Tuesday, April 30, 2013

In short: The Bay (2012)

A small US town is hit by an outbreak of something particularly nasty thanks to a mixture of radioactivity, polluted chicken shit, and the traditions of the eco horror movie. Things get rather horrible for the place. We are - of course - witnessing events via a documentary made out of footage shot by various people all around town.

Isn't it rather strange that it needs Barry Levinson, the director of fucking Rain Man to make creative use of the POV horror style rather than his more horror based colleagues, breathing life into a sub-genre that has grown pretty stale through everybody's insistence to attempt to remake Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity again and again and again? And if I, as someone still somewhat beholden to POV horror, am getting impatient with the genre, I can't even imagine what sane people will think about it.
Levinson's approach differs in two major aspects from POV standards.

Firstly, where most POV horror uses the found footage approach to limit its perspective very closely to a handful of characters in one place, Levinson takes different kinds of footage to create a larger view of a community hit by a catastrophe, still leaving room for individual horrors but showing the individual suffering as part of a bigger whole. That approach feels particularly fresh because films about (minor) apocalypses seldom use it; if you think about it, it's really rather close to the 70s disaster movie formula, just without the interest in washed-up stars and Charlton Heston speaking into things, and carrying a much nastier undertone. And make no mistake about it, The Bay's catastrophe isn't just a particularly icky one, this is also a film perfectly willing and able to kill off the kinds of characters all of Levinson's Hollywood instincts should actually make sacrosanct. The whole thing really gets surprisingly unpleasant, as if the director had discovered his inner exploitation filmmaker and indulged him as much as possible.

Secondly, The Bay's danger isn't a supernatural one, but belongs into the hoary and wonderful tradition of eco horror, a sub-genre I'd call rather more science-fictional if the science in it ever were much good. This leaves Levinson open to actually explain what's going on in the film without having to betray the gruesomeness of it all. It's not that I don't love ambiguity, it is, however, from time to time nice to encounter a film that just wants to shout its background story into your face while nasty things eat away at its tongue.

Subtle, The Bay consequently isn't: the characters - though decently acted by people like Kristen Connolly and Kether Donohue - are drawn in the broadest of strokes, the conspiracy theorist elements are a bit talk radio (though they don't include the Illuminati nor reptoids, so it's not that bad), and the narrative has the bluntness of an object the film wants to cave your head in with, but there's something to be said for a lack of subtlety when the resulting film feels as unpleasant and tight as The Bay does. I think I've just forgiven Barry Levinson for Rain Man (though not for the reactionary bullshit of Sphere).

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Das Indische Tuch (1963)

aka The Indian Scarf

After Lord Lebanon dies of a heart attack that looks a lot like him being strangled with a scarf, a rather large group of disparate family members is called together for the reading of his will by lawyer Frank Tanner (Heinz Drache). Lebanon's wife, Lady Emily (Elisabeth Flickenschildt) and her obsessive pianist son Edward (Hans Clarin) aren't too happy to share their inheritance with people like the Lord's bastard son Peter Ross (Klaus Kinski), the pretty young Isla (Corny Collins), explorer Sir Henry (Siegfried Schürenberg for once not working for the Yard), or Mrs Tilling (Gisela Uhlen) who is - gasp! - married, unhappily so, to an American (Hans Nielsen).

However, before Tanner is actually allowed to read the will and anyone is coming into one's fortune, the whole family has to spend six days and six nights in the family manor in Scotland together. Soon, it looks like one among the gathered - perhaps with the help of butler Bonwit (Eddi Arent, of course) or handyman Chiko (Ady Berber)? - would really rather prefer a larger share of the inheritance and begins to strangle a family member per night with one among the numerous Indian scarfs in the house.

Thanks to a fortuitously arrived storm front, the mansion is cut off from the outside world, so it falls to Tanner to play amateur detective and find out who is killing off people left and right before nobody is left to read a will to.

Das Indische Tuch is far from your typical Rialto Edgar Wallace adaptation (except for the number of murders, of course), for it rather prefers to be your typical old dark house movie, despite a deplorable lack of men in gorilla suits. It's a nice change-up for the series, and, given the small number of necessary sets, was probably also a nice way for Rialto to save a little cash. Why, even the mandatory outside shot of the old dark house is replaced with a highly theatrical slide in an act of conscious artificiality.

That sort of artificiality is of course something director Alfred Vohrer excelled at, and he consequently uses Das Indische Tuch to wallow in everything anti-naturalistic he loves so well - dramatic zooms, cameras positioned at curious places and angles, lots of shots of people peeping at other people through various holes, steaming phallus-shaped objects, and moments of what Germany in the early 60s imagined to be risqué filmmaking that look all the more awkward because they're positioned among so many sexual symbols.

Vohrer, ably assisted by production designers Walter Kutz and Wilhelm Vorwerg, also loves to include never explained, utterly weird details in the sets, like the gigantic Beethoven bust (who knew Beethoven's head was that of a three meter giant?) standing behind Hans Clarin's piano, and the stuffed horse taking up a third of the music room. The Vohrer-typical moments of high melodrama are more often than not pulled in rather ironic directions by these curious elements of the film - creepy and loud mother/son relationships take on a rather funny dimension when played out in front of a stuffed horse.

The film also finds time to update the rule of Chekhov's Gun to that of Vohrer's Tarantula, gives Kinski and Clarin time to show off their respective skills at making crazy-eyes, teaches us that all artists as well as all members of noble families who aren't young women for the leading man to romance are crazy, includes an often absurdly chipper Peter Thomas score, and ends on one of those silly, self-conscious notes Vohrer loved so dearly.

Needless to say, Das Indische Tuch feels often even more like a black comedy than your usual Vohrer krimi, but since I found myself laughing about its jokes and strange digressions more often than not, I don't think that's a bad thing. After all, how could one make an old dark house movie in 1963 while keeping a straight face?

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Three Films Make A Post: Horror so incredible it stretches the mind of man beyond the breaking point!

Armored Car Robbery (1950): Working for RKO's b-unit, Richard Fleischer learned early on some of the virtues that would make him one of the better work-for-hire directors in years to come: an ability to tell a story in the most economical manner while still giving it room to breathe. Case in point is this hard-boiled movie about the hunt for a quartet of armoured car robbers, a film that uses its 67 minutes of runtime to the fullest, trusting in the abilities of a fine cast (particularly Charles McGraw, Adele Jergens and William Talman), and its audience's knowledge of the basics of the genre its working in. I'm tempted to say there's not quite enough depth to Armored Car Robbery but then, like its title, this is a movie that is all about a slick, polished surface that already says all there is to say.

The Crimes Of The Black Cat aka Sette Scialli Di Seta Gialla (1972): For most of its running time, Sergio Pastore's giallo comes down on the side of the giallo as a murder mystery, using a lot of favourite giallo bits and bobs (the amateur detective, fashion models as the main victim group, the black-gloved killer) in an entertaining, yet also somewhat conservative and certainly not lurid manner. Which is a curious thing to say about a movie about a blind composer (played by old wooden face Anthony Steffen with a quiet intensity of obsession I'm not surprised anymore now that I've seen him in enough movies where he actually acts) hunting a killer who uses a black cat as his murder weapon, but there you have it.

