Sunday, November 30, 2014

Three Films Make A Post: Beware! When Karloff stops the clock, your hour has come!

From Dusk Till Dawn 2: Texas Blood Money (1999): Ah, as someone with a heart for dubious direct-to-DVD films, I really wanted to like Scott Spiegel’s completely unasked for (just like a TV show adaptation that spends hours and hours repeating the basic plot of a movie, mostly adding lots of useless crap to it – oops) sequel to Robert Rodriguez’ original film, but somehow, the film never really comes together as the trashy horror comedy it attempts to be. There’s a lot happening here, and everything’s as loud as possible, and still I found myself getting distracted and bored watching it, mostly because nothing of the loud things that are happening is much interesting. The actors – among them Robert Patrick and Bo Hopkins – seem to have fun, but little of that is transmitted to the audience.

Dark Mountain (2013): Tara Anaïse’s POV horror film about a trio of filmmakers (sort of) searching for the Lost Dutchman Mine in the adorably named (thanks, America) Superstition Mountains, on the other hand, does offer so much I found interesting, I was having a lot of fun watching it. Sure, this is POV horror that is satisfied with playing variations on genre themes, but it does so with class and style, some clever horror effects, decent acting and excellent sound design, all the while making good use of the inherent creepiness of large empty spaces. I’m also rather fond of the film’s more fortean approach to its supernatural occurrences that produces a slightly different kind of disquiet in a viewer than usual in the genre.

Particularly the film’s final third contains some very effective moments of horror which alone would be enough to make this a rewarding watch.

Hercules Reborn (2014): Yup, it’s the other Hercules film of the year. This one’s an Asylum production directed by Nick Lyon featuring some wrestler much less interesting than that other wrestler as the big-breasted one, and it’s another puzzling example of the utter inability of contemporary filmmakers to make a decent Hercules film, which really can’t be that difficult when the Italian film industry managed during the heyday of the peplum with budgets that can’t have been much higher.

Lyon’s film attempts to make up for its lack of imagination and sense of wonder by various grimdark gestures. While it’s not exactly the direction I want this sort of film to go, I could imagine this approach working, if a film actually tried to do something with the grimdarkness. In a development that will surprise exactly no one, Hercules Reborn can’t be arsed to do anything much beyond being pointlessly unpleasant whenever it is not plain boring – and ye gods it does get frightfully boring with the high adventure you’d hoped for mostly replaced by aimless dithering – with clearly no thought wasted on providing the long-suffering audience with anything entertaining.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

On ExB: The Babadook (2014)

My column over at ExB this week is a rather gushing little piece about what most certainly is one of the best films I have seen this year, and just as certainly one of the best horror films I know.

To learn about the exact nature of my gushing, and why you should care, please click on through.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

In short: Cyberjack (1995)

In the near cyberpunk future (it’ll come any day now), your typical human problems are still the same. So cop Nick James (Michael Dudikoff) breaks down after all-purpose crazy bad guy Nassim (Brion James) kills his partner, and now spends his life as a gambling addicted alcoholic, working as a janitor in a computer research lab.

Because that’s a sensible idea, chief scientist Dr. Royce (Duncan Fraser) and his equally scientific daughter Dr. Alex Royce (Suki Kaiser) have developed a computer virus with some sort of biological component (don’t ask me, or the writer for that matter). This sort of project is crazy bad guy catnip, of course, particularly after the virus escapes for a bit and causes a nasty and deadly accident, so Nassim is soon breaking into the lab, shooting people and planning to put the virus into a microchip implanted in his own brain. Surely, that’ll be the way to world domination or something.

Only Nick escapes the first violent sweep of the lab complex because he’s hidden away and distracted listening to a baseball game and watching a holographic stripper. Now, it falls to the rather unwilling former cop to go all Bruce Willis on Nassim’s ass.

Yes, obviously, Robert Lee’s Cyberjack should be all rights be called Cyber Hard but you shouldn’t be too honest with your titles, so it’s probably for the better it isn’t.

In the wild and exciting world of Die Hard clones, this really is a rather fun example of the form, not because it is any great shakes as an action film – it’s decent more often than not in that regard but that’s mostly it – but because Lee (or writer Eric Poppen) decides to put a lot of stupidly awesome/awesomely stupid details into the film, starting with the holographic stripper (and all hail to Michael Dudikoff’s indescribable holographic stripper watching face here) as a desperate measure to get some nudity in (rather a thing for a lot of low budget Die Hards). Because one holographic stripper does not a stupidly awesome movie make, there’s also a running gag about Dudikoff’s favourite, always losing baseball team (certainly not supposed to be the Cubs, no sir), that finds our hero taking a break to listen to a game at the most improbable moments (like when the building he’s in is overrun by violent criminals, and he is already fighting them), various scenes of Brion James in an exalted mood(described by Alex as looking “like a lab rat on steroids”, which is the best possible description) ranting and raving that culminate in him suggesting he’s god after he has fused with the computer virus, an unhelpful police drone, and many other bits and bobs of excellent nonsense. Oh, and once good old Brion is all virused up, he also can shoot green smoky beams out of his eyes to – for example – infect unsuspecting swat team cyborgs.

So, while the shooting and the explosions may only by intermittently exciting, the bizarre crap that’s happening around them is more than enough to keep at least my eyes glued to the screen, and the corners of my mouth turned upwards in one of these expressions of mirth and joy you sometimes read about.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

SyFy vs. The Mynd: SnakeHead Swamp (2014)

A small transporter carrying what may or may not be some surviving super-size snakeheads from Snakehead Terror has a monster-related accident in the Louisiana bayous, and soon, the people of the surrounding area have to fight off a very special monster infestation. Ranger Carly Hardin (Terri Garber) has her work cut out for her, because the snakeheads don’t just threaten the local population but also her son Chris (Dave Davis). Chris’s best friend Ashley (Ayla Kell) has dragged him out on a swamp trip together with her asshole boyfriend Ian (Ross Britz) and a couple of friends to distract him from a broken heart. At least, Carly’s estranged husband Jim (Anthony Marble) is there to assist her.

