Monday, March 24, 2014

Ladies and Gentlemen,

please do not panic! Your host will take a short sick break. Normal service will resume when I’ve gotten rid of those pesky humansbacteria.

Music Monday: Stuck Edition

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Sunday, March 23, 2014

Cool Breeze (1972)

Freshly released from prison, criminal mastermind and sharp dresser Sidney Lord Jones (Thalmus Rasulala) already has a new big plan to steal jewellery worth three million dollars. With the help of people like whiny, religious bookie Finian (Sam Laws) and former Texan football player turned small-time tough Travis Battle (James Watkins), whatever could go wrong?

Everything, of course, for the heist always goes wrong. However, the trouble isn’t just with Jones’s plan, and the following interest of the police, but also with the little fact that the project’s money man, Mercer (Raymond St. Jacques) has plans of acquiring all the pretty loot for himself. Things probably won’t end too well for anyone involved.

This Gene Corman blaxploitation film directed by Barry Pollack (who didn’t exactly have much of a movie career before or afterwards, it seems) is based on the same novel as John Huston’s flawed classic The Asphalt Jungle but never really plays in the same league. The jury’s out if it’s even trying to, if it just goes for the exploitative thrill of being a blaxploitation version of a revered Old Hollywood classic (which I’d approve of quite a bit, actually), or if somebody involved just thought the novel’s plot the archetypal heist movie story and structure, so why not use it.
In fact, to my eyes, the film’s main problem is that it doesn’t seem to be able to make up its mind which of these three things it wants to be, and instead meanders back and forth between these approaches, while adding some comedy cops. Even though I think adding comically stupid white people to an exploitation movie is a time-honoured way to pay back some of the indignities people of colour had to suffer through in the movies, it doesn’t exactly help an already imbalanced film. Lincoln Kilpatrick’s (black) Lt. Knowles is a lot more convincing but the film muddles up his role and character too by only mentioning his corrupt ways in an off-side manner late in the movie when he’s putting pressure on Finian, which to my mind is just sloppy writing.

It’s this sloppiness that is the script’s main problem more often than not, leading to a film that just blithely wanders around the best bits of the movie it remakes (or of the novel it adapts), only from time to time stepping into the right spots, making changes seemingly at random and in spaces where there just isn’t any other way to go about things a few decades later. It would, for example, be too awkward even for Cool Breeze to cast James Watkins as a cowboy, so they go with the in itself rather clever “poor farming country boy with football talent he never truly managed to live up to” variant; too bad the film doesn’t know where to take this, nor how to fit it in with its various other elements.

Despite these major problems, Cool Breeze does have some recommendable aspects, too. The 70s atmosphere is as strong as in any blaxploitation flick, with some choice, naturalistically real feeling locations and the kind of period detail these films generally achieved by just going out and shooting, and don’t mind if you’re allowed to or not. Taken singly, and if you just pretend a movie’s single scenes don’t have to make a whole together, there are also some fine moments in the film. The scene between Knowles and Finian I already mentioned is, for example, tough and unpleasant, suggesting a lot of history between these two men, and telling no friendly lies about what kind of people the men involved are.
It would of course be much better if that scene and others of similar quality would ever add up to a movie with a coherent personality (or you know, a coherent mood, tone, theme, or plot), but then, those movies don’t give us a theme song where Solomon Burke declares someone is looking “like a cool dude”, so there’s something to be said for Cool Breeze’s approach.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Assignment Naschy (sort of): La herencia Valdemar & La herencia Valdemar: La sombra prohibida (2010)

A man assessing the antiques in an old mansion somewhere in rural Spain disappears; then the woman called in to do his job disappears as well. The company both worked for doesn’t like the police but calls in a private detective who will spend a very long train journey listening to a melodramatic flashback about the sordid history of the house with cameos by Aleister Crowley, Lizzie Borden, Bram Stoker and poor H.P. Lovecraft, as if his actual life hadn’t been crappy enough. People run through the woods. A guy talks to manikins. Cthulhu is embarrassed by a really bad cult. Three hours of my life just disappeared.

On paper, I should be all over this. Cthulhu Mythos stuff, the late 19th Century occult boom and Gothic horror, all the things this film in two long and tedious parts is built on are pretty much catnip to me. Add to it the – I think – final appearance of the great Paul Naschy as loveable butler, and I should be in some sort of movie heaven singing the praises of some deity, at the very least.

Unfortunately, what La herencia Valdemar truly is, is tepid, overlong and boring, a film so lacking in control it feels the need to bloat up a ninety minute story into two ninety minute films full of pointless overlong scenes of nothing of import happening, and a lot of side-business that should have ended on the editing room floor. You’d think the filmmakers would have noticed they had a problem when they could summarize film one at the beginning of film two in about a minute without leaving out anything important, but then you’d probably think people with enough of a budget for the films’ very pretty photography and set design would have enough of a clue not to let their work pointlessly sprawl into various flashbacks, add lots of characters with no use to the story at hand at all, and would actually not let every scene run on and on and on and on for what feels like hours.

Tonally, the films are just as much of a mess, wildly meandering from way-to-overcooked melodrama to “ironic” winking at the audience, pointless attempts at the grotesque, and sheer stupidity, resulting in a double-film nobody involved – certainly not director José Luis Alemán – seems to have any control over, nor even just a simple idea of what kind of film this is actually supposed to be.

I do assume the idea wasn’t to make a draggy, boring and tedious one, at least, though that’s exactly what I just waded through.

Friday, March 21, 2014

On ExB: Phoenix the Warrior (1988)

aka She Wolves of the Wasteland

Ah, the cheap, female-led post-apocalyptic low budget film, a genre that’s closer to my heart than it deserves. The film I’m talking about in this week’s column over at the glorious Exploder Button is a particularly fine example of the form, as full of nonsense and joy as the end of the world and the resulting clothing shortages allow.

So I suggest you click on over and take a look.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Three Films Make A Post: Aliens Invade! Mankind fights back!

