Thursday, February 27, 2014

In short: The Beast (2011)

Original title: 짐승 (Jim-seung)

Some shady but not very bright gangsters with an internet porn business decide that the way of the future is more or less kidnapping some real (racing queen-type) models and pressing them into service for live internet snuff rape pornography. Thus happens to Bo-ra (Nalie Lee), who is at least luckier than one of her model friends and not accidentally getting killed by her incompetent captors.

Bo-ra’s also rather lucky that her brother is special forces man Tae-hoon (Jeong Seok-won), because once Tae-hoon learns what is supposed to happen to his sister in just a few hours, he – and Bo-ra’s friend Se-yeon (Jeon Se-hyeon), because someone has to drive the car – is cracking gangster skulls left and right. Tae-hoon is certainly not going to stop doing it until he’s found Bo-ra.

The basic motivator of the protagonist of Hwang Yoo-sik’s The Beast is obviously rather tacky, and certainly not a sign of a film out to do anything of interest with its female characters. Still, it’s not difficult to understand why you’d use it as the base for a low budget action movie like this, because it makes clear that the bad guys are really really bad, and gives the protagonist a relatable excuse for his own acts of increasing violence, which is probably all anyone involved with the film ever wanted.

If you’re willing to go with this, The Beast turns out to be a fine example of its style and form, dominated by short and sharp fight scenes taking place in all kinds of anonymous urban squalor you can imagine. For me, there’s always something perfect about a film not making excuses for its simplicity like this, particularly when it, like The Beast does, concentrates on a handful of things it then proceeds to do very well indeed.

On the other hand, there really isn’t much depth to the film: what you see is what you get, and if you expect any cleverness beyond an execution of very traditional elements as perfect as its budget allows of The Beast, you will be sorely disappointed by it. Me, I’ll take whatever kind of perfection is offered and be satisfied with it.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Der Rächer (1960)

aka The Avenger

Murder-plagued London is disturbed by a killer who prefers to deposit the heads of his victims – most of whom are these proverbial criminals who escaped the law - in nice cardboard boxes for the police to find keeping the bodies all for himself. Publicly, he goes by the name of the Head Hunter, though he himself prefers to see himself as the Benefactor.

The Head Hunter’s latest victim was a traitorous member of the British security service, so this organization’s boss (Siegfried Schürenberg) puts agent Michael Brixan (Heinz Drache) on the case. Some quite vague hints quickly convince Brixan to home in on a film production in which Ruth Sanders (Ina Duscha), the niece of the murdered agent, is playing a bit part as the best place to concentrate his investigation on. Not only does he hit it off with Ruth very nicely, it is also difficult to assume he’d find a better group of potential killers anywhere else.

There are, after all, former explorer, current sleaze-bag and owner of a very large collection of swords Sir Gregory Penn (Benno Sterzenbach), frighteningly intense dramaturge Lorenz Voss (Klaus Kinski), cynical veteran actress Stella Mendozza (Ingrid van Bergen) and oh so nice and friendly director and producer Jack Jackson (Friedrich Schoenfelder) all there for the suspecting. And that’s before we come to Penn’s servant Bhag (Al Hoosman), a gentleman of colour who, in alas typical German post war manner, embodies the Big Black Man As An Animal trope with all the racial sensitivity you’d suspect; which is to say, none whatsoever.

I foresee shots in the darks, secret doors and punching in Brixan’s future.

Der Rächer is one of only two German post-war Edgar Wallace adaptations not made by Rialto Films. It was made by an outfit called Kurt-Ulrich-Film instead. After the success of the first two Wallace movies, Rialto bought up the rights to all Wallace novels, except for the two that were already sold, this one, and “The Yellow Snake” which was owned by the inevitable Artur “Atze” Brauner (who was also involved in the distribution of the Rialto films, because the German movie industry was small).

Tonally, Der Rächer is made pretty much from the same mould as Harald Reinl’s Frosch mit der Maske, which is to say, as close to classic pulp-style filmmaking as German post-war cinema got, and pretty darn entertaining with it, even though it keeps away from Rialto’s insertion of humour. The production design and the music aren’t quite as fine as that of the Rialto films, I think, but the film still doesn’t look at all like the quickly shot affair meant to cash-in on the Wallace boom nobody involved can have expected to last as long as it did that it was. There’s real style and real commitment on display, both things that make or break the sort of melodramatic pulp mystery the German krimi was at its heart.

Director Karl Anton had been active since 1921, so you can see more than just an echo of German expressionism in his efforts, if you want to. Particularly some of the later scenes with their mild chiaroscuro effects, their clever use of shadows, and their melodramatic mugging are remarkable in this regard, and give the film an intensity that – again – isn’t exactly typical of German filmmaking of the era, particularly outside the krimi world. Even though he isn’t quite on the level of Harald Reinl, Anton also has a nice sense of keeping things dynamic: events zip along, camera and actors move so as to keep everything else moving, and action scenes are actually staged with a degree of care and enthusiasm. It’s all pulp cinema 101, of course, and the film’s as old-fashioned as all get out (though not as old-fashioned as Wallace’s books) but then knowing this doesn’t make the film any less entertaining to me.

Der Rächer is also quite remarkable for introducing three future mainstays of Rialto’s Wallace movies to the Wallace style krimi, with the as always cool (and how often can I use that word when describing a German actor?) and intense Heinz Drache, eternal Sir John Siegfried Schürenberg (surprisingly enough not in a comical, or “comical”, role), and not in need of a description Klaus Kinski. It’s as influential a bit of casting as you can imagine, and even if you’re one of those people who dislike Der Rächer because it doesn’t offer itself for ironic appreciation (the coward’s way of appreciation, as I see it) too well, you’ll have to respect at least that aspect of the film.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Three Films Make A Post: The Meating Place for DISMEMBERS ONLY!

Kick Ass 2 (2013): Despite my general loathing for the works of Mark Millar (with some exceptions) I actually thought the first Kick Ass was a pretty successful mixture of sledgehammer satire, American toilet humour, and more actual human warmth than you'd expect given the source material's boring cynicism. Alas, someone must have drugged director Matthew Vaughn before he made the sequel or something, because this one's just a pale imitation of the first one, with at best two or three good moments. The rest of the film feels worn out, as if nobody involved had actually understood what worked in the first film, and now proceeded to copy the most obvious parts of it in the most obvious ways while suffering from a horrible hangover.

On the plus side, Millar-typical self-congratulatory cynicism still doesn't make an appearance; very much in the minus side, it's replaced with a treacly sentimentality that isn't made more interesting by jokes about vomiting.

