Wednesday, December 18, 2013

As every year

the affairs of the tentacle demand the closure of this blog for a few days. I'll be back peddling nonsense again on January, 3rd.

If you just need to throw insults at me because I said mean things about your indie horror movie, or because you're more oppressed than I, I'm still available via email.

Happy holidays, whichever holidays it may be for you!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

December Beach Party: The Horror of Party Beach (1964)

The agents of M.O.S.S. (yes, we still kind of exist in our own, half-assed manner, and will even upgrade to three-quarters-assed soon) are nothing if not timely - or secret sympathizers of the Southern hemisphere - so December seems just like the right time to get down to the beach and find out what we find there.

Unfortunately, what I found for my second and final entry in the theme month is The Horror of Party Beach, a film I'd forgotten about. Or rather I had repressed how much I loathe it. In fact, I hate Party Beach so much, I was badly tempted to let this entry consist exclusively of a few hundred cartoon curses. But that would be tacky, particularly in the year in which the film's director (I use this term in the broadest possible sense) Del Tenney died.

So, I'll try to just keep to the facts here: radioactive goo creates incredibly goofy looking amphibian monsters looking like the Creature from the Black Lagoon as reimagined by a three year old with a thing for golf ball eyes. The creatures attack pillow fights and beach party people. Horrible music plays. The dances of the mad are danced. The sort of romance in which a "hunky" (beach party) scientist gets over the death of his estranged bad girl girlfriend right quick thanks to the efforts of an incredibly sanctimonious thirty year old teenager occurs. Jokes that would make the Riddler ashamed are told by actors who can barely speak. There's a racist caricature of a black maid walking around.

So, all in all, I really should love this thing, particularly since I've enjoyed films that are objectively even worse quite a bit, but I'm just not feeling it in Horror's case. Maybe it's the non-coastal person's distrust of beaches and the people who dwell on them, maybe it's an Innsmouth kind of thing, or maybe my irony glands just don't function as well as they should when confronted with The Horror of Party Beach. All I know is that watching it doesn't result in my giggling companionably to the nonsense happening on screen, or finding myself surprised by hidden depths (fat chance), or even just accepting the film with a feeling of mild tolerance and embarrassment on behalf of the filmmakers, but instead sees me ending up with a feeling of barely contained rage, as if Del Tenney and co.'s attempt at making a quick buck by mixing the outgoing beach party movie craze with the monster movie were are very personal affront. Which it well may be, for all I know.

Anyway, your beach party tolerance may vary.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Europa Report (2013)

It's quite a good thing to see the POV style slowly spreading out from Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity style horror movies into not just other types of horror but into different genres as well, places where the techniques these horror films more or less pioneered might be put to good - or even new and interesting - use.

Case in point is Sebastián Cordero's Europa Report, a film that documents a mission to Jupiter's moon Europa in search of hints for life outside our ecosphere via the internal and external cameras of the vessel manned by a group of astronauts (Anamaria Marinca, Daniel Wu, Karolina Wydra, Michael Nyqvist, Christian Camargo and Sharlto Copley). This being a movie, things go neither all that easily nor too well for the crew. Their mission is a bit of a different case, and they might in fact find more than they ever could have expected.

POV style techniques work wonders for doing this sort of tale on a budget, with the need to show space in form of vast, spectacular vistas mostly negated by the reality of what cameras in such a situation would be able to capture. On the other hand, Cordero does not use the film's style to avoid showing things to his audience - it's always at least as clear to the audience what's going on as it is to the characters, and the supposed multitude of cameras on board never so much constricts the information we are getting as it focuses it. To me, this seems to be an approach highly appropriate to the kind of SF Europa Report is, as close to hard SF as you'll come and still be able to tell an actual story, but not so close as to mirror the experience of reading a bad science book instead of a novel that is so typical of too much hard SF.

