Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Night of the Serpent (1969)

Original title: La notte dei serpenti

aka Nest of Vipers

Alcoholic gringo Luke (Luke Askew) has been taken in by one of the archetypal gangs of bandits/revolutionaries that dominate Italian Mexico and the border regions of the US to Mexico. The charming people use Luke as their mascot and punching bag. The band’s leader is not completely without morals – even if it’s the sort that’ll not hinder him from killing quite ruthlessly – yet he’s not above lending Luke out as the perfect scapegoat and one-time killer for the plans of the police chief (which means he is his own kind of little violent potentate) of a neighbouring village. That man (Luigi Pistilli) has gotten in on reaping the fruits of a semi-accidental killing, and he and his not quite so willing co-conspirators just need somebody like Luke to either kill a child, or at least take the fall for the deed.

Turns out they couldn’t have chosen a worse alcoholic, for Luke’s mandatory trauma is just the right one to get him to leave off the tequila, take up his gun, and do some very practical things to assuage his guilt.

Just when I thought I finally truly had seen all the good films the Spaghetti Western had to offer and was basically down to Demofilo Fidano films (a fate as worse as death, and probably more painful than most deaths), along comes Giulio Petroni’s Night of the Serpent. I shouldn’t be too surprised, really, because Petroni’s handful of westerns is always at least interesting.

As a director Petroni here fluctuates between competently regurgitating stylistic elements of the genre he’s working in (his fast eye zooms are particularly dangerous there) and breaking them up or in with moments reminding me of completely different things. There are, for example, a handful of scenes staged as if they belonged into an old west gothic, or perhaps an atypical giallo. Particularly the initial murder-by-accident comes to mind here, but there are bits and pieces of this sort sprinkled throughout the film, turning it at times into something stranger or perhaps more personal than your typical Spaghetti Western.

Petroni also adds quite a few other strange moments to the film – there’s for example the mildly perverse subplot about two of the conspirators – the local priest and the local prostitute – and the rather unhealthy thing that’s going on between them. These moments give the film a peculiar mood and demonstrate a good degree of disgust towards your typical bourgeois, towards minor authority figures (and the film is good at emphasising how tiny these people’s authority is in the large run of things) who only ever misuse their little power and then whine about the consequences.

Consequently, the film’s positive figures are a self-destructive loser with something to feel as guilty about as his enemies, the local female shaman peyote popper, and a kid who explains he likes a certain of his relations best because that one doesn’t hit him as hard when he beats him up. Oh, it really is 1969, isn’t it?

Night isn’t quite as cynical (I’m tempted to say noirish, given the philosophical outlook) as some other Spaghetti Westerns, so it finds a kind of happy ending that might actually see the surviving characters grown through the violent proceedings. In another fine twist, it does so not in the traditional manner but by breaking up the climactic show-down through some surprising business I’m unwilling to spoil. Petroni is again playing with the expected formula here and at the very least deserves a smile and a bit of praise for that, as well as for turning what could have been a bog standard example of its genre into something a little different, without ever leaving the formula too far behind.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

In short: Spring (2014)

Following the cancer death of his mother and a handful of fuck-ups, Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci) flees from his native US into a random direction – Italy, as it happens. There, he drifts to a town in Apulia, finds (illegal) work with a farmer, and meets and falls in love with Louise (Nadia Hilker). Louise reciprocates his feelings but she has secrets of the dark, ancient and strange kind that can become quite the problem in a relationship.

For the second time, I find myself very much excited about/by a film directed by the duo of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead yet also very unwilling to actually write too much about the brilliant film I’m so excited about. It’s not so much the fear of spoiling plot points for my – possibly fictional anyway – readership, for this isn’t a film going for the big twist, in fact one putting its cards quite clearly on the table, but of spoiling that perfect moment of coming into a film like this without too much baggage, and me not wanting to get in the way of anyone just watching the film and letting it unfold.

So, I’m just going to say I think Spring is as perfect a movie as I’ve encountered, a romance with fantasy and horror elements (that one of the main characters would most certainly rather call science fiction, and oh how I love the film for which of the two it is) with wonderful acting by Pucci, Hilker and Francesco Carnelutti, directed in a style that starts out as your typical indie realism yet becomes increasingly poetic in simple yet decidedly poetic ways.

Thematically, Spring concerns itself very much with those things you’d expect of a film with a title like this that sends a young man to Italy - love and decay, death and rebirth, loss and finiteness and love again, treating its themes with clarity, humanity, a feeling of sadness and a feeling of joy, as it should be.

Friday, June 26, 2015

On ExB: Universal Van Damme: Hard Target (1993)

I know, I know, I’ve said, written and thought some rude things about John Woo’s American phase but now that I’ve settled into zen-like middle-age, maaaan, I’m so relaxed I’m willing to revise this kind of opinion.