Witchboard (1986): Just because I never liked his Night of the Demons all that much, i tend to underestimate Kevin (S.) Tenney quite unfairly. In truth, Tenney is probably one of the unsung heroes of 80s/90s horror, a guy who added a degree of subtlety to the expected excesses while also being rather good at the excesses themselves. Witchboard doesn't come down on the side of the excesses much anyway but gives Tenney opportunity to show off his skill on a more suspense than gore-based set-up. He also adds somewhat complex characterization (even of the kind that doesn't always feel the need to explain everything to the last detail) to a mix that wouldn't necessarily need it, earning actual audience interest in what happens to the characters.

There is also some choice silly dialogue, and a bit of 80s horror cheese to enjoy, so really, there's little here that doesn't provide a fun time. Plus, from today's perspective, I can't help but see the film as a main influence on Paranormal Activity, just made with verve.

Witchboard 2 (1993): Seven years later, Tenney's own sequel to the film is still a really fun and interesting effort, though the crazier parts of the original have been toned down a bit in favour of a kind of supernatural murder mystery. Tenney's still pretty good at that whole "suspense" stuff, and his script rather cleverly plays with some of the expectations built by the first film, as well as with the audience's knowledge of noirish mystery tropes. Even better, the characters are still more interesting than usual in this type of 90s horror, the film tends to show rather more complex relationships than typical in this context, and then there's the never stated but quite obviously implied fact that the ouija board's evil interest actually helps the film's heroine Ami Dolenz to become an independent person. Which, really, is all and more than one can expect from a 90s horror sequel.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Pulse (1988)

Little David Rockland (Joseph Lawrence) is coming to Los Angeles for the summer to spend time with his father Bill (Cliff De Young) and his new wife Ellen (Roxanne Hart). Not surprisingly, the kid is not too happy with the whole divorce situation, and things certainly aren’t helped by a father who seems to be trying a bit too hard at exactly the wrong moments, and not hard enough where it counts most. Ellen’s pretty great, though, and while David is an unhappy little kid at the moment, he’s not unfair about the situation.

The family situation is going to be the Rocklands’ least problem anyway, for a malevolent electrical power has jumped over from the house opposite after it had killed its inhabitants. The official story is a bit different, of course. At first, only David notices anything untoward at all. Curious electrical effects and strange noises (the proverbial voice in the wires) plague the house, and only slowly work up to more dangerous events. There’s a crazy old man (Charles Tyner) responsible for the renovations of the house opposite who provides David with crazy talk/exposition but little practical help.

Understandably, given the family situation, Bill and Ellen don’t really believe what David tells them about what’s going on, but once the events turn more lethal, Ellen rather quickly comes around. Bill,  though, is quite a different case, and it might just take something truly horrible to happen for him to let himself be convinced.

If you ask me, Paul Golding’s Pulse is one of the little unsung masterpieces of 80s horror, a film that proves (again) that you don’t need a large body count to make an effective horror film and that you could do worse than make the subtext of your story and the supernatural events in it fit one another.

The subtext does fall a bit under the umbrella of “rich people’s problems” – or for you Americans “upper middle class people’s problems” – of course, with the film’s series of home appliances going crazy a clear expression of the fear all the beautiful things (things!) you acquire won’t actually keep you safe from harm at all. Why, the bars on your windows meant to keep the bad things out might very well turn out to be the bars of your own private cage. This could become horribly blunt and annoying, as well as a case of “why should I care?”, but the film grounds this suburban existentialist anxiety in deftly drawn characters and a personal situation that is just specific enough to be relatable.

I think there’s also something different and more universal (at least for the developed world) going on behind the more specific suburban fears too, an expression of the simple fear that the things in your life, the objects around you, have a life of their own, and worse, aren’t just not on your side but actively working against you. And you wouldn’t even know it until it’s too late, because you don’t really understand these objects and how they work at all. For that, there’s a separate class of specialists, but they, the film insinuates, might just use a lot of jargon to hide the fact they don’t understand how these objects truly function either. If you think about it, it’s a rather Lovecraftian view of things, with a barely knowable universe that at best just doesn’t care for your place in it.

Pulse is also rather effective and clever in using David’s viewpoint for most of its running time, the position of someone whose more flexible view of the world lets him believe a strange notion like something evil living in the wires much easier, yet who also can do the least about it. Not that the grown-ups are all that effective in that regard later on – it’s nice they believe, but who won’t call them crazy? Golding is quite good at keeping David a child too without looking down at him, with his plans generally being clever but also not really realistically achievable, which he’d understand if he knew more about the world around him.

As if the subtext and text weren’t enough to recommend Pulse, there’s also the case of its rather flawless execution, with some excellent suspense scenes, good acting (Joey Lawrence is not one of the great child actors but he’s also good enough), and a lot of moody shots of malevolent looking electronics that find the uncanny in the parts of the quotidian we generally never look at – until it’s too late, as Pulse would have it.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

In short: Hide and Seek (2013)

Original title: 숨바꼭질 (sum-bakk-og-jil)

When rich Seong-soo (Son Hyeon-joo) gets a call to take care of the apartment of his mentally instable and sporadically criminal brother Seong-cheol (Kim Won-hae) after Seong-cheol seems to just have disappeared, it at first looks like an opportunity for him to wallow in some childhood guilt towards his brother that has resulted in quite a few mental problems for himself too. However, something’s not right at all with the situation. Seong-cheol’s neighbours don’t want to talk about him, all the building’s apartments have been marked in tiny script beside their doors with the number of their inhabitants, and there’s a creepy shape in a motorcycle outfit the audience knows has already killed one girl with a practical iron rod slinking around. And that’s in addition to the more typical urban squalor people like Seong-soo generally don’t want to see.

So when he leaves Seong-cheol’s place, Seong-soo breathes a sigh of relief. This time around though, Seong-soo brings more than just his own psychological problems with him back home to his wife Min-ji (Jeon Mi-seon) and his two kids, and soon the motorcycle maniac shows a rather violent interest in him and his family. Is Seong-cheol out for revenge for the things Seong-soo is so guilty about, or is something else going on?

A film like Huh Jung’s Hide and Seek reminds me why I fell in love with South Korean cinema in the first place through its ability to take some very conventional ideas yet look at them from a slightly different angle and think them through with a bit more courage than usual.

Hide and Seek is of course using elements from home invasion movies as well as those 90s movies about happy families getting threatened by a lone psycho, just that the happy family here hasn’t been all that happy for quite some time thanks to the emotional repercussions of the big secret in Seong-soo’s past, standing in for all sorts of bourgeois guilt, I’m sure. Unfortunately, Hide and Seek also in the end shares these films’ dubious class politics, though I’m not sure the film is actually attempting to teach us about the evilness of poor people as much as it is just reproducing well-worn ideas because it would really rather concentrate on being a thriller.