The Wolverine (2013): After the apocalypse of crap that was the first Wolverine movie, I didn't expect anything at all from James Mangold's sequel, so it was a rather pleasant surprise to find it to be a highly entertaining mix of action movie tropes, good-natured Japan clichés, appropriate comic book silliness, and even half-way poignant moments. Add to these points the production's decision to cast the Japanese characters with actual Japanese actors instead of any Asian looking guy or girl they could grab from the street, and the (for contemporary blockbuster cinema) surprising amount of time The Wolverine has for its female characters. The film has reached the point where Tao Okamoto and Rila Fukushima are actual female leads again, and not just the girls on screen to look pretty and motivate the lone hero.

And isn't it a fine thing too that the film's usually very lone hero actually needs a lot of help to get by, which the film treats as a strength and not as a weakness?

The World's End (2013): I think I've repeatedly gone on record as a big admirer of Edgar Wright, so it won't come as much of a surprise to anyone that I really, really like the last film in the thematic trilogy that started with Shaun of the Dead. Having said that, I also think it’s fortunate the film at hand is the final film in the thematic trilogy because it's hard not to see that things begin repeating themselves now, and it's probably good Wright is doing something probably quite different next with Ant-Man (as he did, to be fair, with Scott Pilgrim, a film many sad people seem to hate for reasons inexplicable to me). At this point, The World's End repeats Wright's favourite themes and character types on a still highly entertaining and clever level. It's also at its core probably Wright's saddest movie, though this is the kind of film that really isn't out to make its audience sad; the sadness is just there if you're of the temperament to see it.

Children of the Night (1991): Tony Randel's vampire horror comedy is a bit of a strange egg. Tonally, it rather undecidedly jumps from broad small town satire to gore to really stupid comedy to slightly less stupid comedy to grotesque semi body horror to dark fairy-tale and back again, putting quite a few moments of actual magic in between triteness, annoying stupidity and stupid fun. The permanent tonal shifts make it impossible to a) get a very good grip on the movie as a whole and b) to ever be as much drawn into the film's very weird world as one would wish. Still, there's as much to like as to hate in here, and this is the sort of small town horror movie whose true hero isn't one of its theoretical leads (Peter DeLuise and Ami Dolenz), nor Karen Black chewing scenery, but Garrett Morris as said small town's black town drunk. Which is to say, a film worth fighting through the unfunny moments for the actual surprises it contains.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Cyclops (1957)

Even though her fiancée Bruce has disappeared in plateau somewhere in Mexico, Susan Winter (Gloria Talbott) is convinced he is still alive. She manages to get together three men to help her with a small expedition into the area. These are Russ Bradford (James Craig), a bacteriologist and old friend of Bruce’s who is in love with Susan and is really coming along to prove his friend’s death, alcoholic stock market trader Marty Melville (Lon Chaney Jr.), out to find some uranium, and hired pilot Lee Brand (Tom Drake).

After some trouble with the local governor, the quartet barely manage to land where they want to go – turns out having Lon Chaney Jr. grabbing the control stick of one’s plane in mid-flight is not a good thing. But hey, at least there’s more uranium to be found here than Marty could ever have dreamed of! In a strange coincidence, there’s also a frightening amount of preposterously giant fauna around. After boring interpersonal problems and too much footage of “giant” animals slaughtering one another, our heroes finally meet the titular personage (Duncan “Dean” Parish), though the “cyclops” really is a giant guy with a half melted face and brain damage. You’ll never guess who he was before the glories of radiation had their way with him.

Bert I. Gordon’s The Cyclops is a bit of a shame, for it puts a rather interesting and effective twenty minutes of film behind forty minutes going on two-hundred of library footage of planes, pointless feet-dragging, and the kind of interpersonal conflict that doesn’t even make sense if you believe every character in the film to be a fool as well as an arsehole.

Worse, the film’s early three hours of running time are mostly dull as dishwater with scenes that shouldn’t have been in the movie in the first place going on for far too long while little of importance to character, theme, plot or audience enjoyment happens. It’s, as is regularly the case with Gordon’s films for me, particularly frustrating because the director actually was one of the more visually dynamic ones of his time and budget bracket, talents that are wasted when there isn’t anything in Gordon’s own script to actually apply them to. The animal slaughter involved doesn’t exactly help improve things, adding a degree of unpleasantness that still manages to be pretty dull, adding insult to the injury of animals dying for our enjoyment by not containing even the suggestion of enjoyability.

The thing is, once the actual film begins about forty minutes of real time in, the still conscious viewer is actually treated to something worthwhile. Jack H. Young’s “cyclops” make-up is as gruesome as anything I’ve seen in a film from this era, really making the so-called monster look like the victim of radiation damage, enabling the film to make its so-called monster painfully human at the moments when it counts. And make no mistake, this make-up, the big guy’s background and his unceasing desperate grunting (thought up in a time when sound design generally was an afterthought), as well as his undeserved end combine not just into one of the sadder giants in Gordon’s giant-rich filmography, but reach a point amounting to actual tragedy; which is no mean feat given that the giant also has an embarrassing wrestling match with a python (or is it a boa?).

I find this aspect of the movie so surprisingly dark, so effective in its darkness, and so atypical for 50s horror/SF films I’d nearly be willing to suggest it’s worthwhile wading through the dullness that comes before. At the very least, this part of The Cyclops illustrates that Gordon, despite what people - including myself - often unfairly suggest had ambitions as a filmmaker beyond making a quick buck by showing giant or tiny things.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

In short: Children of the Corn V: Fields of Terror (1998)

After taking a time-out in the last movie, our old friend He Who Walks Behind the Rows is back again. Unfortunately, the mysterious Godhood's return to kids' favourite corn-based horror series isn't all one would have hoped for.