To make matters more bizarre, local crazy swamp person William Boudreux (Antonio Fargas) is convinced the whole snakehead situation is the result of a curse laid on the local area by his great-great-grandmother…and he just might be right.

More often than not, it’s a good sign when a SyFy Original was shot in Louisiana. At the very least, this makes it easier for the film to present some clichéd yet loveable local colour instead of a totally generic US small town, providing a bit of spice between the monster attacks. Don E. FauntLeRoy’s (that must be a nom de plume, right?) Snakehead Swamp makes good use of these opportunities, delivering the pleasant clichés it contains with just the right amount of silliness, and really goes to work with the whole voodoo curse angle.

Strictly speaking, the voodoo curse doesn’t actually have much of a function in the film apart from taking up space. In a surprise movie, the film’s keeping the curse’s reality ambiguous, so the only thing it’s really good for is to provide Antonio Fargas with opportunity to ham things up, and help the film acquire something that discerns it from other SyFy monster movies. To Snakehead Swamp’s honour – and my delight – theses scenes never feel like the filler they are but more like fun parts of a silly yet entertaining story that isn’t too hung up on things like sense or logic.

So that plan works out nicely for the film, resulting in a SyFy monster movie that may have some of the crappiest looking monsters I’ve seen in one of these films in a long time but fills the time between the monster attacks in ways that make it impossible to disapprove of it. There are also some very funny lines of dialogue to enjoy, some choice losses of body parts to gawk at, broadly drawn yet likeable characters (who wouldn’t root for a middle-aged female Ranger and her non-asshole, non-idiot offspring?) and highly competent suspense scenes – despite the lack in monster quality. It is, in other words, a classic SyFy movie. If you ask me, that’s a fine thing for any film to be, and consequently, I enjoyed myself immensely watching it.

Finally, it would be amiss of me not to mention the amount of emotional catharsis and family reunifying powers this specific snakehead attack provides: these snakeheads are not just bringing a wife and a husband back together, they are also bridging the gap between a mother and a son, ending everyone’s grieving process for another son, and last but not least turn best friends into lovers. It’s just like one of these TV shows about angels fixing people’s lives, just with more blood and carpet bombing of swamps, or as we call it: superior.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

In short: The Great Martian War 1913-1917 (2013)

As much as I loathe the approach to historical documentaries TV channels like The History Channel stand for, the squeezing of the complexities of history into Hollywood-style narrative structures that turns what are supposed to be attempts to understand the truth about the past into fake melodramatic treacle, as ideally fit is the Channel – as represented by its British and Canadian divisions – for a fake documentary that uses this approach to tell an alternative history where World War I was replaced by a Martian invasion heavily inspired by H.G. Wells.

Though of course, this being the History Channel, the film suffers a bit under its need to include easily digestible bits of “human interest”, so there’s way too much agency for humanity to actually beat its invaders on its own instead of getting lucky with a cruel and uncaring universe (an element you’ll find a lot in Wells before he got too utopian, or as I for once agree with Brian Aldiss, when he was good). As an additional problem. the final act was in desperate need of the eyes of an actual Science Fiction writer to make it work, leaving the SF experienced a little nonplussed thanks to a lack of coherence and precision. At least, the twist ending does fit well into the film’s unsubtle yet potent metaphor of war as a self-perpetuating machine that churns through people, cultures and things only to spit out more destruction. And if that’s not a fitting metaphor for the 20th Century (and beyond), I don’t know what is.

Otherwise, I found myself quite enjoying the whole affair, the History Channel’s wallowing in human interest that always seems too well staged to actually move for once at least more palatable, the combination of real footage, CG and a few staged interviews potent and dramatically convincing because there’s no need to roll one’s eyes at the presentation when the film is indeed lying to you.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Die Tote aus der Themse (1971)

aka Angels of Terror

Royal Opera Ballet ballerina Myrna Ferguson (Lyvia Bauer) has – like some of her colleagues – worked as a drug mule for a not very mysterious trio of drug lords, but she’s now helping Scotland Yard in form of the intrepid Inspector Craig (Hansjörg Felmy) keeping London heroin free by betraying her former friends.

Not surprisingly, particularly since Scotland Yard doesn’t seem to know about the concept of protective custody, Myrna is soon shot dead in a hotel room. In a curious development Myrna’s body disappears before Craig and co. can take a look at it. The very next morning, Myrna’s sister Danny (Uschi Glas) arrives in London from her Australian home – the place where all Edgar Wallace characters who aren’t from London seem to arrive from – for a vacation with her sister.

On learning about her sister’s death, Danny quickly develops ambitions on doing some amateur detective work. However, she really doesn’t seem to be cut out for the job, seeing how prone to being kidnapped and threatened, and in need of Inspector Craig’s assistance she is. Well, she and Craig have a lot in common, really, particularly their lack of talent in the realm of detection. So it is rather nice of a mysterious black gloved figure to shoot various witnesses as well as the heads of the heroin ring quite dead, otherwise, this case would never progress.

At the beginning of the 70s, the Rialto Wallace adaptations were in a bit of an identity crisis: on one hand, Alfred Vohrer’s contributions had become increasingly self-referential and ironic, an approach that works perfectly looked at from today, but must have felt highly unusual for the contemporary German audience, and if there’s one thing that’s archetypically German, it’s to treat the unusual as suspect. On the other hand, the other series directors were attempting to update or change the formula in other ways.

Routine German genre film director (and soon to be TV specialist, the poor man) Harald Philipp’s Die Tote aus der Themse for example tries to unify traditional Wallace film values with visual and stylistic elements taken from the Italian giallos that had artistically and commercially overtaken the krimi by miles at this point, as well as a very German approach to luridness – which is to say a quaint, harmless and a bit lamely conservative approach that I can’t imagine shocking anyone in 1971. At least in the last regard, the film reminds me a bit of 70s Hammer attempts of pretending to be hip.