I'm less impressed by the fact that the film seems to get some of its science rather wrong, even though the production design as well as the special effects look perfectly believable and authentic. However, what the film gets right is rather more important to me here, for Europa Report is finally a SF film again that buys into the idea that the endeavour of science, the attempt to widen human knowledge of the universe, particularly through manned space flight, is a heroic thing, something worthy to risk one's life over, and even possibly to die for if one has so chosen. It's one of the rare movie that understand that a space flight going terribly, tragically wrong does not mean space flight or science are bad or a sign of human hubris, but rather that things in a random universe sometimes just go wrong for no reason at all.

This doesn't mean the film is blithe about human pain and suffering. In fact, Europa Report gains some of its strength by acknowledging it absolutely, by showing its characters often shaken by a mixture of awe and fear and trauma, never pretending even a heroic death to be anything but a catastrophe. It's just also arguing that if you die, you might as well die doing something good.

Cordero makes this case with the help of an excellent ensemble cast (uncommon for POV films, all actors you might have seen before in other movies, which isn't really a problem for me but might be for other viewers with a higher need to be convinced of a film's fictional reality), an ability to become emotional without becoming melodramatic - something particularly seldom found in films concerning the idea of personal sacrifice as Europa Report does -, and an equally strong ability to create a sense of wonder out of a handful of ideas, effects, and sets. It's what Science Fiction on a budget should more often be doing, if you ask me.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

In short: The Sleeper (2012)

Student Amy (Brittanny Belland) would probably have reconsidered her decision to join a sorority if she had only known the sisters of Theta house would become the targets of one of those weird, nigh-indestructible killers (Jason Jay Crabtree), and she'd have to live up to the insanely high standards of Final-Girl-hood (everyone's favourite new-ish godhood, or so I've been told). But then we wouldn't have much of a movie.

Justin Russell's slasher homage/patchwork slasher movie (with particularly emphatic nods towards Black Christmas) is another film that demonstrates quite nicely how a film can totally lack in originality yet still be quite worthwhile if it only has the right spirit. The film parties very much like it were 1981 (in fact, the film does take place in 1981), at least as far as you can do that on an indie budget, not just hitting the well-known plot beats but hitting them with the relish and enthusiasm this sort of thing needs to survive. Irony might earn a film critical praise, but all too often, it won't warm my heart, and surely, filmmakers should concentrate on their central audience, that is to say, me.

While The Sleeper does a more than decent job of being a period piece - not so much a film which tries to take on the job of emulating an actual earlier era as the style and content of the films of that era -there are some typical "indie horror" weaknesses on display. Some of the acting of minor characters is a bit awkward, the gore's too abundant for the charming yet improbable way that it looks, and you wouldn't call its pacing sprightly, for example. However, Russell has an eye for the all-important moody shot and knows about the whys and wherefores of sleaze, so that The Sleeper's feel (to use the least precise word in any human language) is just right for what it attempts to be. Plus, there's a dance scene of glorious silliness, incompetent yet polite police, and many a thing to smile at, perhaps even with that much-loathed (by me) feeling known as nostalgia. What more could I ask of a film about a random killer slashing sorority sisters to death?

Thursday, December 12, 2013

SyFy vs The Mynd: Scarecrow (2013)

Detention - it's more dangerous than you think, at least if it's the very special kind of detention teacher Aaron (Robin Dunne) offers his misguided students (among them Chupacabra vs the Alamo's Nicole Munoz). It's off to the supposedly haunted farm just in the process of being sold off by Aaron's ex-girlfriend Kristen (Lacey Chabert) for them to do some good for their community.

Unfortunately, the haunting's not just a supposed one, and soon, Aaron, Kristen, Kristen's other ex-boyfriend and the kids find themselves hunted by a black husk of a thing that really, really likes to kill people in messy ways. There's also a bit of time for awkward moments of teenage romance, and even more awkward moments of grown-up romance for all and sundry but mostly, it's time to run, scream, and die, and for some people to show their most unpleasant sides in the face of death.

Sheldon Wilson is one of those curious directors who are actually doing much better work when working for SyFy than when on their own. Scarecrow isn't quite as great as Wilson's magnum opus Carny but it's such a fine, well-paced piece of low budget horror it's difficult to feel too disappointed.