The film only becomes truly lurid and crazy with its last murder and final plot twist; fortunately, as the very solid and stylish suspense scene surrounding that final twist and luridness demonstrate, Pastore is well equipped to make a perfectly fun film even without the lurid and the crazy whose absence so often breaks a giallo.

Eyeball (1975): This one is generally treated as one of Umberto Lenzi's best giallos but I can't say I see it. Sure, there's a killer in a stylish red raincoat haunting Barcelona stealing eyeballs, but the red raincoat is as stylish as anything here gets, and the eyeball-stealing less lurid than is sounds. Meanwhile the plot slowly plods along, the mystery bores a bit, and the murders just aren't all that interesting. It's an okay film to watch if you don't have anything exciting at hand, but that's as far as it goes for me.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Thursday, April 25, 2013

In short: Kuutamosonaatti (1988)

Because she was mildly naughty, her agency ships model Anni (Tiina Björkman) off for a few days away from the limelight. Anni ends up in a hut somewhere far out in the Finnish countryside, with her teenage brother Johannes (Kim Gunell) supposedly bound to follow the next day.

Of course, we all know about the pleasures of country life from many a horror movie, so it'll come as no surprise when Anni's closest neighbours turn out to be rather peculiar. The Kyyröläs consist of a religiously crazy Mum (Soli Labbart), her panty-stealing giggling crazy son Arvo (Kari Sorvali) and Sulo (Mikko Kivinen), the son so crazy the family locks him up in the root cellar so he doesn't roam the snowy woods at night, howling like a wolf.

Needless to say, pretty Anni soon awakens the interest of Arvo, whose particular type of country hospitality becomes increasingly threatening. Cue "Dueling Banjos".

As is obvious by now, Olli Soinio's Finnish backwoods horror film Kuutamosonaatti (which translates into "Moonlight Sonata") sets out to prove that the language of evil, unwashed country people hunting much prettier city folk is very much an international one. And what could be better than to use the rural landscape of your (sometimes metaphorical) backyard if you're making a low budget movie?

As far as the violence goes, the film at hand is on the more harmless side of its genre. There aren't all that many characters to kill off gorily, and the film prefers a mixture of dry, off-beat humour which my very basic knowledge of Finnish film and music interprets as typical of the country, and classic tricks of suspense and thriller filmmaking as brought down to us by Hitchcock (who even has a kind of guest appearance).

While that may disappoint the gore hounds among its audience, Kuutamosonaatti's suspense scenes were effective enough to keep me interested. Sure, there's a degree of silliness to the set-up of various scenes you need to ignore to enjoy the film on a straightforward level, but if you do, there's a pretty tight low budget movie to enjoy.

Additionally, if you've seen as many backwoods horror movies as I have, you learn to enjoy the slight differences in local colour, and Kuutamosonaatti's well photographed snowy North of Finland provides a marked and pleasant difference in a genre generally taking place in the woods somewhere in Backwoodlandia, USA. There are also too few tractor chase scenes in the genre outside of Finland.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

In short: Assassination (1967)

Spy Jonathan Chandler (Henry Silva) is saved from the electric chair - to which he was condemned for a crime he may or may not have actually committed - by his spy masters, so he can take on the role of his non-existent brother Philip and attempt to infiltrate some sort of dangerous group that will much later turn out to plan the assassination of a US senator to disrupt peace talks between the USA and the USSR. Plagued by an identity crisis, an unresolved obsession with his wife (Evelyn Stewart), and a thirst for vengeance towards someone or something, Chandler stumbles from New York to Hamburg, confused, attacked and threatened by his own side, as well as the side he's supposed to infiltrate.

This debut feature of director Emilio Miraglia (whom you should know from two fine, and sometimes equally ambiguous giallos - The Red Queen Kills Seven Times and The Night Evelyn Came Out Of The Grave) is a Eurospy movie only if you call every movie about spies made in Europe one, but it's tonally too different from other films of the genre to fit the label for my taste. Rather, it's a film working at inducing a feeling of alienation in its viewers equal to the confusion and alienation of its protagonist. It does this via a spy movie assassination plot that isn't really explained, character whose motives are not just being slightly ambiguous but opaque to utterly confusing, and a conscious avoidance of explaining anything that's going on for most of its running time. It's a bit as if Kafka instead of Ian Fleming had written the James Bond books, and Italian filmmakers were now desperately trying to rip off the adventures of James K. instead.

Watching Assassination is a peculiar experience which is as close as suffering from actual hallucinations instead of just watching a movie as some of the weirdest noirs were, the film always threatening to break down on itself completely. The movie is just held together by Miraglia's very stylish direction, a particularly intense Henry Silva going through the film as if it were a series of hallucinations he'd just love to punch in the face, and Evelyn Stewart making patented Evelyn Stewart tragic suffering faces. Though "held together" really is a rather relative description for a film as purposefully confusing and frayed as this one is.

In any case, Assassination is a pretty fantastic movie if you're willing to share in its perspective on life as a tragic, perhaps frightening and quite unanswerable question for an hour and a half of your time.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

On Dario Argento's Dracula 3D (2012)

I'm pretty sure Argento's version of Dracula will automatically get the critical drubbing all his late period films get, be they great like Mother of Tears, abominations like Giallo and The Card Player, or fine workman-like efforts like his Masters of Horror episodes. Argento shares the fate of his co-sufferers in directing horror films like George Romero and John Carpenter of having turned their once rabid fanbases against themselves by continuing to change their styles. And we all know by now that "fans" only stay "fans" as long as you give them exactly what they expect, lest they turn into a highly enthusiastic lynch mob that wouldn't even realize if you made the best movie of your career. Thusly, the Internet has turned my private definition of "fan" into "person who hates something so much (s)he won't stop shouting about how horrible it is", but I digress.

Not that Dracula (3D) is the best movie of Argento's career. It is, in fact, a rather curious artefact that attempts - and perhaps half of the time succeeds - to build a luridly dream-like mood out of a mixture of operatic theatricality, cheapness, misguided uses of modern technology, an improbably bad soundtrack, and plain weirdness. When this works, Dracula becomes rather magical, like a pulpy version of that weird vampire sex dream (vampirism is all about sex and domination for Argento here) you once had after reading Bram Stoker and drinking too much red wine. When it fails, Dracula turns into a horrible mess half bad soap opera, half gore flick made by a teenager.

The most curious thing about it is how easily the film slips from one extreme to the next, with nearly awe-inspiring moments of Gothic horror turning into poor cheese and back again at the drop of a hat. Really everything in Dracula is changing from one moment to the next in this way - the acting (with generally lovely actors like Asia Argento, Thomas "Dracula" Kretschmann and Rutger Hauer as the least interesting Van Helsing imaginable) is convincing in one sentence, stiff in the next, and melodramatically overdone in the next, the special effects permanently meander between decent practical effects, utterly horrid CG most SyFy channel movies were ashamed of, and beautiful and imaginative CG, while the script wanders between homages to every other Dracula adaptation in existence, clever changes to the original (for example, not taking the plot to England doesn't just put away the xenophobic subtext, and is good for the budget but also makes the film dramatically tighter, or rather would make it tighter if this were a film interested in it; and I love what the film in the end does with the old, terrible "Mina is the reincarnation of Dracula's wife" bit), random weird shit I can't help but approve of (I'll just say "mantis"), and stuff that is of little use however you look at it.