And as a thriller, Hide and Seek is very successful. The film starts out slow and careful but once it has hit the point where Seong-soo begins to lose control of his too carefully controlled life, and stumbles into quite a different situation than he expected, it acquires more than enough drive to lets me ignore the more dubious parts of its politics. It also helps how careful the plotting is, with a big red herring that actually makes more sense once you’ve learned it’s a red herring, and just a wonderful feeling of escalation. Escalation of course being what this type of thriller is all about.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

SyFy vs. The Mynd: Swarmed (2005)

Oh hey, it's Jaws, but the shark is a swarm of accidentally genetically altered super yellow jackets and the beach festival is a burger cook-off sponsored by a Southern barbecue sauce magnate as played by Tim “Terrific” Thomerson.

No, wait, now I made the film sound rather good, when it is in fact an early example of those SyFy originals that just don't seem to understand which parts of their plots they can treat carelessly, and which they need to treat seriously, leading to a film that is so dumb you might confuse it with a parody of its kind of horror movie, if not for the fact that none of its jokes are funny, and no moment of idiocy paid for with any sort of cleverness.

Swarmed is a film that mostly impresses by how little anyone involved seems to care about their craft, with Miguel Tejada-Flores's script containing not a single thought – either of its own or borrowed from somewhere else -, nor a single fun idea, while slavishly following the usual mechanics of the sub-genre (we can't have anyone watching die of a heart attack when not everything in the movie is completely predictable), while Paul Ziller's - a man who really can do better in the SyFy movie realm - direction never bothers to even try to get a grip on the clichéd, meandering plot. Ziller is certainly not attempting to distract viewers from the idiot plot proceedings by doing anything imaginative or fun, and goes for the sort of competence that is too boring even in the context of lowered expectations I bring to my SyFy movie.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Assassination Bureau (1969)

1914. Suffragette and all-purpose feminist Sonya Winter (Diana Rigg) attempts to break into that vestige of the patriarchy we know as journalism. To reach her goal, she finds out how to contact the elusive international group of assassin’s known as The Assassination Bureau, and proposes to make contact with them and write about it to Lord Bostwick (Telly “Most British Man Alive” Savalas), owner of quite a popular London newspaper. Even a bit to Miss Winter’s surprise, Bostwick agrees.

Soon, Miss Winter finds herself in front of the boss of The Assassination Bureau (Limited), charming crazy man Ivan Dragomiloff (Oliver Reed). Because she’s a public minded person with a sarcastic streak, Miss Winter declares she wishes to hire the Assassination Bureau to kill one Ivan Dragomiloff. Dragomiloff agrees to take on the job, because he thinks his organization has fallen far from its former ideal of just killings for money to just killing for money, and having a kind of mass duel between himself and the regional leaders of the organization – as played by people like Curd Jürgens and Philippe Noiret – would be a good way to clean up their act.

What Miss Winter doesn’t know is that Lord Bostwick is actually the vice chairman of the Bureau and this is his – rather idiotic – plan to get himself on the chairman’s seat. From here on out, it’s all Miss Winter following and romancing Ivan around the world (he’s no fool though, and soon just takes her with him, because she’s Diana Rigg in 1969), Ivan donning ridiculous costumes to kill people in ridiculous ways, and Telly Savalas and Curd Jürgens chewing scenery in the most enthusiastic manner.

The Assassination Bureau isn’t one of director Basil Dearden’s best works, but it is quite an entertaining black comedy that generally is at its best when it lets house favourites Oliver Reed and Diana Rigg – here quite at the heights of their powers - do their respective things while various European character actors around them gloat, die, and explode (not necessarily in this order) in more or less effective ways.

All this takes place in fine, stylized and colourful sets and locations,  with Dearden milking everything he gets his camera on for purposefully ridiculous and clichéd local and temporal colour, clearly basing the film’s world not on the actual 1910s but on the pop cultural idea of them, leaving us with a film that contains an awesome (in the old sense of the word) bordello that defies description in – of course – Paris, a pretty gondolier who sings a pre-recorded piece of schmaltz after dropping off the bodies his lover (frequent giallo actress Annabella Incontrera) has poisoned, and a finale that sees a European peace conference threatened by a bomb carrying zeppelin. It’s quite impossible for me to argue with these things, particularly when they are presented with as much ironic delight and verve as Dearden shows here.

In fact, Dearden is so convincing a director I found it easy to ignore two of the film’s three main flaws. Firstly, the fact that the film’s idea of humour can be more broad and slapstick-y than I generally prefer, with rather a lot of these “comical chases” I usually only read about; though most of them end with dead people, so that’s still quite alright.

Secondly, it’s a bit of a shame how little the film really does with its historical background. Even when it (rather tastelessly) integrates the actual starting occasion of World War I in slightly fictionalized form (with added blood sausage), there’s never the impression it actually has something to say about the historical era it is taking place in. Again, it seems to be more interested in the era as pop cultural colour than as anything deeper.

Thirdly, and quite impossible to overlook, is the sad fact that the film gives all the swashbuckling action scenes (and, despite the wrong historical era, this is very much a swashbuckling comedy in its nature) to Reed, with Rigg fortunately not cast as a helpless girlie yet also generally side-lined when it comes to the action. Which is a bit (or a mountain) of a shame, really.

Still, The Assassination Bureau is a highly enjoyable bit of British humour that doesn’t contain one boring second, and that certainly counts for a lot in my book, flaws or no flaws.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

In short: Crooked House

Marked Gatiss's semi-episodic TV three-parter of stories in the tradition of the classic supernatural tale is a fine demonstration that even a talented writer with an obvious love, and quite deep knowledge, of the genre he’s working in will not necessarily produce a story in it that's actually all that great.

It's not just that Gatiss's approach here is a bit too conservative for my taste. I have seen, read and heard everything in Crooked House many times before, and enjoyed it, and would probably still have enjoyed it again even if it didn't add anything new at all to the genre. The problem lies with an execution where only the most obvious way to set-up and solve a situation is taken, where the so-called plot twists (an unnecessary thing at the best of times) are made particularly useless through their obviousness and - sorry - lameness. Crooked House's slavish adherence to tradition except for the existence of gay people (but don't you worry, it's not that the series does anything with them) ignores everything that's subversive about the British ghost story and turns it lifeless; if the British supernatural tale were an animal, Crooked House would rather prefer the stuffed and dead version to the living, breathing thing.