The traditional Wallace values are represented by series mainstays Siegfried “Sir John” Schürenberg, Werner “I’m a bad guy” Peters and Harry “no idea why he was in so many of these things” Riebauer, and Uschi “hey, at least I’m allowed to do more than Karin Dor” Glas, some mild mysterious villain aspects to the set-up of the heroin dealers, and some utterly bizarre business about the drug smuggling ways of ballerinas. These rub against the film’s more modernist tendencies in curious ways, as if your grandfather suddenly started popping the drug of the week. It’s a very strange mixture of the old-fashioned (by 1971) with approximations of the modern (of 1971) that can only result in an uneven film.

Fortunately, it also results in quite an interesting film, or at least in one where you never really know which of its conflicting instincts it is going to follow in the next scene. To me, this sort of weird and slightly broken thing is endlessly fascinating.

It becomes even more so because Philipp and Rialto Wallace main director of photography Karl Löb are doing some rather good giallo imitations throughout the film, giving it a visual unity the script never reaches. So watch out for people dwarfed by bottles of alcohol (though not J&B, unfortunately), mildly meaningful use of colour that pops out in a way that’ll frighten the blue and teal blues away (Shaw Brothers coloured blood!) and a camera that’s generally mobile and moves in interesting ways. In this context, I at least have to give a friendly nod to Peter Thomas’s score that sees the great man of German weirdo soundtracks going full-on Morricone.

Last but not least, I couldn’t help but enjoy the film’s utterly hideous interior decorations, things so much of their time I’m a bit surprised I’m actually allowed to look at them in this sainted year of perfect taste.

All this doesn’t really add up to anything I’d recommend to anyone who hasn’t already seen a dozen or so other Wallace movies, but once you’re through the best part of the canon, a peculiar little number like this is rather nice. And if you enjoy the juxtaposition of things that just don’t belong together you just might like it, too.


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

In short: The Haunting of Pearson Place (2013)

Incredibly obnoxious yuppie couple Gwen (Tracy Teague) and Steven (Ken Arnold) have bought up a run-down old house out in the boons to prep it up as a bed and breakfast place, or rather, Gwen bought it and Steven’s supposed to do most of the work because she already provided all the money. Alas, there’s a reason the house came quite as cheap as it did: the realtor’s a weird Joe Estevez thing, the country people around it are crazy, and oh, there was a murder in the house some time ago – after the time when it was used as a Soldiers’ Home for victims of the first World War, with all the suffering that entailed. Consequently, the house is as haunted as all get out, and it doesn’t take long until Gwen and Steven encounter all sorts of bizarre stuff: the realtor just pops up at the most curious times and places saying meaningful things, a couple of female ghosts get rude, and there’s never a quiet moment in the house.

Things come to a head when Gwen’s best friend Katherine (Julie Price) and her husband Michael (Regen Wilson), who is even more obnoxious than the other human characters, come to help with the renovation: ghosts get nude, hands get grabby, and Jim Shoemaker “from the County” wants to kill two birds with one stone. Two birds; one stone.

One thing I have been missing in the age of indie horror is the propensity of old local horror movies to just be plain, freakishly peculiar. Michael Merino’s The Haunting of Pearson Place jumps into this particular breach with exhilarating enthusiasm. The resulting film isn’t the least bit creepy, spooky, or whatever else you might expect from your haunted house films, but its very peculiar and curiously specific weirdness make up for that little problem with no troubles at all.

Well, at least if you’re like me and love to puzzle out if any given scene is actually meant to be funny, or just becomes funny through the combination of – I might have used that word to describe them before – obnoxiously bickering characters, dialogue that’s always a little (and sometimes very) off, and line deliveries that often leave one staring at the screen with a mixture of puzzlement and delight. For most of the running time, I had no problem understanding what was going on on screen but was utterly unable to explain why The Haunting of Pearson Place was going about showing what’s going on in this highly strange manner. Not that I’m complaining, mind you.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

In short: Stray Dogs (2013)

aka Wild Dogs

Original title: 들개들

Reporter So Yoo-joon (Kim Jeong-hoon) comes to a tiny isolated mountain village that loudly prides itself on being crime free to look for his friend Hyeon-tae (Kim Jae-il). Yoo-joon really needs to talk to him about Hyeon-tae’s wife, with whom Yoo-joon had an affair. An affair she is trying to end but Yoo-joon doesn’t take no for an answer there, and takes consensual as optional in their relationship – in every respect.

The villagers tell our morally challenged protagonist they have not the faintest idea where his friend is, and that would be that if his car didn’t break down, forcing him to stay in the village for a few days. Yoo-joon soon becomes suspicious of the villagers, whose general behaviour seems crazier and more secretive than could be explained by mere eccentricity. Indeed, Yoo-joon soon finds out the leading men of the village are holding a young woman named Kim Eun-hee (Cha Ji-heon) virtually captive, using her night blindness as an opportunity to make their nightly rape expeditions easier. Though she’s traumatized by years of abuse, Eun-hee would still probably have found a way to escape if not for her mother lying ill.

After much hemming and hawing, and probably to his own surprise, Yoo-joon decides to help Eun-hee, and he actually has good timing, because the good people of the village have just decided things are getting too risky for their tastes (as well as the whole crime-free village shtick), so Eun-hee will have to die. The ensuing bloodbath will teach Yoo-joon a valuable lesson, though I’m not really sure what’s it supposed to be.

My main problem with Ha Won-joon’s Stray Dogs is the nature of its protagonist, what with him raping his girlfriend in the first act. He’s not really a pleasant viewpoint character, but what’s more problematic, I don’t really see a reason why he has to be quite as horrible as he is. It would have been perfectly alright if he just had had a sordid affair with his best friend’s wife, but rape is generally the point where I really draw the line. Now, one might assume Ha had chosen this to make some kind of point about the difference or basic sameness between the ways Yoo-joon and the villagers go about badly hiding their true faces, but if he is trying to make such a point, I don’t really see where.