For one, He (as his friends call him) is now some sort of living flame thing, which must be awkward when you're a mysterious power living in a cornfield. Consequently, He now lives exclusively in a corn silo, stinking up the neighbourhood while waiting for his followers to throw themselves down into the silo once they reach that horrible age of eighteen. This time around, there's one exception to the age rule though, because the production was able to hire David Carradine for ten minutes of sitting in a comfy chair, which he does while doing a cult leader shtick, until his head splits open and a fire-breathing something burns a hole into useless sheriff Fred Williamson's head, which might be the one scene that makes this rather tepid and boring outing worth watching.

I really don't know what it is with the film's whole obsession with fire anyhow, seeing as He will also be beaten (until the inevitable, lame kicker ending, of course) by fire ("fight fire with fire", the film helpfully explains), which makes even less sense than the whole cult this time around. The lameness of this film's cult also has a lot to do with the lameness of the supposedly creepy kids, or rather, the bored looking teenagers led by Adam Wylie playing a boring prophet named (I kid you not) Ezeekial as if he were a kid staring someone down playing with marbles.

All in all, it's so dispirited and dispiriting stuff, I'll even spare us all a plot synopsis, and only mention that you'll also get to see final girl Stacy Galina, Alexis Arquette, Eva Mendes, Ahmet Zappa, and Kane Hodder, if that sort of thing is important to you, but honestly, excitement lives elsewhere than in Ethan Wiley's movie.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Unknown (1946)

Some nasty business has been going on in the old Southern Martin family about two decades ago, leaving daughter Rachel (Karen Morley), and sons Edward (James Bell) and Ralph (Wilton Graff) in thrall of their dominating mother Phoebe (Helen Freeman) and in various states of mental un-health; the only sane member of the family is their black butler Joshua (J. Louis Johnson) - who is also one of the few black characters in 40s movies I’ve seen neither there to demonstrate the supposed superiority of the white cast, nor to provide the kind of comic relief that makes a boy want to slug the filmmakers. The interactions between said white cast and him are of course still rather painful to watch. Of the family, particularly Rachel is bad off, hearing the cries of her long lost baby daughter and having lost track of minor details like what decade it is quite some time ago, living in a kind of perpetual young womanhood.

Things change when the matriarch dies and the mysterious benefactor who financed her schooling orders young Nina Arnold (Jeff Donnell) to go to the reading of Phoebe’s will on the old Martin plantation. Nina, it turns out, is Rachel’s long lost daughter. Fortunately for Nina, her – still mysterious – benefactor has hired international men of adventure and private detectives Jack Packard (Jim Bannon) and Doc Long (Barton Yarborough) to help and protect her, for there’s something very wrong in the house even if you ignore the whole decadence and madness vibe. The baby noises Phoebe hears seem to be quite real, for example, Nina’s new uncles are nasty old men beyond expectation, and somebody who likes to dress like a proto-giallo murderer is sneaking through the dark trying to kill our heroine.

The third and final Columbia movie based on the popular radio show I Love a Mystery, again directed by Henry Levin, changes up tone and style quite a bit, turning from the two-fisted charms of the pulpy mystery to the melodramatic joys of a – still pulpy so don’t worry – Southern Gothic old dark house tale.

One’s appreciation of this development will certainly depend on one’s sympathy for the type of melodrama that’s generally part and parcel of Southern Gothics, or rather, on one’s tolerance for the film’s broad application of it. The acting of everyone involved except for Donnell, Bannon and Yarborough – fittingly given their position as outsiders – is as broadly melodramatic as a film can get away with, more than just bordering on areas some viewers will read as camp and/or will feel decidedly uncomfortable with.

Melodrama’s the watch word not only for the acting: The Unknown’s plot and mood are just as melodramatic, which makes complete sense when you see both as an expression of the genre-mandatory decadence and madness (the beautiful twins, the film would probably call them), the feeling of a world moving on outside while the Martin family inside can’t – or won’t - move with it. In this context, it can hardly be an accident that Rachel specifically is trapped in a perpetual past. It also seems rather poignant to me that Nina’s addition to the family, as someone who is young and very much not part of the noble tradition of come-down slave-owning shits by anything but blood, is the thing that might drag at least some family members back to sanity and the world, unless they manage to drag her down with them.

Levin tells this tale with his usual professionalism but also a good sense for the appropriate shadowy mood. While you can’t exactly feel the decay of the house (40s low budget filmmaking in general being not really up to that particular task independent of the talent of the directors involved), Levin provides the film with its fair share of cheap yet effective Southern Gothic thrills, and never loses control of his scenery-chewing cast, unless you think letting them chew the scenery is already losing control of them.

It’s not what I expected of the final I Love a Mystery film, but The Unknown is a very pleasant surprise as a film that knows very well what it’s doing and does it well, too.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

In short: Children of the Corn: The Gathering (1996)

Student of medicine Grace Rhodes (a very young looking Naomi Watts) returns to her rural home for an off-semester to take care of her mother June (Karen Black) and her younger siblings Margaret (Jamie Reneé Smith) and James (Mark Salling). June has suffered some kind of mental breakdown that leaves her unable to leave the house for more than a few steps in what looks a lot like agoraphobia but perhaps isn’t, and doesn't do much for her abilities to take care of her household and kids either. June's problems are somehow connected to a rather strange dream she has every night, in which a dead boy kills her.

As Grace and the people of the town will soon learn, June's dreams are rather prophetic, for soon a dead boy in preacher's garb (Brandon Kleyla) crawls out of a sealed well and does something magickal using a man he kills. The boy’s ritual induces an inexplicable fever spiced up with a bit of levitation in all of the town's children that eventually results in creepy staring and possession. Which is of course the point at which more murders start.

To save her siblings and herself, Grace will team up with the town's former mayor Donald Atkins (Brent Jennings) and learn the truth about her former home’s oldest, darkest secret.