Locations and sets are at times beautiful and atmospheric, and at other times so ill lit they have the fake, plastic-y look of a doll house. In this Dracula, the sublime and the ridiculous don't just go hand in hand, they change from one into the other like a hyperactive werewolf. I'm actually pretty sure Argento does this all on purpose (for he can hardly not see it), but what his purpose is - apart from making it much easier for people to hate on the film without having to think about it - I surely don't know.

What I do know is that, even though Argento's Dracula surely isn't his best film, or even a good one, it is a film containing as much personality, strangeness and idiosyncrasy as I could have wished for. It's certainly not the film I would have wanted Argento to make, but then I'm convinced that if you're expecting any artist, in whatever part of his or her career, to do the exact sort of thing you want from her or him, you're doing art appreciation wrong.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Master Touch (1972)

Original title: Un Uomo Da Rispettare

aka A Man To Respect

High-tech (by standards of the early 70s) thief Steve Wallace (Kirk Douglas) has barely been released from a Hamburg prison when Miller (Wolfgang Preiss), an old associate - but surely no friend - of his, tries his hardest to convince him to just another heist. Miller entices Steve with the sheer impossibility of breaking into a vault so high-tech, it's controlled by one of those "computer" thingies.

Miller's technique, and a bit of a looksee, do indeed convince Steve that the vault is just the job for him, but he doesn't want anything to do with Miller, who, after all, would want half the take and tends to have faces smashed in by his enforcer (Romano Puppo) where Steve prefers a non-violent approach to his job. Still, Steve will need a partner for the plan he has developed. Consequently, the aging thief finds himself one in form of trapeze artist Marco (Giuliano Gemma). Marco doesn't know anything about safecracking, but is willing to learn.

Problems do of course arise. Steve's wife Anna (Florinda Bolkan) wants her husband to end his life as a criminal; it's not so much out of moral abhorrence (Steve is, after all, a non-violent criminal robbing banks and other institutions of that type) but because his jail time has been very hard on her, and she can't imagine going through another year or two without him. That's particularly bad because Steve's plan to rob the vault and keep Miller off his back absolutely includes further jail time. And as if that weren't enough, heists do have the tendency to go wrong.

In the fourth decade of his career, at a point where most other actors of his generation were either starting to rest on their laurels or take an early semi-retirement on TV, Kirk Douglas went weird, taking on roles in peculiar comedies, Italian end times movies, and Michele Lupo's The Master Touch.

The Master Touch isn't a particularly weird film in itself but it is also a far cry from the movies the actor could have starred in at this point in his career that'd see him just point his face in the direction of the camera and go through the motions. At its core, this is a very typical heist movie, containing everything you'd expect from such a film yet giving everything just enough of a little twist to make it a very good heist movie, even for a viewer more than used to what the genre has to offer; see, for example, the film's rejection of the femme fatale concept.

However, Lupo's movie also contains elements rather less typical of its genre, like an absolutely insane car chase between Gemma and Puppo through the streets of Hamburg that looks and feels incredibly dangerous, seeing as it ends with both cars involved nearly totally destroyed. Hamburg itself looks at its least appealing here, as it mainly seems to consist of the dirtiest part of its harbour, grey and brown streets, and grey industrial buildings sitting under the typically grey skies of Northern Germany. If the rules of the heist movie (quite in opposition to the caper movie) wouldn't nearly guarantee it already, Hamburg's rather noirish appearance does suggest things won't end well for anyone involved.

In contrast to Hamburg's ugly side, much of the film's interior action tends towards the modernist and semi-futuristic, with a vault and safe-cracking tools that involve all the polished silver, blinking lights, and emptiness the Future of 1972 had to offer. It's a curiously nostalgic feeling watching computers large as a room, a few video cameras and what amounts to a microphone-based alarm system treated as awe-inspiring technological advances only a genius thief could conquer, but the film treats this aspect with such reverence and care, it does never become ridiculous from my jaded perspective on technology. It helps that Steve's plan actually makes sense with the technology given. The use of music to distract the computer system also has a finely poetic touch, and just feels right even if it may be slightly absurd in practice. Of course, once you witness Douglas wearing a rather wonderful suit (I say this with the full conviction of a man who neither wears suits nor likes suits as a concept) oozing tension and charisma while going through the absurd and not so absurd elements of his heist, there's no room for doubting you're witnessing something very serious and exciting.

Clarity is a particularly important part of every good heist sequence, because the audience usually needs to have a clear picture of what's going on in several places at once. The Master Touch's heist sequence shows Lupo as a director very much in control of the pacing of his heist sequence. Lupo clearly knew the importance of every edit here, resulting in a sequence with a highly impressive flow that alone would be enough to recommend the film.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

SyFy vs. the Mind: Heebie Jeebies (2013)

Because gold-loving local "businessman" Billy Butler (Michael Badalucco, going from annoying odious comic relief to delightful scenery-chewing) can't leave his family's old goldmine alone, a horrifying monster begins munching on the local townsfolk. The thing eats and bleeds gold, exudes a fear-inducing gas and looks like several corpses moulded together to form a large maw on legs, which, as we will learn later on, is pretty much exactly what it is.

The only people standing between the town and a hungry monster are deputy sheriff Todd Crane (Robert Belushi, second runner up for the title of "blandest hero in a movie I watched this week"), his secret love interest Doctor Theresa Lim (Cathy Shim), and the grumpy yet incompetent sheriff (Carl Savering). The latter's answer to a mass murder by monster in his town isn't to call in real police but to assemble a hunting party of local monster meat. As if that weren't bad enough, Todd for his part suffers from debilitating panic attacks that make him totally unfit for police work and rather problematic for heroism, and Theresa is hobbled by the fact that the script treats her as the only sane person in town but doesn't actually let her do anything. But hey, at least she has an expository Grandmother (Lucille Soong), and a younger sister (Olivia Ku) perfectly positioned to help Todd's sister (Evie Thompson) out at not being the only teenage girl threatened by a monster.

Heebie Jeebies is among that number of SyFy Originals (I still want to set the word "original" in quotation marks sometimes) that do their job as inoffensive, silly monster movies with pride and conviction. If you won't to see the movie equivalent of decent fast food, this will fill you and make you happy for ninety minutes.

Despite its basic silliness, and its hugely predictable structure Heebie Jeebies (directed by a certain Thomas L. Callaway who mostly seems to work as a cinematographer, and written by writer/actor/director/everything Trent Haaga) does from time to time put a little effort into giving its clichés some slight twists, proving it wasn't written by a robot. I do appreciate a film that has a very peculiar monster with just as peculiar habits which actually make sense in the context of its creation; I also can't help but root for a film doing right by its expository Grandmother, using her with a casual sense of irony while making fun of the "inscrutable oriental" thing. It's also nice to find a film like this that just has a somewhat multi-racial cast as a matter of course (though it still has rather problematic black characters, if you're thinking "representation of diversity rather" than "useful characters for a monster movie narrative").

And, you know, this is a movie featuring a CGI and rubber gloves monster made out of murdered (by the evil capitalist's evil capitalist ancestors, obviously) Asian miners, eating and bleeding gold and exuding fear gas, which in practice isn't quite as awesome and subversive as it sounds on paper, but really provides Heebie Jeebies with the bit of strangeness and individuality it needs to entertain jaded old fools like me.

