Saturday, May 24, 2014

In short: Knights of Badassdom (2013)

Because Joe (Ryan Kwanten) – auto mechanic with a university degree and part-time metal singer - is suffering from a very bad case of the break-up blues from his long-time girlfriend Beth (Margarita Levieva), his friends Eric (Steve Zahn) und Hung (Peter Dinklage) drag him to a LARP weekend for distraction and entertainment. Well to be precise, it’s more like drugging and kidnapping him, but who’s counting? On the other hand, the LARP weekend is also meant as a great opportunity for Joe to get to know Gwen (Summer Glau), who, to emphasize Joe’s buddies obvious thoughts there, is played by Summer Glau in a nerd-centric movie.

Unfortunately, Eric has accidentally acquired (the Internet’s at fault, as always) an authentic old spellbook  to use as a prop. John Dee had hidden the tome away because it summoned demons instead of the angels he actually wanted to talk to, a problem I’m certain everyone can relate to. LARPing in progress, Eric summons up a succubus who takes on the form of Beth (don’t ask) and proceeds to roam the woods to sex up and murder various LARPERs.

It takes some time until our protagonists realize what’s going on, yet once they do, it will of course lie in their hands to put the situation right again. The situation might even get worse before it gets better.

Given the troubled post production history of Knights of Badassdom, I’m not really sure if what I just watched is what director Joe Lynch had in mind with the film, but at the very least, the version I watched is a coherent, basically whole movie that doesn’t give the impression of something horribly mutilated by its producers; or the producers might even have actually known what they were doing, which usually isn’t how these things go.

Anyhow, the resulting film is an often quite funny bit of horror comedy that doesn’t exactly aim high but does hit what it’s aiming at. Knights knows how to make fun of things as nerdy as LARPs and metal without ever giving the impression of looking down on them, making it basically the anti-Big Bang Theory. It does help that the film actually seems to understand the whys and wherefores of nerdism and geekery, is conscientious enough to actually list LARP consultants in its credits, and is very willing to treat its weird people just as that – people.

Apart from the sheer pleasantness of this approach, there’s also a fine and funny cast to enjoy, gratuitous SummerGlausploitation (which I’m not hypocritical enough to pretend I disapprove of), slightly more visible internal organs than I had expected, and a finale that is based on the positive power of mediocre yet sincere metal (turns out Bear McCreary does do other music than his usual minimalist semi-tribal drum based soundtracks) and an undead Peter Dinklage; also, a pretty fantastic – and deeply silly – large animatronic demon.

In combination, Knights of Badassdom offers more than enough to keep me quite, quite happy for ninety minutes; not unexpectedly, I like being kept happy.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Kaizoku bahansen (1960)

aka The Pirates

During the Warring States period in Japan. Komen, the son of an influential merchant learns that little of what he thought about his background is actually true when a group of bahansen – far traders and pirates - comes to his home port to take him to become one of their leaders. Komen’s father isn’t his father but a man who assisted the evil Uemondayu in the assassination of his actual father (and mother, but nobody seems to care much about her death) and got a case of conscience afterwards, taking Komen – and quite a bit of treasure too – away from any danger Uemondayu might have posed to the child. Komen’s true father was a captain of the Bahansen, building their once honourable reputation that has been besmirched by many an act of evil and piracy committed by Uemondayu since.

That very same night, our hero’s fake father dies, his sister is separated from Komen – to be soon captured by Uemondayu and his slave-trading men – and the bahansen abduct him. It’ll take quite a bit of whining and acting like a conceited prick for the young man to take on the job of bahansen captain, and even then it’ll take more time until he stops being insufferable, and takes on the traditional job of vengeance and sister-saving.

And there you already have the main problem of Tadashi Sawashima’s Japanese pirate movie, that its hero is an insufferable brat for the first half of its running time, with little recommending him to the role of hero, and much that caused me to want his ass kicked by someone. Because this is not exactly a deep movie, his turn to responsibility, filial duty and a sense of justice isn’t convincing at all, with little explanation given for his emotional change (I suspect the musical number), and few signs of any actual character development going on. But then, at least he stops being completely insufferable, so I’m not going to complain too loudly.

The film’s character work is a bit problematic elsewhere too. Everyone on screen seems desperately in need of some pill or the other to calm them down, what with everybody prone to shouting, screeching, chest-pounding and intense emotional outbursts for no good reason whatsoever; even a bit of rain causes our characters to roll around on a ship’s deck in ecstasy. I’m loathe to imagine what they do when it snows.

Fortunately, I don’t really go into my movies of naval adventure looking for complex characterisation, so it was not all that difficult for me to roll with these aspects of Kaizoku bahansen – with only Komen’s high insufferability actually needing an effort to overlook – and put my eye on the more important things when it comes to the movie life on sea. Namely, scenes of swashbuckling derring-do, exciting miniature ship duels, icky romance, rousing musical numbers (no, wait…), and all kinds of lovely adventure movie stuff. Turns out Japanese pirates (or non-pirates? half-pirates?) like to do all the stuff Errol Flynn enjoyed too, just with different costumes, prettier swords, and a few cultural differences that really don’t change all that much about the resulting film. And while Sawashima isn’t exactly Michael Curtiz on the open seas, he has a fine sense for all that makes this sort of thing exciting, and never lets the film descent into dullness, even at the early days of the plot when all of Komen’s complaining could have brought the whole film down. Plus, how often does one have the opportunity to watch a film with a sequence where a bunch of Japanese people wearing deep blackface pretend to be some sort of “natives” and attack our heroes? Okay, that sort of thing might turn off the sensitive, but for me, that particular sequence of scenes is much too bizarre to be offensive, and much too weird to be boring.

All in all, Kaizoku bahansen turns out to be fun little movie that would be worth watching even without the added bonus of it being a Japanese pirate movie.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Three Films Make A Post: They found the missing link..... and it's not friendly.

Ghost Sweepers (2012): Director Sin Jeong-won manages the seemingly impossible and – after Chaw – directs another horror comedy I actually enjoyed watching. Reasons for this enjoyment the film contains enough. A fine and very funny cast, a script that actually knows how to place jokes during dramatic sequences as well as how important sentiment is when you’re making a non-cruel comedy, and Sin’s excellent pacing all come together to form a film easily likeable and fun.

Nate and Hayes (1983): One of the reasons why attempts during the 80s to revive the adventure movie genre in its swashbuckling guise never took off were godawful productions like this, an adventure movie without any sense for adventure, directed by a man (Ferdinand Fairfax) with not much of an idea of how to stage an adventure movie, a script that drags and drags and drags and never stops laughing about its own unfunny jokes, and with about as much of a sense of romance as Police-Bot-3546/15a.