As should be obvious after this synopsis, it's difficult to avoid the suspicion watching the fourth Children of the Corn movie that Greg Spence's film wasn't actually written as part of the franchise but only got the "Children of the Corn" moniker because the script takes place in a rural area and the producers had the rights to the name; why, the corn fields aren’t even important to the movie at all.

That's of course only a bad thing if you're missing He Who Walks Behind The Rows desperately, because the rural horror film we get may not seem to be part of the franchise but it is about as good as mid-90s direct-to-video horror gets. That's not saying too much, of course, but in case of The Gathering it does describe a competent and entertaining little flick most viewers probably won't have minded to rent from their video store (remember them?).

In fact, The Gathering's He Who Walks-less backstory, and the way it is revealed, is its greatest strength, connecting it to the great tradition of cursed rural towns in horror, and giving the series of supernatural shenanigans enough of a connection to the larger thematic streams of its sub-genre to make them a little more interesting and meaningful.

Yet I also wish Spence had explored these thematic connections a little deeper, for while the reason for the killings makes sense in the realm of the movie, the ways the various murders happen seem less part of one coherent supernatural phenomenon but rather too much like what they actually are - an unconnected series of special effects sequences not based on what fits the backstory best but on what (supposedly) looks coolest, which is a particular shame in a film whose backstory emphasises connections between present and past. It's not a fatal weakness but it is this point that keeps The Gathering from being a memorable film instead of a diverting one.

Of course, in the context of how most mid-90s direct-to-video films turned out, diverting isn't bad at all.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Attack of the Puppet People (1958)

Loneliness is a terrible thing, and so is letting people go. Owner and only worker of a small doll factory situated in an American office building Mr Franz (John Hoyt) knows the pain, and he’s found a way to keep people from leaving him behind: he’s shrinking them down to doll size, keeping them in suspended animation, and only taking them out when he wants them to party like it’s 1959.

Franz’s new secretary Sally (June Kenney) doesn’t suspect any of this until she falls for epitome of manliness Bob Westley (John Agar), the best darn sales representative ever to come from St. Louis, and promises to marry him and go away with him. And who wouldn’t, with a marriage proposal taking place during a drive-in showing of The Amazing Colossal Man!? Mr Franz won’t have it of course, and first doll-izes Bob and tells Sally he’s gone off back to St. Louis.

Sally finally realizes what’s up, and does the obvious thing, namely going to the police’s missing persons bureau and telling the cop in charge (Jack Kosslyn) all about how her boss turns people into dolls. To everyone’s surprise, it’s not a very useful approach to the problem, and soon Sally finds herself reunited as doll-sized former secretary with her hunky doll-fiancée. The couple also make the acquaintance of a bunch of other idiots Franz has shrunk down. Clearly, it’s time to party, and perhaps find a way to trick Franz and get back to size again.

Oh Bert I. Gordon. I know, I have called your films boring more than once, but when you were on, you really were on; though I’m not completely sure on what exactly you were. Anyhow, Attack of the Puppet People, an AIP production containing no attack of the puppet people (they’re too involved in being ineffectual, singing the movie’s theme song, and so on), is a thing of utter, slightly deranged beauty, delivering one moment of improbable strangeness after the next, while generally featuring perfectly competent filmmaking and special effects that are mostly delightful, if not convincing.

Well, unless you start fixating on that telephone model that seems to change size every other scene, or the fact that the film can’t really seem to make up its mind how small its puppet people actually are. That’s just part of the charm of the whole affair, though, if you ask me.

And truly, how could I – or any sane audience member – complain about little things (tee-hee) like this when confronted with a film whose rather meta (and pretty weird) marriage proposal sequence is only the tip of the iceberg of pure delight. The film’s high point surely is the scene late in the film, when Franz has decided to have one last doll party (in a theatre, no less, and yes, he calls it a theatre party), and presses his puppet people into playing together with a Jekyll and Hyde marionette - until uncultured old John Agar rips the marionette to pieces, that is. Or, while I’m talking potential high points, what about the cat kindly Mr Franz shrinks down too and houses in a matchbox? Or how about the fact that the older puppet people seem to be mostly fine with their imprisonment – because parties! – more than once seems to attempt to build up to some sort of political subtext but never gets its act together enough to actually gain one? I’m also quite fond of the decisive kind of sloppiness that finds a film repeatedly mentioning the elderly postman turned doll but then never gets around to showing him when it’s time to show the doll people. Because his spot is taken by Marlene Willis whose job it is to sing the theme song, one assumes.

It’s all absolutely fantastic, with barely a second of the film going by that isn’t willing to trade in logic for imagination, and little to distract the willing viewer from Gordon’s inspired creation of a world as much based on his own obsessions and interests as that in Edward Wood’s films was on Wood’s; although Gordon was much more surface-competent a filmmaker than Wood. If that’s not enough to make a girl or boy excited to run out, find a copy of Attack of the Puppet People, and drag an unsuspecting man or woman (hopefully not looking or acting like John Agar) into a combined viewing/marriage proposal, I don’t want to live in the same world as her or him.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Three Films Make A Post: Satan's only gift is death...

Ghosthouse (1988): I've repeatedly gone on record stating that I'm generally not as much of an admirer of the film's of Umberto Lenzi as many of my peers are. I do make exceptions for Lenzi's exceptional films, though, so the glorious insanity of Spasmo does have a giant place in my heart, where now also dwells the glorious insanity of the improbable TV movie Ghosthouse. It's a bit of a different kind of glorious insanity you can find here, a very 80s one that appears in form of a completely nonsensical script, acting so stiff one can never be quite sure the actors were actually alive or awake during the shoot, a creepy little girl with a creepy clown doll that plays a creepy clown doll jingle, and reams of rubbery gore.

Also featuring are heroine Lara Wendel wrestling said doll, a character dying in what looks rather like a sea of semen, and ham radios. Not featuring at all is Lenzi's tendency to drag his feet until I get bored, so there's everything to recommend this thing.