Being who I am, I'd still be able to find a lot of enjoyment in this subservient approach to tradition, but the lifelessness of Gatiss's script continues through to direction without any visual imagination, sets that lack any atmosphere, and acting on the theatrical and stiff side, because people in the past clearly talked liked people in the novels of the past. In combination, this number of flaws doesn't add up to something horrible, or unwatchable, but rather to something pointless.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

(The) Banshee Chapter (2013)

Because he's writing a book about Project MKUltra, writer James Hirsch (Michael McMillian) acquires a sample of one the project's experimental drugs, and decides to test it out on himself. Things go very wrong indeed for James, for the drug doesn't just seem to open the doors of perception. James disappears, leaving behind blood, some video fragments of his unfortunate experiment and a sober control guy who will disappear too, just a few days later.

James's friend, the journalist Anne (Katia Winter) desperately wants to find out what really happened the day it all went wrong and begins to investigate. Her research soon discloses the drug James took might not have been just your run-of-the-mill experimental military mind control drug. Further inquiries bring Anne on the trail of a disquieting numbers station, and finally to the house of 70s counter culture writer and eternally drunk icon Thomas "smells like Hunter S. Thompson" Blackburn (Ted Levine), who sent the drug to James. Things might not turn out too well for Anne, either, or for anyone else involved, for that matter.

Blair Erickson's The Banshee Chapter is quite an impressive little movie, mixing real world atrocity and the point where conspiracy theory, Americana (in a rather blackly humorous way) and Forteana meet, while explicitly taking its central idea from a Lovecraft tale. It's not the most complicated of movies, nor one loaded with subtext, but it tells its story very well indeed.

I'm tempted to call Banshee Chapter a very straightforward film, but then it is also a film that puts its protagonist in a situation where she isn't at all clear if she's suffering from hallucinations caused by an experimental drug, as well as a film whose idea of horror - apart from "medical" experiments on unwitting subjects - is the thing lurking in the corner of your eye and in the deepest shadows attempting to cross over into the more concrete world. It's probably better to say The Banshee Chapter is as straightforwardly told as this kind of tale ever can be.

Erickson uses a visual style close to that of found footage movies, even though only a minor part of what we see actually is supposed to be found footage, in a successful attempt to first build an idea of the real for the audience it can then all that easier show to be breaking down. It's quite an effective attempt too, particularly because Erickson isn't overdoing that stylistic technique until it becomes mere shtick. I found myself also pleasantly surprised - and I know I'm repeatedly harping on this thing in my write-ups of contemporary films but it truly bothers me - by the film's thoughtful use of colour, using the easier digital post production not to turn the whole film yellow or blue or colourless but to actually give different scenes different, appropriate and mood-building colour schemes of their own that still fit into the visual whole of the movie. It's so nice to see a contemporary first time director putting some thought into this sort of thing instead of just giving up and pretending yellow will have to do.

I found The Banshee Chapter's approach to horror quite effective too, with freak-out moments based more on the things the audience imagines than those it actually sees; even if we see something, we seldom get a good look at it, which fits the nature of the film's threat nicely as well. If you're the kind of person as open to this approach as I am, you will probably be creeped out nicely, or - in some moments - perhaps even a bit more than is generally comfortable. This being a horror film, that's of course a good thing.

As good as is the whole of Banshee Chapter, another movie in the increasing number of low budget and/or independent horror movies that successfully aim for the Weird.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

In short: Horror Story (2013)

A group of friends decides that getting drunk to say goodbye to a friend emigrating to the USA is all well and good, but it would be rather more fun to go visit a supposedly haunted dilapidated hotel where a ghost is supposed to murder anyone entering with great enthusiasm. The friends (using character or actor names seems rather pointless) soon find themselves trapped in said dilapidated hotel and consequently murdered with great enthusiasm.

If you are like me, you might have hoped that the title of Ayush Raina's Horror Story is an ironic one, and instead of something absurdly generic, you'd get something playing cleverly with expectations. Of course, you'd be utterly wrong: there's nothing ironic about the film's title whatsoever. Instead, it's a curious case of honesty, for Horror Story is as lamely generic as its title suggests.

So expect a bunch of cute yet talentless thespians walking, running, and splitting up through the usual dark and empty hallways, screeching, acting like idiots and getting killed off in deservedly ignominious ways by a very shouty ghost who seems to attempt to go through all the clichés you'd expect as well as some of those you'd hoped not to see anytime soon again.

Although Raina is a technically competent director, he isn't able to build up any atmosphere of horror, dread or creepiness at all - it's all shouty running around, all of the time; worse, Raina does seem completely unsure on how to deliver the weirder aspects of his tale, like the ever-changing rooms of the hotel, in any effective way. I don't exactly expect a movie to be House of Leaves in this regard, but I do expect it to present its ideas in a vaguely interesting manner.

Of course, presenting anything in a vaguely interesting manner would rob Horror Story of its claim to fame of being just as generic and boring as its title, so it's probably for the better this way.

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Friday, February 14, 2014

SyFy vs. The Mynd: Snakehead Terror (2004)

A few years ago, a lake belonging to a US small town was overrun by snakeheads, who proceeded to eat the local fauna until they (and whatever was left of the other lake life) were destroyed by a particularly effective poison. Now, snakeheads return to the area, but the new animals are curiously large – it’s as if someone (William B. Davis!?) had put growth hormones into the lake - and have developed an appetite for larger prey like bears, dogs, and humans, which is particularly unpleasant in a fish species that does like its land detours.

The situation spells trouble for the local sheriff, Patrick James (Bruce Boxleitner). Things don’t improve with a mayor doing the traditional Mayor of Amity bit, or when James’s stupid annoying teenage daughter (Chelan Simmons) decides to go on a stupid annoying teenage snakehead vengeance boating trip to avenge one of her stupid annoying teenage friends. Well, at least James has help from fishologist Lori Dale (Carol Alt) who even comes with her own fish killing device. Did I mention James is – of course - widowed and Dale single?

With Snakehead Terror, the usually at least dependable Paul Ziller again manages to make a rather entertaining film out of a definitely stupid idea, at least if you’re willing and able to roll with it. If you do, Ziller thanks you with lots of scenes of slow, loud fish hunting people down on land or sneaking up on them like Solid Snake (Solid Fish Filet?), a snakehead as big as a whale, William B. Davis going “I didn’t mean anyone to get hurt”, and knowledge about the real use and effects of electricity.

It may not be much, but it’s enough for a perfectly fine time. Personally, I was also quite happy to find the snakeheads realized as a mixture of CGI and practical effects, with many a scene of people wrestling with oversized fish puppets. Adding to this particular joy are some fun gore effects (at least if you like nibbled off extremities), all presented with a well-developed sense for escalation that is quite typical of most of Ziller’s films (except the three I don’t like).