Because that’s not bad enough, the film also manages the seemingly impossible and gets a bad performance out of Tommy Lee Jones. Well, and out of everybody else on screen, too, which suggests it’s fair to blame the director more than the actors for that one, too. The only positive thing I can report is that the film does put some effort in giving its female lead – as played by Jenny Seagrove, last seen here having relations with a tree – actual agency even though the whole plot (once it actually starts after half an hour or so of dithering) is based on her kidnapping. Alas, the rest of the film is much too unenjoyable for it to pay off.

Into the Mirror (2003): Kim Seong-ho’s film is far from being a favourite among South Korean films from the height of the last Asian horror boom, even though it is often very stylishly shot and generally atmospheric. The film suffers from a script that never manages to really use its supernatural menace for all that it’s worth, nor manages to connect the psychological plight of its main character with the undercurrents of said menace. Instead, it feels like a horror movie grafted onto a movie about an ex-cop melodramatically suffering from the repercussions of a very bad shooting, where one half of the film and the other don’t actually seem to interact with each other all that much.

I can’t say I’m too keen about all the suffering ex-cop stuff at all: I’ve been there, done that, and seen it done much better than here more than once.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

In short: Hellbenders (2012)

The Augustine Interfaith Order of Hellbound Saints is the final option in exorcism. When nothing else helps, these holy men and one woman (embodied by the wonderful acting ensemble of Clifton Collins Jr., Clancy Brown, Andre Royo, Robyn Rikoon, Macon Blair and Dan Fogler) are prepared to invite a demon into their souls, commit suicide and drag it with them to hell. Of course, to actually be able to drag anyone to hell, you need to be hell-bound, so when the Hellbound Saints aren’t exorcising, they are sinning left and right (and clearly also in even more sinful directions). Name a debauchery, and they’ve done it.

Right now, the Hellbound Saints are the only thing standing between old Norse god eater Surtr who is bound to burn the world to cinders and destroy humanity and their god(s) in the process. Not surprisingly, things get rather messy, particular when Opus Dei (boo!) decides to shut the embarrassing group of debauchers down.

Despite my admiration for J.T. Petty’s small but excellent body of work, I wasn’t too sure about Hellbenders going in. It was not just my usual doubt about horror comedy as a genre (and the humungous number of horror comedies that just plain suck), but a fear that the film would just blow up a single one-note joke at too much length.

I shouldn’t have doubted Petty (not sure about Jesus), though, for Hellbenders not just uses this one joke as a basis for a dozen other jokes, much funny cursing (talk dirty to us, Clancy Brown!), and other shenanigans but also treats it as the basis for some clever as well as funny worldbuilding. It’s the sort of film that takes a ridiculous idea and then begins to actually think it through, heaping excellent absurdity on excellent absurdity to make sense of the last absurdity until the combined absurdities become somewhat logical; also, very funny.

Hellbenders does not really lend itself to any kind of tight plotting, so its rhythm is more like the exhausted (professional sinning is tiring) stumbling gait its protagonists prefer, the plot meandering through outbreaks of violence, blasphemy, and swearing. I didn’t mind, though, because said outbreaks are generally very funny, and funny, people tell me, is what comedies are supposed to be.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

In short: Three the Hard Way (1974)

When he becomes wind of the plans of particularly crazy white supremacist to wipe all black people from the face of the earth (or is it just the USA?) via EVIL SCIENCE!, and the bad guys kidnap his girlfriend Wendy (Sheila Frazier) to add insult to injury, record producer Jimmy Lait (Jim Brown), calls in two old friends of his. Together with martial artist Mister – that’s his first name – Keyes (Jim Kelly) and whatever the hell Jagger Daniels (Fred Williamson) is beyond awesome, Jimmy starts kicking Nazi ass. Cars explode at the slightest provocation, people shoot, Jim Kelly martial artists while directed by a guy who really has no clue how to film a martial arts fight. So much for genocide.

Need I say that Gordon Parks Jr.’s Three the Hard Way is not a very good film in the traditional sense, with the way it leaves narrative logic (or really, a plot) and characterization behind and replaces everything with blaxploitation versions of Men’s Adventure clichés? And need I also say that the film still is a whole lot of fun thanks to Parks’s pacy direction that from time to time shows excellent little explosions of 70s style, thanks to its core trio of ass-kicking heroes, as well as thanks to a sense of random abandon that replaces the filler that often mars the underwritten half of blaxploitation cinema?

If I need to or not, I’m still saying it. I’m also saying it’s pretty difficult to mess up a film this sillily eager to please and to follow its imagination wherever it leads. How could anyone resist a movie that sees Fred Williamson calling in a trio of multi-racial dominatrixes arriving on colour-coded motorcycles (and in fitting leather) when they need to torture information out of someone (poor guy dies of fright)? A film that has a scene where a truck explodes from driving through a billboard? And, you know, a film that contains the mystical trio of Brown, Williamson and Kelly - even though I have to admit that Kelly’s painfully sincere acting attempts are only saved by his afro when he’s in the same scene with Williamson’s swagger, and Brown’s laid-back charm and – here absolutely underused – actual acting abilities.

It all adds up to a thing of slightly unhinged awesomeness I enjoyed mightily.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

3 Days to Kill (2014)

Retired by the CIA – with cheap watch and pension and little else -because of his terminal cancer, killer Ethan Renner (Kevin Costner) goes to Paris to attempt to reconnect with his wife Christine (Connie Nielsen) and his teenage daughter Zooey (Hailee Steinfeld) before he dies; a purple bicycle will be involved.

As luck will have it, oversexed CIA gal Vivi Delay (Amber Heard) decides that Ethan might have seen the mysterious evil international arms dealer only known as The Wolf (Richard Sammel) in his final mission, and now wants Ethan to find and eliminate said The Wolf (his main henchman is a guy called The Albino who doesn’t actually seem to be an Albino, by the way, and rather looks more as if he were called The Hairless Guy). Ethan’s prize would be an experimental drug that just might cure his cancer if it doesn’t kill him. Consequently, Ethan is back killing and torturing people again, while at the same time trying to juggle fatherly responsibilities and an attempt to get back in his wife’s good graces.