Friday, April 19, 2013

On Exploder Button: Masks (2011)

As I might have mentioned here once or twice, I'm generally not a fan of contemporary German horror movies at all, which has a lot to do with the fact that pure gore movies just bore me, and pure gore movies seem to be what German indie horror directors want to make.

From time to time, I do encounter a German genre film I actually like, and Masks certainly is one of those. How, why, and wherefore I'm explaining in my column on Exploder Button.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

In short: The Summoned (1992)

aka The Demon Lover

Jenny Harris (Ashlie Rhey) has a rather difficult time with the men in her life: her husband is an abusive jerk who cheats on her, and her boss is a rude ass. Her new neighbour Rebecca (Gwen Somers) proposes that finding herself a fantasy lover is the way to solve her problems. A little séance later, and Jenny does in fact have her very own dream lover (Sean Morrow). Despite him being a beer-bellied guy with a creepy face, he seems rather irresistible and at first improves Jenny's mood quite a bit.

What our heroine doesn't suspect is that her dream lover is in fact an incubus, and while his tendency to magically rough up her husband a little when he's particularly nasty to her is rather great, he also just loves to go out and murder any women Jenny has negative thoughts towards, be it her husband's lover, or her best friend. It's all enough for a girl to romantically re-orient herself towards the cop husband of the murdered girlfriend of one's husband.

Mike Tristano's The Summoned is just the kind of low grade would-be softcore porn horror crap a doctor would prescribe against insomnia. It's got all the hallmarks of a movie primarily made to show its presumed horny audience a few breasts and a bit of dry-humping, with the plot and the horror parts only there to give the film a slight appearance of being more complex than a Playboy photo spread.

Even with a film made in the pre-Internet era, there's the question who it was made for. I'd rather imagine an audience looking for porn would, you know, rather prefer to watch an actual porn movie. Yet even if you were looking for softcore porn, you'd probably rather watch a film that puts a slight bit of imagination into its sex scenes, which The Summoned clearly doesn't.

If you're lucky, this kind of shot-on-video concoction can still provide some joy by way of weirdness, personality or just plain wrongness. Unfortunately, this isn't The Summoned's forte either. Sure, the plot is dumb, the narrative structure slow and boring, the acting amateurish and full of dubious line deliveries and awkward pauses, the special effects crap, the cameos by Robert Z'Dar and Michelle Bauer short and useless, but nothing here has any actual personality. It's just bad in a bored and boring, characterless way that entices fingers towards the fast-forward button and lulls minds to sleep. You might as well just watch a reality TV show.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

In short: Survival Quest (1988)

A group of all age groups and genders (Dermot Mulroney, Catherine Keener, Tracy Lind, Ben Hammer, Dominic Hoffman and Paul Provenza) that'd surely qualify for a disaster movie, flies out into the wilderness to learn some valuable lessons about themselves via survival training under the tutelage of laid back and sensitive wilderness expert Hank (Lance Henriksen). There's many a teachable moment about the joys of collectivism and treating one's peers with respect.

Unfortunately, the rather more paramilitary survivalist training course exclusively for older teenage boys of mercenary Jake (Mark Rolston) has come to the same area. Jake's full of bizarre talk of being a predator (I'd like to see Jake tell that to an actual predator) and every man having to stand for himself. Do you think there's a political allegory hidden somewhere in the movie?

Curiously, if you teach kids the value of being psychopaths, they may just start acting the part, and things turn violent. Eventually, Hank and Jake are believed dead by their respective groups, and the psycho kids begin hunting our peaceful collective.

Don Coscarelli's Survival Quest will probably always be the Coscarelli movie I like least (unless you count the attempt to steal money from his fans known as Phantasm IV as a movie, which I don't). This doesn't mean, however, that Survival Quest is a bad movie, it's just that its flaws are of exactly the kind I'm able to overlook least.

I'm never a fan of allegories at the best of time, and Coscarelli makes his film's political allegory even harder to bear though the total lack of subtlety of its presentation. Ideologically speaking, I'm on the director's side, and approve of any attempt to make a survival film which posits people don't and won't have to turn into monsters in any dangerous situation, it's just that I really wish he'd not try and hit me over the head with it as much as he does (and, you know, doesn't let the film still end with the good guys blowing up the bad guys).

This aspect of Survival Quest is further weakened by the weak characterization. I'd really rather believe that Hank's wilderness teachings and the communal work with others are a catalyst for the characters finding inner strengths they didn't know about and changing for the better, but in practice, everyone starts out as an underwritten cliché and ends as a slightly different underwritten cliché, their moments of change lacking in dramatic impact.

It is a bit of a shame, because Survival Quest's functioning parts are something to cheer for. I like how comparatively quotidian the actual wilderness survival problems our heroes have to cope with before the chase movie part begins are, providing what comes later with a basic believability the characters never have on their own.

Daryn Okada's wilderness photography is rather beautiful, again without attempting to be stunningly, dramatically beautiful, but just showing what's there without a grand gesture.

Last but not least, there's a very fine performance by the great Lance Henriksen who provides his - again pretty underwritten - Hank with charisma and a force of personality that nearly make the quick effect of his training course in social responsibility believable (and most certainly makes Rolston's one-note Jake look like even more of a jerk), and manages to make a character who might come over as quite patronizing in the way he is written sympathetically paternal.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

SyFy vs. The Mynd: American Horror House (2012)

The new house of the Kappa Whatever sorority is not the best house the sisterhood could have rented after their old building burned down. Not only does the building have quite a bad backstory, and not only is the live-in landlady, Miss Margot (Morgan Fairchild), supremely creepy, there's also the little problem of the house being full of murderous ghosts with various plot-appropriate reality-deforming powers. At first, the ghosts' handful of murders aren't really all that conspicuous, particularly because these undead like to clean up the bodies they leave behind very quickly. Cleanliness is next to godliness, after all.

However, this more subtle approach to carnage changes on the day and night of the Kappas' big Halloween party. The ghosts start working overtime, each of their victims filling the ranks of the undead menace. It falls to the only person in the house who isn't a total twat, new pledge Daria (the perfectly likeable Alessandra Torresani), to find out why the ghosts and their house are doing what they are doing and try and stop it.

It is frighteningly official: now that I've seen the third SyFy Channel movie in a row I actually enjoyed, I'm not allowed to use "SyFy Channel Original" as short-hand for "exactly the kind of lazy low budget movie that gives low budget films a bad reputation" anymore. Well, at least there's still The Asylum to look down on.

Anyway, as the above synopsis should make clear, Darin Scott's American Horror House isn't much of a narrative, and that's even before you spend a single second thinking about the utter silliness of what's going on in it. It's the horror movie as haunted house ride, lacking all subtlety, subtext (unless the traditional "sororities are deeply problematic" counts, which it doesn't), and often enough logical coherence, so if you just need a bit of substance or depth in your horror movies, this will be less than satisfying.

However, Scott never sets out to provide that kind of depth, and consequently, it seems rather unfair to blame the movie for its lack. Particularly when American Horror House achieves what it actually sets out to do perfectly: it's to be the sort of horror movie in which at least every second scene contains either some spooky manifestation or a gory murder. The film dives into this mission with relish, turning most of the spooking into supremely grotesque and/or surreal tableaux, like a fast-paced best of from the strangest scenes of US and Italian horror from the late 80s and the 90s. It's in the same generous spirit of the bizarre that gave us the Demoni films and the Night of the Demon movies, and I for my part am quite happy with this.