I think I need to warn my more sensitive readers about the good sheriff’s stupid annoying teenage daughter and friends, though, for even a person steeled by dozens of stupid annoying teenagers in SyFy/Sci Fi Original movies like me did not expect the stupid teenage apocalypse that are Amber and her friends, creatures so vile I can’t imagine anyone will not root for the killer fish trying to eat them.

Thursday, February 13, 2014


Killer Toon (2013): It seems strategically unsound to me to state one's theme - the collision between reality and fantasy with reality losing out quite badly - as outright as Kim Yong-gyoon's South Korean horror film does, when all the film then goes on to deliver is a series of boringly filmed, unimaginative horror set pieces we've seen a thousand times before done better. Delivering the trite is one thing, but delivering the trite after promising at least a bit of intelligence is quite a bit worse. My annoyance with the film did not decrease through its generous appliance of unfunny humour, nor with the time it spent on your usual cliché cops doing the usual cliché cop things without an inkling of verve or spirit (not to speak of things like dramatic tension, or rather their absence).

The Monkey's Paw (2013): Brett Simmons's adaptation of W.W. Jacobs's classic short story puts a bit more effort into changing the story for a full length film than I had expected, keeping the monkey's paw and its law of horrible consequences but going off into different directions, setting it in a Southern working class milieu you don't often get to see in horror movies, and doing some pretty decent character work. On the other hand, the milieu, the paw, and the characters are then used for what amounts to your typical psycho killer thriller with slight supernatural elements, which certainly is something Simmons is competent at directing, but which also isn't all that interesting or exciting, and really doesn't do anything with the philosophical implications of the story.

Don't get me wrong, it's still a more than decent film, I'm just irked when a film seems to consciously avoid everything I'd be excited about it exploring. Make the films I want, damn it!

Embrace of the Vampire (2013): I don't generally get too angry at remakes - at least I'm trying not to - but some of them just puzzle me. Why remake a softcore vampire romp whose only claim to fame are Alyssa Milano's breasts? There can really be only two reasons. The first one would be that director and writers have found something in the original to really latch onto and explore deeper, some theme or plot element that could really resonate in new and interesting ways twenty years later. Of course, once you've seen this particular film's mixture of tits, awkward acting and soap operatics, that explanation goes right out of the window, leaving me with reason number two. Namely, the people involved thought there just aren't enough naked young women in contemporary horror anymore and set out to help change it/milk it for all the money it's worth. In so far as it contains a lot of tits and some softcore sex, Embrace of the Vampire 2013 is a total success. Too bad it’s not the least bit entertaining.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

They Might Be Giants (1971)

Ever since the death of his wife, former socially minded lawyer and judge Justin Playfair (George C. Scott) has come to think himself to be Sherlock Holmes, ever attempting to catch his elusive Moriarty, which is to say, the thing that causes beloved wives to die in accidents, people to climb towers and begin to shoot, and so on, and so forth.

Unfortunately, Justin’s brother Blevins really needs to get at Justin’s money to pay off some unsavoury types hounding him, so he decides to drag Justin to the mental hospital of the money-grubbing Dr. Strauss (Ron Weyand) to be declared incurable (whatever that might be) and unfit to take care of his financial business, which would leave that business to Blevins. Strauss wants psychiatrist Mildred Watson (Joanne Woodward), possibly nominated for the title of loneliest person in New York for several years in a row, to write Justin off. Watson, though, is a rather more conscientious doctor than her boss, and won’t just sign any old stuff without a thorough examination.

Not surprisingly with this last name, Watson is at first fascinated by Justin, then decides to cure him, and will later even fall in love with him. For the time being, she lets herself being dragged through Justin’s half imaginary adventures that soon see the pair chased by the police, people in white coats, and Blevins’s unsavoury people who have decided that killing Justin and having his brother just inherit the money is an easier way to get it than letting Blevins commit him.

Anthony Harvey’s They Might Be Giants is an often whimsical, generally delightful movie that is quite a bit more complex and layered than it at first seems.

One one level, it is a comedy that is based in sad reality without ever becoming cynical, and somehow even manages not to annoy me despite using the generally annoying romantic trope of the mentally ill being somehow closer to some kind of woozy, tear-jerking reality of things. I suspect the film works for me without causing rolling of eyes and cursing of writers is thanks to the clear acknowledgment it gives of the humanly sad causes of Justin’s identity problem (while also suggesting some humanist nobility to it), the way it doesn’t pretend turning into Sherlock Holmes is just some nice thing Justin does for an mentally more stable audience to gawk at and feel better.

If you’re so inclined, you can of course still find copious amounts wrong with the film’s ideas about mental illness, or about the way a psychiatrist is supposed to act towards her patients (though I’d really rather have Watson who cares a bit too much and can’t separate herself completely from her patients even before she meets her Holmes than the more typical example of the profession who doesn’t give a crap yet still knows everything). I’d argue this just isn’t very relevant to the film at hand, because it does neither want its audience to think they’re better than the people on screen, nor that suffering from a mental illness is a fun adventure.

Rather, a part of the film’s argument is that there’s only a degree of separation between the “loonies” and everyone else, with the former’s reaction perhaps more appropriate to the world we live in, and therefor actually more appropriate to the definition of the word “normal”. Improbably, the way the film sells it, this is an uplifting thing to be told, a bit as if nihilist philosophy had started to negate itself.

The film realizes this argument with a sense of whimsy, a lot of broad human compassion with everyone – even Blevins(!) - except the gangsters who really are more a plot mechanism than characters, and through some truly fantastic performances. George C. Scott is as good and fragile as he ever was, and Joanne Woodward’s Watson projects a generosity of spirit and emotion that has been caged by loneliness but never destroyed it’s impossible not to admire. The character actors playing the strange and curious people these two meet on their adventures are just as wonderful, bringing to life what could be caricatures.

There’s a further level to this rather brilliant film, too, a meditation about the nature of reality and fantasy and the ways they interact, of the construction of tales and of reality as a tale, of the shifting of perspectives and roles (just look at the scene in the telephone information building as a clear example of the last one). As Scott’s character argues in another particularly brilliant moment, it would be insane to assume, like Don Quixote, that every windmill is a giant, but that doesn’t mean some of them might not still be giants. And how would we know if we never looked?

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

In short: Hellgate (1990)

William A. Levey's sort of horror, kind of comedy movie about the repercussions the murder of a woman by a motorcycle gang has thirty years later, about a guy whose face got nibbled on by a possessed turtle shooting lasers out of a crystal, a ghostly hitch hiker, and about ghost love, recommends itself through a lot of things that'll make it practically unwatchable for a lot of people but that are exactly the sort of things bound to endear a movie to people like me and mine.

So there are all manner of charming types of bad acting, going from the zoned-out, inflectionless whispering of our leading ghost lady (Abigail Wolcott), to the more rarefied "I'm just pretending to be a normal guy, you know, even though I am so very very pretty" shtick of Ron Palillo, to whatever it is some of the other actors think they're actually doing.