Things become easier to stomach once Eun-hee becomes the factual protagonist of the tale. Her losing control and murdering a bunch of people is at least perfectly understandable in the context of what the men she and Yoo-joon kill have done to her. Alas, the point when she turns from victim and moving plot point to person and perpetrator comes rather late in the movie; and of course, Ha doesn’t do much with this change either. Again, if he’s trying to make any ethical or even just psychological points, I don’t see them.

If you decide to stomach these problems, Stray Dogs turns out to be competent if sordid little thriller, well acted inside the not very complex parameters of its script, tight, and in the final thirty minutes pleasantly brutal. The last comes as a bit of a relief after all the drawn-out and often somewhat unnecessary unpleasantness of what came before; clearly, violence is the answer.

Music Monday: Frankie Edition

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Sunday, November 16, 2014

On ExB: The Shadow (1994)

Russell Mulcahy’s adaptation of the adventures of what was possibly the greatest of the classic pulp heroes (though I’ll always love the insanity of The Spider more) isn’t too well loved by Shadow fans or film critics, but to me, it’s a film that has as many virtues as it has flaws.

This week’s column over on Exploder Button speaks about both.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

In short: Tough and Deadly (1995)

CIA agent Jack Monk (Billy Blanks) is captured and nearly killed for reasons that will become sort of clear much later. He barely escapes with his life and ends up as an amnesiac John Doe in a hospital bed. Bounty hunter and private dick Elmo Freech (Roddy Piper) stumbles over him in hospital. At first, Elmo only hopes there might be a bounty and therefore profit involved, but when somebody tries to kill his new-found interest, he saves Jack’s life, springs him out of hospital, lets him move in, trains him up again and makes him his new bounty hunting partner under the exciting name of John Portland. Why? I suspect the love that dare not speak its name.

Of course, John’s/Jack’s enemies are soon on his trail again. As luck will have it, the mysterious traitorous CIA agent (Phil Morris) after Jack’s life just happens to be in business with Elmo’s old nemesis, mafia boss Milan (Sal Landi), which will most probably raise the body count a bit.

After they turned out to be a rather effective duo in 1993’s Back in Action Roddy Piper and Billy Blanks reunited again – and unfortunately for the last time – for this little lark. Directed by Steve Cohen, Tough and Deadly features your typical Direct-to-DVD movie script, where nobody’s motivations, not to speak of plans, make much sense, but where bone crunching kicks happen every five minutes; mostly to bad guys’ faces. Though, to give the script credit where credit is due, it is well-paced - aka contains only scenes of male friendship my brain can’t help as parse as romance, a few one-liners, and ass-kicking of varying and increasing brutality, and nothing else to slow it down any – and clearly knows what its viewers will want out of their low budget US action flicks.

I for one can hardly resist the siren song of crunching bones, gun shots, and very minor explosions set to a synthesizer soundtrack possibly even more generic than Tough and Deadly’s title, particularly not when all the cheap yet cool carnage is committed by a martial artist and fitness guru who is a neutral actor (so good enough for this sort of thing) and a pretty fantastic, if showy, screen fighter, and by everyone’s favourite unmasked wrestler-turned-actor easily getting by on regular Joe charisma, a shit-eating grin, who is also a pretty fantastic - and completely different - screen fighter.

As a buddy action movie couple Piper and Blanks work quite well too, with many a tender look between the two, speaking dialogue that is at worst so unfunny it becomes funny again, at best quite purposefully funny, and tending more to the latter. As always, it’s a bit of a shame the romance between the two is never consumed on screen but I suspect action cinema won’t be ready to make its obviously yet unspoken gay characters just gay until 2025; I’d be glad to be proven wrong, particularly because certain critics can then stop pretending every tender male friendship on screen is a sign of repressed homosexuality, and instead concentrate on praising those that actually are, like the one here.

Anyway, Tough and Deadly is another fine outing for Blanks and Piper, and while it didn’t make me think, watching it made me pretty happy.


Thursday, November 13, 2014


Fast Company (1938): I know, Edward Buzzell’s film is only an attempt to launch another detective couple like The Thin Man’s Nick and Nora Charles, but I really like the resulting mystery comedy a lot. Melvyn Douglas and Florence Rice as our central couple have highly enjoyable chemistry, the dialogue’s fast and very funny, and the mystery plot goes by sprightly and without major hindrances to the enjoyment of the dialogue, so there’s little about the film that isn’t enjoyable and charming. It is not quite on the same level as the first Thin Man yet who’s making comparisons while he’s charmed?

As an added bonus for the bookish like me (and hopefully you), our heroes work as rare book traders and part-time book detectives, a fact I would probably make more of in my imagined remake where she is the more action oriented and he the one who stays behind, but it’s still the sort of thing that helps the movie become something a bit more than just an easy attempt to jump on a bandwagon.

Cut-Throat Struggle for an Invaluable Treasure aka 塞外奪寶 (1982): Despite beginning with a massacre of Shaolin monks and the ensuing theft of the Buddha’s teeth, this Hong Kong martial arts film directed by Hui Sin and Leung Wing-Tai is more of a comedy than anything else, if a comedy not prone to the outer heights and depths of martial arts slapstick. In its choreography, its sense of humour and its needle-dropped score, this is pretty much a typical second tier film of its time, and like a lot of these films, it’s damn entertaining while doing what it does with professionalism and style.

The fights are pleasantly varied in style and form, their execution is fine, and the film has a nice flow to it, even if the plot is just going through the motions to get from one fight to the next. As an added, and unexpected, pleasure, Cut-Throat Struggle is also full of very pretty location shots for its characters to fight in, adding the cheapest of all special effects.