Skinwalker Ranch (2013): Somewhat based on a real place of supposed paranormal activity, Devin McGinn's and Steve Berg's film might be the most plain fun POV film I've seen in quite a while, seeing as it features alien abduction, cattle mutilation, a giant canine, what may or may not be a transdimensionally travelling little boy, a vague conspiracy, and what looks like the giant zombie version of a Grey to me. Sure, it's not brilliantly original stuff (there are more alien abduction based POV horror movies than most people know, though Skinwalker's creatures seem to be closer to John A. Keel style transdimensional entities) but it is made with a real sense of fun, often shows very well composed shots, and does know a thing or two about pacing and escalation.

As an old X-Files fan, I can't help but approve of it all.

Horror Stories 2 (2013): 2012's Horror Stories made enough at the South Korean box office to make a sequel commercially interesting, so here's a second anthology movie of (surprise!) horror stories, two serious ones, one comedy tale, and a framing narrative. None of the stories is all that original (though Jeong Beom-sik's comedy tale "Escape" is at least utterly bizarre), but they are fun, competently made, and don't overstay their welcome, which really is all I ask of the segments in an anthology film.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

In short: I Love a Mystery (1945)

What caused San Francisco society man Jefferson Monk (George Macready) to lose his head in a freak accident? And whatever happened to his head? Private detectives Jack Packard (Jim Bannon) and Doc Long (Barton Yarborough) know the answer to at least one of these questions because they started working on the highly mysterious case of Mr Monk a few days earlier.

About a year before the detectives came into play, Monk, you see, was quite disturbed by a prophecy made by the high priest (Lester Matthews) of a Mysterious Oriental Cult™ saying he’d lose his head a year later. Oh, and might he be willing to sell it then, for Monk looks like the spitting image of the cult’s founder whose mummy is unfortunately starting to rot?

By the point Monk meets the detectives, he’s worked himself into quite a panic regarding the whole matter, particularly after a friendly letter from the cult leader prophecies his wife Ellen (Nina Foch) “becoming an invalid” and Ellen actually losing control of her legs just a few days later. Then there’s the fact that a mysterious guy with a peg leg carrying a valise “just the right size for a human head” keeps following Monk around. Clearly, Packard and Long have their work quite cut out for them.

I Love A Mystery is the first of three Columbia productions based on the eponymous popular radio show written by Carlton E. Morse, and going by what I’ve read about it the show – there’s horrifyingly little of it available to actually hear of it in old time radio fan circles – the film’s mixture of seemingly supernatural occurrences, preposterous yet also awesome and pretty clever plot twists and an all-around air of anything goes is quite typical of it; it’s also quite typical of things I describe as “awesome”.

And awesome Henry Levin’s film indeed is, at least if you like your mysteries weird and somewhat two-fisted, and aren’t too annoyed by the whole “Oriental Mysteries” business – though there’s a fun twist to that aspect of the film too, so we’re not talking Fu Manchu style yellow danger racism here. The film’s script is even clever enough to not annoy me despite explaining most of the potentially supernatural occurrences away. That might have something to do with the plain (and pleasantly preposterous in a good sense) weirdness of the whole tale even without prophecies and curses actually existing in its world, or with Levin’s fine sense of how to pace the telling of said tale. At the very least, there are neither dithering nor detours here, with every scene fulfilling an actually important function in the plot and at the same time also containing at least one element of clever pulpy fun.

Fun seems to have been the film’s watch word, even though the plot is, if you think about it, actually as dark as that of the darkest noir, and a very fun time I Love a Mystery turns out to be.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Dark of the Sun (1968)

aka The Mercenaries

There’s a Civil War in the Congo (which isn’t completely modelled on the actual situation in the country at the time of the film’s making, at least as far as I understand it, which is never far enough, but seems to be a sort of “worst of” of actual conflicts in post-colonial Africa) between the corrupt, westernized government and equally unpleasant insurgents mixing the worst of the West with the worst of local traditions. To survive, Congo’s president really needs the money and help of a large Belgian (and yeah, the bitter irony of that does definitely not go over this film’s head) company; of course, that help comes with a price tag.

The Belgians want a large amount of diamonds stored at the other end of the country in an area mostly under rebel control; because that sort of thing sells better to a potential public, they also want the president to secure the safety of a number of their employees in that area. It’s clear to everybody involved the people aren’t a priority, of course.

Doing this dirty job falls on the shoulders of mercenary Curry (Rod Taylor) and his Congolese, US-educated friend Ruffo (Jim Brown, my favourite football player turned actor doing good as always). Because it’s that sort of film the operation has to take place with the protagonists travelling through dangerous territory on board of an armed train and with the help of Nazi war criminal (and now officer in the Congolese army) Henlein (Peter Carsten), an alcoholic Doctor (Kenneth More) and a bunch of poor Congolese soldiers the film will in the end do its best to humanize. Not surprisingly, things go neither well nor easy, putting the friendship of the idealistic Ruffo and the professionally cynical Curry to the test, as well as forcing the latter man to take a good long look in the mirror.

In an alternative movie history, Jack Cardiff’s Dark of the Sun has resulted in quite a different kind of mercenary war movies, films that always tried and often succeeded to think about moral, politics, and even a little about the position of race and education in the context of both while still delivering the war movie thrills expected of them, with characters (here in particular Jim Brown’s Ruffo) that are more complicated than props just there to pull triggers. In ours, not many directors or producers seem to have cared much.

However, this still leaves us with Dark of the Sun, a film willing to actually think about what the – brutal, exciting, and increasingly unpleasant – action in it means in the context of the life of real people, a film that is honest enough to demonstrate how most of the violent conflicts in Africa are products of the former colonial rule and still at least in part driven by foreign interests who just don’t give a damn about the lives they destroy as long as there’s money in it. The film seems to suggest the West/North taking responsibility for its own sins as important part of the solution (as exemplified not just by Curry’s acts at the film’s end). We’re mostly still waiting for that one in reality to happen.