As frequent readers know, I have a conflicted relationship with the films made by Luc Besson’s EuropaCorp. As much as I like their project of making European-based mid-budget genre movies with as many international actors in a career low as they can hire, as little do I enjoy many of Besson’s scripting tendencies, particularly the often needless stupidity, and the unhappy feeling Besson is proud of the general dumbness of what he writes.

It doesn’t help that some of EuropaCorp’s directors are guys like Olivier Megaton, who never saw an action sequence he wanted to film in a comprehensible way, and never encountered an annoying editing tic he didn’t want to repeat again and again. As luck will have it, somebody involved in EuropaCorp seems to have realized that there are quite a few Hollywood directors in a career low too, so they can actually hire someone who knows how to direct a movie instead of Megaton. In a curious turn of events, that special someone in this friendlier variation on Taken is McG, not a director I usually connect with things like “competence” or movies I actually want to see.

McG does good work here, though, connecting the script’s curious mixture of broad comedy (there are torture jokes), kitschy family drama, the slightly more down to Earth version of EuropaCorp action that leaves Besson’s oldest enemy – gravity – untouched, and Besson’s infatuation with bizarre and puzzling ideas (not that I blame him for that), in a way that results in a highly entertaining film, if one with a script that only tenuously, and for the most part without seeming to try very hard, connects its disparate part. The script even needs to use pure chance to throw together the film’s grand finale.

Fortunately, when taken separately, the film’s single parts are done with professionalism and often charm, and while they only make a successful whole if you’re willing to suspend quite a few more things than mere disbelief, 3 Days to Kill works hard to convince a viewer to like it enough to suspend whatever the film asks her to. I, at least, found myself disarmed early on (perhaps only by the shock of actually getting to see what happens in the action sequences instead of guessing at it), laughing about my share of the film’s jokes, raising my eyebrow happily at the film’s more outré or just unexplained ideas, raising my other eyebrow less happily about stuff like the squatters from Mali who have moved into Ethan’s apartment and teach him a valuable lesson by virtue of their “authenticity”, and not feeling too offended by the family drama stuff. The last is made a bit easier by the happy fact that Ethan’s teenage daughter is actually played by a teenager, isn’t annoying, doesn’t get kidnapped, and is even allowed to have sex without getting punished for it (spoiler), which makes the whole “bringing the family back together” thing less unpleasantly reactionary as it could be, particularly since Ethan’s fathering style – while still pretty violent – doesn’t seem as outright insane as is par for the course in these films.

It also helps the film that the cast is pretty fun to watch too. Costner (of whom I’ve never been much of a fan) seems to have slightly puzzled fun with the film’s weirder aspects and is generally really funny when he’s supposed to, teary when he’s supposed to, and off-handedly violent when it’s time for that, while Steinfeld and Nielsen have the family drama down pat, and Heard works her modern low budget movie queen magic with just the right degree of self-irony and some interesting costuming decisions.

So, as the man (right, me) said more than once about other films already goes here too: what’s not to like?

Saturday, May 17, 2014

In short: Das Gasthaus an der Themse (1962)

aka The Inn on the River

A smuggling mastermind called The Shark perturbs the London police. His hobbies are harpooning people, diving through the London sewer system, and being quite mysterious.

London’s River Police has put their best man (?) on the case, as well as young, energetic Inspector Wade (Joachim Fuchsberger), who is so good at pretending to be competent while always coming too late to catch his man, even Sir John (Siegfried Schürenberg) kind of likes him. Wade concentrates his investigation on the Mekka, the shady Thames-bordering inn of Nelly Oaks (Elisabeth Flickenschildt). Though he can’t prove anything, Wade feels sure she is in league with the Shark. Plus, Wade has taken quite a shine to Oaks’s underage (but just barely) niece Leila Smith (Brigitte Grothum).

Wade might even be right with his suspicions about the inn, for the place is nearly bursting with the usual Wallace adaptation suspects. Just take shady spice merchant Gregor Gubanow (Klaus Kinski), always sweating, sneaking around, and dressed as if he were somewhere in the Colonies. Or Mr. Broen (Heinz Engelmann), a man supposedly a friend of Leila’s dead mother, but clearly a very particular kind of gold digger. If you know your Wallace adaptations, you might imagine there’s a plot line about some kind of large inheritance too, and most of the suspects won’t survive the course of the movie, and you will be absolutely right.

I have praised the Rialto Wallace adaptations directed by Alfred Vohrer (as well as those of Harald Reinl, of course) quite a bit during the last few years, often as films that come to terms with the problems of genre film in Germany despite on the surface having all of these problems.

Das Gasthaus an der Themse is no exception to this, with Vohrer using very German weaknesses like a very particular type of stiffness in many of the performances to create a slightly weird, never naturalistic world all his own, the only place where the film’s also very German ideas about the ways of the United Kingdom could actually fit into, because they sure as hell don’t have anything to do with reality. Fortunately, I always found reality to be badly overrated, and the world of the better Rialto Wallace adaptations quite delightful (unless you’re the one getting harpooned), so Vohrer’s approach does suit me very well.

At this point in the cycle, its rampant irony, silliness, and weirdness weren’t as overwhelming as they’d become later on (for better and for worse), so it’s not difficult to enjoy Das Gasthaus as a pleasantly skewed bit of pulp entertainment, with a typically fun performance by Fuchsberger, a typically bland female lead, the rest of the case, particularly Flickenschildt and Kinski, strutting their stuff with scenery-devouring enthusiasm, and Eddi Arent popping in from time to time to make lame yet not particularly painful jokes (he has been better as well as worse). All taking place in some always interestingly shot locations and sets that combine conscious fakeness with a sense for the telling detail.

Of course, Vohrer always was Vohrer, so you can also expect many shots of eyes peaking through this or that hole, extravagant blocking, and an ability to make full use of Karl Löb’s fine photography to create moods of whimsy as well as pleasant excitement. For me, Das Gasthaus an der Themse’s aesthetic is a lot like a comfortable shoe, and who’d complain about that?

Thursday, May 15, 2014

In short: Calling Doctor Death (1943)

Popular neurologist Dr. Mark Steel (Lon Chaney Jr.) might have a wonderful career but when it comes to his private life, he’s a rather unlucky chap. His wife Maria (Ramsay Ames), you see, has only married him for his money and social position, and really likes to rub his nose in it too. Of course, she doesn’t agree to a divorce. It’s enough to make even somebody as exceedingly mild-mannered as Steel think about murder.