It's all very traditional in form and set-up, of course, but Wilson has the required pacing for this sort of thing down pat, with little time wasted on filler. Instead, there's a lot of fun monster action, a smidgen of gore, and characterization that is just the decisive bit more interesting than in other movies of this type. Why, before the first hour is over, you can't even play "who dies next" bingo properly because Wilson doesn't follow the very specific order of deaths as closely as you'd expect - Chabert's the obvious final girl of the piece, though. This doesn't sound like a big thing, but really, shaking up traditional genre structures in little ways is a good method to make the well-known interesting again.

It does of course help Scarecrow's case too that the acting's mostly decent and that the design of the not-exactly scarecrow monster is pretty creepy, its abilities not without their surprises. There's also rather well-done feeling of escalation to the plot, and some rather clever use of the characters moving from unsafe looking claustrophobic places to supposedly safer open ones, and back again. Again, it's these little structural changes (generally, horror movie characters move into increasingly claustrophobic places) that help make Scarecrow work as well as it does.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

In short: The Witching (1972)

aka Necromancy

We who know Bert I. Gordon mostly adore or spurn him as the king of awkward giant monster movies. However, despite a clear preference for very large or very small things, Gordon was a true exploitation director, hopping on any trend that came his way if it suggested a possibility for turning a fast buck.

In 1972, that meant making an occult horror movie about Pamela Franklin getting unwillingly drawn into the influence sphere of an evil satanist cult (or witch cult, the film doesn't differentiate) led by Orson Welles(!) in his bloated and bored phase because Orson needs her secret witch super powers to reanimate his dead little son. Which is one of the better motives for what's going on than these films often prefer. Too bad neither Welles nor Gordon are doing much with that aspect of the movie.

Instead, The Witching is a rollercoaster ride between long, plainly boring scenes of actors who could act but won't mumbling or shouting through slightly loopy versions of early 70s occultism horror clichés and awkward yet strangely effective scenes of delightfully illogical trance states. I did rather expect the first part of the ride from Gordon, his giant monster movies do after all have a tendency to go about things in an awkward and slightly ramshackle manner that has always reminded me of how a middle-aged used car salesman would interpret the idea of giant monsters.

The film's dream-like parts on the other hand did hit me as a surprise. Sure, the adjective of "awkward" still applies to Gordon's direction here, but here, the awkwardness rubs against moments of ambitious camera work and visual ideas that remind me of nothing so much as of Italian gothic horror and giallos. That impression of encountering a bit of pleasant European loopiness where I least expected it, is - at least in the version I watched, which I think, is based on a 1983 version of the film that adds a bit of nudity and surely subtracts other things - still more enhanced by a synth soundtrack very much in the spirit of Goblin (but not as good, not surprisingly).

Consequently, The Witching is at its strongest (or at least at its most charming) when it gives up on real world logic altogether and becomes a free-floating entity made out of strange emotional peaks, sleaze, vague notions of Satanism, Pamela Franklin widening her eyes and a side-ways approach to narrative that emphasises counter-intuitive scenes while treating what should be actual dramatic climaxes with off-handed disinterest. If you're like me, and this sort of thing is exactly what you hope for in your occult 70s horror, the devil's rain will fall on you gently here, particularly in a final half hour that is as glorious an appropriation of the dream state as you'll find in movies.

I never would have thought Bert I. Gordon had it in him.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

One in the Chamber (2012)

Welcome to beautiful Prague (at least in part played by beautiful Romania)! Ray Carver (Cuba Gooding Jr.) uses the city as base for his work as a professional killer. When Ray is not killing people, he's soliloquizing about his sinfulness, reading the bible, and stalking Janice Knowles (Claudia Bassols), the now grown daughter of one of his earlier victims, driven by a mixture of guilt and plain obsession he sells to himself as his wish to protect her from harm.

