audience's heads explode. At the very least, there's never a dull minute here, as director Ringo Lam (who really had better days in Hong Kong) puts out all the stops his tiny budget allows him to, resulting in entertainment. Even if it is entertainment through absurdity, anti-logic, and Jean-Claude looking at toilet paper with greatest confusion.

What there is of action is clearly cheap but good, with a highly localized fight between man and ambulance the clear high point. The fights between Van Damme and Van Damme are fast but not that great, probably because most of the time they have to be choreographed within the constraints of an actor fighting himself, and not in an Evil Dead 2 kind of way. Generally, though, the action still satisfies.

Though really, even if the action were barely watchable, I suspect Replicant would still be worth watching, if only to shout "what the hell!", "are they really going to…?" and "oh, come on!" at the film.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

In short: Les nuits rouges du bourreau de jade (2009)

aka Red Nights

The paths of various characters - a Chinese model/perfume designer/bondage and torture loving serial killer (Carrie Ng), a French professional mistress who has just poisoned her lover (Frédérique Bel), and others - cross in Hong Kong in various attempts of buying or to selling or to double-crossing each other when buying or selling vial containing the poison of the executioner of the first Chinese Emperor. Said poison is supposed to provide not just death but also enhanced sensations during it, so it is just the thing certain people would kill for, even if there weren't a lot of money involved.

Julien Carbon's and Laurent Courtiad's movie is yet another attempt to create an intensified version of giallo aesthetics, in this particular case paired with the more strictly composed aesthetics of certain parts of 80s arthouse cinema, as well as Hong Kong cinema of the early 90s. Even better, it's a rather successful attempt, at least if you have the stomach for a film very much in love with turning the idea(l) of slow torturous deaths into something only hardly discernible from sex in some highly stylized and fetishist torture/murder scenes, and if you aren't turned off by a film whose plot is really beside the point when compared to its mood and the way its visuals are providing all the thematic resonance it needs or wants.

Carbon and Courtiaud have worked in Hong Kong's film industry for a bit, and so seemed to have acquired the appropriate contacts to shoot their film in the city. However, the film's Hong Kong isn't meant as a portrait of the real place but as the kind of idealized/stylized fantasy of it where French and Chinese criminals mingle under neon lights, and where all kinds of lusts and desires come to the surface in all imaginable degrees of decadence. One could accuse Les Nuits of Orientalism, if this view of Hong Kong wouldn't run through so much of Hong Kong's own cinema as well; in more than one CATIII film to a much larger and definitely sleazier degree.

The Hong Kong connection also provides Les Nuits with its special weapon in form of Carrie Ng, who does her typical "frightening sadistic female serial killer" role again, yet seems to go about it with particular relish here. Perhaps because her character really is the not so secret hero of the piece, perhaps because she is mostly (with an exception right at the film's end) coming up against women acted just as intensely yet not quite as predatory as her character is in nature, instead of the often rather light-weight men more than one of her Hong Kong films tended to pair her up with.

Les Nuits' attraction is at times seductive, at times of the type that makes one flinch while one still won't look away, and at times based on aesthetic convictions that can border on kitsch. Like a small and precious number of films made in the last few years, Les Nuits is trying very hard to reconnect with an idea of filmmaking as an art that is based on very aestheticized transgression, and of mood and style as substance. For my tastes, it succeeds quite admirably at it.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

SyFy vs. The Mynd: Blast Vegas (2013)

aka Destruction: Las Vegas

Some really old teenagers are visiting Las Vegas to commit that most confounding of American religious rituals, "spring breaking". Because this is a movie, a party of male jocks has brought the supposed intellectual Nelson (Frankie Muniz) with them, while an independent party of female jockettes has brought just as supposedly intellectual Olive (Maggie Castle). Obviously, romance for Nelson and Olive is in the air.

Alas, before the couple can go on their first date, Nelson's jocks steal the sword of Tutmosis III out of the foyer of a casino where it is guarded by exactly one guard, and no additional security measures (and let's not even ask why the hell it is in a casino at all), and fuck around with it. Said around-fuckery awakens the sword's magical powers, and before you can say "abracadabra", a snake-headed magical sandstorm is blasting Vegas and is not going to stop until the city surrenders to Tutmosis III.

