As at the beginning of every October, R'lyeh is rising, and I'm going to be too caught up in the preparations to post for a week or so.
Normal service (perhaps with added flashes of nightmarish visions) will resume next Sunday.
As at the beginning of every October, R'lyeh is rising, and I'm going to be too caught up in the preparations to post for a week or so.
Normal service (perhaps with added flashes of nightmarish visions) will resume next Sunday.
Moon Zero Two (1969): All western clichés ever in space. Production and costume design so gloriously space age pop art my space eyes nearly did a lunar burst. Old school (as in "kaiju cinema and Italian space opera") miniature work to feast one's eyes on. On paper, this 1969 return of Hammer to SF film sounds like exactly the thing I'd want to see, but in practice, it's another one of those films that see aged filmmakers desperately grabbing for a new youth market without actually thinking through what they're doing. The result is a film half-hearted, disinterested, and boring, as if the producers and director Roy Ward Baker had assembled a series of elements they deigned to be hip without any clue what to do with them or just how to turn them into anything but a drag.
Ángel negro aka Black Angel (2000): Jorge Olguín's giallo-influenced slasher gets touted as Chile's first horror movie, which sounds rather improbable but might still be true. It's a student production and consequently suffers from the typical indie horror problems of dubious acting in the minor roles, scenes that start too early and end too late and the resulting glacial pace. However, while it's difficult to really recommend the film because of these problems, it does have some decent ideas, a general air of competence, and even two or three moody scenes, so I'm not averse to taking a look at Olguín's later movies. Talent enough for progression is there.
Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977): I've always had the impression that this is one of the lesser loved Harryhausen/Schneer mythological, but really, what's not to like except for Patrick Wayne's line delivery? After all, this is a movie where the Second Doctor leads Sinbad to Hyperborea so they can cure a prince from being a baboon while an evil sorceress chews scenery and builds a minotaur robot driven barque, while Ray Harryhausen provides the proper sense of wonder via a giant walrus, insect eyed demons, a troglodyte (with a horn like a demon out of a Nigerian Christian horror movie!) versus giant sabre-toothed tiger fight and other delights to warm the hearts of everyone who carries such a device in their breast. I also like how Sam Wanamaker's direction turns out to be slightly more dynamic than is typical of these films. All in all, this one's still a delight.
I'm really not watching Hindi movies, particularly masala movies, often enough, but when I do, I'm often happily swamped with the joy films bring that weren't at all meant to function like the US or UK model of movies I grew up with do.
Case in point is the theme of this week's column on Exploder Button, Jaal, featuring eternal and inexplicable house favourite Mithun "MITHUN!" Chakraborty. Please click on through if you want to see me use words like "joyful"!
The first and best thing I have to say about Steven Knight's Redemption is that this is no Jason Statham Movie, but a film with Jason Statham in the lead role. The difference between these two types of movies is that the latter kind tells a story using parts of the generic Statham persona for its own goals where the former is about the generic Statham persona exclusively doing Statham persona things. As most of my other write-ups of Statham films probably made clear, I'm not much of a fan of Jason Statham Movies, nor of the actor's usual asshole persona, so it won't come as much of a surprise that I enjoyed Redemption and its aspirations on being an actual movie rather more than the usual Statham outing.
It's not as if Redemption (whose original title Hummingbird would be much less generic and a lot closer to the core of the movie it belongs too, but you know marketing and its idiot ways) is that far away from your usual Statham thing on a bare plot level. This is, after all, the tale of a deserted special forces man taking vengeance on a guy who murdered a young friend who was pressed into prostitution. It's just that we don't generally see our lead as an alcoholic, homeless deserter roaming the streets of London suffering from PTSD, nor are films like this in general quite as open about the fact that the whole "manly redemption through vengeance" thing is a dead end that makes no difference at all in the long run. Vengeance here is not without purpose connected to the waste of hope and people that is alcoholism.
The film's other main interest - apart from a mild case of criticism of contemporary economic politics - lies in Statham's Joey's relationship, friendship and love affair with the nun Cristina (Agata Buzek) whose life and doubts mirror Joey's troubles in a generally less violent way, and who in the end takes the easy way out just as Joey does, though in a way that leaves more doors open for later change for her than his.
While Knight isn't the most subtle of directors, his unhurried and clear style is ideal for this sort of crime drama with emphasis on the drama, his sense for telling details bringing life to what still could be a series of clichés. Going by the performances, particularly that of Statham turning his usual hard-ass character into a human being with surprising effectiveness, and Buzek not quite falling into one of the expected nun clichés, it's also safe to assume that Knight knows how to direct actors, leaving Redemption as quite a success in my book.
aka Sleepless Night
Frédéric Jardin's crime thriller stars Tomer Sisley as the cop Vincent. Vincent and his partner Manuel (Laurent Stocker) hold up a drug transport meant for some business partners (Joey Starr and Birol Ünel) of dealer and nightclub owner José Marciano (Serge Riaboukine). Things go quite wrong: Vincent is hurt by one of the two men involved in the transport, and loses his mask during the altercation. Manuel guns down one of the men but the other one escapes.
A bit later, Marciano kidnaps Vincent's son Thomas (Samy Seghir). He is, of course, willing to exchange the kid against his drugs. Vincent takes his father role more seriously than his gangster hobby, packs the drugs into a bag and goes off to Marciano's club. Unfortunately, things become complicated there really fast, with problems mounting. Drugs disappear, two internal affairs cops (Lizzie Brocheré and Julien Boisselier), one of whom is highly corrupt, get involved, Marciano's business partners get impatient, and soon everyone is chasing Vincent around the club.
Nuit blanche is a fantastic example of what you can do with the old crime and chase thriller rituals if you know what you're doing, have a director like Jardin, and a tight script.
It's a film all about propulsion, the kind of movie that never stops once it has set up its narrative rules and its plot, going through chases and fights and clever little twists to the formula its working to with perfect pacing and equally perfect timing. How good Jardin is at this becomes even more impressive once you've realized that the largest part of the movie takes place during the course of a single night, in a single night club; it's quite a large club, to be sure, yet I never would have expected a film could actually hold the excitement of what comes down to various factions chasing each other around just a handful of rooms for an hour of real time.