Right now, Ray's even doing his work in Prague, because he was hired by the resident Suverov crime family to wipe out the heads of the resident Tavanian crime family in one go. Unfortunately, Ray's strict "no innocent bystanders come to harm" policy gets in the way of his job, leaving the Tavanians with a not completely incompetent underboss in charge, and Prague in the grip of a gang war. Understandably, the Suverov's aren't at all happy with Ray's performance, so they fly in the near mythical hitman Aleksey Andreev aka "The Wolf" (Dolph Lundgren). Aleksey is a rather different kind of killer than Ray, clearly not driven by a guilty conscience, proclaiming his generally violently chipper mood by wearing loud Hawaii shirts, and given to a much more direct approach than Ray, though he does share Ray's ideas about killing civilians.

When Ray and his handler (Billy Murray) hear of the new man in town, they decide to change sides and work for the Tavanians now. Not surprisingly, Ray and Aleksey are headed for a collision course, and Janice just might get right in the middle of it.

One of the more peculiar developments in movies in the last few years is surely Cuba Gooding Jr.'s new career as a direct-to-DVD action hero; perhaps even more peculiar is how good Gooding is good at his new career, showing enough physicality to be basically believable as a man of violence, and obviously bringing more acting chops than he'd strictly need for the job, which pushes the scripts of the films he's in into slightly more complex directions than you find in something starring someone who wasn't even a decent enough actor for professional wrestling. That tends to make the characters Gooding plays more sympathetic than is the rule in direct-to-DVD action outside the body of work of Jean Claude Van Damme, too. It applies even to a character as much as a self-pitying fool as Ray is, the kind of guy who loves to moan about the guilt being a professional killer brings with it, yet never does anything about it, like stopping to murder people for money, for example.

Additionally, Gooding actually stars in the films he's supposed to star in, and doesn't go the slightly prolonged cameo route as Jean Claude Van Damme or his partner in this outing, Dolph Lundgren, often do. Consequently, there's much more Cuba than Dolph in One in the Chamber but the film's script handles the situation appropriately. In fact, it would make little sense if the two leads had more scenes together. When Lundgren is on screen, he takes on the violent and crazy yet likeable persona that he fills in many films at this point in his career. He's grown rather good at it by now, and is one of the few actors in action movies who can make the wholesale slaughter of a dozen other people somehow look good-natured. If that's always a good thing, I'm not always sure about.

It is a bit disappointing that One in the Chamber's script doesn't make as much out of the strange juxtaposition of its two main characters as I would have wished, but then, Cuba and Dolph (sounds like a sitcom title if ever I saw one) would need to interact more for it to work, which clearly was right out for the production. I'm also not really happy about the (non-)solution to the plotline between Ray and Janice, or rather, about the much too easy and straightforward way the film ends it, taking what should be emotionally heavy, and not a little creepy, stuff and trying to just wink it away.

On the positive side, there is enough complexity here to keep the very basic gang war plot lively, and what the script lacks in dramatic unity, it makes up for with a love for small and colourful details that don't exactly make the world it takes place in believable but protects it from feeling like the series of clichés it actually is. Which is more than I ask of this kind of film, and more than enough to keep me entertained throughout.

It helps that director William Kaufman aims for filming the kind of action scenes the human eye can actually comprehend, which also just happens to be the kind of action scene I find actually fun to watch. As a visual extra, Kaufman also doesn't dive too deeply into the colourless colour film rabbit hole, leaving my eyes delighted by the existence of other colours than yellow and blue, or, in the case of Lundgren's shirts, nearly blinded by them.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

December Beach Party: Stonados (2013)

The agents of M.O.S.S. (yes, we still kind of exist in our own, half-assed manner) are nothing if not timely - or secret sympathizers of the Southern hemisphere - so December seems just like the right time to get down to the beach and find out what we find there.

There's trouble brewing for the people of Boston, British Columbia. Huge, water-y tornados are hitting the city's coastline, but these aren't your grandpa's tornados. Unless your grandpa's tornados spat more rocks than a disaster movie meteor shower (an early victim is the Plymouth Rock, and I'm not talking about the chicken breed), squashing people left and right. And even then, I suspect the rocks of Grandpa's tornados never exploded as the ones in Stonados like to do because of SCIENCE!

