Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Exorcist III (1990)

After studiously sitting out the sequel people don’t like to acknowledge, Police Lieutenant Kinderman (George C. Scott) returns to hold bizarre monologues about carp, stare, then stare and stare some more, shout and do everything else you are wont to do when you’re played by George C. Scott. Oh, and he’s onto a rather interesting case, too, for the serial killer known as the Gemini Killer seems to have returned. The problem is that the Gemini Killer’s been dead for fifteen years; however, the victims are found bearing marks only the cops concerned with the case would know about. And as you know, Jim, no cop would ever commit a crime, so there will be know investigation in that direction during the course of the film.

To be fair, that’d be a cold lead anyway, as Kinderman quickly learns when his old friend Father Dyer – remember him? – (Ed Flanders) is the killer’s next victim while having a bit of a lie down in the bizarro world version of a hospital. In the hospital, Kinderman is soon stumbling onto something rather peculiar – a mysterious patient of the “disturbed ward” looks exactly like The Exorcist’s saintly – and decidedly dead - priest Damian Karras (Jason Miller). When he’s not looking like the Gemini Killer (Brad Dourif) that is. Clearly, the best course for Kinderman is to listen to the Gemini Killer ranting on and on and on and expositing in a very Dourif manner while from time to time the hospital is hit by a jump scare or two, and a murder or three happens. Also on the program: doubting of faith, a random studio-mandated exorcism by Nicol Williamson, and lots of stuff being Catholic probably wouldn’t much help one to understand.

In the last few years, Exorcist writer William Peter Blatty’s second (and until now last) feature, based on his own book “Legion” (which isn’t called “The Exorcist III” for a reason) seems to have had a bit of a critical renaissance as a much overlooked gem. In so far as this means this is a film very well worth watching, I’m rather happy with this fact; if I’m supposed to pretend this is a good one I’ll just have to disagree (probably while snorting disbelievingly). It’s a fascinating film, and probably as close as US studio horror film can get to the often nonsensical glories of Italian horror of the 70s and 80s, but it sure as hell (see what I did there?) doesn’t work as a narrative or as a mood piece. It also has no dramatic pull whatsoever. Or are there really viewers out there who care about what happens to anyone here?

The plot – such as it is – makes little sense outside the obvious basics of it that could be told in half an hour, and the rest of the film’s narrative is filled out/bloated up by scene upon scene of actors making their way through Blatty’s stilted pseudo-intellectual (that is, not as intelligent as it pretends it is beyond quoting better writers than Blatty himself) dialogue, some suggestions of horrible and creepy stuff that usually don’t amount to much beyond a jump scare – and at this point 2005 and later horror cinema has made me practically immune to those apart from provoking annoyance – and Scott and Dourif out-chewing the scenery.

As a director, Blatty tends to the slow and ponderous, preferring long, static, highly composed in a “look, I’m doing art!” way shots broken by fast cuts to other static shots in the same style to just about anything else. Not surprisingly, this approach is not conducive to an emotionally striking film, it does add quite a bit to the film’s odd charm, though. There’s always something to be said for a director (a dilettante as Blatty clearly is in that role) doing things his own way, the rules and logic of filmmaking be damned, and given my love for the Jean Rollins, Jess Francos, Andy Milligans and Lucio Fulcis of this world, I’d be the last to hate Blatty for it. It’s just that the films of the directors I listed often – once you’ve seen enough of their stuff – reach a point where their own logic starts to make sense to me, whereas Blatty’s film stays abstractedly, distantly weird, instead of obsessively personal, and feels rather more interesting than compulsive.

Having said that, I’m still happy I live in a world where a film like The Exorcist 3 exists, and people appreciate it, for while it doesn’t work for me as much as I wish it would, its willingness to go off the reservation as much as it does, to not be the obvious sequel to the Exorcist the studio of course wanted it to be, and to just do its own thing, if an audience will like it or not, is something I can’t help but respect.

Plus, where else can you find George C. Scott holding forth about the horrors of the carp his wife put in the bathtub for what feels like hours (as well as a joke waiting for a punch line)?

Saturday, January 30, 2016

In short: Eight Legged Freaks (2002)

This time around, the proverbial US small town is overrun by a horde of giant spiders of various subspecies. You see, the owner of the local spider farm unknowingly fed them crickets who were contaminated by whatever chemicals a (most probably evil) corporation is illegally dumping around town, leading to a bunch of hungry, aggressive and really rather large arachnids finding a new food source.

Our heroes of the day are single mom Sheriff Samantha Parker (Kari Wuhrer), her young son Mike (Scott Terra) – wearing glasses, and therefore knowledgeable about all things spider – and her teenage daughter Ashley (Scarlett Johansson in the mandatory horror movie you are obliged to make in Hollywood before you’re famous), as well as Chris McCormick (David Arquette), the son of the – now dead - local mine owner come back to not sell his mine to the evil corporation as represented by the mayor and to finally declare his love to the Sheriff. But first, there’s a spider problem to solve through appliance of guns, pointy objects and a very large explosion.