The film’s not perfect in this regard, of course. Contemporary viewers will probably feel deeply uncomfortable with the way the rebels do fall into the Black Barbarian smiting civilization category all too well. Though it has to be said that the film sees the Nazi Henlein as a symptom of basically the same problem (perhaps with humanity at large) as the rebels, and even Curry’s final killing of Henlein as coming from the same spirit, and so seems to define “civilization” as the state where you don’t slaughter people. Which is a point I find rather difficult to disagree with. And of course, how many war and in particular mercenary movies do think about these things at all, not to speak of with a degree of nuance?

Now, while this all might sound as if Dark of the Sun were a rather dry and perhaps even preachy movie, it is anything but. Instead, Cardiff takes the moral and political questions, and his characters, and packs it all into as exhilarating a war movie as you can find. It might seem to be a contradictory approach, but then the war movie is as contradictory a genre as possible, and like all exploitation movies of many genres, more often than not interested in having its cake and eating it too.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

In short: Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest (1995)

After he killed his adopted dad, one of the original Gatlin children, Eli (Daniel Cerny), and his adopted brother Joshua (Ron Melendez) are taken into the foster care of Amanda (Nancy Lee Grahn) and William Porter (Jim Metzler) in beautiful Chicago.

Joshua is easily able to fit into the new lifestyle, why, he even makes friends with people of colour like Malcolm (Jon Clair) and Maria Elkman (Mari Morrow), and shows off his basketball skills. Eli, on the other hand, can't let go of the olden ways, so he plants some magical corn in the empty factory building that just happens to be right next door to his new family's home, and slowly proceeds to start up his own new children's cult, while commodities trader William plans to make Super Corn™ popular all around the world. There are also - possibly symbolical - bugs with pernicious influence involved.

Because Eli is right and grown-ups are perfectly useless, it falls to Josh to swart his brother's bizarre plans.

Where Children of the Corn 2 (about which I’ll say a few strong words in the near future) really didn't seem to have a clue on how to make the sort of kill scene revue that is late 80s and 90s horror entertaining, Urban Harvest's director James D.R. Hickox doesn't suffer from any such problems, and delivers a series of increasingly grotesque murder scenes in the patented Screaming Mad George style with a lot of panache.

Of course, Urban Harvest's script is stupid as hell, its plot only barely makes sense, and its retcons regarding the original Gatlin murders (like these now having taken place at the beginning of the 60s for no good reason) seem useless except to suggest Eli is more than just a kid – a point most viewers would probably have gotten by watching him use his superpowers. But if that sort of thing is a problem for you, watching 90s low budget horror is probably not a good idea in any case, because crack-brained-ness was one of the time's and of the place's identifying marks. Consequently, I'm not blaming Urban Harvest.

Particularly, I'm not blaming Urban Harvest because it shows us so much idiotic to grotesque good stuff of the sort grand guignol theatre what have loved to be able to show: there's a death head-melting caused by magical lighter flame swallowing, corn tentacle crucifixion, a poor woman whose head explodes from magical bugs, a priest who may or may not have trouble with a hallucinated Virgin Mary in a scene that looks rather edited for censorship to me, and a finale that features the giant monster version of a mutated corn plant(!!!), among other things. It's quite impossible for me to argue with a film featuring Cornzilla, so I'm not going to.

Apart from the crazy, the film also does the very uncommon thing in horror films and treats its (more than one!) black characters as actual characters, instead of as the exotic or hated Other, nor as token signs of diversity or "identity". Not that anyone's characterization here is deep, but the film prefers shorthand to lazy shorthand, which is more than I ask of the second direct-to-video sequel to a not all that well-loved movie.

Friday, March 7, 2014

On ExB: The Casebook of Eddie Brewer (2012)

If you know me, you know how much traditional ghost stories and weird supernatural fiction mean to me, and that I’m all over films that attempt to put these traditionally more literary tales on screen.

This week’s column on Exploder Button is about such a film, and one I find an particularly remarkable example not just of how to do this kind of story right on screen but also of how to do low budget/indie/whatever filmmaking well. So click on through, please!

Thursday, March 6, 2014

In short: Enemy Territory (1987)

Unsuccessful insurance salesman Barry (Gary Frank) thinks his luck is finally turning around when his boss is giving him the opportunity for some easy money by closing a life insurance deal with a Mrs Elva Briggs (Frances Foster). Unfortunately, Mrs Briggs is living in one of those nightmarish towers city planners thought were ideal for stacking poor black people in, and Barry quickly falls foul of the local gang, the Vampires, under their fearless leader, The Count (Tony Todd) who does everything in his power to kill Barry.

Despite being trapped in the building, Barry’s not completely out of luck, though: a very helpful Vietnam vet named Will (Ray Parker Jr.), Mrs Briggs and her grandchild Toni (Stacey Dash) are going far beyond the call of basic human decency to help him fight off the Vampires and escape. Also appearing are another, but racist, crazy and wheelchair-bound Vietnam vet (Jan-Michael Vincent), and the proverbial helpful little boy (Deon Richmond).

In 1987, Charles Band and his Empire Pictures wanted a bit of that tasty ghettosploitation money too, and because, one assumes, all actually serious and thrilling variations of this generally problematic genre had already been done, director Peter Manoogian set out to make this humungous piece of cheese that couldn’t even afford an actor to play Will and had to go with Ray Parker Jr.

In its own ridiculous way, Enemy Territory is a pretty fine time, though, at least if you’re the kind of person who finds joy in great moments in film like the scene where Jan-Michael Vincent explains that he’s housing his cat not as a pet but as food taster in case anyone should poison his spam, but that he needs to shoot his cat from time to time and get a new one because cats give people bugs like AIDS. Or the fact that the Vampires might be the least threatening gang ever put on film with their adorable vampire shtick, the least psycho guy called Psycho I’ve seen in a long time, and Tony Todd ranting nonsense towards his very bourgeois (and also quite bored) looking gang members without once breaking down laughing because of the idiocy of its all.