To make matters worse/even more beautiful, the film's second half consists of our heroes wandering through an amusement park ghost town ghost town and encountering people with really bad ghost make-up dressed up like amusement park ghost town actors. There's a warning against the dire consequences of getting shit-faced and watching dead can can dancers while visiting a ghost town, naked breasts, and many a scene of people telling each other in-jokes nobody else, particularly the audience, will find funny, and which I can only assume are improvised, because nobody could script something this unfunny, right? Right? It's all pretty fantastic in an utterly wrong-headed way, and that's before I mentioned the bad decapitation, aging through bad hair-dye, and the film's frightening attempts at sexy times.

I don't know what director Levey or scriptwriter Michael O'Rourke were thinking with any plot or directorial decision they take in Hellgate (except for the "breasts sell" part, which is pretty self-evident, yet also completely untrue in a case like this where no amount of nudity could distract anyone watching from realizing that this is all they ever dreamed of/just horrible crap). Frankly, I don't want to know, for a film as peculiar (in the same way a parallel dimension full of cannibals is peculiar) as Hellgate is should stay a mystery, or, as the film would phrase it "Get away from my boyfriend, zombie bitch!". There really isn't anything I could add to that.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Deadly Affair (1966)

Shortly after intelligence officer Charles Dobbs (James Mason) interviews civil servant Samuel Fennan (Robert Flemyng) because of anonymous letters hinting at least at communist sympathies, Fennan commits suicide, supposedly driven by his talk with Dobbs. The thing is, though, Dobbs was quite convinced Fennan was perfectly innocent on anything beyond having ideals, and told him he was cleared of any suspicion of being a spy.

Dobbs is also less than happy to find his boss, The Adviser (Max Adrian), and the rest of the intelligence community all too willing to write the situation off as a suicide for which he is somewhat responsible. Particularly when Dobbs finds certain things about Fennan’s suicide as well as the behaviour of the man’s wife Elsa (Simone Signoret) do not add up as they should. Dobbs is so angry about the whole situation he even decides to step down from his position completely. At least, until he has investigated the suicide to his own satisfaction. With the help of retired copper Mendek (Harry Andrews) and his now former colleague Billy Appleby (Kenneth Haigh), Dobbs does stumble upon rather interesting facts, even while he’s living through another crisis in the marriage to his wife Ann (Harriet Andersson).

Sidney Lumet’s The Deadly Affair is actually an adaptation of John Le Carré’s first George Smiley novel, Call for the Dead. Lumet couldn’t use the Smiley character name because Le Carré sold it off together with the rights to The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which only goes to show that copyright can get pretty bizarre. At least we got some fine films out of the situation.

Tonally, the film still is very much a Le Carré adaptation, with all the sadness, the guilt, and betrayal that suggests. Smiley/Dobbs as performed by James Mason is clearly a man who has seen and done too much already to should have any illusions left about life but who is still trying to cling to a concept of human decency, in his business life as well as in a marriage that has become painful both him and Ann for reasons they both don’t really have control over.

In fact, the film is very good at not seeking any guilty party in the rather messed-up marriage but treats Dobbs’s and Ann’s respective helplessness with compassion. As it also does treat most of its other characters, all the betrayals and hurts and crimes notwithstanding. As always in Le Carré’s world, there are possibly moral and emotional grounds worth defending, yet his characters have lost any idea of moral certainty long ago, the best of them – like Dobbs – demonstrating a tired and sad way to go about the things that they think they have to do, even if they aren’t even sure why anymore.

Lumet films this in his concentrated mode (except for one or two lame jokes I could have lived without), keeping the camera and his eye close on the actors, while subtly supporting them without showing off. The cast is rather perfect for this approach too, full as it is of middle-aged and aging men and women who all look as if life had battered them in one way or another. In some cases, this is the consequence of some really fine acting, while in other’s, like Simone Signoret’s, the role and the actor’s actual state of mind seem to be rather close; perhaps even too close for comfort. While some of the actors may be tired, their performance aren’t, though.

What The Deadly Affair isn’t – of course, given the material it is based on, but people sometimes go into films with strange expectations – is much of a spy thriller of the more outwardly exciting kind. While the film’s two action scenes are staged by Lumet with perfect and appropriate ruthlessness, this isn’t a film whose spy story is meant to provide surface thrills as much as it is meant to enable a better look at life and what it does to some people.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

In short: The Undying Monster (1942)

aka The Hammond Mystery

In the English countryside. Oliver Hammond (John Howard), the family's maid, and a spaniel are attacked on a frosty full moon night by what can only have been an animal. The dog is killed, Oliver slightly hurt, and the maid so badly wounded she falls into a coma the family doctor Jeff Colbert (Bramwell Fletcher) does not expect her ever to recover from. Oliver's sister Helga (Heather Angel) is disturbed enough by the attack she's making a trip to London and Scotland Yard for help instead of just calling in the local police. Scientific detective Robert Curtis (James Ellison) and his partner, the rather less scientific Cornelia "Christy" Christopher (Heather Thatcher), clearly two specialists in the rather more curious sorts of crime, get on the case.

Once arrived at the Hammond mansion, it quickly becomes clear to the intrepid investigators that the crime at hand might just have something to do with the family curse which has supposedly caused death and destruction for the Hammond family through the ages. But everyone except Helga seems rather reticent to cooperate with the detectives, as if they'd hide some terrible secret.

I find this adaptation of Jessie Douglas Kerruish's novel rather more interesting than good and effective; in fact, I'm a bit disappointed I didn't actually enjoy watching The Undying Monster more than I actually did, for the film does some things which are rather uncommon and unexpected for its time. There's the clash between John Brahm’s moody gothic expressionist direction and art direction that is clearly brother to the spirit of the Universals, and a pair of detectives with a quite modern and scientific bent (let's look at this werewolf hair under the spectrometer!), the fact that said detectives really feel like an early attempt to take fantastic literature's occult detective - or at least a detective interested in the outré and improbable - into the world of the screen, an effort that would still take a few decades after this to actually lead anywhere. "Not leading anywhere" is the film's main problem I think, with a mystery plot that's so obvious a drunk monkey understands what's going on after the basic situation is set up, the whole science versus the supernatural angle first opened up pleasingly enough but then not really getting explored at all (with added bonus of a "natural explanation" scene that makes little sense after the audience has seen an actual werewolf transformation scene), and actors like John Howard and Heather Angel not being allowed to do much of anything.

Like many minor horror movies of its era, The Undying Monster is just a bit too slight to be really effective on an intellectual level, and seems to lack any courage to follow its own ideas where they lead, resulting in what at times seems more like a series of wasted opportunities than a complete movie.