Seraphim Falls (2006): David Von Ancken’s fascinating film starts as what looks like the final act of a modernist Western, but gradually turns into something much more surreal, the film’s outer landscapes mirroring those of the protagonists, until the difference between the metaphorical and the real becomes diffuse; people who like connections coming from Abrahamic religions will have particular fun here. In its own, peculiar way, Seraphim Falls does tell a very Western-like redemption story, even if it at first pretends to be more of a Spaghetti Western-like tale of vengeance; it’s just that the film’s concept of redemption is a bit different from that of many movies in the genre that came before it. While it is going on its way to redemption, the film plays with various audience expectations (like who the hero of the tale might be), and gives Liam Neeson and Pierce Brosnan, as well as a bunch of excellently cast minor characters, much space for performances that are at once real and as idiosyncratic as the film needs them to be.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

In short: The Hot Rock (1972)

At the time this was made, director Peter Yates was on something of a roll with various types of crime films, all rather great in one way or the other, and all absolutely typical of 70s filmmaking in all the best ways. The Hot Rock is an adaptation of one of Donald E. Westlakes’s comedic crime novels about the perpetually unlucky thief Dortmunder (here played by Robert Redford who, whatever you may think of the casting for this particular character is a really great actor for this kind of comedic heist/caper movie), who is basically Westlake’s Stark without the murderous intentions and the sociopathy. Here, Dortmunder and co (George Segal, Ron Leibman, Paul Sand) are attempting to steal a very special diamond for the UN representative of an African nation (done with perfect deadpan by Moses Gunn), and then have to steal it again, and again, and etc, while double-crosses and various inopportune events destroy their best laid plans. Repeatedly.

While the film becomes increasingly funny and bizarre in excellent style, Yates also gets at the other core of many of Westlake’s comedic novels: these are books – and a film - about characters stumbling through a universe as set against – or at best uncaring of - humanity as that of Lovecraft’s stories or the Parker novels, just that this particular uncaring or cruel universe doesn’t crush its victims but instead prefers to play cruel jokes on them, and that in the Dortmunder universe, some of the characters have the ability to play the tricks right back.

Of course, it’s not all the universe’s fault here, for the characters here, comedy or not, are quite fine with doing unpleasant things to one another quite without help and don’t exactly need it to ruin their respective days; it’s just funnier when their bad intentions and those of the universe meet.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

SyFy vs The Mynd: Lightning Strikes (2009)

As if working for a crazy idiot mayor (Todd Jensen) weren’t enough for one man, sheriff Bradley (Kevin Sorbo) of the charming US small town of Roscoe, Bulgaria, has to cope with a sudden increase in weirdness surrounding his home.

First, a highly peculiar lightning storm cuts a car in half that is carrying a woman we will later learn is called Nancy (Annabel Wright) and her teenage son, then gets up to chasing them, sucking both of them into another dimension whose sole inhabitant electrocutes the boy before dropping the two back on Earth where Nancy will spend the next half hour of the film unconscious until the plot calls her.

Then, glowering lightning-obsessed stranger Donovan (David Schofield) appears in town being all mysterious and gloomy, soon followed by meteorology professor and lightning research scientist )that’s a thing, right?) Conners (Jeff Harding) and his entourage (Robyn Addison and Tom Harper). Both men are on the hunt for exactly the kind of freak lightning that attacked Nancy and her son, and both are sure lightning is going to strike again in Roscoe quite soon. Conners wants to find out what kind of phenomenon this lightning actually is, while Donovan is out to destroy an Ancient Evil™ that once took his son from him, while it made himself immune against lightning in the process. Of course, this being a very traditional kind of SF/horror film, Donovan’s totally right, and Conners will be punished for his fiendish attempt to understand how the world surrounding him actually works.

Talking of “very traditional”, further problems will ensue when the mayor throws all warnings to evacuate the town before it’s too late in the wind because he won’t close down the annual pumpkin festival (which would make two potential German investors nervous). Let’s hope he’s going to be struck by lightning too, and soon, because he’s really annoying.

So, obviously, Gary Jones’s Lightning Strikes prefers, as so many SyFy movies do, the more traditional values of SF/horror, where the pseudo-mythological approach of ranting mania is somehow more worthwhile than to look at the world mildly more scientifically, but I’m not really down on the film for that, because bizarre ranting fits the outright silliness of the threat (however many slightly icky looking corpses the film may hold into the camera) better than any attempts at seriousness.

As with two thirds of all SyFy movies, it’s best to leave one’s brain out of the door while taking in Lightning Strikes, or at least those parts of one’s brain that get easily annoyed by mild silliness and outright stupidity. By now, my brain, is such a highly evolved organ it actually runs on this sort of thing. Or does so at least when the whole mess is presented, as it is here, with enough enthusiasm. Lightning Strikes throws bits of old SF/horror, some elements that might have come from a minor X-Files episode and a not particularly talented but fun cast at a script (co-written by David A. Prior himself!) that may not be much when it comes to the little things in filmmaking, like the drama and the sense, yet that does find its pleasure in building its own silly mythology (Erich von Däniken is surely disappointed he didn’t come up with it) on bits of actual mythology and packing it in your typical monster of the week shtick. For my tastes, it’s a fun little thing to watch on a Sunday morning. It’s not providing much intellectual fodder, but not every film needs to do that for me.

Of course, if you really want to put this much thought into the film, it is a bit disappointing how little the script makes of the fact that three of its major characters have all lost a close family member in a tragic manner, but really, it’s healthier to only ever be pleasantly surprised when these films do think this much than to be disappointed when they don’t.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

In short: A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989)

Brain A: “So, how are we going to get Freddy back up and running this time? We already had the fire-pissing dog.”

Brain B: “Well, then how about…how about Alice is pregnant and Freddy something-something tries to be reborn something-something through her unborn child?”

Brain A:”Yes! Something-something! Brilliant! And he can only be beaten back again if Alice finds the remains of Freddy’s mother! Because that totally makes sense!”

Brain B: “Now to the important bits. How many kills?”

This, or something very much like it must have happened during the first brainstorming sessions for the fifth and still not final A Nightmare on Elm Street movie. You really don’t need to know more about the plot than this, apart from the fact that Alice (still Lisa Wilcox, who also just happens to be the only actor on screen actually putting effort in, despite the film really not deserving any) has somehow managed to acquire a new group of friends none of whom know anything about Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund in a performance so phoned-in I wouldn’t even be sure it isn’t a professional Englund double if he weren’t listed in the credits) or the absurdly high death rate among their age peer group even though they must have been on the same school as the last two bunches of Freddy victims, so Freddy has somebody to kill.