It is of course utterly impossible to take any of this shit seriously, but it is rather easy to be very entertained by it. Plus, curious enough for an exploitation film, Enemy Territory seems to lack any mean-spirited bone, resulting in a movie that really just wants to play around for ninety minutes, and then walk off with a friendly smile and the cost of a video rental. That’s alright with me.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Hidden Assassin (1995)

aka The Shooter

(This write-up is based on the shorter US cut of the movie that excises about ten minutes of scenes meant to deepen characterization and make the plot clearer).

US Marshal Michael Dane (Dolph Lundgren), one of those people who abduct foreign nationals from countries the USA don’t have extradition treaties with, is doing a small favour for his old friend, CIA agent Alex Reed (John Ashton) and Reed’s boss Dick Powell (Gavan O’Herlihy). The CIA thinks that professional assassin Simone Rosset (Maruschka Detmers) has already killed a Cuban ambassador for kicks, and is now planning to slaughter the participants of a historic peace conference between the US and Cuba in Prague, so they’d be very thankful if Dane could catch her and bring her to the US.

Catching Simone turns out to be quite difficult for Dane, and catching and keeping her even more so, because she is just the decisive bit more competent at the whole cat and mouse game. Consequently, it takes quite some time and effort, and some rather unpleasant lies to Simone’s girlfriend Marta (Assumpta Serna) for Dane to reach this goal. Not that he’s all that happy about it – he neither likes the CIA way of going about things, nor does he seem to like to morally compromise himself; he has also taken quite a shine to Simone until his head and his penis are pulling into very different directions when it comes to her.

At least on an ethical level, Dane’s life becomes easier when people probably working for the CIA are trying to kill Simone before he can bring her out of the Czech Republic.

Ted Kotcheff’s Hidden Assassin is one of the more surprising vehicles for that loveable lug, Dolph Lundgren. As we all know, while Lundgren is one of the more likeable action specialists of his generation (which automatically puts him in a higher league than Seagal and Norris), his thespian skills have their limits mostly in glowering, looking like the nicest guy ever to bash your head in, and two kinds of smiles, which results in a limited repertoire of roles, so much so that most of his films aren’t even trying to get anything else out of him.

Even though Kotcheff’s film isn’t going against the trend completely, its script (by Yves André Martin) does provide Lundgren with a slightly more complex character than usual, as well as with a backstory that is actually connected to what’s going on in the rest of the film on a thematic level. Given his acting limits, Dolph really does comport himself very well here, not exactly giving a subtle performance but a convincing one; that he’s doing his usual good job in the action sequences is a given anyway.

It’s quite interesting to see how well the script’s slightly slicker execution (why, there’s actually a reason for people to do what they do, and it even makes sense in context) turns your generic Lundgren vehicle into, well, an actual movie, the sort of film where the action becomes more exciting because it carries meaning beyond going through the action movie motions. Not that Kotcheff is bad at directing the action sequences – there are some fun cheap chases through the mean streets of Prague (prettier as Sofia - there, I said it), a simple yet pretty great final rooftop chase, as well as some of the always entertaining train top shenanigans (though none including a motorbike), and other moments of the kind of joyful anti-gravitational nonsense that make action cinema so delightful, all of them done with great competence and providing thrills big enough I’m not even going to call them mandatory thrills.

On the other hand, I don’t want to oversell the script’s depth or perceived depth. This is – at least in the shorter US version – still very much an action movie and not a character study, and certainly also not on the level of the rarefied kind of action movie where the action is part of the character study, too. It just knows how to enable the action better. Plus, there’s no hilariously earnest scene where a hallucinatory George Clooney holds a ridiculous pep talk, so it’s already better than Gravity.

Adding to this, there are also all kinds of nice little touches giving Hidden Assassin a distinct personality of its own. I particularly enjoyed Gavan O’Herlihy’s and some of the minor actors’ shameless scenery chewing, as if they had drunkenly stumbled in from one of Lundgren’s later direct-to-DVD films; or how much more competent at the whole action hero business Detmers’s Simone seems to be, at least until the film feels the need to get out the refrigerator.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

In short: Gravity (2013)

(I wrote this little rant before the film’s expected Academy Awards wins, which only goes to show that obvious things are obvious).

I’m not as enamoured with Alfonso Cuarón’s SF film as mainstream critics seem to be, but let’s start with the good first.

On the level of technical craft, Gravity will be difficult to beat, with brilliant photography, realistic feeling yet subtly spectacular production design, and a for the most part highly effective soundtrack (including sound design) that all bring together effortlessness with a tight focus on their roles in telling the film’s particular story well. Consequently, Gravity contains its fair share of rousing suspense moments and has a visual rhythm that seems hard to beat in its perfection.

Unfortunately, this perfection is marred by some painfully sentimental moments in the script, the sort of pap Hollywood films use when they’re too cowardly to show actual human emotions and instead prefer to go for the self-important representation of sentimentality as humanity, or even humanism. In some scenes – particular the embarrassing bit of dialogue where Sandra Bullock’s character tells dead, absent George Clooney to say hello to her dead daughter in the afterlife, or the film’s plain stupid final shot – this drags the film down considerably. It might as well jump up and shout “gimme an Oscar” at these points, for all the emotional effect this stuff has on me. Of course, actual raw human emotion would just not be pretty enough; somebody in the audience might feel uncomfortable instead of uplifted by intense fakeness pretending to be a deep understanding of the human condition.

I’m also not very happy with the film’s decision to cast stars instead of actors, though Sandra Bullock does an alright job for a woman who can’t change her facial expression anymore thanks to the entertainment industry’s obsession with turning perfectly attractive middle-aged people into plastic doll monstrosities.