As luck will have it, Maria is found dead soon enough, hit with a blunt object and mutilated with acid. Curiously, it is the exact same weekend Maria is murdered when Steel has a nice little blackout followed by amnesia. Why, a neurologist might think there’s a bit of repression going on here! The investigating Inspector, a certain Gregg (J. Carrol Naish) is all too interested in Steel a suspect, even after Steel’s loving secretary, bookkeeper and nurse Stella (Patricia Morison) decides to give her boss an alibi. Gregg isn’t even happy after Maria’s lover Bob Duval (David Bruce) turns up, making just as nice a suspect as Steel himself.

Steel, stricken by feelings of guilt and hounded by the cop, isn’t happy with the situation either. Perhaps hypnosis will make things clearer to him?

I have already gone on record as not a great admirer of Lon Chaney Jr., despite his fine casting as Universal’s original wolfman. Turns out, I quite like his performances in the films based on the popular (and often excellent) Inner Sanctum Mysteries radio show. These films gave Chaney an unexpected opportunity to play characters a bit more suave than typical for him while, still providing enough room for his hangdog expression and general air of being hopelessly beaten before he even begins a fight. And because at that point in his life, he wasn’t quite the alcoholic wreck he’d become all too soon, Chaney actually made good use of the opportunity, turning out likeable and effective performances.

The first Inner Sanctum movie, Calling Dr. Death, is a case in point, with Chaney giving his successful doctor as someone it is difficult not to have sympathy with, while not overdoing the whole helplessness shtick. Cleverly, the script even makes a point out of the contrast between his abilities in his profession and his dire private life.

At its core, the film is of course a comparatively cheaply made programmer, a mystery more than bordering on the field of the noir with the plot and many of its elements (predatory women, amnesia, hypnosis) certainly belonging into the genre. One could, of course, argue Reginald Le Borg’s direction to be a bit too straightforward (with a handful of choice exceptions) for everyone’s favourite non-genre, and I wouldn’t even be able to disagree very much, but when a film’s every idea is this deep inside the well of a certain genre, I’m inclined to place it there as a whole.

Wobbly genre definitions aside, Calling Dr. Death is certainly a fine little film that may be rather obvious, but doesn’t outstay its welcome, and provides Chaney as well as J. Carrol Naish with opportunities to show themselves from their best sides. As an added bonus, there’s also a head in a crystal ball starting the film with a narration that has little to do with anything that comes after (and the same speech then was also used as an intro most of the following Inner Sanctum movies, with just as little connection to the actual films following it there).

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Barquero (1970)

Outlaw Jake Remy (Warren Oates), his very French Lieutenant Marquette (Kerwin “Frenchman” Mathews) and his merry band of crazy murdering bastards have just destroyed a town somewhere in the Old West, killing the whole populace, stealing three hundred Winchester rifles from the US cavalry, and taking everything else that took their fancy. To make a decent escape before the cavalry realizes what has happened to their rifle transport and the town it went through, the band of arseholes needs to cross a river on the only barge for a good hundred miles.

That’s where Remy’s problems start, for the barge is owned by Travis (Lee Van Cleef), an ill-tempered frontiersman who has grudgingly turned ferryman to a bunch of settlers slowly coagulating into a town around his barge whom he sees as squatters. We’re never sure what Travis thought what his building a barge would otherwise result in; nor does the man himself seem to know.

Travis, now, isn’t the man to do any barging at gunpoint, and once his ire is raised, he’s certainly not helping Remy even a bit. Instead, the barquero, his rather mad mountain hermit friend Mountain Phil (Forrest Tucker), and the not exactly happy settlers are holing up on the side of the river Remy would so very much get to. A cat and mouse game between the two men and their respective cohorts develops that sees Travis getting rather protective of his squatters, and Remy slowly losing control of his men as well as of his sanity, becoming so obsessed with his enemy/mirror image on the other side any thought of crossing the river somewhere else becomes tantamount to treason for him.

Quite a few American directors with a past in more traditional US Western movies had more than a little trouble when it came to adapting their styles to the pseudo-Spaghetti Western ideal the companies who hired them rather wanted them to make when the Spaghettis hit it big, often resulting in films that are boring, or ill-advised, or both at the same time.

At least going by Barquero, Gordon Douglas didn’t have that sort of problem. While his direction style here is a bit less experimental and dynamic than typical of the higher tier Italian and Spanish films of the genre, he hits the combination of off-beat humour, off-handed brutality and plain weirdness the Spaghetti Western so often revelled in without a hitch, and even seems to enjoy the plain weirdness the script by George Schenck and William Marks is filled with, instead of looking down on it.

To my eyes, it’s not always clear if the film is joking with any given idea it shows, or if it just believes existing at a frontier (one of the many parallels between its two central antagonists) must turn everyone involved crazy in a manner that makes it all too easy to fluctuate between ridiculousness and physical threat. Definitely, there’s a vibe of deep mental un-health surrounding everyone involved, not just on the side of the outlaws, but on that of their enemies too, a madness that seems to be catching the longer anyone is involved with Remy or Travis. Because this is still an American Western, the men’s madness is understood as belonging to the kind of man you need to widen your frontiers but whom you’ll want to get rid of as soon as possible once things become peaceful enough for civilization to hold sway, which is one of the basic arguments of US Westerns since at least the 50s.

In Douglas’s film, though, this typical, and typically unsolved problem is framed in a way that makes the question itself look as pathological as the people asking it (or shooting it out violently). The whole film is shot through with violence so sudden and bizarre it becomes surreal, and so much off-handed strangeness – everything Mountain Phil does or says, for example, be it discussions of ant life or the polite little chats he likes to hold with men before he shoots them – it at times feels as if were just getting its breath for a parody of this old question of Western filmmaking, one the Italian films Barquero is oriented towards very often (outside the works of Leone, at least) do not care about or for at all. However, the film never quite arrives at parody, not even when it shows a weed-smoking Remy having a vision of his violent past. Instead it floats between the poles of parody and a just very strange interpretation of the real thing.

The performances fit the film’s peculiar tone quite nicely, with Van Cleef making shifty eyes and looking pissed off in a manner even more exaggerated than usual, Mathews faking his horrible French accent like a champ while still maintaining is role as the straight man to an Oates performance so broad, one could believe he could have crossed the damn river on it without Van Cleef’s barge. What would be destructive in other films fits Barquero’s approach perfectly.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014


The Pack (1977): By now, I’m quite sure that Robert Clouse’s films and my approval shall never meet beyond Gymkata. This is even the case with what should be a shoe-in as a movie to at least slightly disturb a guy like me who gets pretty nervous around larger dogs (I blame a certain Doberman of my past). Unfortunately, The Pack’s dogs never do end up making me nervous, or feel as threatening as they should, mostly because Clouse isn’t one for mood building in his direction at all. He’s pointing, he’s shooting, he’s keeping things in focus, but beyond that, I always get the impression from his films he just wasn’t that interested in them himself. That’s not much of a problem in a film as insane as Gymkata that isn’t hindered by a lack of directorial vision, but in a tepid little nature strikes back film like this, you really want someone behind the camera who works for his audience’s excitement.