Yet Jardin not only keeps the height of this excitement high, he also manages to tell a clever story in a clever way while doing so, somehow finding room and breath for an excellent acting ensemble to give his characters just enough life to save them from just being empty clichés. In this sense, I can't help but read Nuit blanche as a (probably inadvertent) message to Luc Besson that explains quite beautifully that, yes, you can make an exciting thriller in Europe without pretending to be stupid and without assuming your audience is stupid.
The only problem I have with Nuit blanche is how little it lends itself to a detailed write-up. Like most films so successful at being tight and breathless, Nuit blanche is better watched than talked about.
We're in France during World War II, and you know what that means. This week's the ill-advised occult Nazi project concerns awakening an evil god named Vorthorn living in a gargoyle statue. Not surprisingly, the god isn't too thankful for the whole awakening business, magics every other gargoyle he can lay his hands on alive too (not ideal in a world with gothic architecture), and proceeds to kill his Nazi rescuers. Oops, as we in the biz say.
Of course, once Vorthorn has gotten rid of his would-be new masters, his gargoyles start on destroying the US Air Force. During a final effort to destroy the suddenly much more effective Nazi anti-aircraft systems, Major "Gus" Gustafsson (Joe Penny) and some of his men survive an aerial encounter with the gargoyles, parachuting down quite close to Gargoyle Castle (name may not the one used in the film). Now, they have to team up with members of the French resistance and the few survivors of a British anti-gargoyle mission that went before them to acquire the Spear of Destiny, the only weapon that can kill Vorthorn; and then, obviously, they'll just have to kill Vorthorn with it. An airplane might be involved.
Reign of Gargoyles is clearly the slightly lamer brother of S.S. Doomtrooper, mining the traditional field of all World War II pulp adventures. So there are again check marks for bad Nazi occultism (did they learn nothing from the Hellboy fiasco!?), the usual heroic war movie clichés, and Nazis who talk amongst themselves in English with horrible fake German accents. Though Reign improves the last aspect by having most Germans played by Romanians (and possibly actors of other Eastern European nationalities), so that we get the particular delight of listening to actors speaking English with heavy Eastern European accents who then add fake German accents on top of it. I am quite happy to live in a world where it's not necessary to make this sort of stuff up.
If I were of a less happy disposition than I am, I would now go on to complain that the Romanian Germans are the film's best bit, but Reign is a perfectly enjoyable little movie. True, it isn't as fun as S.S. Doomtrooper and surely even farther below something like Zone Troopers but director Ayton Davis (in his only direction job, it seems) does manage the bread and butter of cheap pulp war movie action pretty well, delivering enough semi-heroic sacrifices, shoot-outs, and scenes of people running away from planes to satisfy anyone willing to be satisfied by this sort of thing.
I would have appreciated a bit more of the usual stereotyping for the Allied soldiers to provide more interesting character interaction via the traditional way of letting stereotyped guys from Brooklyn named Gino and stereotyped guys from Texas called Tex exchange idiotic barbs. As it stands, we have that one over-enthusiastic guy (and designated hero of the film) played by Wes Ramsey who needs to grow up and live up to Joe Penny's fatherly greatness, and another guy who is totally straight and dependable, and the mandatory woman from the French resistance (played by Julia Rose) getting a bit lovey with Ramsey, but that's not exactly an ideal breeding ground for any kind of fun character interaction. Plus, the obsession of US scriptwriters with people having daddy issues has gotten pretty tiresome over the years - and I say this as someone who knows people with actual daddy issues (who find these issues generally rather tiresome themselves, it seems).
However, at least the characters provide another data point for the theory that the main function of the French Resistance during World War II was to provide heroic Americans fighting occult Nazi plans with female leads. And again we've learned something from a SyFy movie, despite what people say about them.
aka The Executioner of Venice
aka The Blood of the Executioner
Luigi Capuano's gondolabuckler is a particularly fine example of the form, shot (rather lavishly) on location in Venice, full of probably not historically correct yet convincing and colourful costumes, and sets that fit the style of the real life locations well. There's a real sense of place to admire that results in a feeling of reality (not realism, mind you) not even the film's story can destroy.
Said story is of course the usual melodramatic silliness with an old and ill doge undermined by a capital E evil Grand Inquisitor (Guy Madison) who uses the doge's son (Lex Barker) to strike at him in particularly nasty ways. There is of course also a disrupted marriage (to Alessandra Panaro), whose disruption drives the poor girl involved in the direction of a convent and a sadistic evil master plan that suffers a bit from the needlessly sadistic and dangerous attempt of using a pirate captain to kill his own lost son. Evildoers, that stuff never works, particularly in Swashbucklandia, where people all too happily brand their little kids with tattoos of the Virgin Mary. Though, really, the custom seems rather useful when seen in a context like this.
Capuano presents all this with so much verve he even distracts from the fact that Lex Barker isn't particularly charismatic (sorry, guy whose performance as Old Shatterhand in the German Karl May adaptations was an important part of my childhood). The action sequences - ranging from duelling to brawls to a little bit of acrobatics - are generally imaginative and colourful, while the melodrama is as over the top as it should be. This is the sort of film where locking oneself up in a convent when one's lover has been killed looks like a completely appropriate reaction because everyone acts dramatically all the time, which probably comes with the lavish dress, now that I think about it.
Capuano adds to these simple yet inspiring delights (seriously, watching this, I hardly could keep myself from either jumping from balconies brandishing my imaginary epee, or from joining a convent, or from tattooing random babies) with an ability to squeeze even the last bit of local atmosphere out of his Venice shots, and a willingness to add telling, colourful details to the film whenever possible, very much in the style of the best literary swashbucklers. A typical example of the last is the leader of hero Sandrigo's friends in low places, Bartolo (Giulio Marchetti), whose blindness adds little to the plot but makes the character that much more memorable than if he were the usual grumpy old man or (always worse) the comic relief commoner.
Taken alone, little things like this don't sound like much, but they add up during the course of a movie and give Il boia di Venezia a nice warm place in the part of my heart I keep reserved for swashbucklers.
Today in "animal smuggling is not a good idea" news, one hapless importer (Christopher Michael Cook) of protected animals for his small animal shop in the little town of Gale, Kansas brings a bit more trouble into the country than he expected. The newly acquired monkey he sells to James (Vincent Ventresca) - who needs the animal to calm the waters between himself and his daughter Joan (Maika Monroe) after he has forgotten her high school graduation ceremony(!) - is in fact not an innocent little monkey but a demon.