So basically, this is the stuff SyFy Originals are made of, just on a much better budget that buys the film things like an old-style Hollywood score (by John Ottman), enough locations for three SyFy movies, and an effects budget that pays to show a bit more of a small town overrun by giant spiders than most films of its ilk.

The script is of course a semi-parodic rehash of the usual things, not as clever as something you’d have gotten when John Sayles was writing for Roger Corman, but often quite funny, playing with a few genre tropes without ever becoming mean-spirited.

In the hands of director Ellory Elkayem, the script turns into a fast paced little number with a lot of well-timed sight gags, very pretty photography and very decent all-digital effects. Admittedly, there’s not much substance to the whole affair but Eight Legged Freaks is so fun and fast, with a likeable cast of humans and very loud digital spiders that substance is not really the point it is trying to make.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Past Misdeeds: Oh! My Zombie Mermaid (2004)

a.k.a. Ah! House of Pro Wrestling

Original title: A! Ikkenya Puroresu

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.
Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

Japanese pro-wrestler Kouta Shishioh (famous on Wikipedia Japanese pro-wrestler Shinya Hashimoto) has put all of his not exactly bottomless fortune into fulfilling the dream of his wife Asami (Urara Awata) - a house of their own for the pair and their two children.

Alas, misfortune strikes on the day Shishioh celebrates the completion of the new home. First, a surprise visit by the martial artist Ichijoh (Nicholas Pettas, artfully embracing the tradition of terrible Western actors in Asian films) who holds the wrestler responsible for the death of his brother turns into a mass brawl that destroys half the house and all of its furniture. Then, a bomb explodes and destroys the uninsured building completely. It's even worse - Asami is still in the house and while she survives without any major burns, the doctors tell Shishioh that she has suffered irreparable brain damage and will probably never wake up from coma.

Shishioh's best idea to put things right again is to build an even bigger house where the old one stood, which would - at least for the friend of magical thinking - automagically make everything better again. So Shishioh drives his small wrestling troupe and his manager (who is also Asami's sister and has quite a thing for him) Nami (Sonim) from event to event, starts to take money from Yakuza and stops paying his troupe, all in the desperate drive for money. He even agrees to take part in a reality show about his life.

When Asami suddenly awakes from her coma, she seems to be much better than the doctors had expected. Well, until her skin starts to peel off and she slowly starts to transform into a mermaid, that is.

Asami doesn't take too well to that, and one suicide attempt of his wife later, Shishioh is in even more need of money.

The TV producer makes him an offer the straight-laced wrestler at first refuses for moral reasons, but then just has to take: fight a series of true death matches throughout his newly made house against the not exactly sane fighters of something called DDD.

What our dim-witted hero doesn't realized is that all his troubles have been engineered by the evil, cynical reality show producer. Even his wife's mermaidization through an experimental mermaid virus! (Can't you just see the military applications of this? Hyper-intelligent sharks are nothing in comparison!)

Only with the help of his old wrestling troupe, a duo of otaku and a heap of violence will Shishioh be able to win a happy ending for himself and his family.

If there's one sure thing in the world it is the fact that whichever country has a bunch of professional wrestlers will sooner or later also produce some cheaply filmed movies showing off their wrestlers' not always existing acting talents. This can lead to wondrous things (see lucha cinema) or things man wasn't meant to know (see Hulk Hogan).

Zombie Mermaid (by the way without any truth to the zombie part of its title, unless you interpret the mad hobo as a zombie - but he sure is no mermaid) is fortunately more on the light side of the force, or it is if you are able to get through its first half.

That's actually easier said than done, because someone in charge of the film's production seems to have thought that the main reason people watch films with wrestlers is for their stars' serious, dramatic acting chops. This is of course a fallacy, especially when we are talking about wrestlers not wearing masks and not having their voices dubbed by professional actors. Hashimoto isn't at all able to change my mind about this, and I have to admit that I was more than once tempted to just stop the film and write off another thirty minutes of my life.

But then suddenly, quite unexpectedly, there comes a scene in which our hero is acting disturbed by the things around him. Nami expertly diagnoses him as scared as hell and in dire need of relaxation. So she takes off her shirt (nope, no breasts for you, only for our hero, people in need, sorry), embraces him and proceeds to bite him rather energically in his arms and shoulders. This is the moment the whole film comes around and turns from mostly ill-advised drama into a batshit insane fighting movie. Hashimoto comes around too, and it turns out that his dramatic chops may not be up to much, but when it comes to hitting and kicking people and looking royally pissed off doing it, he is up there with the best of them.