Needless to say, while I found more than enough to criticize about Nightmare movie numero four, this is the low point of the Nightmare series up to this point, with a script that just copies various plot beats from the films that came before it without adding anything to them or making any interesting changes – unless increasing their stupidity counts – but really only ever wants to get to the next special effects sequence with a now completely idiotic Freddy doing lame wise-cracks. Everything that isn’t an effects scene, neither director Stephen Hopkins nor screenwriter Leslie Bohem seem to have even the least interest in, leading to a shoddily written mess that probably thinks “It’s all happening in dreams” is an excuse for its complete lack of…well, an interesting plot, engaging characters or just simply good ideas. Too bad that excuse is already disproven by – at least – Nightmares one and three.

Even worse, the effects sequences in general aren’t even very good, with technical flaws meeting boring conceptions meeting a lack of imagination, style and humour that really turn this one into a film that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Halloween: Resurrection or Jason takes Manhattan. And yet, it’s still not the worst of the NIghtmare on Elm Street films…

Saturday, November 8, 2014

In short: Kristy (2014)

An internet-based cult kills young women it dubs “Kristy” (insert some random crap about purity and stuff). Their newest victim is Justine (Haley Bennett) a hard-working student spending a lonely Thanksgiving weekend on a depopulated college campus.

They’ve chosen a bad victim this time around, though, because – “surprise” – after the usual series of terrorizing gestures and murders, Justine is rather good at turning the tables on her would-be killers, and soon the hunter becomes the hunted, etc.

I’m generally not very fond of home invasion and hoodie horror movies, because far too many of these films are thinly veiled excuses for bourgeois filmmakers to express their resentments towards poor people, with generally little of substance or interest to say about class. Oliver Blackburn’s Kristy doesn’t bother with this sort of thing at all, at first making small gestures that might suggest a film willing to do something with class based horror but quickly deteriorating into a film with so little visible passion for its material it doesn’t even get around to being reactionary. Apart from the whole “evil Internet people” thing, of course, but that’s really only an excuse for a few pseudo-cell camera shots, and green and red letters on black background.

Now, of course this sort of thriller doesn’t necessarily need to be rich in subtext – and I for my part can particularly live without another film telling how devious we poor people are – but Kristy (also known as Random or Satanic during various production stages) just isn’t good enough at being thrilling to be able to convince me. That’s partly because Blackburn isn’t very good at making his bad guys very threatening (which is understandable, giving that one of them is Ashley Greene, who isn’t becoming a better actor just because you put some bad make-up and piercings on her), partly because the film just never really grabbed me. It’s certainly competent in its application of jump scares but falters in the more subtle and more effective art of suspense, leaving this viewer with the feeling of watching something technically competent but completely lifeless, the sort of thing that suggests to me I’d rather have watched a really bad movie than one this competently mediocre.

The only thing that rises above the fold here is Haley Bennett’s performance as the film’s victim turned killer but there’s little the film does with her performance. At times, I got the impression Kristy is this dramatically neutral on purpose, attempting to raise really nobody’s hackles, and certainly eschewing any idea of substance (emotional or intellectual). Seen positively, this is for once a horror movie I have a hard time imagining anyone being offended by. Hooray.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

In short: Interceptor Force (1999)

With great difficulty, some jets under the command of a slumming Ernie Hudson shoot down a UFO. Alas, it goes down in Mexican territory, or rather in the territory of cartel boss and Spaghetti western reject Rosario (Stefan Lysenko), so Weber (Brad Dourif), a guy we must take to be responsible for the secret US anti-alien effort, doesn’t send out special forces but a trio of mercenaries. These guys suck so much they haven’t even earned themselves stupid call signs, and are instead called Shaun (Olivier Gruner), Dave (William Zabka) and Russell (Glenn Plummer).

Because neither Weber nor I would trust these guys with making a sandwich, he teams them up with science people Jena (Angel Boris Reed) and Perez (Mark Adair-Rioz), who are also the only people involved who know this is to be an alien hunt and not a case of secretly fetching a black box from under a crazy guy’s nose.

Not surprisingly, things don’t go too well on this ill-designed mission, and it might just become necessary for Weber to nuke a small Mexican village lest an alien threat is loosed upon the world.

For those of my readers who haven’t already smelt the crap, let it be known that Phillip J. Roth’s Interceptor Force is indeed a decidedly stupid piece of crap. Though it is one that is perfectly honest about its nature, seeing as we first encounter our Gruner-shaped hero while he’s stealing some secret data a be-suited guy carries around in a hard drive somehow built into his body (what, no flash memory?), one of his nipples replaced by a port, a heist during which our hero only escapes via an intensely bizarre rooftop escape featuring a long pole and a low flying aircraft.

On the other hand, the film sure as hell doesn’t manage to keep its stupidity as awesome as these scenes promise for the whole of its running time, spending a bit too much film on our leads discussing how betrayed they feel because Weber didn’t tell them about the aliens from the start. Which, given their performance throughout the film and that they’re even doing the old “a ga-a-ga-a giiiiirl” thing when Weber informs them about one of their part time partners being, you know, female, is no surprise to anyone. You’d think even in action movie land you might be able to find expendable operatives with a hint of competence about them.