But at least Joe Don Baker is in it playing, of all things, a marine biologist (don’t ask), so there’s that.

The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake (1959): This, on the other hand, is quite the thing, as macabre a 50s film as you’ll probably get to see, full of outrageous pulp ideas, and one of Edward L. Cahn’s most energetic directorial efforts.

Sure, the performances are somewhat mediocre, but who needs great thespian efforts in a film that features a most excellent shrunken head based curse and has no problems at all with throwing stuff like post-mortem decapitation, a living dead guy with stitched up lips whose bodily fluids contain more curare than blood, and another gentleman whose body belongs to a dead Amazonian tribesman and whose head is that of a mad anthropologist? This, ladies and gentlemen, is what we call art.

A Dirty Carnival (2006): Yoo Ha’s gangster film mixes the traditions of classical US gangster movies made after the fall of the US studio system and of jitsuroku style yakuza films, aiming for its own kind of stylized hyperrealism. It’s a film that knows how many gangster movies its audience has probably already seen, yet somehow still manages to aim for and hit an audience’s emotions instead of the irony glands. Which I think is a particular achievement in a film that counts a director making a gangster movie among its cast, and therefore threatens to become much too meta and self-conscious for comfort. A part of the film does indeed concern itself with truth and fiction echoing one another, but it’s done quite intelligently and with so much care, this approach enriches the film as a tale instead of resulting in the empty poses of ironic distance.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Skin Game (1971)

A few years before the US Civil War (going by the appearance of John Brown, I’d go with 1858), conmen Jason (Louis Gossett Jr.) – a free black man from New Jersey - and Quincy (James Garner) are touring the slave states in the South. Quincy plays the slave owner hitting on hard times who has to sell off his valuable and deeply harmless slave – Jason - quickly and cheaply. Once the deal is done and Jason locked away somewhere for the night, Quincy returns and frees his friend to repeat the same deal again in the next town.

The con is coming to an end though – the duo has played the trick in most every small town in the South by now, and there’s too much risk involved in bigger towns. Additionally, Jason is really growing tired of the whole affair, what with his slowly awakening political consciousness and the little fact that he’s taking the much higher risk of the two partners here. Quincy does convince Jason to do their thing one last time (and after that another last time), though, and as it goes with one last times, things go so wrong, they’ll not only find all their money stolen by con-woman and thief Ginger (Susan Clark) but their next attempt to get some pocket money lands Quincy in jail. Even worse, Jason finds himself an actual slave in the hands of the – appropriately – vile slave hunter Plunkett (Edward Asner). At least there’s honour among thieves, and Ginger might just come back and help Quincy out; and say what you will about Quincy, but he’s certainly not someone who lets what we can only assume to be his only actual friend end his life as a slave. Jason for his part clearly won’t just lie down and take it either.

The thing that’s most interesting about (as far as I know) otherwise undistinguished director Paul Bogart’s Skin Game is how well it manages to make a comedy about something that’s up there with murder and rape as one of the least funny things I can imagine, slavery. It does this without either pulling its punches when it comes to its depiction of slavery (this depiction is of course far less brutal than reality but that’s pretty much a given with anything you put on screen), or falling into the trap of pretending that slavery is funny.

A large part of the film’s humour is based on the joy we derive from seeing rich, powerful, and morally disgusting people put in their place by charming rogues, as evidenced by basically all caper movies ever made, or everyone’s favourite running gag in the Zatoichi films when our blind masseur does the trick that will only hurt the kind of people who’d cheat on a blind man gambling. There’s nothing nicer than seeing bad people get their comeuppance, and there are few people as deserving of said comeuppance than the slave owners. The film is too thoughtful to pretend its protagonists are some sort of Western (Southern?) Robin Hoods, though; they’re really doing what they do for their own gain, and while they are not out to hurt harmless people (much) they aren’t actually helping anyone either. Jason, as the one much more directly hit by the implications of what’s going on around them, does slowly come around to something more altruistic, but he only really takes care of somebody other than himself, and realizes that this skin game isn’t a game for the slaves around them, after he’s become a slave himself and is quite literally feeling the whip.

As you know, Jim, playing the sort of conman playing the games our characters here do was what James Garner spent much of his career on, and his performance is as perfect as they get. There’s the slightly smarmy charm, the curious core of what could be authentic friendliness, the willingness to fuck everyone over, but only up to a point, and the often misguided cleverness that may lead him into a good plan as much as into the kind of trouble you can get into when you’re congratulating yourself for your own cleverness too much – all played up to just the right amount, until you can’t help but like Quincy despite everything. Which, pretty much, is how Jason feels about him too.

Speaking of Jason, turns out that Louis Gossett Jr. is able to play the conman to the same level and style as Garner can, but with some really effective hints of fear, and a bit more sense than Quincy shows with all his cleverness. Gossett also handles the moments when Jason realizes a bit more about how the world around him works for the people who actually have to live in it wonderfully, developing a sense of responsibility his friend will never have, and sticking with it, without things getting preachy. And in the end, while Jason can’t change the world, he decides to save some people and take care of them. Which probably is the best you can do when you don’t want to be maimed by the wheel of history, the film suggests.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

In short: Puppetmaster (1989)

Four psychics of varying type – even the stuffed dog owning one – (Paul Le Mat and his lucious hair, Irene Miracle and said stuffed dog, Matt Roe and his leer, and Kathryn O’Reilly and her breasts) are drawn by dreams of their deaths to a closed down hotel somewhere at the coast of California. There, they learn their old partner in psychical research Neil Gallagher (Jimmie F. Skaggs) has committed suicide, leaving an unexpected wife (Robin Frates) behind.

When they were still a team, the group was after the ancient Egyptian secret of bringing inanimate objects to life. They traced this secret to the old puppet master Toulon (William Hickey), whose death the audience gets to see before the main plot starts up. Things seem to have stopped there for our psychics for some reason, though. But wouldn’t you know it? The hotel just happens to be the place where Toulon killed himself in 1939. Not surprisingly, Toulon’s coterie of living puppets is roaming the place, and quite a few psychics will end their stay just as dead as Neil.