By night, the little bugger turns into a ravenous, winged monster monkey eating animal and human alike. On the positive side, he flies back home to Joan's and James's place on time and doesn't need to be fed. He has grown rather fond of Joan too, which might become important later on.
Meanwhile in China (looking curiously like Louisiana), the last in a long tradition of demon monkey hunters (Boni Yanagisawa and Lee Nguyen) are hoping to wrap up their family business forever by first getting rid of the last demon monkey in China, and then finding out where the hell those foolish animal smugglers have taken the other monkey, who just happens to be their leader. When they learn that the animal has been brought to the USA, the hunters know they have to act fast, for the monkeys have one rather useful super power: they can only be killed with special blessed weapons. Otherwise, when shot, for example, a killed monkey resurrects and turns into two monkeys. Given the proliferation of guns in the USA, and people's love of using them, this could spell trouble, an analysis the further developments in Dorothy-less Kansas prove all too right.
So yes, Robert Grasmere's Flying Monkeys is one SyFy movie out to teach its audience two valuable lessons: animal smuggling is troublesome, and using guns only furthers the problem you're trying to solve with them in the long run. Both are lessons quite difficult to disagree with, particularly when they come from a film as agreeably imaginative and earnestly silly as this one.
As all other SyFy movies ever, Flying Monkeys also drops important knowledge about family troubles, namely, that your widowed father might be too distracted to come to your high school graduation on time, but he'll put in extra time once you're threatened by flying killer monkeys. Though (and that's another quite agreeable element here) a teenage daughter might still need to do her main monkey killing without daddy. So don't let anyone tell you again you can learn nothing worthwhile from SyFy's output.
The rest is a competent standard SyFy monster movie without aggressive comedy stylings, with some fun set pieces particularly once the monkeys have begun multiplying, friendly shout-outs in the direction of Oz (obviously) and Gremlins, and the usual assortment of monster-food teenagers, sheriffs and evil animal importers. So if you're in for a simple, fun, and decidedly non-stupid time, Flying Monkeys has got your back (in its claws to drag you onto a roof and eat you).
A historically bad hurricane hits the coast of California, bringing flooding, tornados and very hungry sharks in the process. Damn you, climate change! As you know, Jim, sharks like nothing more than moving into the streets and swimming pools of Beverly Hills. Nothing, that is, but flying around in a tornado to eat people.
Like all problems in the life of the USA, this too, can be solved by judicious use of explosions, an old-fashioned yet effective approach far superior to torture and hunting people around the world for committing journalism. But before the sharksplosion can happen, our designated hero, middle-aged surfer dude, bar owner and divorcee Fin (Ian Ziering), his side kick, Tasmanian surfer dude Baz (Jason Simmons), and shark-hating waitress Nova (Cassie Scerbo) have to take care of personal business, namely reaching Fin's ex-wife April (Tara Reid), and their kids Claudia (Aubrey Peeples) and Matt (Chuck Hittinger), saving people from the sharksmenace wherever they go. Will they do it in time? Who will be eaten first? (The alcoholic played by John Heard I didn't even mention). Will there ever be a SyFy movie with divorced people who don't get back together - or at least grow close again - thanks to alien invasions, the sasquatch, or flying sharks?
As regular readers of this blog (I'm so very, very sorry for everything, guys) will know, I generally loathe The Asylum and their approach to low budget knock-off genre cinema that unerringly leads them to making crappy movies that think winking at an audience and telling them how bad they are is irony, or films where the worst actor imaginable plays Sherlock Holmes in a way which makes Ianto from Torchwood look charismatic beside him, or films that don't realize that Robo-Hitler, gang rape, and forced abortion don't belong in the same movie, or films that are just plain boring because nobody involved had any ideas on how to fill the time between the two scenes that'll play good in trailers. In a surprising turn of events, The Asylum's Sharknado, as made by them for our old shameless friend, the SyFy Channel, and directed by Anthony C. Ferrante avoids all of these pitfalls.
In fact, one of the most enjoyable aspects of the movie is Ferrante's effective approach to the film's tone. It is obvious that everyone involved knows how utterly idiotic and clichéd (not to speak of making a mockery of science, logic, and possibly the American Way) the film's plot is, but instead of just pointing and laughing at itself, it plays much of what's going on in it straight, timing jokes so that they are actually funny, and pretending that a lot of the included absurdity (personal favourite: Ziering getting eaten by a shark, cutting himself free from the inside with a chainsaw, and also rescuing Scerbo, who had been swallowed by said shark while falling out of a helicopter, in the process) is really very earnest stuff; which is exactly why it becomes as funny as it is awesome. Turns out I get what a joke is even when the film isn't telling me.
Sharknado further endears itself to me by slowly escalating its silliness, starting off with comparatively mild stupidity like a ferris wheel rolling around to crush people and sharks swimming the streets, and slowly working itself up to the really idiotic/awesome stuff like people killing sharknados with explosions and cutting flying sharks out of the air with chainsaws. All the while, there's also some hoary disaster movie character stuff going on that never acknowledges the absurdity of the surrounding action for a second. It's truly beautiful in its conscious unconsciousness.
Plus, last but not least, Tara Reid has so little dialogue she doesn't even have enough space to invoke the depths of her lack of acting skill.
Here I was starting to write my usual synopsis of Andrew Goth's Gallowwalkers but then I realized that everything I'd write would make the film at hand look at once more directly coherent and more complicated than it actually is. So let's just say this is a movie about an asshole gunman played by notorious rich asshole (is this type-casting?) Wesley Snipes trying to avenge the rape of his (now dead) girlfriend on the gang of Kansa (Kevin Howarth), with the added complication that he'd already slaughtered them once and now has to cope with their undead versions.
The way the film tells its story - and its backstory - via flashbacks and insinuations is of course as heavily inspired by the less direct Spaghetti Westerns as is the asshole nature of its central hero. When you think through everything Snipes's Aman does during the course of the movie, and the way in which he does it, he's really up there with the least pleasant anti-heroes of the genre. One of the film's failings is how little the film seems to realize this; even Aman leaving his raped girlfriend because she is pregnant is not something the film is willing to at least raise an eyebrow at. Which brings us to the film's other big failing, namely its inability to find something less clichéd as an excuse for its hero's violence.