When the film gets its stupid going, it does so very well, delighting with Brad Dourif giving an absurdly intense and utterly weird performance (which is to say, a very typical Dourif performance), Hudson popping in for three scenes of looking professionally concerned, a crap CGI alien that can also turn into crap CGI green energy and into people it has killed to utter crap jokes (and because the CGI truly is an eyesore), a handful of explosions (propane tanks explode when shot at, our genius heroes discover whilst shooting a propane tank), and a bit of competent hand-to-hand choreography so Gruner can show off the stuff he’s actually good at. For my tastes, the film at the very least contains enough of these shenanigans not to drag too painfully, and actually, I found myself mildly entertained for most of its running time, which is more than I can say about a lot of action movies.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

In short: Frequencies (2013)

aka OXV: The Manual (2013)

One of the perks of living in the future as we do is that this sort of film, unthinkable to come out of a major studio in this form, can be made relatively cheaply independently without the resulting movie looking as if it were shot in a backyard. This has, among other things, resulted in quite a number of impressive indie SF films that leave the explosions to others and trade in intelligence, ideas and often very cleverly structured narratives. It’s an approach that brings Darren Paul Fisher’s Frequencies much closer to the best of written SF (not that I mind space operas or explosions, I only mind when they’re the only thing that’s there). One might argue this is more a film of the general fantastic than a piece of SF but then that’s why people use SF to mean speculative fiction instead of science fiction.

Anyhow, one of the more impressive achievements of Frequencies is how it manages to start off as a quirky SF romance (and let me just parenthesize how much I love living in world where that’s an actual, if small, SF genre) but then quickly, and cleverly, broadens its approach considerably in elegant yet utterly unexpected ways I’ll certainly not spoil for anyone, even if that leaves this little write-up as another one of those pieces talking around parts of a movie. Let’s just say it’s delightful, and leave it at that.

The film’s chosen science being philosophy, there’s a lot of intelligence to find in it, with a certain playfulness of thought (and of plot, really) working rather wonderfully, making ideas that could be rather depressing sing.

On a technical level, Frequencies is just as successful, with Fisher providing just the right rhythm to what’s going on, and managing a structure that could be painfully gimmicky in a way perfectly appropriate to his film’s style, story, and philosophical theme. All things – like fine performances, and an equally fine score by Blair Mowat - just come together for Frequencies so well, it works like a miniature universe, a perfect little machine that runs so perfectly it never feels mechanical.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Purge: Anarchy (2014)

During the night of the yearly purge, when a dystopian USA opens the floodgates to legal murders and mutilation, waitress Eva (Carmen Ejogo), her daughter Cali (Zoë Soul), and the troubled couple Liz (Kiele Sanchez) and Shane (Zach Gilford), all out on the street for no fault of their own, not even stupidity, stumble into the reluctant protection of a nameless stranger (Frank Grillo). The man is armed to the teeth and clearly out to commit an act of personal vengeance yet still can’t help himself and leads these people bound for a violent and most probably highly unpleasant death through the dangerous parts of the city to potential safety; or as much as there is safety for the poor on this particular night.

The problems they encounter are not just poor people doing the rich’s work slaughtering their own, but also a suspiciously well organized group of people who might just be part of a government conspiracy, as well as the idle rich who just love some idle, riskless killing for sport. On the plus side, there’s a resistance group lead by a ranting Michael Kenneth Williams. Omar would be proud, probably.

I was so non-plussed by writer/director James DeMonaco’s original The Purge I didn’t even feel the need to write anything about it. And really, what is there to write about a film that uses an improbable but metaphorically potent dystopian near future concept ideally fit for discussing class war while also featuring acts of entertaining violence to make another home invasion movie about the sanctity of rich peoples’ family life threatened by another bunch of masked young people?

I have some difficulty wrapping my head around the fact the very same James DeMonaco made this much more interesting, as well as just better, near future SF action film taking place in the same world and talking about all the things the first Purge completely ignored. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as happy about it as can be, for what is more pleasant to watch than a filmmaker learning from his mistakes and improving on them? So, unlike the first one, we now have a film that talks a lot about class divisions in various ways, some of them more subtle – best represented by the way characters in the film rather subtly react to the concept of the Purge in ways quite connected to their ability to buy ways to protect themselves during it – some of them in a kind of sledgehammer agitprop way Roger Corman would have very much approved of in the 70s. For the latter, just look at the way the film turns the really rich into grotesques that look like a different species altogether, held together by botox and some of the most frightening partings hair science has ever encountered. There’s room for the middle ground of a degree of complexity too, for Anarchy also finds time to argue the worst trick the rich (faceless, evil mass that they are in this argument until one of them does something actually human right at the end of the movie) ever played on the poor was making them fight against each other for scraps. It’s not the deepest political analysis, but in the sequel of a film that just ignored the obvious political implications of its set-up completely it’s an extreme improvement.

I’d also argue this Purge provides a much clearer idea of the feelings that come with the concept of class when you actually belong to the so-called lower classes, have to scrabble for the things the rich deign to give you, and buckle and say thank you for stuff that should be everyone’s birthright while your so-called superiors turn themselves into grotesques that can’t even move their faces anymore for the money that could feed and make comfortable everyone you know for years, than a more subtly argued approach could. And let me tell you, those feelings just might have more to do with those of ranting Michael Kenneth Williams than with more pleasant and peaceful ones.

At the same time, Anarchy isn’t so angry it thinks that personal vengeance, be it as well founded as it may, is a thing that’ll keep a human being whole in the long run, so it treats personal vengeance as a thing to get over, just another trap that’ll only distract someone from the larger political picture as well as from something just as important – one’s own humanity.

All this – and it’s really a lot – DeMonaco packages in a delightful series of suspense and action scenes directed with tension, clarity, and style, drenched in nightly neon colours, clearly reminding of the post-apocalyptic and kind-of-post-apocalyptic films of John Carpenter and Walter Hill. Anarchy particularly reminded me of the best films of the latter director, with The Warriors as a film I’d really be surprised DeMonaco hadn’t seen quite often - a compliment if ever I made one.

So, to summarize, The Purge: Anarchy has all the virtues of a classic low budget movie: it’s clever, political, subversive, grotesque and just a whole lot of fun to watch if you enjoy bloody violence, scripts that mix the outrageous with the clever with human bits, and an acting ensemble that knows how to let short-hand characters breathe.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

In short: The Lost World (2001)

For my tastes, this BBC version of Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel is an exemplary adaptation of a novel with many a problematic aspect (at least from the view of contemporary racial and romantic politics) that would make an unchanged adaption awkward to unpleasant.