So listen to my aged wisdom and click on through to this week’s column over on Exploder Button, where I’ll go deeper into that time when John Woo met Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

In short: Demonic (2015)

A handful of young ghost hunters break into a dilapidated old house where a séance once resulted in a bit of demonic possession (I’d say spoiler, but then, this thing is called Demonic) and axe murdering with only one survivor. And hey, one of our young ghost hunters (Dustin Milligan) is the only son of said survivor, so I can’t see what possibly could go wrong here.

The whole she-bang is told in flashbacks that are part of an interview police psychologist Dr Elizabeth Klein (Maria Bello) leads with what might be the lone survivor of the ghost hunters right at the scene of the crime. Why there? Because taking him somewhere else would break the plot. Anyway, terrible secrets, the same old jump scares you have in every James Wan production, and a mildly stupid plot twist follow.

By now, James Wan productions are mostly their own little genre of mainstream horror films, I think. They’re distinguished by generally moody photography, clever lighting, usually decent or better acting, and a complete unwillingness to go outside a very small comfort zone of what a horror movie is supposed to be and to do. So, expect Wan production Demonic (actually directed by one Will Canon) to be slick, expect it to be professional, but also expect it to never do anything unexpected, to never really explore psychological or metaphorical depths or to feature very interesting characters. However, you can expect that jump scare based on a face seen only via camera popping out, that scene with an invisible force dragging a person around, and some lame poppycock about demons that never actually attempts to properly build a mythology around them or make them characters, because this would actually involve using some creative energy instead of genre short hand of the more boring kind.

I wouldn’t exactly call this approach lazy (I’m actually pretty sure the people involved here are putting effort in), but it certainly does result in films that are all pretty much the same, and even though they are certainly slick and professional, they’re not quite slick enough to make me forget how much they lack in creative spirit. I’m nearly tempted to use the word “soulless” here.

Canon’s film does at least mildly mix things up structurally, and in the film’s first hour or so, I found myself quite enjoying the mystery-style approach to the plot, particularly with Maria Bello giving a fine outing as what seems the only competent character in the film. The longer the film went, the clearer it became it wouldn’t use its structure for anything beyond setting up the mandatory boring plot twist. In the final tally, little actually distinguishes this one from half a dozen other Wan-horror films.

This doesn’t mean Demonic is awful. Like nearly all of these films, it’s mildly diverting (or, if you have seen fewer of these films and haven’t seen all of their tricks a dozen times or so, perhaps even mildly exciting), and a perfect film to watch when your brain isn’t up to anything with ambitions beyond being the most generic horror film possible.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015


Nightlight (2015): The cast isn’t bad, the direction has its moments, yet Scott Beck’s and Bryan Woods’s film is still another POV horror film about pretty young people getting lost in haunted woods. Not surprisingly, the film lacks the vague, yet weird and disquieting mythology of that one big predecessor whose name I don’t need mention, and doesn’t really have much of its own to replace it with. There’s an attempt at characterization through classic teenage angst but whenever I actually started to believe in the characters and cared a little about what happened to them, they began to act not like frightened people but like horror movie characters, and there all caring must stop.

There are a few okay scares in here, but most of the film is of the sort of middling okay-ness that annoys me more than a truly bad movie ever does.

13 Ghosts (1960): For my taste, this is one of William Castle’s lesser efforts at gimmick – the GHOST VIEWER! – horror but I suspect that’s in large part because it’s too much of a family movie for my tastes, with not enough of the sardonic and very dark humour that makes House on Haunted Hill or The Tingler so much fun.

As all Castle films, it’s not a bad movie in any way, but I didn’t find myself exactly glued to the screen watching it, most likely because 50s (and the film still belongs very much into that decade) horror comedy is anathema to my sensibilities.

Route 666 (2001): Who’d have thunk a film about Lou Diamond Phillips fighting an undead chain gang on a by-road of Route 66 called Route 666 could be this boring? Dumb, sure; badly directed by William Wesley (director of not much beyond this and the lightyears better Scarecrows), yes, but boring? Alas, it truly is, thanks to the snail’s pace the plot happens (or not) in, the meandering tone containing much odious comic relief, the less than engaging way the undead attacks are filmed in, and the many, many scenes that could have been cut out of this thing without anyone in the audience noticing before the film would end an hour earlier than is usual. It’s a dire effort.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Road Wars (2015)

Welcome to post-apocalyptica, where Mad Max rejects roam the deserted wastelands fighting night-active rabies zombies who might be vampires or something. We concern ourselves with a small group of improbable – they’re just that bad – survivors lead by one Dallas (John Freeman) who are sitting on some sort of source of refined water (the film’s keeping vague about this, as it does about most anything) but have great trouble protecting themselves from the nightly attacks of the zombies. Which might have to do with the fact that they eschew using kiddie stuff like fortifications or even the tiniest of fences and just stand on the roof of a SUV shooting at the not exactly endless number of zombies attacking nightly.