Fortunately for Boston, former volcanologist and storm chaser turned science teacher Joe (Paul Johansson), his former storm chasing buddy turned weekend replacement TV weather forecaster Lee (Sebastian Spence), and Joe's cop sister Maddy (Miranda Frigon) are there to help. Unfortunately, The Authorities represented by the Oceanic Blah-Blah Agency of Tara Laykin (Thea Gill) don't think a series of absurd tornados building over the open see and spitting exploding rocks are anything more than "freak weather", and want to see proof. No idea proof of what, really, but there you have it.

So, before the Government will provide our heroes with the bomb they'll need to blow the bad weather up - a time-honoured SyFy Channel way to get rid of all kinds of bad weather be it Ston- or Shark-nado - there's an ill-fated regatta to save and some sort of sports game (taking place in "the stadium", so the kind of sport is anyone's guess, though I suspect a film this pretend all-American will mean baseball) ending in catastrophe. Of course widower Joe's not quite happy kids need saving, of course Lee and Maddy will finally get around to doing something about their twenty years of affection disguised as bickering, and of course Laykin will die right when she's making her "oh Doctor Joe, you were so right and I'm so sorry" speech.

Obviously, and not surprisingly, there's nothing new going on in SyFy Channel disaster movie land, though Jason Bourque's film goes through the usual motions with enough élan to keep simple-minded folks like me entertained throughout. The film's tone, mostly treating the ridiculous bomb-throwing storm idea it has been cursed with by a marketing department in desperate search of stupid movie titles seriously but not treating it too po-faced either, works pretty well for the material, helping to distinguish it from Sharknado whose very American ideas about getting rid of tornados it shares.

The special effects aren't half bad this time around either, and they are surprisingly numerous too. I suspect it helps that the effects houses working on SyFy's projects have by now made so many films with giant tornadoes in them the people involved probably do tornados (particularly exploding tornados) in their sleep.

On the acting and characterization front this is perfectly decent though I couldn't escape the impression Bourque races through the character bits to get to the next piece of destruction, which, to be perfectly honest, is a bit more interesting than watching another US white core family get together again. I'd rather love to see a film showing one of these core families growing quickly apart again after the chupacabras are dead, the storms are gone, and the ice age prevented, but then I might be a mite cynical about these things.

Stonados earns itself bonus points by including a handful of scenes featuring William B. Davis as Boston's lighthouse keeper, having a chat with his bird, talking on the radio with the film's actual protagonists, and in the end getting crushed by his lighthouse.

So Stonados is a fun enough time at the beach, if you don't mind the exploding rocks.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Three Films Make A Post: Based on the Historical Realities

Du rififi à Paname aka The Upper Hand (1966): Denys de La Patellière's crime movie is a sort of retirement home for tired looking old and middle aged actors (Jean Gabin! Gert Fröbe! Nadja Tiller! Claudio Brook! George Raft!), the kind of film that thinks just letting the actors turn their faces in the direction of the camera equals acting performances. What's actually going on is that no one in front of the camera seems even the least bit interested in the film they are involved in, which is somewhat understandable given the been there done that nature of the film's crime plot, and the script's insistence on not developing the plot's few interesting elements in any direction worth following. De La Patellière manages to make the film pretty, but doesn't provide any sense of tension or drama, and also seems to delight in the kind of "witty" dialogue only very few films can get away with. Most of those films have actors actually doing more than coasting on their mere existence, though.

An American Ghost Story aka Revenant (2012): Derek Cole's film could be a fine, low-key ghost story, if a highly derivative one. At least, the core performances by scriptwriter and male lead Stephen Twardokus and Liesel Kopp are never less than decent, often even quite good, the camera work is atmospheric, and the film has a nice, concentrated flow to it. Unfortunately American Ghost Story suffers from a case of Advanced Jump Scare Syndrome that borders on the ridiculous. There's no quietly effective scene of the supernatural the film doesn't ruin by making inappropriate loud noises at the audience in moments that aren't at all meant to be jump scares, no scene that doesn't end up destroying its own effectiveness by shouting "boo". It's nearly like a parody of other films who like their jump scares a bit too much, and feels as if the film were afraid to just let the creepy mood it so desperately tries to build work on its audience, permanently losing faith in its own ability to function without VERY LOUD NOISES. While this technique doesn't work at all to actually make the film scarier, it ruins any mood it actually builds quite effectively, dragging the whole effort down from the at least decent to the nearly insufferable.