So Stuart Orme’s film keeps the general shape of Doyle’s book – in fact, it hews much closer to it than a lot of other adaptations – but changes motivations, details, and characters to something more approachable to contemporary ethics while keeping the charms of old-fashioned adventure, romance, dinosaurs and ape men intact. At the same time, the film never falls into the trap of changing things up for change’s sake, keeping many details of Doyle’s novel intact, and rejigging others in a way that doesn’t so much suggest deconstruction as loving and knowing critique. Many of the changes are of course obvious: what if we look at the hidden plateau’s native human population as if they were actual human beings? Why not have romantic politics not quite as constrained by the horrors of Victorian sexual and emotional values? Why not make Challenger (embodied with a most excellent mix of grouchiness and enthusiasm by Bob Hoskins) slightly more personable (less random hitting of journalists here), and express ambiguity towards Lord Roxton’s (Tom Ward) Great White Hunter-dom? And so on, and so forth.

Personally, in an intellectual climate right now that on all sides tends heavily towards the black and white views of shouty bullies, I also found its pleasant to encounter a movie that does express ambiguity towards Roxton or Victorian values instead of plain loathing, actually trying to understand (perhaps even respect, where possible) the differences instead of going the easy way of total condemnation of everything; there’s quite a bit about the times and their morals that deserve little more than condemnation of course, but going to the effort of actually putting things in context to decide which do and which don’t still is worthwhile.

All this does for the most part work in the film’s background – apart from a kitschy yet likeable bit of ecological and/or anti-colonialist business right at the end – while Orme takes great pleasure in realizing most of the great set pieces of Doyle’s novel and adding various adventure movie standards to boot. Add to that a lively acting ensemble (also including Elaine Cassidy, Matthew Rhys, James Fox and Peter Falk), tolerable to excellent effects, and very pretty photography, and it’s very difficult for me to argue against this version of The Lost World.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988)

As you may have realized, the whole horrifying project of wasting my life on slasher sequels hasn’t finished by Halloween. Because I really need to watch a decent film from time to time, the rest of the series will continue sporadically during the next month or so.

The lives of Kristen (now played by one Tuesday Knight, who wins the stage name competition) and the other surviving Dream Warriors from the last movie have returned to their normal teenage lifestyles again, and at least in Kristen’s case to her old cliché group of friends, the black nerd girl, the tough chick, the male love interest, the male love interest for the final girl and the very obvious final girl Alice Johnson (Lisa Wilcox).

Alas, lately Kristen has begun dreaming of Freddy’s house on Elm Street again, dragging her dream warring buddies in with her, without Freddy ever actually appearing. That is, until Roland (Ken Sagoes) dreams of his dog pissing fire on Freddy’s grave. During the course of the following fifteen movie minutes or so, all of Freddy’s old enemies are dead, Alice has acquired Kristen’s dream powers, and Freddy starts using said dream powers to get at new victims, because – apparently we’re supposed to ignore film number two again, hooray – he can on paper only kill the original Elm Street kids, which doesn’t go for people he meets through Alice’s dreams, even though she isn’t one of the Elm Street kids, because…umm, no idea.

Anyway, shy and rather wimpy Alice acquires additional powers with each friendly soul Freddy sucks up in the ensuing killing spree, so our sartorially impaired undead serial killer might just bring about the means of his own destruction – if Alice ever gets around to striking back, that is.

Remember how I praised Dream Warriors for building on the first Nightmare movie’s foundations, broadening the mythology, and so on? Turns out, the earlier film’s virtues are a bit bigger than that, for Renny Harlin’s The Dream Master takes a comparable approach but does succeed with it far less. Sometimes, and I am pretty sure this is one of these cases, it’s all in the execution.

Just take the sampling of clichés Freddy slaughters in this movie and compare it with Kristen’s friends in the one before. Both groups of kids are painted in the broadest strokes, yet where the earlier film uses exactly the right strokes to give us some basically believable kids we might even not want to see die, Harlin’s movie just puts up the blandest of slasher meat troupes, giving everyone a single identifiable mark that doesn’t seem to be meant to make them interesting to watch interacting but that’s only there to set up one of the film’s “ironic” (if irony is a sledgehammer) death scenes.

And in these scenes lies another problem, because with this film, the killings have lost all terror and are only ever meant as visual gags, Freddy now finally having turned into the ugly guy in the stupid outfit who never fucking stops making bad one-liners, the film’s sympathy in these scenes shifting completely to him whenever he isn’t fighting the final girl. Needless to say, I’m more than a bit uncomfortable with that, and not in the good way I want to be made uncomfortable by through horror. The film’s lack of empathy with its own characters weakens its impact as a horror movie decisively, for if the film I’m watching can’t be bothered to feel for its own characters, why should I as a viewer do, and why should I be afraid for them or disturbed or shocked by what happens to them? The same goes for Freddy, who loses all of his menace this way.

Of course, as a revue of pretty great special effects and surreal ideas, there is fun to be had with the kill scenes but it’s an approach to horror film I find rather alienating and just not that interesting to watch.

These problems are certainly exacerbated by the film’s somewhat lazy seeming script, where not even the mandatory revival of its bad guy is prepared with any sort of care and thought. So, Freddy returns because a dream dog pisses fire on his grave, presumably to counter the effect of the holy water applied in the real world in the last film? How could anybody involved think that’s a good idea, or really, any idea at all? And that’s not a one-off: little of the film’s mythological background is thought through at all, with many an opportunity for meaningful connection of single parts wasted because – I couldn’t help but feel – the writers just couldn’t be bothered to think about the implications of things like Freddy’s connection to the Elm Street kids, Alice’s new role as Dream Master, and so on and so forth. I have difficulty reading it as anything else than the film, as franchise horror loves to do, just declaring its audience to be only interested in the kills and therefore putting little to no effort into anything else. Which – surprise! – just might attract only the part of the audience that really is only interested in the kills.