On a boredom expedition looking for the legendary day-walking zombie species, two of our heroes (cough) pick up – well, accidentally shoot - a guy we will later learn is called Thorne (Cole Parker). Thorne has amnesia, does not get metaphors, is not Drax the Destroyer, and is possibly immune against the zombie virus. So, apart from an ammunition run and various other plans that make little sense, the group now plans to fetch that scientific marvel we know as a centrifuge, which is the only device needed for the SCIENCE(!) way to make an antidote. Wait, there are antidotes against viruses? Anyway, things become more complicated thanks to survivor Nakada (Chloe Farnworth) keeping her infected boyfriend alive and hidden, the all-around stupidity of everyone, and the obligatory band of wasteland toughs of the particularly originally named Reaver (Micah Fitzgerald) who have some sort of evil plan, I’m sure.

The Asylum and director Mark Atkins strike again, this time doing Mad Max: Fury Road, just for five dollars and with zombies. That’s, as you can imagine, not exactly a promising set-up, but for the film’s first fifty minutes or so I found myself decently amused by it, even getting small flashbacks towards the golden age of Italian genre cinema when this sort of deeply stupid mix of two of the fad genres of the day happened by the dozens.

Road Wars isn’t quite on the level of the more glorious films of this approach to getting our money, unfortunately. I’m not really complaining about the film making little sense – though I’d sure like to know how the world became a wasteland right in time for the vampire/zombie/whatever virus – because that’s truly par for the course in this sort of thing. I am complaining about the fact that the way it doesn’t make sense becomes increasingly less interesting the longer the film goes on. The bunch of crazy stupid shit it throws at us early on slowly turns into boring stupid shit, with added attempts at creating a dramatic plot that probably would have worked out mildly better if the way the characters behave made even a little bit of sense. Honestly, I have no idea what the final acts of violence here are even supposed to be about. Plus, Road Wars little action set pieces may not be terrible, but they really don’t reach the level of George Miller, Enzo G. Castellari or, frankly, a third-rate Corman director from the 80s; they’re okay, I guess, but this is the sort of film that could really use either the riveting or the plain crazy.

On the other hand, Road Wars does some things right too: it at least attempts very honestly not to be boring, where the success of that attempt depends on your resistance to rampant stupidity and your liking for basic post-apocalyptic bullshit. It suggests that one thing most zombie apocalypse movies do wrong is putting people in sensible clothes, instead of the random and cheap looking assortment of leathers, goggles, face paint, dubious hair (products), antler helmets, fur coats and random dude eyeliner tradition suggests. It very clearly states that the best post-apocalyptic acting is either the dumb staring of Cole Parker and John Freeman, the mild overacting of Chloe Farnworth or Micah Fitzgerald, or the mild, leisurely approach of everyone else, suggesting the apocalypse really is a picnic.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

In short: Judas Ghost (2013)

Four professional ghost finders working for the excellently named Carnacki Institute – cocky bossman Jerry (Martin Delaney), medium Anna (Lucy Cudden), tech guy Ian (Alexander Perkins) and former ghost hunter turned post-traumatic event cameraman Mark (Simon Merrells) – are supposed to shoot a training video for the institute getting rid of a minor haunting in some village hall. Things may not be quite what they seem though, and the harmless haunting quickly turns out to be something much more dangerous. It is even possible that our intrepid protagonists have been purposefully lead into a trap by their own employers.

This cheap little number written by Simon R. Green (author of a few dozen or so pulpy novels that can be pretty fun when read in the right spirit and mood) and directed by Simon Pearce takes place in the universe of Green’s Ghost Finders novels (and various other series, because what genre writer can resist connecting everything with everything?). Budget-wise, this looks rather like a pretty cheap TV movie, with the single set, special effects of dubious quality just above backyard movie standard, basic direction and a script that isn’t one for subtlety or originality and contains about as many surprises as it contains new ideas (which is to say zero). In fact, you could sell me on this being a pilot made on spec for a TV series nobody wanted to pick up.