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013): I'm more than just a little surprised that this one is the film of these three I actually like, but then surprising me is what J.J. Abrams's movie did more than once: by feeling much more like a Stark Trek movie than the first one, by not just fixing the first film's dubious politics but actually consciously having and using political themes and coherent morals, by actually doing some rather great (or at the very least fun) things with the Star Trek movie it is playing with/off, and by this time around actually having something (though still not enough by far) to do for its female cast members. If the last trend continues, the next Star Trek movie might even see Zoe Saldana's Uhura as an actual female lead instead of a relatively large supporting role for Pine's and Quinto's perfectly entertaining boy's club.

As it stands, the film is still nearly up there with the Avengers or the last Batman or Pacific Rim as a film that fulfils all blockbuster demands on spectacle, yet still has the time and space for human things of one kind of the other. Most of the time, it even remembers the spectacle is there to dramatize the humanity and not the other way around.

Friday, December 6, 2013

On ExB: The Crone (2013)

The last few Japanese low budget horror films I watched left me with a bit of a sour taste in my mouth, as well as with a degree of pessimism towards the state of the genre in the country.

A film like The Crone, flawed yet made with obvious dedication and intelligence as it is, can't help but bring me around to optimism again. I'll explain why in my column over at Exploder Button.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

In short: Red Water (2003)

Before the SyFy Original movie really came into its own, before Mansquito was a blink in Tibor Takács eye, the icky sounding Turner Broadcasting System aired Charles Robert Carner's Red Water, a film you could sell to me as part of the SyFy cycle any time. It has everything you'd expect from this sort of film: two likeable leads given by two actors whose faces we all know but who never really got a big break - in this case Lou Diamond Phillips and Kristy Swanson; a killer shark; non-rapper, non-actor Coolio non-acting and at least not attempting to rap; Cajun clichés; gangsters; ex-husband and ex-wife getting back together thanks to the magic of animal attacks; as many explosions as the budget can take, so not very many; evil oil business and evil banks. In other words, there's not a single original idea in the whole film. Instead Red Water tries to become somewhat memorable by at least mixing the clichés of a few different genres.

As with the SyFy films whose cousin Red Water is, there's a lot of fun to be had with it if you're willing to accept the lack of originality for what it is instead treating it as an insult to all of humanity, don't expect something spectacular, and just go with the film's flow. Carner makes that easy enough, for while there are no spectacular stylistic achievements visible on screen, the director does present his plot in a clear straightforward style that fits the clear straightforward story just fine. While there is no really clever moment in the film, there certainly aren't many dull ones, so if you're in the mood for a highly traditional yet effective mix of sharksploitation and thriller that aims to entertain the simple-minded like me, Red Water will scratch that itch nicely without letting you wade through too much idiocy, and without ever trying to bore you. Plus, I don't think I've ever seen a movie monster shark killed in quite this way before.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

In short: Kill 'Em All (2012)

Again, a maniac kidnaps a bunch of people, stuffs them into a decrepit warehouse, and plays games with them. Only this time around, the kidnapper will later turn out to be played by Gordon Liu Chia-Hui, his victims are all successful professional killers with martial arts skills (with Ammara Siripong, Johnny Messner and Tim Man as the central characters), and the only game Gordon likes - apart from gloating - is seeing them fight one-on-one to the death, promising survival to the last one standing.

Some of our killers (maybe the ones whose actors I named!?) are not quite as gullible as poor Gordon Liu may hope, though, and may find the brains to team up and take the fight into more warehouse rooms, and to their captor and his army of stunt people playing crazy dress-up.

If you've got to make a warehouse-bound martial arts/action movie, you can do much worse than decide what Kill 'Em All's Raimund Huber did and take your most basic set-up (sort of) from Saw but replace all semi-sadistic games and stupid plot twists with martial arts fights. Thusly, Kill 'Em All may not exactly win any prizes for originality, but it sure is a film trying to make the most of its miniscule budget and to deliver what its potential audience will probably really come to see - a lot of fights.