Fortunately, neither characterization, nor motivation nor plot are really what Gallowwalkers seems actually interested in. This is an exercise in weirdness and style as substance (there is no such thing as "style over substance") as pure as anything you'd find in US western cinema. The film was shot in Namibia, and Goth uses the desert for long, starkly composed shots closely inspired by the Leone school of the Spaghetti Western, turning the spaces the characters inhabit as unreal and dream-like as they themselves are. Even the spine-rippings and skinnings (and so on) are on the more dream-like side of gore.
The film is full of curious and strange details, never explained ideas that never quite add up to a full picture but are effective at creating mood exactly because they do not add up. There are many questions connected to the films weirdnesses: why are the religious loons of Enoch's Hammer all bright blonde (yeah, we can speculate, but we cannot know it), why is being undead so bad for the skin the bad guys have to skin the living to keep looking pretty? And why the heck do they still look like themselves in their new skins, except for pigmentation and hair? What is Skullbucket's problem? Where does the film take place, in the Old West or in Namibia?
As regular readers know, I am a complete sucker for this sort of thing, the sort of person who takes Gallowwalkers's rifle-full of weirdness and only ever asks for more. Your mileage may vary.
Would-be conqueror Kul Jae Sung (Garret Sato) - who already has five atomic warheads in his possession - really feels the need to acquire the Sword of Mars, the sword through which Attila the Hun once made a pact with the Devil to become invincible (the film never explains what the Devil has to do with something named the Sword of Mars, nor what business a pagan like Attila would have had with a fallen angel out of Christian mythology), before he can go a-conquering.
To find the sword, our bad guy needs the help of Professor of Some Humanity or the Other Samantha Gaines (Emmanuelle Vaugier). So he lets his favourite henchman, US mercenary Cutter (Greg Evigan), kidnap her useless brother Zach (Brent Florence) to convince her to come to Romania and help him. It's a rather effective method, and everything would be set for the glorious rule of Kul, if not for a trio of US agents lead by Jake Addams (Sebastian Spence) out to keep Kul as far away from the sword as possible.
With Samantha's help, they attempt to get the sword before him, but Cutter is right behind them. Oh, and the sword is protected by everyone's second favourite creature from Greek myth, Cerberus.
Ah, the early years of Sci-Fi Channel films, when the structure of the films wasn't quite as codified as they would soon become, but when their boring crapness factor was quite a bit higher than it is today.
John Terlesky's Cerberus is a rather nice surprise in that regard, seeing it is not horrible and boring but rather a perfectly okay adventure movie in the spirit of all perfectly okay adventure movies after Indiana Jones. The film's titular stiff-necked (that might be the sub-par quality of the CGI), three-headed giant dog isn't the central element of the film but only a major threat to our heroes on the same level as castle-climbing, cave-slithering, and Greg Evigan possessed by an evil sword that makes him even more evil than he's already supposed to be (which leads to Evigan doing a lot of that bad guy actor thing where you show your perfect, perfect teeth a lot).
While that's not exactly something special, Cerberus is a decent time, with likeable leads, a script that assumes nobody in its audience will know who and what Cerberus, Orpheus, or a fucking lyre are and therefore makes all its characters so badly educated they need Emmanuelle Vaugier to exposit to them a lot (well, she has a pleasant exposition voice), and last but not least a three-headed dog that looks as if it really should keel over a lot. I'll take it.
After having spent two years with his Aunt, undergoing psychological treatment and being home-schooled, teenager Neal Hausman (Jonny Weston) is dragged back home by his father Terry (Peter Holden). Neal had to leave home in some event involving a fire he may or may not have started that caused the death of his mother, an event the film will explain in detail much later. In any case, Terry clearly blames Neal for his wife's death.
Consequently, it's not so much Terry's idea to take his son back in, but rather that of his soon-to-be new wife Angela (Musetta Vander) who'd like to help Terry, Neal and Neal's little brother Paulie (Gattlin Griffith), who has been living with his father and her, grow back together again.
Despite Angela's - not always well thought through - efforts, there are quite a few things standing in the way of her dream of a pleasant and loving family life: namely a future husband whose reaction to psychologically troubled kids is screaming at them like an actual crazy person and rambling bullshit about normality and being a man at them. Terry's the type who loves to talk about other people having to take responsibility for their lives, something he seems particularly bad at himself. I think we're supposed to assume Terry wasn't always the jerk he is now, and the death of his wife changed him, but the film doesn't establish any visible signs of an inner conflict for him; in fact, he makes not a single loving gesture towards his children in the whole movie until the very end.
Terry himself would already be more than enough trouble for any child or teenager not coming from a family TV show but then there's the fact that Neal is as damaged as he is for an even worse reason than an emotionally abusive father. What really drove him away from home is the monster living under his bed. Even worse, once Neal was gone, it started terrorizing Paulie who didn't have anyone to help him, and is now pretty much at the end of his mental strength. From this perspective, Neal's return is the best that could have happened, for now, the brothers can face their fear (and a very real monster) together.
Steven C. Miller's Under the Bed is a bit of a frustrating film. The problem is not so much that it is a bad film, but rather that it is a pretty good film that regularly misses its opportunities for becoming great, despite cribbing whenever possible from every movie about children and teenagers having to face their supernatural monsters alone (particularly the Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark remake seems to be a favourite here).
Case in point is the way the film portrays Terry as a raging asshole who isn't so much overwhelmed by his own guilt and his inability to cope with the troubles of his children as a natural jerk bordering on a talking plot device (need to lock up your protagonists in the dark? let Terry do it!), where a father who is trying but failing instead of making no visible effort at all would fit much better into the childhood fears Neal and Paulie have to go through. This weakness also weakens Angela as a believable character. It is, after all, not too difficult to believe she's well-meaning yet inept (but can come through at the end) doing the whole parenting thing, but it's quite impossible to understand what she'd see in Terry. The not quite believable state of these central relations between the adult characters weakens the film's cause considerably.