David Schmoeller’s Puppetmaster is, of course, a milestone in producer Charles Band’s rule of an increasingly decaying empire of direct to video movies featuring some kind of living dolls as their monsters or heroes. However, it was made when Band still had a modicum of money reserved for the act of actual filmmaking, and when people with a degree of talent and experience like Schmoeller hadn’t jumped ship for less doll-obsessed and impoverished shores yet. So, depending on your tolerance for cheese and utter silliness, Puppetmaster is quite a bit of fun.

Of course, if you shy away from killer dolls who puke leeches while moaning lasciviously, or those who have a drill built into their head, you’ll hate this one as much as later, crappy, outings in the mighty franchise. I can’t say I’d blame anyone for that, but I also think it means missing out on a well-shot movie that just wants to have a bit of fun dancing on the line where the grotesque, the silly, and the gruesome meet.

I for my part find it difficult to resist a film containing said killer dolls, or a cynical female psychic who travels with an unexplained (and probably inexplicable) stuffed dog, or a psychometric who uses her powers mostly for kinky sex with her lecherous husband. It’s as if everyone involved had thought: well, we might not have much money, and we don’t have much of an idea what our film’s actually about, but by Cthulhu, we have a pretty imaginative special effects crew, and we know our ways around a movie set, so we’ll have as much fun with this thing as possible, and just hope our audience will have some too.

Which is pretty much what happened.

Friday, May 9, 2014

On ExB: Blutgletscher (2013)

I’m very seldom happy with German language horror, but the last few years have given me hope for the genre here.

Case in point and one of the reasons for this horrifying positive feeling is the Austrian Blutgletscher. Follow this link to ExB to find out more.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

In short: Rape Zombie: Lust of the Dead (2012)

When they work, Naoyuki Tomomatsu’s (of Stacy – Attack of the School Girl Zombies etc fame) films are like a certain kind of punk rock – cheap, a bit nasty, definitely tasteless but also imaginative and bizarre in a way only something can be that doesn’t have to give a shit about what people think of it. Rape Zombie (only authentic with a horribly catchy bad extreme metal title track I’m pretty sure is called “Rape Zombie Rape”) certainly is one of these, with hardly a minute going by that doesn’t make you cringe (sometimes in embarrassment), giggle madly, or mumble to yourself “what the hell am I watching here, exactly?”.

Where a few too many contemporary Japanese low to no budget splatter epics tend to be slow, ponderous affairs that can’t hide that there’s only money for about fifteen minutes of actual film available to the production, Tomomatsu gets around the problem by acts of sheer imagination and chutzpa. So what if he can only afford three action set pieces? He can sure as heck fill the space in between with stuff like a bizarre TV discussion between a crazy evolutionary biologist (as is tradition making pretty obvious why nobody takes scientists putting “evolutionary” before their actual discipline all that seriously), a radical feminist, a radical ecological protector (in a suit), and a doctor of medicine that becomes more absurd the longer it all goes on, which, now that I think about it, must actually be for more than a day for the characters involved.

Among the film’s other highlights are a North Korean nuclear attack (we all knew Japanese pop culture filth must be responsible for the rape-zombie-pocalypse, North Korea says), the glowing rape zombie messiah, cosplay that’s kinda-sorta plot point, random digressions into mythology and cultural philosophy which to a degree might actually be meant seriously (as is Tomomatsu’s wont), and everyone’s favourite Japanese contemporary low budget/pinku/v-cinema actress Asami demonstrating that she’s gotten rather good at the whole on-screen fighting thing (she’s even credited as involved in the action choreography).

Saying it all comes together to something that’s often quite more charming, less unpleasant, much funnier, and decidedly more entertaining than the film’s title promises does rather sound like damning it with faint praise; so let’s just say that Rape Zombie is actually pretty fantastic for a film only held together by spit, the cheapest digital effects, cardboard and sheer wilful imagination, and leave it at that.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Valdez Is Coming (1971)

A decade or two after the remaining apaches have been driven into the reservations, Mexican Valdez (Burt Lancaster) works as a part-time shotgun rider, part-time constable, part-time speaker for the Mexican community in a frontier town in the US South-West. His hard work of taking his hat off to people who’d never deign to take theirs off to him, not looking white people in the eye and peacefully ignoring most slights has only paid off for him as much as the town’s white bourgeois can pride themselves in treating him paternistically decent (which of course is no actual human decency at all).

Valdez realizes that even this decency doesn’t go very far when the false accusation of rich gun runner Tanner (Jon Cypher) and the stupid craziness of young, racist would-be gunman Davis (Richard Jordan) cause him to, mostly accidentally, kill the innocent black man Tanner accused of murdering an old friend of his – the husband of his now girlfriend Gay (Susan Clark) – years ago. Because the man left an Apache wife (Juanita Penaloza), Valdez tries to raise two-hundred dollars for her as at least some sign of contrition for the whole shabby affair by the people involved in it. However, the good white people of the town won’t give him more than pennies until he manages to collect a hundred dollars from Tanner.

Tanner, not surprisingly, doesn’t care one single bit about his own guilt, and lets his men, or rather the men of his main henchman El Segundo (Barton Heyman), rough Valdez up. Valdez does get the message yet decides to ignore it, going to Tanner a second time to ask for the money. This time around Tanner lets his men tie Valdez to a cross he’ll have to drag through the wilderness behind him; it’s clearly expected he will die this way.

Yet survive Valdez does, unpacking his old gear from his time as a scout and sharpshooter for the US cavalry, and now starting to ask for the money rather more violently. In the end, a lot of people will die for a hundred dollars, or rather the thing these dollars stand for, some people will show their true colours, and just perhaps, one man of power and money will learn that his power and money will only bring him that far.

It’s a rather confusing fact that a film as staunchly and clearly anti-racist as Edwin Sherin’s Valdez is Coming (based on a novel by Elmore Leonard) sees more than one actor donning brown-face. On the other hand, Burt Lancaster’s performance here is fine, often subtle stuff, so I wouldn’t call him miscast otherwise.