While there's nothing spectacular about Tim Man's choreography or Huber's way of shooting it, it's solid and dependable with some bursts of actual energy and - particular in the final fights - a nicely presented sense of brutality that befits a film whose heroes are professional killers. I'm also quite happy to report that Huber shoots the fights straight, with editing rhythms and camera angles meant to show off the actors' (all of whom have more martial arts and/or stunt experience than acting experience) skills, which seems to be a style that slowly replaces the micro-editing and camera-shaking that has marred low budget action movies in the last fifteen years or so again. Generally, martial arts is something I actually like to see in a martial arts movie, so I'm all for it.

There is little else to say about Kill 'Em All. Its level of writing and acting are about where you expect them to be in this kind of production - good enough for what the film is, probably horrifying if you're the sort of person who goes into a film called Kill 'Em All expecting much depth in these regards. The rest is silly bad guy talk, one rather funny joke about ninjas, and a lot of fun scenes of people beating each other up. I call that a highly satisfying evening's entertainment.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Phantom (1996)

At some point in time between the World Wars. Kit Walker (Billy Zane) is The Phantom aka The Ghost Who Walks, the newest in a long line of adventuring pulp-style heroes, ruling about some "native tribes" while wearing ugly purple costumes and having something of a skull fetish. When he's not chatting with the ghost of his father (Patrick McGoohan), Kit's in the habit of smiting evil in a semi-competent manner a bit too semi to not leave ghost dad rather exasperated from time to time. The evil Kit has to smite this time is a megalomaniac business tycoon from New York, the excellently named Xander Drax (Treat Williams).

Drax (not to be confused with Drax the Destroyer) and his merry band of evil-doers (including Catherine Zeta-Jones and James Remar) are trying to acquire three magical skulls that combine into a weapon of awesome supernatural power, with the usual resulting world domination dreams. Obviously, this sort of thing won't stand with the Phantom, nor with Diana Palmer (Kristy Swanson), the niece of a newspaper owner up to Drax's tricks. Diana, what with her having some actual survival skills (though not enough to not get kidnapped every ten minutes), is of course the perfect potential girlfriend for a pulp hero (and in fact, Kit and Diana know each other already, though that's a part of the script so useless to the proceedings I can only assume it is a left-over from an earlier script version), so face-punching, woman-rescuing, and romancing can ensue.

Simon Wincer's The Phantom is one of a handful of attempts made in the 90s to get at some of that old pulp magic by reviving long dead characters. Unfortunately none of these films was commercially successful enough to lead to sequels or a larger pulp and serial renaissance in the movies. The character of the phantom did of course start out in a newspaper strip, but in style and content, it's about as pure a pulp hero as you can find, though one lacking the craziness of The Spider as well as the cleverness of Doc Savage or The Shadow.

The movie at hand is generally entertaining in a very old-fashioned manner, and not really in the business of trying to change up much of import about the Phantom or its mythology. Though, to give the film its dues, it does pare the racist elements of the original down from "holy crap, seriously?" to "problematic" and attempts to make Diana slightly more than an object to be kidnapped and rescued. Unfortunately, and quite typically for this sort of endeavour, the film stops with this slight re-imagination about half-way, using the old "kidnapping of the heroine" cliché so much that said heroine's general poise and ability to kick a bit of ass are undermined for no good reason (surely, the script could find someone else to kidnap at least half of the time), which is a particular shame seeing how much Kristy Swanson seems to enjoy herself in her more heroic moments. That enjoyment stands quite in contrast to Zane's rather awkward performance that suggests an actor who can't forget that he's in a very silly adventure movie wearing a particularly silly costume.

The costume is rather emblematic of the film's other great weakness, set design and costuming that just isn't all that interesting, ending in a particularly lame villain lair that's mostly cramped and brown and without any interesting visual features. I'd have rather wished for more colour, imagination and an openness to at least be as silly as the Phantom's costume in the sets; after all, the film has no problem with being silly in everything else.