Speaking of the gore - which is frequent and awesome -, Scott doesn't go for any sort of realism there either, preferring the grotesque to the anatomically probable, as is only right and proper for a film in this spirit. So you'll learn some valuable lessons about tongues, how to extract someone's guts through his mouth, and get other helpful tips that'll be no help at all in your future serial killer career.

American Horror House keeps its level of fun horror nonsense up for the largest part of its running time, only faltering in its final ten minutes or so when it becomes clear that Scott (or script writer Anthony C. Ferrante) don't have the slightest idea how to end this one properly (hint: exploding house), and so go for the kind of lame, pseudo-dark, non-ending that has plagued horror films forever. Fortunately, there's way too much fun to be had with the film before this happens, so American Horror House still comes highly recommended to my sisters and brothers in being easily amused by surreal violence and non-stop running around in their movies.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Slayground (1983)

What should have been the rather simple robbery of a rural money transport  turns into a bit of a clusterfuck for professional thief Stone (Peter Coyote) afterwards, when the inexperienced escape driver manages to crash their car and kills a rich man's wife and daughter in the process.

Stone does feel a certain degree of guilt over the affair, but certainly not enough to turn himself and his partners in. Rich guy (one suspects dissatisfied with the way the police handles the case, though the film doesn't tell) hires a mad professional killer to find and kill everyone connected with his family's death, which he does with great enthusiasm and slasher movie killer superpowers.

Only Stone escapes the killer's wrath alive - though wounded - for a while, and decides to leg it to the UK where he hopes for some help of his former partner and friend Terry Abbatt (Mel Smith). Yet despite all of Stone's efforts in disappearing, the killer keeps relentlessly on his trail, so a final confrontation will be unavoidable.

Terry Bedford's Slayground is a rather curious film. Supposedly based on Donald E.Westlake's/Richard Stark's Parker novel of the same title, it's more a Chinese whispers version of the story than an adaptation. Parker adaptations always are rather free with their tight and taut source novels, but the film at hand has so little to do with the book it's impossible not to ask oneself why the producers even shelled out for the rights at all. Was it the brilliantly pulpy title?

But even if you ignore its curious status as an adaptation that doesn't adapt, Slayground is still a strange film. One half of it is a bleak crime movie with the expected existential undertones, while the other half seems to attempt to somehow shoehorn slasher movie sensibilities into the crime plot. Apart from his use of guns, the film's killer is a pure slasher invention: shadowy, never directly seen, with a propensity to turn his victims into freak-out art tableaus. Before the film relocates to the UK, the killer also seems to have the knowledge and teleportation powers of your typical slasher killer, being not only always able to know where Stone is going even in cases where there's no logical way for him to do so, but somehow appearing at innocuous places like a random gas station Stone himself won't have planned to travel to before his victim does . The killer even has his own breathing noise on the soundtrack, as well as the traditional synth plink theme.

The film's crime movie sensibilities and its slasher aspirations never quite come together for me. I do appreciate the effort, but can't help and think Bedford would have made a better crime movie or a better slasher movie if he had decided on one of the genres. Slayground also tends to meander a bit, with some plot developments awkwardly explained, others seemingly based on the assumption the audience will just fill in the blanks with crime movie clichés.

Still, Slayground is a film worth watching. It is moodily shot in the early 80s style - just before all films turned into clouds of neon and hairspray - which still keeps the graininess and bleakness of 70s films while feeling slicker than the films of the earlier era. At least half of Slayground's scenes are actually quite memorable: the random way Stone's initial getaway driver dies, the robbery, Stone's second and nearly deadly confrontation with the killer, and Terry's attempt to get his friend back on the straight and narrow are all convincing, clever and/or exciting. I'm pretty sure the film would now run as some kind of lost classic if the semi-slasher parts didn't get in the way (or, depending on your tastes, the other way round). There are also a great climax in an abandoned, downright crazy amusement park that looks inexplicably creepy to me (if it really exists), and a calm performance by Peter Coyote to recommend Slayground.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

In short: The Seven-Ups (1973)

Buddy (Roy Scheider) is the leading member - that is, the only one with any character traits beyond "has a family and is therefore doomed to die" - of a secretive investigation unit of the New York police called the Seven-Ups because they're only interested in crime that'll get the perp seven years or more. Their investigation techniques are supposed to be somewhat unorthodox, even though we see only one rather stupid moment of tough guy bullshit that'll probably get their case thrown out of court. The rest of Buddy's approach consists in basic detective work like observation of targets and tips from his schoolyard friend and informer Vito (Tony Lo Bianco).

Without Buddy's knowledge, Vito is milking him for information for his own business. Vito's the information source - though a completely hands-off one - for a group of criminals (including Richard Lynch) concerned with the abduction and ransoming of various higher-ups in the organized crime world.

In the end, Buddy's job and Vito's business contacts just have to collide. Soon The-Cop-With-Family (Ken Kercheval) is dead thanks to Mafiosi stupid enough to think he's part of the kidnappers, and kidnappers stupid and unlucky enough to kill him as part of a suspected mafia trap. Obviously, Buddy and his remaining buddies are going to go all-out vigilante on the kidnappers turned accidental cop-killers.

The Seven-Ups is a minor example of the kind of cop-centric crime movies caused by the success of William Friedkin's The French Connection. The film's director Philip D'Antoni did produce Friedkin's film, so the influence is understandable.

It's also not difficult to understand why this is D'Antoni's only movie as a director. While about half of the film gets by on the natural grit and grime of New York in the early 70s, D'Antoni's just not the man to get as much use out of the scenery as possible. The film is erratically paced with moments of tension and moments of plain boredom alternating, giving the film an unplanned and vague sort of feel, particularly because its dramatic arcs are lacking any kind of originality and just don't hold together all that well. There are some decently done action scenes, but the film's rhythm is so off, their impact is reduced until they turn into forgettable noise.

Even though the actors are good (who can argue with young Richard Lynch or 70s Roy Scheider?), the film doesn't give them much of interest to do. Sure, Scheider does the whole "cop turning vigilante" thing, but the film's lack of dramatic tension makes it feel rather unimportant, possibly because The Seven-Ups never bothers to establish much about his character traits. What does Buddy feel or think, what makes him tick? The film doesn't know, doesn't tell, or just isn't interested, and so makes even a scene where Scheider threatens a mob guy and his wife in their bed to get at information somewhat bland and uninvolved.

As much as I like grimy 70s New York and 70s crime movies, there's just too little depth or imagination in The Seven-Ups to make it really worthwhile; it's not a bad film by far, yet one whose stubborn mediocrity seems much less interesting than actual badness could ever be.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Three Films Make A Post: THE FRENCH FILM BANNED IN FRANCE!

Raw Deal (1986): Welcome to the mid-80s, when action movie heroes looked like gorillas, Schwarzenegger wasn't too awkward in front of the camera (though I find the man's tendency to fondle his own biceps rather disturbing), and women's hair looked like artificial weed. John Irvin's movie is your archetypal bread and butter Schwarzenegger vehicle of the era, lacking the insanity of Commando and the brilliance of Predator. It's fun enough if you need to fill up on shoot-outs and explosions, but it lacks that certain something (be it good or bad) that makes an action movie memorable.