Friday, February 7, 2014

On ExB: The Terror Live (2013)

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a mainstream thriller this convincingly politically angry as Kim Byeong-woo’s film turned out to be, with the added bonus of The Terror Live also being a very tight, well acted, and exciting film.

Read all about it in my column over at the always wonderful Exploder Button.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

In short: Getaway (2013)

Warning: this is not to be confused with various other movies called The Getaway, but believe me, you wouldn't.

Second warning: Getaway might have annoyed me so much I'm going to suggest there would be little difference between director Courtney Solomon's efforts and that of a stuffed monkey.

The wife (Rebecca Budig) of former race car and later escape car driver Brent Magna (Ethan Hawke, who needed the money, one hopes) is kidnapped by an evil nameless mastermind (a role so difficult, the film has to use unpleasant close-ups of Jon Voight's face and the voice of Paul Freeman to embody him, because a single actor could not be clichéd yet boring enough for this particular masterpiece of filmmaking). Mastermind then has Brent race all around Sofia in a stolen car as part of a loud, car-crashing fiendish evil plan. Because our villain is especially cruel, he also has Brent pick up the actual owner of the car, a girl without a name (played by Selena Gomez who probably has youth as her excuse) who just happens to be the most annoying person who ever lived; also, she's of course a car freak and computer wiz and the daughter of the boss of a very large investment bank.

Lots of car crashes ensue; stupidity never stops.

Generally, I'd love to be the one to say that Getaway, despite what everyone else on the Internet says, is actually a misunderstood hidden gem. Unfortunately, I couldn't keep a straight face for a lie this huge for very long.

As you probably understand, Getaway is stupid on a level that makes even the worst of Luc Besson's Europa Corp productions look well thought out and intelligent. The big difference is that Besson's movies generally show some (sometimes even more) imagination sandwiched between the idiocies - though it's often a very stupid kind of imagination - whereas Getaway's imagination stops at "car crash fun, hurr hurr".

Which, you know, still could result in an entertaining movie if the director responsible (and I mean responsible), Courtney Solomon, who just happens to also carry the blame for the first Dungeons & Dragons film, would even demonstrate the faintest idea of how to film car chases in an exciting, possibly even varied manner, seeing that about ninety percent of his movie consist of…wait for it…car chases. Clearly, he doesn't, so we get a lot of fast cuts between unexciting shots, and the sort of action choreography which not just doesn't bother to clearly show what's going on but is so misguided I'm pretty convinced nobody involved in the staging of these scenes knows what's supposed to be going on in them themselves. What's even worse: nothing on screen suggests any ideas about any other aspect of filmmaking either.

I'm not usually somebody to say you could probably have replaced a director with a stuffed monkey, but really, how could the resulting film be worse than what Solomon's Getaway delivers?

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Ladyhawke (1985)

At some point in time in medieval fantasy France. Notorious thief Gaston Phillippe (Matthew Broderick), generally called “the Mouse”, manages a lucky escape from prison. Marquet (Ken Hutchison), the man whose supposedly inescapable prison Gaston escaped from, and who clearly doesn’t take too well to the stress of pleasing his boss, the evil bishop of evil (John Wood), is so angered he and his man spend quite some time trying to hunt the thief down again.

Gaston is rescued from probable (he is very lucky, after all) doom by the knight Navarre (Rutger Hauer), former captain of the guard Marquet now captains. Navarre has an old grudge against Marquet and the Bishop, and has returned to finally put an end to their shared story. Navarre and his lover Isabeau (Michelle Pfeiffer) have been cursed, you see, and he has to spend his nights in the form of a black wolf, while she turns into a hawk by day, both doomed only ever to catch a short glimpse of each other as humans at dawn and at dusk.

At first involuntarily, but once he learns the whole story and meets Isabeau increasingly voluntarily, Gaston is drawn into the lovers’ story, and his help, and that of a monk (Leo McKern) with his own share of guilt for the curse, just might be what will keep it from turning into a tragedy.

Ladyhawke’s Richard Donner always has been one of these curious directors to me whose films as a whole never seem to cohere into a directorial personality. There does seem no philosophy, nor a shared approach beyond technical slickness visible in his films. That isn’t to say the films of Donner and directors like him can’t be worthwhile, because there is something to say for direction that steps behind the story it is telling, even though it does make it rather difficult to declare someone an auteur. At the very least, these films will be worthwhile when these stories are actually worth telling.

Ladyhawke’s story certainly is that. Actually, I find it difficult to avoid the word “perfect” to describe it, seeing as it seems to never take a wrong step in any direction it takes (let’s just pretend the main theme by Alan Parsons doesn’t exist), effortlessly mixing comedy, fantasy, and romance in just the right way. This is a film told from the perspective of what would usually be a mere comic relief character, after all, who never becomes annoying, and never is just a comic relief character even in the scenes when he’s bumbling. As a matter of fact, there’s a suggestion that things turn out well in the end (oh, come on, that’s not a spoiler) because Gaston’s metier isn’t tragedy, and he can therefore choose the part he wishes to take in a doomed romance and turn it right.

But really, this sort of consideration pales behind the way the film uses a pretty perfect – and pretty – cast, beautiful photography of extremely photogenic Italian locations, and a script that’s tighter than you’d expect to tell a romantic story in both meanings of the word, what could be seen as (and most probably is) the film’s slick sheen of commercialism turning into its own kind of poetry. That is an effect a more discrete director like Donner can probably achieve easier than somebody more pushy, for what’s more distracting from (a) romance than a director shouting “look at me! I’m an artist!” when in fact the audience really should look at the tale itself instead of the teller.

Ladyhawke as a whole projects a certain kind of conviction, as if the film itself would believe in its own story enough to produce a sense of wonder out of thin air (certainly the best place for senses of wonder to come from), taking what could have turned out trite and unpleasantly manipulative (the film is of course still manipulative, as all art is, but in a way I at least didn’t mind being manipulated), romantic.

Of course, one person’s poetry is another person’s insufferable kitsch, and one person’s romance is another person’s voluntary slavery but at least today, and with Ladyhawke, I’m one person, and not the other.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

In short: A Pleasing Terror & A Warning to the Curious

Sometimes, living in The Future is a wondrous thing, for it is here that not only does Robert Lloyd Parry exists, a man who makes his living with one-man shows in which he presents some of the works of M.R. James in monologue form, it is also the place where Robert Lloyd Parry brings some of his James adaptations out on DVD. Quite helpful for people not living in James country.