I'm also less than enamoured by the way Miller decides to realize its monster when it comes out. I'm perfectly fine with gore but the head-ripping creature we get in the end is so much less frightening than it could or should be it's close to embarrassing. If your monster is a metaphor for childhood fears, then it damn well better be the embodiment of childhood fears, and not just another horror movie monster. Sometimes, a bit of subtlety goes a long way. It doesn't help the creature's case that it is about four times louder than anything else in the film. The connected scares aren't so much jump scares as "fear of deafness" scares, again using a bludgeon on the audience where a scalpel would be more appropriate.
On the positive side, the film's first forty minutes or so (before these problems really hit home) are a pretty believable portrait of a traumatized teen returning home full of fear and coming to realize that his greatest fears aren't just true but now threatening the only part of his family left alive he still feels a connection to. Jonny Weston and Gattlin Griffith are highly believable and effective in their roles, too, not just bringing the pain they go through to life, but also the camaraderie and the love. It's their performances that bring the best parts of Under the Bed to life, saving large parts of it from simple mediocrity.
Once a year, lawyer Marga (Cristina Brondo) has to leave her native Spain for Argentina for work reasons. It's quite horrible for her, for she hates Argentina, Argentinians, the poor, and poor Argentinians, particularly when any of these people aren't acting properly servile towards here. Not to put too fine a point on it, but she's a bit of a prick.
While she's in Argentina, Marga also attempts to rent out a rather run-down apartment she owns. Things don't go well with it. First, the real-estate agent doesn't appear when and where he's supposed to appear, then she finds him, a guy named Jorge (Berta Muniz), rummaging around in front of the apartment door, and acting rather strangely. However, on the positive side, Jorge can offer a client willing to rent the apartment for a preposterous amount of money.
The only problem is that the deal has to be closed on the very same day. Jorge and Marga only have to wait in the apartment until the mysterious client appears. From here on out, Marga's day gets worse and more bizarre by the minute. She tangles with homeless and the police, kills a poor helpless fish and telephonically deals with her married lover and scheming colleagues. All the while, more and more of Jorge's colleagues arrive at the apartment, all of them acting exceedingly strange, increasingly bordering on threatening. Why, it might even come to a point when our unpleasant heroine will have to fight for her life.
Adrián García Bogliano's Penumbra (so called because it takes place before and during a solar eclipse) is a pretty perfect example of how you can take a little plot, a lot of weirdness, and a dark sense of humour and turn them into a fantastic film by virtue of absolute concentration. While the film's pacing and structure might seem slow and loose to a certain type of viewer, Bogliano's film is actually a master class in pacing and tightness, where every scene escalates the dramatic stakes and/or prepares a pay-off further down in Marga's increasingly disordered day where everything becomes stranger to her the closer the solar eclipse comes.
Bogliano makes much out of the handful of sets and locations the film takes place in, providing the audience not just with a sense of place in the more abstract meaning of the phrase, but also managing to impress upon us how the handful of places hang together geographically. The latter is particularly important to understand to be able share in Marga's experience of slowly running out of room to manoeuvre in - in a very real as well as in a metaphorical manner.
Marga, as note-perfectly played by Cristina Brondo (like other members of the cast an actress with quite a bit of TV experience), is an interesting central character too. She is, obviously, absolutely vile (though the film does subtly and not so subtly suggests reasons for her unpleasant character), and still, at least from a certain point in the plot on, there's little of a feeling that what she experiences are her just deserts. While the film has a bit of fun with letting her suffer and seeing her reaction to her very ordered life breaking down, there's also a sense of compassion on display I found surprising, as well as a certain relish in letting her be as unpleasant as she is.
The compassion with Marga on display rubs strangely against the sense of capital-W weirdness running through the movie. The Weird (here represented by the increasingly insane way everyone around Marga acts, and by what we learn of what the gang of real estate agents actually wants, as well as what happens with through these plans) and more human compassion aren't regular travelling companions, but the way Bogliano handles both, it's clear they can be when they are in the right hands.
Going by the quality of Penumbra, I really have to hunt down some of Bogliano's earlier movies, which are supposed to be quite a bit more violent (well, there is a decapitation here), and whose screenshots look a bit more like your typical piece of "indie horror" where this one has more of a proper old-fashioned movie look. I am quite looking forward to finding out if the striking sense for rigorous visual composition on display in Penumbra is something Bogliano slowly acquired over the years, something that just suddenly appeared, or something he always had.
Mild-mannered theatre teacher John Phillips (Ted Prior) is mistaken for a professional killer, nearly dies in a car chase, and is then thrown in jail for his trouble, quite to the displeasure of his girlfriend, assistant DA Kathryn Lockwood (Charlene Tilton).
Department of Justice agent Richard Morgan (Robert Davi) forces John to continue to play the role of the killer, because, umm, stuff. Of course, things get really dangerous (yes, more dangerous than a shoot-out and a car chase) for John real soon, because he's not only impersonating a killer, but impersonating a killer who is going to be made the patsy for the assassination of a state governor, a governor Kathryn has reason to despise.
Consequently John, who is quite a natural when it comes to shooting, chasing, etc., finds himself on the run from the police, the people who wanted to Lee Harvey Oswald him, and possibly other factions. I foresee plot twists, betrayals, and Tony Curtis in his future.
Ah, the glories of David A. Prior's conspiracy thriller phase, which sits, if you're not up on your Prior studies, shortly before and after the end of Action International Pictures, and at a point in time when Prior planted his various obsessions and weirdnesses in hard-earned technical competence. Seldom will you find conspiracies less believable, more peculiar accidents, and more stupid plot twists than in the director's conspiracy thrillers. Of course, if you just go with the flow and interpret "conspiracy thriller" to mean "film consisting of a series of illogical developments which enable a near-ritualistic repetition of chases and gestures you know well from the best and worst films of the genre", you can have a lot of fun with Prior's films. I certainly do.
In Center's particular case, you can look forward to the cheap yet effective car chases, shoot-outs, Charlene Tilton over-emoting quite painfully, dialogue that comfortably drifts in and out of tough guy talk and sense, Tony Curtis slumming, various Prior mainstays doing what they do best (in fact, there are so many of them in the movie there's hardly enough time even for Charles Napier), and an exploding school bus. The last of these excellent things is of course for urban set action movies what the exploding bamboo hut is for jungle action. I'd imagine school buses to be rather more costly to explode, but then the USA are often strange, so I may very well be wrong and there might be a group of car dealers specializing in hawking used school buses to filmmakers to explode. Actually, this does rather sound like the set-up of a David A. Prior movie he never got around to make.