The Parasite Doctor Suzune: Evolution (2011): Despite both films probably having been shot back to back, I enjoyed part two of this parasite-based exploitation romps quite a bit less than the first one. It's probably because it has less of everything except maid costumes: less action, less nudity, less crazy nonsense, fewer locations. Okay, there's more walking through an empty warehouse while nothing is happening, and certainly more flashbacks to the first film and the flashbacks from the first film, but that's the kind of more I'd have preferred less of.

Plunder Road (1957): Now this is quite more like it. Hubert Cornfield's laconic 50s heist movie that knows that the heist is only a success when you actually get away with your loot only doesn't get its own full-length piece from me because it's oh so very laconic and matter-of-fact that writing about the film would become an act of reproduction, for everything here is visible in the film's surface; even what you'd generally call the subtext concerning the relationship between humans and machines standing which represent a cruelly indifferent universe is on the surface in Plunder Road.

In that sense, it's a film trying and succeeding at turning rather complicated notions into a straightforward (and cheap) crime movie, treating some of the philosophical ideas at work in the much more chaotic film noir in a different manner.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

In short: Hollow (2011)

(I'll have to vaguely spoil the film's ending).

The footage we're about to see…oh, you know the drill.

Emma (Emily Plumtree), her fiancé Scott (Matt Stokoe), her best friend James (Sam Stockman), and his girlfriend Lynne (Jessica Ellerby) are going on a weekend trip to the house of Emma's dead grandfather. Relations are somewhat strained: Scott's a jerk, James is quite unhealthily in love with Emma and has brought Lynne mainly as temptation for Scott, and Emma is the opposite of decisive, making them the ideal group to party together.

As if that weren't enough, Emma has always been afraid of a large tree standing close to the house and the ruin of an old abbey, and starts feeling even more threatened on this visit. Strange things™ happen, and a bit of research discloses a history of couples hanging themselves from the tree, possibly spurned on by the ghost of a monk. This being a POV horror movie and all, the neurotic quartet will surely find a way to get themselves first into a situation of shaky-cam shenanigans, lots of gibbering in the dark, and then death.

Do you suffer from POV/found footage horror oversaturation? Then you won't like Michael Axelgaard's Hollow much, because it's another found footage horror film that clearly wants to play with some aspects of the style but can't help itself hitting the same damn beats eighty percent of these films hit. Hollow clearly would like to be a more character based piece of horror yet - while the acting's decent - I found its relationship drama rather on the tiresome side, which is even more problematic in a film that really needs that drama to be interesting and believable; it's after all what the whole plot circles around. I just couldn't bring myself to care about these people and consequently didn't care about the generic misadventures they went through.

I do appreciate that for once a POV ending does make quite clear what was going on throughout the film. I appreciate rather less how prosaic these happenings actually turn out to be. That is of course the sort of thing that happens when a film first promises an English countryside tale of the supernatural but then delivers the story of a mopey guy's complicated plan for a double double suicide. I could imagine this sort of thing actually working but only with acting and writing in the dramatic parts that isn't just decent but incisive and intelligent, and some clearer idea of what mental illnesses are beyond handwaving plot devices. And that's not something Hollow is able to deliver.

I found myself also rather disappointed with the film's final half hour, generally the point in the POV style when the shit hits the fan, the really strange stuff happens (only half off-camera if you're lucky) and the camera shakes while actors cry and mutter and run through woods and countryside. Done right and with imagination, this sort of thing can still be somewhat exciting. In Hollow's case, this whole aspect of the movie feels perfunctory, as if Axelgaard were only going through the motions of a POV horror film without having the ability to make these motions his own. It's all just so very bland.

That blandness really seems to be Hollow's main problem to me: there are some good ideas in the film, there is, however, never a single moment when these ideas come to life on screen.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Blue Collar (1978)

Zeke (Richard Pryor), Jerry (Harvey Keitel) and Smokey (Yaphet Kotto) work in a Detroit car factory. Despite their racial mix, they're drinking buddies, sharing their frustrations with the petty indignities of their bosses, the indifference of their union, their increasingly painful economic situation, and a complete inability to be honest to their families about anything (it's the old "a man's gotta provide for their family, but sure as shit ain't gonna talk to them" song).

One day, when money's getting even tighter for various reason, most of which are quite out of their control, the trio decide to rob the safe of their local union. The three men's amateurish robbery is successful in a way, but the loot's only six-hundred dollars and some paperwork, far below what the thieves were expecting. In the following days, the union claims to have been robbed of around 20.000 dollars.

On closer look, one of the notebooks among the papers the trio robbed has rather interesting contents. Looks like the union is loaning out large amounts of money for illegally high interest rates to very dubious people in places like Vegas and New York. Perhaps it would be a good idea to make a blackmail attempt? Turns out it truly isn't, and soon enough, Zeke, Jerry and Smokey are in even more above their heads than before, and a matter of casual crime turns into a matter of life and death that will - at best - break open all the rifts between the men, and might just possibly kill someone.

Paul Schrader's directorial debut Blue Collar is a strangely under-watched and underappreciated movie, despite Schrader's clout as a writer (at the point Blue Collar was made, Schrader had already scripted Taxi Driver and Obsession), the great central cast, and the fact the movie's pretty damn great.

At least it is if you have interest and patience to sit through the loose yet detailed way Schrader begins to explore his characters' lives and world. At first, I actually thought the patient and slow way in which Schrader introduces the audience to the facts of his characters' lives were a mistake, or rather, an exercise in a kind of flabby self-indulgence not atypical of parts of 70s cinema. As a matter of fact, I was wrong about that: every scene that seems aimless is actually important to characters, mood, and sense of place of the film; the seeming lack of direction mirrors the lost and directionless inner lives of the characters.

In this context, it is not much of surprise Blue Collar becomes increasingly tight once the characters are caught up in the consequences of their little robbery, and all even imaginary opportunities disappear for them. It's at that point all humour - before an important part of the film's tone - disappears from Blue Collar, the tone becoming grim, even nightmarish. Once the working classes are not playing the game they're supposed to play anymore, playtime is over for them until they're submitting to the system they're caught up in again, or are left by the wayside completely.

Schrader's rather daring approach to plotting his movie about the betrayal and self-betrayal of the US working class would probably not pay off as well as it does if not for his eye for telling details that not just make the characters believable as part of their time and place but also prevents the preachiness inherent in the material from taking over by showing flawed, sometimes stupid, men and not martyrs to a cause. As films interested in truthfulness go, it's really rather brilliant.

And that's before you even take the core trio of actors into account. I am particularly excited about Pryor's nuanced performance of the film's most complicated character. Pryor uses some of the usual mannerisms and bounds of his comedic characters as something Zeke wears like an armour, with the truth about who he is shining through in small, subtly played moments suggesting a fragility as well as an astonishingly large ability to lie to himself. After this, I'll have to take Pryor seriously as a serious actor. The quality of Kotto's and Keitel's performances is of course self-evident and utterly unsurprising.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

SyFy vs. the Mynd: Ghost Storm (2011)

I have generally been rather negative around here about the quality of the TV movies the US SyFy Channel churns out, but if there's one thing I've learned in my years as admirer of movies other people would poke their eyes out not to watch, it's that you can't judge the output of a whole line of cheap movies by the half dozen unwatchable turds you've encountered. In fact, there's always the chance those movies you hated so much will be an outlier, and movies about swamp sharks and chupacabras attacking the Alamo will turn out to be hidden gems. The only way to find out is to dive in, which I will do in this new irregular series on The Horror!?. 