Fortunately, this doesn’t mean you can’t have fun with Judas Ghost. What it lacks in intelligence or originality, it – rather typical of what I’ve read of Green’s books – makes up for with a nice sense of pacing that would probably reach break-neck speed if the production could only afford that sort of thing. And while all the paths here are well-trodden, the film presents even the most silly and generic bit of haunting business with enthusiasm and conviction, enough so that it becomes rather fun to watch on a very basic level. So, for the sort of very minor horror movie fodder it is, Judas Ghost is actually quite entertaining - not the sort of thing I’d ever recommend anyone but the completist to actually seek out, but certainly a film one can have seventy minutes of mild fun with if one stumbles upon it.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

In short: The Drownsman (2014)

Madison (Michelle Mylett) is suffering from visions of a rather wet looking gentleman (Ry Barrett) trying to drown her. It’s gotten so bad, she has reached a stage of hydrophobia where she even has to take in her fluids intravenously. How she isn’t already in a mental health facility, only the script gods know.

After not appearing for her job as maid of honour for the wedding of her best friend Hannah (Caroline Korycki), Hannah and her other interchangeable girlfriends decide on the most stupid way to put her back on track again: an intervention including a part-time psychic, a staged drowning in a bathtub, and lots of nonsensical talk. This really seems to get the Drownsman going, and now he isn’t only appearing to Madison alone but to her friends also – and where he was only a threatening presence before, he now goes in for the kill.

It is rather difficult for me to take Chad Archibald’s The Drownsman as seriously as it wants to be taken, primarily because large parts of the script are quite so stupid, and the non-supernatural elements of the film do seem more unbelievable than the supernatural ones. So, no, this is not how mental illness works, this is not how interventions work, and this – I hope – is not how friendship works, the film seemingly taking place in bizarro land even without its watery supernatural serial killer. In fact, I had more difficulty suspending my disbelief regarding these supposed real world parts than the Drownsman, a process that wasn’t made any easier by the bland characters. Other horror films just go for clichéd one-note characters, but The Drownsman doesn’t even go this deep, so Maddy and her circle of friends don’t exactly make for riveting victims, or people you want to spend any screen time with.

Having said that, I also have to admit that I still enjoyed parts of the film. Sure, the plot – such as it is - is made out of bits of better movies, with a killer who works as a watery version of a less talkative Freddy Krueger, but its consciously surreal horror movie set pieces are somewhat interesting and even kinda cool, and while the film is pretty dumb, it also isn’t in the habit of dragging its feet and having nothing happen. Sure, I would have loved to see something intelligent  or thematically, or emotionally involving made from The Drownsman’s basics but at least it’s not (too) boring. How’s that for a recommendation?

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

In short: La Mansión de la Niebla (1972)

aka Maniac Mansion

Warning: I’m gonna spoil the obvious

Thanks to particularly thick fog, various people (among them usual suspects Analía Gadé, Alberto Dalbés and Eduardo Fajardo) end up stranded in a lone house right next to a cemetery. This being the sort of film it is, there’s something not at all right with the place: the owner (Evelyn Stewart) tells a mildly disturbing story about a mysterious illness and a dead ancestor who was supposed to be a vampire, with many an added meaningful glance thrown; the house is full of occult pictures; and it seems there’s a big, possibly dead, chauffeur walking around. Things don’t become less disturbing for the guests the longer the night goes on, for there’s bad age make-up, random body parts and the threat of dead-or-not chauffeur-induced violence.

Francesco Lara Polop’s movie about a mansion in the mist is a bit of a throw back to the Old Dark House films of yore, though the mandatory gorilla has been replaced by that zombie chauffeur, and there are some very tame attempts at sexing proceedings up a little but still mostly keeping everyone’s clothes on. Yes, I was disappointed about that last one too. As in the old entries in the genre, the supernatural here will also turn out to be mere part of a rather dubious plan to drive an heiress mad; as is tradition, it’s a plan made rather problematic by needing to have a group of people travelling independently be stranded by fog, which is not what we in the heiress killing business call a sound idea, even in an area where it’s regularly foggy. So, as it goes with these things, the natural explanations for the seemingly supernatural occurrences are actually less plausible than explaining them by ghosts and witches; in fact, trying to think through who does what when here for what reason might lead to a mild headache.

On the other hand, nothing here is so interesting the non-supernatural explanation will actually turn out to be a disappointment, because disappointment generally needs expectations to disappoint. This doesn’t mean the film is without its attractions – there are some decent moments of classic gothic-style shudders, Polop knows his way around filming a moody bank of artificial fog, and Evelyn Stewart does know who to do sinister meaningful stares rather well, whereas the other actors are playing their quite obvious parts with off-handed professionalism and just a small side of cheese. It’s all very pleasant and old-fashioned, and while this certainly isn’t a lost classic of gothic or would-be gothic, and won’t excite anyone overmuch, La Mansion does have enough to offer for a bit of a diverting time if one adjusts her expectations properly.