Lancaster does a lot of acting by body language and posture, an absolute necessity with a character like Valdez who doesn’t explain himself verbally; possibly because he doesn’t have many people to explain himself to except for his friend Diego (Frank Silvera), and Diego seems to know all that’s important about and for Valdez without needing to hear it. Lancaster’s posture shows how years of assumed humility (or really, as the Mexican version of an Uncle Tom) have bent his shoulders down, possibly even more so because his eyes always tell the audience he doesn’t have any illusions about his actual position in the eyes of the white bourgeoisie he’s never allowed to look straight in the eye; and it’s quite the moment – subtly underplayed by Lancaster as well as by the director – when he finally does look up. Also never explicitly emphasised by direction or actor, yet clear, is how Valdez’s posture changes the longer he gets back to making use of his old skill set.

However, the film isn’t quite so much singing a song of the glories of vigilantism here as you might expect. Even though Valdez comes to life donning his old uniform and weapons and doing what he does best, he and the film he’s in know that it’s not necessarily a good thing to be best at, something that changes men for the worse, particularly men like Valdez who have come to understand the consequences of their actions (in one of the film’s sparse moments of explicitness close to the film’s end Valdez explains that he has experience “hunting Apache” from a time when “he didn’t know better”). There’s little joy in the violence here, only a calm businesslike attempt to somehow make up for things you can’t make up for, as well as a sad knowledge you actually can’t yet still have to try.

Most of this is carried by the posture of Lancaster’s shoulders, the look in his eyes, and Sherin’s compositions of Spain’s (as so often standing in for the US) landscapes that often dwarf the people moving through them.

Surprisingly, the film does end on a rather hopeful note, the idea that, perhaps, the inevitable can be evaded somehow, and things can turn around for the hopeless cause; though it also leaves the possibility open that perhaps, it might not.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

In short: Children of the Corn: Revelation (2001)

For reasons only known to her, Journalist Jamie's (Claudette Mink) grandmother Hattie (Louise Soames) has moved into a dilapidated apartment building in a town in Oregon. Jamie doesn't understand her grandmother's move at all, so when she suddenly stops hearing from Hattie, she flies on over to investigate. Hattie sure is gone, and the state of the building, peopled by eccentrics, and situated nearly inside of a corn field as it is, just provokes more questions for Jamie.

There's something very wrong with the place, yet still Jamie decides to stay, in the hopes of finding any clues to her grandmother's whereabouts. What she finds instead are pale, creepy, teleporting children who really like to stare at her, a creepy priest (Michael Ironside wasted in an expository cameo), and a creepy cop (Kyle Cassie) who seems more interested in getting into her pants than in doing any police work (though the film doesn't actually seem to realize that its supposed male romantic lead is a deeply unprofessional creep, and instead thinks he’s, well, the male romantic lead). At least, the copper informs Jamie of an interesting fact about her grandmother - she was the only surviving member of the mass suicide of a children's cult. Jamie smells a revived cult; we smell supernatural revenge.

Soon, the obligatory series of murders starts, and it is quite clear to anyone except Jamie that she is supposed to be their final victim. And really, she should be the only victim, seeing how nobody else who dies has anything to do with the supernatural revenge wreaked upon her family.

I can't believe I'm on the seventh Children of the Corn movie now, but thus are the ways of the horror franchise gods. Fortunately, this one's not as bad as Isaac's Return. In fact, I can't help but think that what makes Revelation at least watchable is its only very tenuous connection to the original mythos beyond the obvious ones of children, corn, and supernatural shenanigans, which frees the film from having to try and clean up the mess of the films that came before it. Again, as with some earlier Children of the Corn films, I wouldn't be surprised at all if the initial script wasn't supposed to be a part of the franchise (such as it is) at all.

In any case, Guy Magar’s film is far superior to the last Children outing, which of course is rather easily done simply by making a film that contains an actual plot, an escalation of dramatic events, and supernatural happenings that do have a visible connection to each other as well as said plot. Magar clearly knows these simple basics of making a horror film, and is even able to add a few mildly atmospheric scenes taking place in obviously cheap yet effective sets, turning this thing into something I can at least accept as an actual movie.

Of course, Revelation's plot is rather lacking in revelations, its scares are not all that scary, and its ideas are generally not very interesting, but given the franchise it’s a part of (for better or worse), and its nature as a direct-to-DVD feature from the early 00s, I'm satisfied by it actually being a competent, coherent, and more or less entertaining movie. Low expectations, it turns out, can be very useful.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Black Camel (1931)

Hollywood star Shelah Fane (Dorothy Revier) has come to beautiful Honolulu to shoot a movie as well as to romance one Alan Jaynes (William Post Jr.), wealthy globe trotter. There’s even marriage under discussion but because Shelah carries around a dark secret connected with the murder of actor Danny Mayo three years earlier, the actress has to fly in her favourite psychic, Tarneverro (Bela Lugosi) before she knows what she’ll do.

The evening after a rather dramatic session with Tarneverro, Shelah is murdered. Honolulu’s master investigator, Inspector Charlie Chan (Warner Oland) has his work quite cut out for him, for there are more suspects than you could shake the proverbial stick at (something Chan surely has an enlightening proverb or two about), and there are various other mysteries surrounding the death of the actress.

From today’s oh so enlightened perspective, the biggest problem of the long-running series of Charlie Chan films is of course their habit of having their Chinese detective played by white people in yellowface. On the other hand, it seems rather unfair to blame the movies too much for being products of the times they were made in; I’m much less tolerant of the later revival films made in times when people really should have known better, and of the actively racist humour in some of the Charlie Chan films, particular once the franchise got into the hands of Monogram. That is fortunately not really a problem of the film at hand, unless you want to argue Otto Yamaoka’s Kashimo is a racist stereotype more than just an odious comic relief character. Of course, odious comic relief characters always feel a bit like racist stereotypes to me, quite independently of their race – just look at my nemeses Johnny Walker and Jagdeep.

My tolerance for the yellowface nonsense does exist for the Chan movies as well as the Mister Moto films because they at least have the not-quite-Chinese characters as their heroes, characters who are generally much cleverer than the white people around them, who use some of their pseudo-folksy rambling just as much as a distraction from their actual talents as detectives like Columbo would later do with less stereotypical methods.

With The Black Camel’s – and many of the other Charlie Chan’s with him I’ve seen – there’s also the simple fact that Warner Oland is a pretty fantastic Chan, projecting a cleverness that can’t quite hide behind his – often rather wise-cracking – proverbs, as well as a degree of warmth and human compassion you don’t always find in movie detectives, particularly not in ones whose habits and verbal tics can so easily become annoying when played wrong (don’t get me started on Hercule Poirot).