A small island community off what horror movie rules lead me to assume to be the coast of New England hits the PK jackpot when a lightning strikes the monument to the victims of a cult mass suicide of a hundred years ago. The ghosts of the cult members turn into a storm of ghostly and malevolent energy that likes to turn its living victims to dust. The storm also loves to play games with electronic devices, because ghosts are electricity, or something. Despite local sheriff Hal Miller's (Carlos Bernard) attempts to call in help from the mainland, the islanders will have to fight the supernatural threat off on their own, that is, when they don't begin to panic and fight among themselves.

Fortunately, Hal, his meteorologist ex-wife Ashley (Crystal Allen) and their teenage daughter Daisy (Cindy Busbay) are - with some assistance by roaming paranormal investigator Greg Goropolis (Aaron Douglas) - quite good at fighting ghost storms with the power of absurd science and duct tape.

Ghost Storm, a film directed and written by Paul Ziller who has threatened the world in cost-conscious ways in many a film for the SyFy Channel, is pretty much a perfect film in the old low budget movie tradition, at least if you have a sense of fun, can accept dubious science when it's presented right (and really, if you can't, why are you watching movies like this?), and are willing to accept that a small TV movie like Ghost Storm won't look like a Michael Bay production (and seriously, if you want films to look like that, why are you watching movies at all?).

If that sounds like your style, just let me count the ways in which Ghost Storm will thank you for it in practical bullet point form:

  • Carlos Bernard isn't just pretty good at this sort of thing, but is also allowed to play a horror disaster movie small town sheriff (that's a real term, right?) who actually seems competent. He calls for help as soon as he sees he's outclassed, and when help can't come, most of his actions make sense for a guy in his position and nearly non-existent resources. It's nice to root for the male lead in a movie like this for a change instead of just tolerating him.
  • Cindy Busby as the Millers' teenage daughter is perfectly un-annoying, does some simple yet effective girl detective work, and isn't just in the movie to be rescued by her parents, because she can actually take care of herself rather well. Plus, in this film's idea of positive family values, all members of a family are able and allowed to rescue each other.
  • The film starts out swinging, with the first ghost storm victim suffering his fate during the first five minutes, and things really not letting up afterwards. There's also a nice sense of escalation to the proceedings, at least as far as the budget allows.
  • Ziller is experienced enough in this sort of thing to know very well what his budget allows and what it doesn't allow him to do, and limits his film to the things it actually can achieve well, with neither moments where he oversteps the film's possibilities, nor moments of the The Asylum school of "It's a bad movie, so we don't have to make an effort". In the same vein, Ziller's script uses clichés (and a few parts of John Carpenter's original The Fog) but never becomes a cliché itself.
  • There's also no pseudo-ironic comic relief here. Ghost Storm takes its silly basic idea and runs with it and its pseudo-science with a perfectly straight face, which is the kind of facial expression I want from my low budget horror films unless their humour is exceptionally clever.
  • The CG effects are - unlike what I often think and write about these films - perfectly fine, which probably goes to show that there should be more cheap movies with CGI that doesn't try to imitate something corporeal. Fog tentacles and fake storms is where it's at.
  • For a film about a supernatural threat, Ghost Storm shows little faith in supernatural solutions. Instead, a combination of (surprisingly un-annoying) scrappy human spirit, made-up practical movie science, and duct tape wins the day. The film's belief in duct tape is particularly strong.

All this, ladies and gentlemen are clear signs of a low budget movie going out of its way to be as entertaining as it can be. I for one, I'm happy with this Ghost Storm.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

In short: Libido (1965)

As a child, Christian (Giancarlo Giannini) witnessed his father killing a woman in his special mirrored sex room. Some time later, his father supposedly killed himself jumping off a cliff into the sea, as if there wasn't already enough psychological damage done to the boy. Since then, Christian has been fragile, taken from one psychiatrist to the next by his foster father and executor of his father's will Paul (Luciano "Allan Collins" Pigozzi).

Now Christian is nearly 25, married to a woman named Helene/Eilene (Dominique Boschero), and in a few months time, he will inherit his father's sizable fortune; at least, if he is of sound mind at that point. Christian, Helene, Paul and Paul's vacuous sexpot wife Brigitte (Mara Maryl) are driving out to the house of Christian's father - the place where he killed the woman, and killed himself - to take inventory of some of the estate.

Christian is soon plagued by curious phenomena that suggest that either his father to be still alive, Christian to be losing his mind in a rather spectacular manner, or someone to be trying to drive him insane to get at his money.

Ziggy Freud has a lot to answer for. Despite his psychoanalytical theories often having less to do with actual human psychology and more with Freud's own psychological fixations, the man was highly influential on all kinds of artists and all types of art even at a point when it was pretty clear how much of his theoretical apparatus was untenable. The Italian giallo did particularly like to take a bit of old Sigmund's tales in, seeing as they make a perfect pretext for an at least pseudo-intellectual mix of sex and violence, and also - perhaps just as importantly - lend themselves wonderfully to stylish visualizations, so I'm not necessarily blaming filmmakers for it.

Ernesto Gastaldi's and Vittorio Salerno's early black and white giallo Libido is as freudsploitation-y as a film can be (just look at the title!), beginning with a quote of the big man and then throwing as many elements of Freudian theory into its plot as possible. The film's first half hour or so is also a cornucopia of Freudian imagery, with more phallic and vaginal symbolism than you can shake a stick at (wait a minute…). It's the kind of film where just thinking a cigar (and why isn't there one?) might actually be a cigar would be absurd.

Once the film has acquainted the audience with the large mansion it will predominantly take place in, it calms down a bit with the loaded imagery, or maybe I was just so used to it at that point I just didn't see quite as much of it anymore. At that point, the film's other influences come to the fore: the post-Psycho psychological thriller, and Les Diaboliques, and if one is familiar with these films, the film's general gist and particular plot twists won't be much of a surprise. The film plays quite fair with the audience too, which is a fine way to avoid being annoying, but does not help against a certain obviousness.

That doesn't mean Libido isn't worth watching. While it tends to symbolic overload and suffers from a too melodramatic ending, the film is visually attractive, well paced and well acted. For me, it's a particular delight to see Luciano Pigozzi in a larger role than usual.

Friday, April 5, 2013

On Exploder Button: Universal Van Damme: 6 Bullets (2012)

The thing about a contemporary direct-to-DVD movies featuring our old friend Jean-Claude Van Damme is that you never know what you get: a cameo movie that doesn't really feature Van Damme, or a horrible piece of crap, or something like 6 Bullets, a movie that doesn't use its low budget and nature as an excuse but rather as an opportunity.

My column on Exploder Button does - of course - go into more details about the film. Will Jean-Claude use THAT KICK?

Thursday, April 4, 2013

In short: The Parasite Doctor Suzune: Genesis (2011)

Suzune - possibly the winner of "Most Fetish-y Dressed Veterinarian" - works in the clinic of her gay foster father in a Japanese city. Suzuke isn't all that into the curing animals parts of her job, but instead likes to go out hunting parasites with the help of her parasite eating (mostly) CGI frog, whom she carries around in a leg holster, as you do. Her interest in parasites is based on her Mysterious and Tragic Past™, the disappearance of her parasitologist father, and everyone's wish to finally watch a movie about rogue veterinarian.