As a weird-ass conspiracy thriller (that is an existing sub-genre, right?) Center of the Web doesn't quite reach the heights of Prior's later Felony with which it shares a few of its central plot twists, particularly the one concerning the nature of its hero, yet it still is a pretty enjoyable time. Where else, after all, can you see Tony Curtis aggressively feeding pigeons, diagnosing pigeon psychology and human psychology to be quite alike?
Sometimes, a film really catches you by surprise. Despite some scattered positive buzz surrounding this 80s TV movie on the more tasteful parts of the web, I didn't expect too much of The Midnight Hour, seeing as it carries truly horrifying descriptors like "all-ages" and "comedy".
Triassic Attack (2010): I know SyFy Channel movies are an easy mark for getting criticized for being particularly generic, but there's an entertaining, even clever, way to work inside the specs of SyFy moviedom, and then there's Triassic Attack whose only point of interest is its insistence on casting its supposedly corn-belt American leads (including a pre-Game of Thrones Emilia Clark) with people who have to attempt (emphasis on "attempt") fake American accents. There's the usual stuff about divorces, native Americans, wayward teenagers who aren't actually wayward, and silly monsters, but nothing of it is delivered in anything but the most perfunctory manner. Fun clearly lives elsewhere.
Tasmanian Devils (2013): For example in about half of this movie about perfectly stupid base jumpers and perfectly incompetent (well, female lead Danica McKellar's assumed trait is "competent" but that never really happens outside of dialogue) national park rangers and their run in with the the ancestors of the Tasmanian devils. Though really, despite all attempts to pretend for Australia, the poor monsters seem rather more Canadian. It's again a very generic movie even for SyFy standards but when it's not wasting its time on the usual plot contortions (why can't our park ranger heroine call for help? - because the magic ranger radio only connects to her home base, and there's nobody there with her two now dead colleagues and her all romping through the national park) but where Triassic Attack never really gets up to much of anything, Tasmanian Devils is at least well paced and incident-rich enough to entertain, which is all I ask of it. And it's directed by Zach Lipovsky, the director of the coming Leprechaun reboot to boot.
Hybrid (2007): So, turns out getting a wolf eye transplant is the sort of thing that makes a guy pretty wolf-y. Because that's not enough to fill ninety minutes, there are also Tinsel Korey and Gordon Tootoosis doing Dignified Native American Mythical Kitsch stuff while the film's very un-SyFy draggy pacing slowly but surely makes eyelids drop and provokes soft snoring sounds. Sometimes, SyFy movie life ain't pretty.
Generally, I'm perfectly willing to overlook, or at least only mildly grumble about, the lack of historical veracity in my historical pulp adventure movies but I do then want that veracity to be replaced by some kind of uniting aesthetic sense. Basically, if you make a movie about Vikings where neither haircuts nor clothing nor religion nor weapons are historically correct, then you need to have some sort of parsable reason for the way you portrait these things on screen instead. Being the kind of easy to please guy I am, I'm even willing to accept "it looks cool" as a reason, but then, it actually has to look (and feel cool).
Which leads us to Farren Blackburn's absolutely horrible Hammer of the Gods, a film very much in the business of attempting to spit on historical fact to look cool but proving himself again and again incapable of looking cool, or really, of anything else it attempts. I'm not willing to go into much detail (life's to short to write a thousand words about this one) but the costumes look like left-overs from various historical pulp adventure movies that were actually any good stitched up to look as boring as possible, the fight choreography is plodding and just not very interesting, the direction (not just) of the fights is indifferently throwing all the directorial tics of this season's crop of films at the screen without any idea how to use them right or which of them not to use at all, the acting is as flat as a pancake, there's no character to any of the characters and the plot meanders and plods from one boring, often stupid, episode without thematic or dramatic connection to the next until the whole thing turns into an idiot's idea of Apocalypse Now in the end.
Add to this some choice homophobic vibes, a lead actor in Charlie Bewley who is the blandest pretty boy ever to grow a scraggly beard portraying a fucking Viking New Atheist (seriously), and not a single vaguely interesting second on screen, and you have Hammer of the Gods, a movie I find absolutely nothing good to say about, except that it ends.
Original title: Su le mani, cadavere! Sei in arresto
After the end of the US Civil War, former confederate nurse Sando Kid (Peter Lee Lawrence), learns the manly arts of violence and joins "the Rangers", a law enforcement organization that may or may not supposed to be the Texas Rangers. Be that as it may, Kid is rather good at his job and shoots down evildoers wherever he goes, ritually handcuffing the bodies of his victims, mumbling nonsense about the letter of the law. Is he a future serial killer? A closet necrophiliac? We don't know.
As an interesting holiday project, Kid travels to Springfield, his old hometown, where he pretends to be a dandyesque perfume salesman, and begins to put his nose and his gun into the business of local bad guy Lee Grayton (Aldo Sambrell), a man whom Kid once met when he was a Union officer with a love for killing wounded enemies. Grayton is trying to acquire a lot of land in the area to get control over a planned railroad line, and if the owners don't want to sell, his men have rather convincing arguments made of lead. Until Kid's arrival, Grayton's life of terrorizing the town, dominating the local sheriff and banker, and bedding saloon owner Maybelle (Helga Liné) has gone swimmingly.
Kid, however, is pretty good at making Grayton's life deservedly difficult, and Grayton's men rather dead, particularly when he partners up with crazy bounty hunter Dollar (Espartaco Santoni). In the end, it's really never in question who will win the final showdown.
And there lies the greatest weakness of León Klimovsky's Spaghetti (paella?) Western, a film the puts the "generic" in genre, with never a moment on screen one hasn't seen in tenser, more complex, or just more interesting form in a different movie, preferably with slightly more charismatic actors. This is the sort of film where the only surprise is how easy it will be for someone even only slightly knowledgeable about Spaghetti Westerns will be able to predict the how, why, and when of every single thing that's going to happen.