Of course, Nelson and Olive are separated early on, and Nelson begins to discover his inner hero, waltzing through various dangers to get to Olive. Fortunately, our young hero has befriended lounge singer and martini expert Sal Rowinski (Barry Bostwick) who acts the native guide for him and his friends; particularly Sal's intimate knowledge of Las Vegas's underground tunnel systems is of immense help.

Once the lovers are reunited by the hand of Bostwick, Olive - who just happens to be a student of ancient history - can exposit how to stop the sandstorm by surrendering to a guy who has been dead for quite some time and is surprisingly (perhaps disappointingly) enough not around as some kind of undead mummy. The act of surrendering is rather complicated and involves a scavenger hunt. Obviously.

Among the more peculiar phenomena in my cult movie watching of the past few years was the realization that the rather clever horror comedy Some Guy Who Kills People had the same director as Mega Shark Vs. Giant Octopus, a film that is many things but certainly not clever.

That very same Jack Perez is also responsible for our SyFy weird disaster movie of the day. As the other two movies by Perez I mentioned, it's a gain a comedy, but it heavily comes down on the camp and idiocy side of Mega Shark rather than the complexities of Some Guy. That's not exactly unexpected in a film produced for SyFy yet it does - surprisingly enough - not mean I didn't enjoy Blast Vegas quite a bit. In fact, Perez (working on a script by Joe D'Ambrosia and Tom Teves who were involved in the localisation of Blood+, it seems, which, dear IMDB, isn't the same as writing the show, how dubious an achievement that may have been anyhow) does some funny work wallowing in the absurdity of the plot and the absurdity of Las Vegas itself, throws in the handful of disaster set pieces his budget allows, and make me pretty happy with it.

It's only in a comedy where a guy looking like Frankie Muniz would be allowed to play the heroic lead (or rather the lead discovering his inner hero), which is a bit of a shame, really, not because I think Muniz would be any good in a dramatic role (I might be wrong, of course), but because I'd love the movies who do the "everyone can be a hero if he just tries" talk to do the appropriate walk. Speaking of heroics, I would have wished the film had given Maggie Castle one or two opportunities more to be heroic herself instead of needing quite as much saving. Despite what mainstream movies like to think, we aren't in the 50s anymore, so it would be nice if at least the supposedly ideologically more mobile low budget world could accept that. Of course, "male nerd discovers inner hero to rescue female nerd" is still a more involving and interesting narrative than "Buff Buffington, star, discovers inner hero".

Blast Vegas gets extra amusement points for a very funny performance by Barry Bostwick, who not only gets all the best lines but also the most open shirts and the most opportunities to walk around with a martini in his hand, as well as an equally funny cameo by John Landis and Joe Dante who do a variation of the good old Tarantino gangster talk shtick.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

SyFy vs. The Mynd: Bats: Human Harvest (2007)

US Delta Force members stumble through woods in Chechnya looking to claim a mad scientist for the USA before the Russians can acquire him as well as to search for biological weapons said mad scientist might have built. These weapons turn out to be a swarm of killer bats, improved to become something more like air piranhas. Shooting and dying ensues.

Jamie Dixon's sort of sequel to the classic (or "classic" if you are boring) Lou Diamond Phillips vehicle Bats is much less fun than the original. While I approve of the decision to not make the same film again, I find the direction the film takes neither effective nor interesting. Yes, I know, certain parts of the American public just love to wallow in the glories of their so-called War on Terror but if you feel the need to let your jingoism hang out, you really should attempt to do it in an even vaguely interesting manner. Too bad the "shoot the brown people" parts of the film are so indifferently choreographed and blandly shot.

Human Harvest also takes some really curious missteps cheapos like it usually don't take, like never building up any of its bad guys to amount to anything of interest. Look, if you want to entertain an audience with this sort of film, you can't have a mad scientist and not have him hold a long, crazy speech the first time he's on screen. It is usually also quite a bit more exciting when at least one or two of the shooting gallery bad guys on the lower ranks are introduced with one or two vile characteristics apart from having the wrong skin colour. It not only makes a film more entertaining, it also protects your film from me rolling my eyes in annoyance at it.

Then, last but not least, there's the little problem that watching people with automatic weapons fighting a bat swarm is just not very interesting or fun to watch. Frankly, it's just boring, and the way Dixon films the already boring non-happenings just lacks even the tiniest bit of imagination. In fact, when watching any part of Human Harvest, it's difficult to imagine anyone involved in its production was even trying.