Right now, Suzune is on the trail of white, worm-like parasites that turn their victims sexually ravenous, superhumanly strong and quite mad. Fortunately, our heroine is really, really good at pulling parasites out of people's asses. Her investigation leads Suzune to an evil criminal corporation, some of the answers to the secrets of her own past, and knowledge of her own parasitological history.

In the world of cheap Japanese movies about sexual shenanigans, tentacles, and women dressing kinkily, the first Parasite Doctor Suzune movie (of course based on a manga) is something of a prince in that it doesn't exclusively coast on its audience's wish to see lots of writhing nude women. Ryu Kaneda's film has an actual, decently told plot, surprisingly okay special effects, competently choreographed action and - beside the usual porn actresses - some actors you may know from various Sion Sono Movies. It's the sort of (s)exploitation film that puts some effort in the parts of it that aren't all about breasts, and manages to be entertaining even when nobody is (half) nude on screen.

As a Japanese exploitation film, Parasite Doctor Suzune is on the less unpleasant kind. Sure, there's a lot of not exactly consensual sexual crap in there, but the film tends to play these scenes with a certain degree of grace; Kaneda's direction sure uses the required pervy angles from time to time, but there's still a degree of style here. It's also pretty uncommon to find a film of this style where the only actual rape between humans is committed by a woman on a man, or one where the gay character is actually treated like a normal human being. It's a bit strange to call a film containing any non-consensual sex and penetration by tentacle good-natured, but honestly, that's the impression the film left me with.

Generally, the sexual content of Parasite Doctor Suzune is rather tame, without the full-length softcore scenes of a pinku, but that's not a problem because the melodramatic SF horror nonsense is entertaining enough to not need the sex to keep a viewer awake. And honestly, what more can one ask of a tits and tentacles film?

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

In short: Ghost Ship (1952)

Guy Thornton (Dermot Walsh) and his wife Margaret (Hazel Court), finally want to buy a home of their own. Because it's in the script, they decide to live on a yacht and buy and rebuild an old dilapidated steam yacht. They get the ship for a good price, too, for it is supposed to be haunted. Fortunately, one isn't superstitious.

Of course, once the couple have moved in, they experience a decidedly mild haunting; the smell of cigars pervades the ship, and from time to time, a bearded ghost drives away the hired help by looking mildly perturbed. Still, this low maintenance ghost without a sense for escalation or being actually frightening is enough for our heroes to call in a friendly gentleman (Hugh Burden) from the nearest parapsychological institute.

Look, I know it's 1952, you're British, and we can actually call ourselves lucky to find a movie about a haunting from the era where the supernatural is actually supernatural, but, dear Vernon Sewell, was this really the best you could do with the material? I didn't expect much actual spookiness from the film going in, but what I got was a movie going out of its way not to contain anything that could even mildly excite a viewer, creepiness of course being right out in a movie with ghosts so polite. It's particularly curious in a British movie, as if the country hadn't had a big tradition of frightening and decidedly not harmless ghost stories. Your typical post-M.R.-James-ghost would eat these apparitions for breakfast.

Worse, Sewell's direction is unable or unwilling to build up even a bit of a spooky mood, which would have been a thing sorely needed in a film whose haunting feels so damnably harmless. The acting is decent, and this is clearly a film made on a decent level of craftsmanship in all technical aspects but there's such a complete lack of conviction and interest on display I don't think anyone involved actually cared about Ghost Ship even in the slightest.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Watch Me When I Kill (1977)

Original title: Ill gatto dagli occhi di giada

aka The Cat's Victims

When trying to enter a pharmacy to buy some aspirin, cabaret artist Mara (Paola Tedesco) hears the voice - though whispering and disguised - of a murderer who just killed the pharmacist. That's enough to make the killer very interested in her, and next thing she knows, he's breaking into her apartment at night.

Mara has what must be some pretty heavy hang-ups regarding the police when you look at the circumstances, so instead of calling them, she moves in with her on-again off-again boyfriend Lukas (Corrado Pani); without telling him what's actually going on, of course. Coincidentally (ah, coincidence, best friend of the giallo writing team), with this she's moving right next door to another man, the loan shark Bozzi (Fernando Cerulli), belonging to a group of people targeted by the same killer. The killer, we learn, first frightens his victims via sound collages (seriously), then proceeds to take care of them in a rather more practical manner.

Since Mara still won't involve the police, Lukas decides to play amateur sleuth (alas, friends of female detectives, Mara stays home for much of the movie). His investigation soon leads him to a murder trial to whose jury all of the killer's victims belonged. Not surprisingly, the investigation also brings Lukas into serious physical danger, particularly once the killer has found Mara's trail again.

Watch Me When I Kill is one of only two giallos directed by Antonio Bido. That's a bit of shame, for - while he wasn't quite up to the standards of the best directors working in the genre - Bido had quite a hand for the not particularly sleazy (there's no nudity involved, and the murders may be cruel and brutal but are not filmed with any lingering fascination) yet gritty, stylish and to a degree complex type of giallo.

Watch Me is a film driven by Bido's often exceedingly clever editing choices, grainy camerawork that uses all the visual tricks you'd expect from your typical giallo - POV shots from the view of the killer, sudden zooms, a camera interested in rather threatening close-ups of objects, blocking that often sees the places they inhabit pressing in on the characters, the works. Nearly every scene of the film is given its basic rhythm by a fine and very Goblin-esque (Goblinoid?) score by a giallo prog band called Trans Europa Express (Kraftwerk must be so proud). Bido's approach to filmmaking seems a rather musical one, an impression I found strengthened by the important part the killer's creepy audio collages and an old song have for the film's plot.

That type of stylistic overload can - in the wrong hands - turn into a series of visual clichés that are interesting to look at but don't actually do the film at hand much good at all. With Watch Me, Bido manages to avoid this pitfall. All the stylistic excess stands in the service of manipulating the audience's mood, opening up possible meanings of scenes beyond their effectiveness as parts of a tale of suspense (not that there's anything wrong with tales of suspense, of course). Thanks to this approach, Watch Me still feels very personal and auteur-like for a film that has little that is aesthetically original about it. The way something new, whole and personal is build from clichés and old ideas is of course one of the particular beauties of genre filmmaking, when it is good.

Thematically, Watch Me When I Kill is a film interested in exploring how the never openly faced horrors of the at the time of its making still recent Italian past cause further horrors because of their repression. That kind of repression of our own past atrocities happened here in Germany, too, so I can relate to this quite well. The past's evils eating away at the peaceful surface of the present is a recurring theme in the more serious-minded giallos, though only very few of them so explicitly tie their plot to the Holocaust and Italian involvement in it as Watch Me does.

This still being a giallo and not a moral-philosophical tract, the film doesn't spend much time explicitly philosophizing about its theme; if you want to know what a film like this has to say about something, you have to take a look at what it shows you. In this case, what it shows are buildings, interiors and people who are curiously shabby even where they're supposed to represent a new and better time; everything is overshadowed by a past nobody ever really wants to talk about yet which still eats away at the present from the inside.