The only actual surprise in Raise Your Hands is how harmless many of the usually cynical and grim basic elements of the Spaghetti Western feel here. Somehow, Klimovsky manages to even stage a scene like Maybelle's death, that is, one where a woman is beaten to death, so that it feels harmless instead of bitter, or shocking, or just misogynistic. Not that I'd be really keen on this last mood, rather the opposite, but at least it would be a sign someone involved was trying to give the film a bit of personality, instead of the nothing that seems to be at its core.
Having said this, I also have to say that I found Klimovsky's movie not painful to watch at all. The frequent Paul Naschy partner is a perfectly competent Western director, keeping things empty but pacy. It's just too bad I'll remember nothing but a feeling of dissatisfaction about Raise Your Hands in a week or two.
France after the Allied landing in Normandy during the Second World War. Special ops specialist Captain Malloy (Corin Nemec) is charged to with destroying a secret Nazi lab in an old castle behind enemy lines where nuclear experiments for the enhancement of soldiers are taking place.
His last mission has decimated Malloy's usual squad, so he puts together the ever popular gang of misfits, freshly picked out of military jail for their helpful talents like sniping, impersonation, hitting people in the face, and being called "Parker Lewis" in a film starring Corin Nemec not as Parker Lewis. The only non-con of the team besides Malloy is demolition expert Digger (Harry Van Gorkum) but he makes up for this lack by being all crazy about demolition - and "comically" deaf until the script forgets it.
Soon after parachuting into their mission area, the team meets the problem that will stand between them and the lab even more than several squad of German soldiers: the first super soldier mad scientist Professor Ullman (Ben Cross) has created with the ever popular mix of nuclear magic and genetic magic. Think the Hulk with a railgun, an electrocuting touch and no interest in discerning between his side and the enemy. Even teaming up with the resistance cell of Marriette Martinet (Marian Filali) might not bring our heroes enough firepower to kill the thing without a clever, near-suicidal plan.
I am, and have always been, an easy mark. Include occult Nazi shenanigans or mad Nazi science in your pulp adventure movie, and you'll really have to work for my disapproval.
David Flores's S.S. Doomtrooper (curiously, the super soldier thing really was in the S.S. before he got hulked up) prefers to work for my approval, and hits many of the marks its kind of film is supposed to hit. So Germans usually speak English with bad German accents amongst themselves, unless they babble half or completely nonsensical German sentences probably constructed with the exclusive help of an English to German dictionary, or just mix up the two. This is indeed a film that seems to think (or at least likes to pretend it thinks) "Give me your Papiere!" is a German sentence. In other words, it has exactly the kind of portrayal of Nazis one hopes for in a pulp oriented movie, which is quite the opposite of the portrayal I hope for in a film going for a more serious tone (I am more often disappointed in the latter cases).
S.S. Doomtrooper further worms its way into my heart with Ben Cross's ridiculous mad scientist who is (of course!) the kind of guy having no problem at all with his creation killing indiscriminately, because further experiments will make that problem disappear, though it's not important anyway. Seriously, building a super soldier who kills whatever moves including Nazis is only the right and proper way to win the war for the Nazi cause.
Flores uses the CGI super soldier comparatively sparely - which is probably for the better when his heroes can't win a direct fight with it - and instead goes through all the pulp war movie clichés he can find, which are, more or less, all of them. So you get the coward who finds his courage when he is needed most, the tank kidnapping, the daring and misguided attempt to sneak into a German munitions depot by pretending to be Germans (inspired German speaking all around, there), the sniper who can't out-snipe death and the explosives expert who seems to be impervious to explosions. All of this and more is presented with enough charm and verve to be pretty damn entertaining, with muddy Bulgaria in form of some excellently ruined buildings, autumnal woods and grey slabs valiantly standing in for France. The landscape shots are not exactly beautiful to look at, but they gets the job done, and provide the film with at least a bit of visual variety. I don't think S.S. Doomtrooper would have had it quite as easy winning my heart if it had only taken place in the usual empty warehouses.
Now, I may very well be the only person on the Internet who likes S.S. Doomtrooper unironically (or at all), but this only goes to show that too many people just hate fun.
I'm not generally someone moaning about the wasted chances in movies, and really prefer to concentrate on the things actually in a movie, but from time to time, I just can't help myself.
One of these cases is the Karloff-vehicle The Devil Commands, directed by the generally fine Edward Dmytryk. While there is more than a little to like about the film, this week's column will also tell you a lot about its failures of imagination.
Mask Maker aka Maskerade (2010): If you're in the mood for a pretty generic slasher, Griff Furst's Mask Maker should scratch that itch well enough. It's competently directed and acted, features the obligatory mini role for Michael Berryman, has a smidgen of gore, even a bit of atmosphere, an impressively crappy ending, steals/quotes from many a more original film, and even has one or two scenes that are actually suspenseful instead of reminding you of other movies' suspense. If this sounds a bit like damning with faint praise, that's a fair assessment of my tone. For what the film is, though, it's perfectly watchable.
Cry of Death aka Carogne si nasce aka If One Is Born A Swine…Kill Him (1968): Talking of films that aren't exactly brimming with originality, house favourite Alfonso Brescia delivers a Spaghetti western with slight mystery elements. While the film's supposed twists and surprises are anything but surprising, Fausto Rossi's photography is pretty good, Glenn Saxson and Gordon Mitchell (as a gunman with a most disturbing smile and the most excellent name of - depending on the version you see - Donkey or Mule) seem to enjoy themselves quite a bit, and Brescia's direction keeps the film generally entertaining and somewhat stylish. As it goes with competent films, there are two or three stronger scenes that seem to belong to a more intense and complex movie.
Entity (2012): The final film in our Trilogy of Competence (the anthology movie Amicus never quite got around to make), Steve Stone's Entity is actually a wee bit too good for its companions, what with it ending on a pretty great fifteen minutes that give it something not exactly common in horror movies - a genuinely good and fitting ending that's not pissing away everything that's come before to set up a sequel. The only reason why Entity still belongs in this company (and doesn't warrant a full write-up) is that it still is another "film team stumbles through haunted industrial building" movie, containing exactly the kind of scares you'd expect from it, only really distinguishing itself by rather more than just decent acting (particularly Charlotte Riley and Dervla Kirwan are strong), and the decision to use some elements of the POV sub genre yet to still go for a more standard filming style. It would have been great if the visible talent of Stone and his cast had been used for horrors of a rather less trite sort, but one can always hope for the next movie. This one is at the very least worth watching once, which is more than a lot of industrial building strollers manage.