The Black Camel is a pretty special Chan film, even, not just showing Oland at his best but also graced with a generally fine supporting cast (like Sally Eilers, a very young Robert Young, the always wonderful Bela, and even – playing a crazy butler – an uncredited Dwight Fry), and a script that works wonderfully in the contrived ways of its genre, and never gets bogged down in distractions other than red herrings. Thanks to it being a pre-code movie, the film is also a bit more frank about the way actual human relations work, and is allowed to actually speak some things later film could only hint at, which helps keep character motivations more believable than in years hence, before the film noir showed everyone how to speak about the things you’re not allowed to speak about in an effective manner again. The film is – of course, we are in Hollywood, after all – still quite melodramatic in its later stages but it is the kind of melodrama that seems organic and earned instead of forced and random, and just enhances the film’s copious charms.

There’s also something pleasantly tight and pacy about the film with director Hamilton MacFadden often managing to avoid the staginess that was in the genes (and the technical possibilities) of this era of sound film. There are, for example in the psychic session between Bela and Dorothy Revier, even some choice and highly atmospheric uses of post-expressionist shadow play as brought to Hollywood by my ancestors, which I am consequently quite the sucker for.

As is obvious by now, The Black Camel is one of the early highpoints of the Charlie Chan films, probably the first film I’d recommend to anyone even slightly interested in the character and his representations on screen to watch first, before encountering the horrors (and pleasures) of the Monogram films in particular.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

In short: Thor: The Dark World (2013)

I’m actually a bit embarrassed on account of Kenneth Brannagh that a – talented – journeyman director like Alan Taylor is able to make a decent Thor movie for Marvel, where the so-called artiste’s attempt was mostly an example of bored indifference, wasted actors, and how to make expensive effects look a lot like cardboard.

Don’t get me wrong, this second Thor movie is generally cute instead of riveting, fun instead of exciting, and really not very rich on interesting subtext, which does keep it far from being one of the first rate superhero films, but, unlike with the one that came before, I was enjoying myself tremendously watching it. This Thor movie also makes good use of an actually pretty wonderful cast, and is generally giving the impression the people on screen are having fun doing what they do. Why, even Anthony Hopkins seems to be awake this time around, and Hemsworth and Hiddleston are the two actors we saw in the Avengers instead of the ones looking awkward and dull in Brannagh’s film.

Add to that how much imagination The Dark World shows, how many lovely nods towards Kirby and Simonson it contains, and how it dares to be silly without being embarrassed about it, and you find me rather happy with it even though it doesn’t try to be a superhero version of A Tale of Two Cities.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Will Penny (1968)

Aging cowhand Will Penny (Charlton Heston) has just ended a trail somewhere in the colder parts of the West at the beginning of winter. Together with two of his colleagues, Dutchy (Anthony Zerbe) and Blue (Lee Majors), who are probably as close to friends as the rather shy Will ever comes, Will’s planning on finding work at a nearby ranch.

Before that can happen, though, the trio encounters the crazy family of crazy “Preacher” Quint (Donald Pleasence). A pointless altercation about an elk leaves one of Quint’s sons dead and Dutchy badly wounded. Quint swears vengeance, but because there’s a river in the way, it’ll probably have to wait a bit. While Blue and Dutchy end up in the closest town, with Dutchy probably dying, Will goes on to that ranch they were looking for. There, he hires on as a line rider, a cowhand living at the edge of the ranch’s areal, keeping cattle from wandering off.

Unfortunately, while out and about in the increasingly snowy mountains, Will encounters Quint and his family again. They quickly overwhelm him and leave him to die, bleeding out in the cold. Fortunately, Will’s mountain cabin is being squatted in by Catherine Allen (Joan Hackett) and her little son Horace (Jon Gries) who have been left behind by a guide supposed to bring them to California and Catherine’s husband. Catherine saves Will’s life, and slowly, a romance develops between the unhappily married woman and the sensitive, even fragile, cowboy. Things might develop into a direction that may be good for both of them, as well as for the boy, but alas Quint isn’t finished with Will yet.

This description does make Tom Gries’s Will Penny sound like a more concise film than it actually is, when it is in fact, particularly during its first half, a rather meandering and episodic one. Most of these episodes do come together to make a whole later on, though, if you have the patience to follow the film where it leads. The meandering feel of the early film is of course also just a clever mirror of Will’s life, a slow, directionless drifting from no place special to no place special, something that is only focused through Will’s work, sudden bouts of violence one encounters in the place where Will lives even if one is as basically peaceful as he is, and finally his encounter with Catherine and her boy.

In what I can only call a completely unexpected turn of events, Heston plays Will, the absolute opposite of the larger than life grimacing assholes he specialized in and, in the end, seems to have turned into in real life, exceedingly well. I really didn’t think Heston had something like this in him, a character as believably sensitive, even shy, and emotionally pained as Will is, a man who is quite conscious of the fact that he’s going nowhere, the place he’s coming from not much worth mentioning either. There’s, believe it or not, a subtlety to Heston’s performance of Will that suggests he could have been a much better actor than he ever was a star. It is really Heston’s performance that carries the film through its necessarily slow parts, until what actually is his second encounter with Catherine after an earlier episodic moment starts the actual plot, and quite possibly the first great emotional upheaval Will has undergone in years, or ever.

And while this is very definitely Will’s story, the film leaves space for Joan Hackett to turn Catherine into much more than just someone the cowhand could anchor himself too, a plot device with breasts. Instead the film shows us a woman as complex, complicated and curiously practical as her male counterpart is, with plans, and agency, and a life all her own. Hackett and Heston do work very well with one another, too, making clear what attracts them to each other without any need for the film to ever spell it out, going far beyond the point of lonely people feeling attracted to one another.

The weakest link in the acting chain here is, strangely enough, good old dependable Donald Pleasence who lays his crazy person shtick on a little too thick, going from threatening to cartoony, standing quite in opposition to the rest of the actors. It’s the kind of performance you’d use in a Heston film when Chuck does his usual Moses, but not between naturalistic and subtle performances as they’re found here. It’s hardly enough of a flaw to ruin the film even a little, though, because Quint isn’t the point of the film. It is – very pointedly – not Pleasence’s character that begins or ends the relationship between Will and Catherine, but Will’s own inability to get over a fear that finds an easy confederate in his frontier pragmatism, which is an easy shield against the risks of the heart.

If I haven’t really mentioned anything about Tom Gries’s direction of the film, then it’s because Will Penny, following the suggestion of its title, is very much a film about people and landscape, and Gries’s part of the job in bringing his own script to life is letting the people and the landscape do the talking. Which he does quite perfectly.