On a filmic level, the performances included on the two DVDs - A Pleasing Terror contains "Canon Alberic's Scrapbook" and "The Mezzotint" and A Warning to the Curious the title story and Lost Hearts - are simple and straightforward, consisting of Parry dressed up as M.R. James sitting and talking into the camera, which is not a set-up that invites visual pyrotechnics. When the few changes of camera angle or slow, dramatic zooms in each story appear, they are quite effective, though, and always stand in service of enhancing Parry's performance.

And Parry's performances are what's truly important here. It's obvious that the man has a scholarly knowledge of James and his work; it is also obvious that Parry has an enormous ability to interpret James's stories, to bring out their wit as well as their horrors, resulting not just in delightful interpretations of the stories but also in a subtle exploration of their antiquarian author as an actual human being. Parry puts quite a bit of emphasis on James's humanity, showing the person telling us his still rather horrifying stories to be fully emotionally involved in his tales, as if he were using his sense of irony and humour as armour against certain thoughts.

How good Parry's performances here are is easiest demonstrated by the fact that the artificiality of the set-up of a man holding a dramatic monologue towards the camera is never really an issue at all. In fact Parry's highly structured and constructed interpretations seem easy and natural in a way only a performance can be. It's not so much as if M.R. James would tell us his stories, it's as if a perfectly realized ideal of M.R. James did.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Puppet Masters (1994)

Warning: contains impolite thoughts about Robert A. Heinlein.

A UFO goes down over a small US town, and soon, the people there start to act a bit strangely, invite visitors into a fake UFO and are probably up to other shenanigans. Why, it’s as if they were controlled by alien parasites sitting on their backs!

An investigation by the USA’s scientific intelligence service under leadership of Andrew Nivens (Donald Sutherland) with his estranged son Sam (Eric Thal) and NASA xenobiologist Mary Sefton (Julie Warner) soon finds out that it is in fact alien invasion time. So many backs to ride on, so little time. Now, you’d think it would be rather easy to detect aliens slushing away on people’s backs, even before our heroes find out that infected humans have a heightened body temperature, but in this movie, the protagonists only like to check for this sort of thing at dramatically appropriate moments instead of, you know, regularly, so soon the whole of the US (which is of course the whole of the world for this sort of movie) is under threat.

Let’s start with the positive first: Stuart Orme’s The Puppet Masters is not a very close adaptation of Robert A. Heinlein’s novel, so it spares us the weird-ass nudism as well as Heinlein’s insufferable, endless smartass bullshitting, the author being one of those people who have to demonstrate to everyone willing to listen (and also to those who aren’t) that they are an authority on frigging everything, particularly those things they don’t actually have a clue about. Personally, I always thought that Heinlein was to SF was Ayn Rand is to philosophy, popular in the US, not taken all that seriously by anyone outside of it.

The film would really rather be Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or at least the lite, authority-trusting version of it (no unhappy or even ambiguous endings for this film). Considered from scene to scene, it’s not completely unsuccessful with this approach. There are a handful of effective scenes of paranoia, a smidgen of light body horror, and more than just an echo of Alien’s face hugger, and while Orme’s direction isn’t particularly exciting or inventive, it is perfectly competent.

Unfortunately, “competence” isn’t exactly what the film’s script spells to me. I’m not generally one to complain about or even just look for plot holes, but The Puppet Masters is just too sloppy and inconsistent to take seriously for me. The fact that our supposedly competent heroes seem always outgunned not because the aliens are so much more effective (they sure aren’t) but because humankind’s best hope are the sort of people unable to come up with a way to check each other for alien parasites on their backs, and who proceed to basically gift a whole army to the things in a particularly embarrassing sequence. Then there’s the film’s inconsistency towards the physical powers the parasites induce in their hosts: some get super powers and only go down after they have been shot repeatedly, others work on a classic goon power level and go down when someone looks at them wrong. It’s the same with the parasites – some seem to die with their hosts, other are sprightly as hell afterwards, and so on. Or talk about the psychological effects of getting separated from one’s parasite. What starts out as psychologically incredibly damaging in the film’s first acts turns into the sort of thing everybody is able to shrug off in a few minutes in the last.

And don’t for a second expect the film to think about the ethical implications all that shooting of infected our heroes do has, seeing as infected aren’t beyond help. But hey, this is a film that solves the alien problem with “hey, just infect everyone with encephalitis!”, so what do I expect?

It’s all a bit much (or rather too little) even for me to just shrug off in a film, so The Puppet Masters did not leave a very pleasing impression on me.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

In short: Legendary: Tomb of the Dragon (2013)

A dam building project somewhere in China is disturbed by attacks of a mysterious giant animal. Lawyer Doug McConnell (James Lance), working for a mysterious money source, hires cryptozoologist Travis Preston (Scott Adkins) to catch whatever the creature may be. Despite his last expedition having ended in something of a catastrophe, Travis and his partners Katie (Lydia Leonard) and Brandon (Nathan Lee) soon make their way to beautiful China.

Once there, they not only have to cope with a generally hungry and rude giant amphibian but also Harker (Dolph Lundgren), a former partner of Preston who has turned against him after what we will call the giant bear fiasco (that happened in the movie’s intro). Harker, never the sanest of men, is now clearly fully living the evil mastermind fantasy version of the Great White Hunter, which makes him just as dangerous as the giant animal he of course doesn't want to catch but to kill. One can't help but ask oneself how these people ever worked together.

I can't help but think that Eric Styles's UK/Chinese co-production made a bit of a tactical error by casting action specialists Scott Adkins and Dolph Lundgren in Legendary's lead roles, for fans of the two going in expecting an action fest will surely be sorely disappointed, while the actual audience for a (mostly) family friendly adventure movie with a giant monster might be turned off by the same expectations.

Me, I'll watch whatever people put in front of me, though, and I'm certainly not going to complain about actors broadening their horizons slightly. Particularly not since Adkins makes for a perfectly decent white-bread hero, while Lundgren seems to relish the opportunity to utter dialogue containing every Evil Great White Hunter cliché ever written (including, of course, multiple variations of the old hit "does the lion care for the fate of the lamb?"), and playing his bad guy as the king of smug self-satisfaction. It's certainly not deep stuff, but the two are fun to watch and nicely supported by a decent international supporting cast.

The rest of Legendary also isn't deep stuff yet fun enough to watch: the production makes good use of its actual Chinese locations (the glory of international co-productions strikes yet again), the action scenes are competent, and the dialogue is generally funny enough when it wants to be. The giant monster, on the other hand, is a bit of not very good CGI that emphasises the feeling that what you're watching is a slightly up-market version of a SyFy Channel movie without a bizarre explanation for the existence of its monster. That's of course fine by me, because I happen to like SyFy Channel movies, and more of them (or really, any of them) should star Scott Adkins or Dolph.