Marine archaeologist and bikini top fan Nicole (Victoria Pratt) and two of her students (Kristi Angus and Cory Monteith) are searching the waters of Desolation Sound in British Columbia for artefacts, particularly a mask and a humungous opal supposedly once part of the more mythical treasures of Troy, which she hopes are buried under water among the cargo of a Chinese freighter that sank somewhere around there a few decades ago. Just when Nicole's theories are about to be proven right, her ship's skipper is killed by a giant squid, which is the sort of thing that throws a wrench, or rather a tentacle, into treasure hunting proceedings, particularly when the boat's motor breaks a little later. And when the harbour town they anchor in at nights doesn't seem to have people making their living repairing boats.
Fortunately, underwater photographer and all around sea person Ray (Charlie O'Connell) comes to the rescue, willing to help, repair, and become Nicole's new skipper. Ray has a little secret: twenty-five years ago, his parents were killed by a giant squid in the same waters, and he has been obsessed by the seas and what lives in them ever since, never finding a way to explain why the squid acted like it did back then. This - assuming the murderous giant squid Nicole and co. encountered was the very same squid as Ray does - seems like as good a chance for finding closure as he's going to get. It sure helps that Nicole and Ray are hitting it off rather well (one can't help but imagine a row of particularly healthy descendants in their future, and shudder).
Alas, the giant squid - later to be theorized by Nicole to be the original mythical Scylla - isn't our heroes' only problem: evil Greek pirate from an evil Greek pirate family Maxwell (Jack Scalia) has come to town with his black-clad team of bad guys, and he really, really needs the treasure to buy back the love of his - presumably evil - Greek pirate family. Obviously, him being an evil pirate and all, he's willing to do anything to get it.
Tibor Takacs's Kraken is another of those SyFy movies not really as much of a creature feature as the marketing makes it out to be. Instead, this is another cheap but fun adventure movie that just happens to contain a giant squid among the lethal dangers its heroes have to pass; in practice, Jack Scalia's boat-exploding, henchmen-using ways are a much greater threat.
Which is only a bad thing if you want to see the movie the film's marketing material promises, instead of just a fun piece of nonsense. Given the quality of the SquidGI, I'm actually rather happy it isn't more often on screen than it is, for, how shall I put it, it's about as believable as the film's rampant misuse of Greek myth.
No that I truly disapprove of the film's use of what one of its four writers must vaguely have remembered about Greek myth from school. Myth, legend and folklore are there for the taking, they are meant to be changed, misused or put in a dialogue with pulp tropes, so using Scylla and mythical Troy (not to be confused with the actual ancient Troy, unless your name is von Schliemann) to make the treasure McGuffin in a cheap adventure movie more interesting as Kraken's script does is a perfectly fine thing to do. The best way to respect cultural achievements of the past is to build upon them, even if one's building is just a SyFy Channel film.
Takacs, as is his usual wont, realizes the whole adventure without a budget for globetrotting she-bang up to his usual standards, with an eye for simple, yet effective scene-setting and straightforward storytelling.
The acting's mostly okay for what it is, with Pratt and Scalia as the charismatic stand-outs, and O'Connell the void low budget films (made for TV or not) love to cast as their male leads. Fortunately, Takacs is in this game long enough to avoid putting too much weight on O'Connell's shoulders (and really, why would you, when you can have Scalia mugging into the camera?), so it's not much of a problem.
In the end Kraken is a fun enough piece of SyFy film.
Photographer Friday Foster (Pam Grier) stumbles into the job of shooting the secret return of The Richest Black Man In The World™, Blake Tarr (Thalmus Rasulala), to his native USA, but instead witnesses and photographs a murder attempt on him. She manages to take a picture of the only of the would-be assassins (Carl Weathers) who escapes the combined firepower of Tarr's bodyguards and the police. Friday'd love to follow up on the story, but her boss Monk Riley (Julius Harris) does disapprove of his people involving themselves in things. Which does awaken a few doubts in me regarding the noteworthiness of his magazine.
The escaped killer also just happens to be involved with Friday's close friend Cloris (Rosalind Miles), whom he kills at a fashion show of eccentric designer Madame Rena (professional eccentric Eartha Kitt). If her boss wants it or not, Friday is going to investigate this killing for sure, even if her private eye friend Colt Hawkins (Yaphet Kotto) is the only help she can get.
Little does our heroine expect that she'll uncover (without doing much actual investigating) a particularly absurd conspiracy by The Man to keep African-Americans down.
It is true, Arthur Marks's Friday Foster, an adaptation of the first US newspaper strip featuring a black woman as its main and titular protagonist, is one of the minor efforts among AIP's blaxploitation films starring house (and every sane person's, too) favourite Pam Grier. The film's plot is paper thin even for an exploitation film, the conspiracy our heroine uncovers without actually having to do much work for it (champagne soaked evenings with middle-aged black men don't count as work, I think), nor having to do much thinking for that matter, is just plain stupid, and if you've come either for complex political subtext or classic blaxploitation outrageousness, you've come to the wrong film.
However, there's something political in, and something to be said for, the film's willingness to be lightweight, its lack of the cynicism that runs through a lot of blaxploitation films. I'm not saying this cynicism was wrong or untruthful when it comes to talking about the actual political situation of black America in the 1970s, I'm just saying that from time to time, it's good to see a movie in the genre where political cooperation between different groups and unity instead of breaking into micro-factions are treated as a good thing that might even help produce change in the larger world. Of course, being the deeply silly film it is, Friday Foster makes this argument (I'm using the term loosely) by way of a preposterous gun battle but then I didn't exactly expect a debate.
Apart from that, Friday Foster is a diverting action comedy, with pretty much every character actor you'd look for in a blaxploitation movie expect Ossie Davis in one silly role or the other, and a main cast that hits the lightness appropriate for a film that sees its heroine steal a hearse and later the truck of a milk salesman. Everybody on screen is clearly in on the fact that they're in something rather fluffy, yet everyone seems to have fun with the film's inherent silliness, as did I.