Given these problems, I found myself quite frustrating watching Gravity, with the way its technical prowess collides with its emotional dishonesty, and its intellectual emptiness, the way heroic gestures stand in for the much messier human truth, and actual heroism. But then, you can hardly expect anything else watching a movie so clearly aimed at hitting the safe spot that gets one an Academy Award or ten. If you want to see this sort of thing done less hypocritical by a new-ish Science Fiction movie, I’d recommend Sebastián Cordero’s Europa Report instead.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

American Gothic (1988)

Cynthia (Sarah Torgov) has just been released from hospital after a breakdown following the accidental death of her baby. The baby’s father, her boyfriend Jeff (Mark Erickson), thinks it’s a good idea to fly her camping on an island somewhere in the American North-West. Their friends Terri (Caroline Barclay), Rob (Mark Lindsay Chapman), Lynn (Fiona Hutchison), and Paul (Stephen Shellen) accompany the couple, but what was supposed to be a relaxing time ends up rather differently for everyone involved.

The private plane the friends are flying in has some sort of problems and has to go down on a different island than planned. At first, the friends assume the new island is uninhabited, the house they find on it empty, but eventually, they meet the island’s inhabitants, a rather eccentric older couple who only want to go by the handles of Ma (Yvonne De Carlo) and Pa (Rod Steiger). They’re somewhat welcoming, if you ignore that they seem to think it’s still the 1920s, Pa likes himself some fire and brimstone religion, as well as overlook an increasing series of other things that turn from eccentricity to outright craziness.

One by one, Ma’s and Pa’s physically grown-up children pop up, too. There’s Fanny (Janet Wright), a middle-aged woman who thinks she’s eleven years old and takes care of her very own mummified baby, as well as her brothers Woody (Michael J. Pollard) and Teddy (William Hootkins), both also not acting their age. Not surprisingly, the family will soon turn out not just to be outright crazy but also rather murderous in various unpleasant ways.

By 1988, the slasher genre was dead as a teenager having sex, with increasingly cheaper films that were at best trying to mask their increasing lack of any ideas of their own with ever increasing amounts of gore and/or nudity. Nobody seems to have told veteran British director John Hough about that, though, and so American Gothic turns out to be anything but lacking in ideas of its own.

Sure, the film’s basic structure is that of your classic slasher movie, but right from the start, the film prefers to use slasher clichés as a starting point from which to wander off in its own directions. These directions rather often tend to end up in the realm of the grotesque, as if every cliché about evil backwoods clans had grown into a thing as monstrous as it is comical – if you’ve got the appropriate sense of humour for it. In this context, I can’t say I’m surprised one of the film’s two writers, Burt Wetanson, only other writing credits beyond American Gothic are in the realm of children’s animation, because the feel of the violent parts of American Gothic is very often that of children’s animation gone bad, with the film’s crazy family and their brand of carnage (death by swing!) having something disturbingly and comically childlike.

The film does other clever things too, like making the film’s meat locker of characters not quite as young, and certainly not as vile, as typical of slasher movies, and providing the killer family with many an interesting character trait that again feeds the mood of the macabre and grotesque, instead of keeping them blank. American Gothic also sets up its final girl sequence in a very original manner, using its own (and still darkly funny) grotesqueness as the basis and effect of it. Saying more about this part of the film would go into unnecessary spoiler territory, I think, so let’s just say that it’s a very clever way to come to the final girl carnage that fits the film’s tone perfectly, and nicely plays with genre conventions.

American Gothic’s series of increasingly grotesque, funny, and hysterical set pieces does fit John Hough’s direction style nicely, too. Hough uses the same over-blown tone he also preferred in its much loved by others, much maligned by me Legend of Hell House. Only in American Gothic, the campy craziness/grotesqueness (depending on your interpretation of these terms) is actually the point of the film and not the director missing the point of how to make a haunted house movie.

The cast is clearly in on the joke too, with the veteran actors playing the insane family pumping up the scenery chewing to the proverbial eleven, and enjoying it (or so I can’t help but assume). The younger actors playing their victims aren’t quite as nuanced about their scenery chewing, but the film’s staunchly un-naturalist approach to everything but its locations (those look budget-consciously real, and appropriately moody) does wonders to make their performances work too.

Boy, they really don’t make movies like this anymore.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

In short: Open Grave (2013)

This one is not treated to a full, detailed write-up with one or two mad theories about subtext (and stuff) of my own thrown in only because I don't want to risk spoiling the rather deliciously confusing/confused first thirty minutes that do that loathsome and tired "people without a memory meet at some place or other" shtick so good I quit complaining about it after about ten seconds for anyone. It's not so much about protecting the film's plot twist, for the audience will realize much earlier than the characters at least the shape of what's truly going on (well, at least a genre movie savvy audience will do), and the film seems to know and accept that. Rather, I don't want to spoil the shape in which the story develops which does make it impossible to discuss some rather interesting details.

Fortunately, there are no spoilers in suggesting that Open Grave features an excellent acting ensemble in the form of Sharlto Copley, Erin Richards, Josie Ho, Thomas Kretschmann - who seems to attempt to be in every movie right now like some kind of Udo Kier return’d –, Joseph Morgan and Max Wrottesley, that as an ensemble proves itself to be really great at doing the unsubtle stuff parts of the film ask for as well as things like subtly suggesting the way their characters remember parts of their relationships not as the visual way film by necessity understands memories, but like muscle memory and the faint echoes of things.

It's also not a spoiler, though will certainly come as a surprise to some, that director Gonzalo López-Gallego (him of the much hated Apollo 18 which I'm going to seek out post haste) turns out to be rather great at everything he attempts here, too. López-Gallego demonstrates a deft sense of pacing that pastes over all of the script's minor problems (like the lack of charade abilities for a certain character). He also understands how to build up a scene's nightmarish qualities without seeming to be trying too hard, among many other things great and small. The director also does the unthinkable and actually uses colour(s) in thematically appropriate ways. Why there's even daylight that looks like a more intense version of actual daylight (all the better for things in it to turn not quite so pleasant)!

So yeah, it's all good here. Really.