Still, if you're looking for a serial-style adventure movie, you can do much worse than The Phantom. It is at least well paced, acted with zest by an excellent bunch of character actors (excluding Zane whose perfect perfect teeth just aren't that impressing, as much as he shows them), and full of exactly the sort of stunts you'd expect.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Ragini MMS (2011)

The couple of Uday (Raj Kumar Yadav) and Ragini (Kainaz Motivala) are going on a trip to a place owned by a friend of Uday's in the country for a romantic weekend, or really, to get rid of Ragini's pesky virginity. What Ragini doesn't know: Uday doesn't just act like a sleazy prick most of the time, he has also agreed to help a movie producer friend of his to secretly make a sex tape, so the house is full of hidden cameras ready to turn the unknowing Ragini into a very special kind of celebrity. He's a charmer, Uday is.

Things conspire against Uday's plans, though. First, Ragini's friend Pia (Janice) and her boyfriend Vishal (Rajat) appear at the mansion in an obvious attempt at what I think is called cockblocking among experts. Then, once they've disappeared, the actual owner of the house makes herself known. Turns out the place is haunted by the ghost of a woman who wasn't a witch and didn't kill her children, and she's loathe to have guests. Uday doesn't take well to the haunting, and soon Ragini finds herself alone with a dead (asshole) boyfriend and an angry ghost. Oh, and she's cuffed to a bed with sex toy handcuffs.

By 2011 - or perhaps earlier, but I couldn't find anything about that - the POV/found footage horror wave had obviously reached India, resulting in this Hindi production directed by Pawan Kripalani. The film's sex video set-up provides the opportunity to not just have the usual hand-held shaky cam but to also use quite a few well-placed static cameras, particularly inside the bedroom where much of the film takes place.

The set-up does of course also provide another, different, opportunity, namely for quite a few scenes of very coy sleaze. That sort of thing rubs badly against the things allowed to be shown in Indian movies, and those that aren't, so what the film sells as sleaze, we around here call heavy cuddling. I'd rather wish the film had foregone the not-really-sleaze completely, for as it stands, it's neither really titillating, nor all that relevant beyond providing the film with an excuse for having more than one camera working at any given time. More negatively, its approach to its sleazy contents puts Ragini MMS very much into the group of exploitation movies that never gets around to doing anything interesting or subversive with its sleaze beyond the usual schizophrenic wagging of its finger at things it is only to happy to show in as much detail as it can get away with (which isn't much).

The ineffective sleaze drags the film's early pacing down considerably, too. The early lack of excitement is not improved by the lackluster style of the ghost's first attacks, nor by the coy use the film makes of it. It's rather typical for that part of the film that the usual "food turns creepy-crawly" scene is shot so ineffectively not even a hater of centipedes and their ilk like me felt very yucked out once it happened; other "shocks" are equally deserving of apostrophes.

Consequently, I was already mentally writing a "the same procedure as always" assertion of boredom. But then something rather wonderful happens once Ragini has been lovingly handcuffed by Uday (don't be kinky, virgins!), and Uday has been dispatched by the ghost - the remaining half hour of film turns into an effective tour de force where every seeming success of our heroine to free herself from her rather horrible situation is countered by further escalation from the ghost who suddenly isn't as harmless and boring as before anymore. Even better, while the situation Ragini finds herself in is of course rather contrived, Kripalani plays it with such earnestness and a sudden talent for creating tension and a feeling of dread, that it never feels contrived. On paper, nothing that happens is new to any even mildly experienced viewer of horror, but its execution is so well-timed this stops being a problem at all.

Motivala, who up to that point was mostly spending her time with looking "innocent yet sexy" (oh, the minds of exploitation directors), also rises to the occasion, embodying just the right mix of believable terror and determination to make it impossible not to root for her. She's also a particularly good screamer. That might sound a little glib, but a really believable scream of terror and frustration by an actress (or an actor, of course) can improve the impression a scene of horror makes considerably.

The same can be done by an excellent final thirty minutes for an up to that point charmless film, as Ragini MMS proves.