And what beautiful battles he fights! The fighting choreography gracefully glides between the merrily bloody and the bloodily absurd and has just about everything I ever loved about films scripted by drunken monkeys.

A fight against the wild man of the toilet? Check. The troubles of an honourable wrestler when he has to fight against a gu...a gu...a girl!? Check. Trap chandeliers to make the duel against a Japanese punk and a mad hobo who tries to strangle our hero with his hobo entrails more interesting? Check. A levitating mock Chinese wire fu fighter meets a motorcycle? Check.

Oh, it is truly glorious, in fact so glorious that I can't help but graciously forgive the film its drab first half. It is understandable that only a select few films can keep up this sort of madness for a whole 100 minutes.

Now, some of my more sane and artistically minded readers might think all of this does sound rather low-brow, like a film without much of a deeper meaning and of dubious moral value, but...

...well, you know what? My more sane and artistically minded readers are probably right about that. Unless one is of a mind to argue that the sudden and complete dissolution of a middlingly funny, drably dramatic wrestling movie into a piece of utter, beautiful insanity has a value all of its own.

But who has time to philosophize stupidly when he has to watch the chandelier/hobo/entrails fight again?

Thursday, January 28, 2016

SyFy vs. The Mynd: Night of the Wild (2015)

A meteorite goes down in a rural community in the US, bathing the local dog population in a perfectly serviceable green glow. Quickly, Patches, Mr Stinky and cohorts turn into a bunch of evil man-eating killer dogs. Clearly, nobody was prepared for this, and despite a whole load of guns, the locals are no match for the coming Dogpocalypse (nobody ever bothers to phone for outside help, of course or the dogs chewed through a lot of cables).

When the film isn’t using its time on dog attacks on random people, followed by more dog attacks, and then some more dog attacks, it also spends a bit of quality time with a family scattered around the area – there’s Dave (Rob Morrow) on business with the apple harvest (and dog attacks), step-mother Sara (Kelly Rutherford) protecting a little daughter from the planet Annoying, and the heroine of the piece, Rosalyn (Tristin Mays), on a dog attack rich camping trip with her soon to be dead girlfriends. Rosalyn herself is pretty safe, though, because she’s really good at killing dogs with knives. There’s also some business about family dog Old Shep (seriously) who is supposedly so old he can’t even be hit by evil meteorite rays anymore even though the dog playing him is jumping around like nobody’s business, as well as the usual SyFy Original family stuff.

It’s not much at all of that, though, for director Eric Red clearly prefers the dog attacks to everything else in the film. In theory, I’m all for this sort of nature strikes back movie concentrating on the bloody business; in the practice of Night of the Wild, I found myself increasingly bored by yet another scene of dogs (or even some hand puppets standing in for the dogs, or some godawful dog doll things) first attacking faceless (and therefore dramatically pointless) people and then eating them. Turns out this sort of thing somewhat loses its lustre when a film has hit the fifty minute mark and we’re watching scene number six or seven of that sort, with no hope of any shake-up in the formula. Even decently filmed (and they sure are) dog attacks become tedious after a time, and because the film spends so little time on everything else, it becomes a bit tedious too.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

In short: Rammbock (2010)

Viennese Michael (Michael Fruith) is only coming to Berlin to give his ex-girlfriend Gabi (Anka Graczyk) back her apartment key, in the not so silent hope they just might get back together again if they only talk things out. Gabi isn’t home, though, and one of the two workmen doing something or other in her flat gets a bad case of the zombies - fast, shouty, “infected” type.

So, very quickly our mild-mannered and generally unprepared for survival and violence hero finds himself barricaded in Gabi’s apartment together with the other, younger, non-zombified workman (Theo Trebs) while outside what just might be the end of the world as he knows it starts.

Given how little the Powers that Be in Germany’s film-funding world love genre apart from po-faced as only German movies can be po-faced cop stuff and idiotic comedy, I can only assume director Marvin Kren convinced one of our state-owned TV channels, the ZDF, to finance a short-ish zombie feature for its venerable series “Das kleine Fernsehspiel” (which translates roughly to “The Small TV Play”) via white magic. I’m glad he did, too, for the film is a little treasure in the unceasing horde of contemporary zombie film.

It approaches things in a mostly realist way – apart from the usual bleached-out colour scheme of course – with a lead who really isn’t terribly well equipped – physically or psychologically – for the catastrophe he finds himself in and a zombie apocalypse that feels believable and logical in a manner those films in a more survivalist fantasy mode never do to me. Once Michael – and the more fit for survival Harper – start to act, things do of course go terribly wrong, but they do so in a manner well fitting to a situation nobody could truly be prepared for. Even at that point, the film still keeps things admirably down to earth, and even when the characters get their McGyver on, they do so in a way and manner that feels like real improvisation more than like the filmmakers aiming for something cool.

Rammbock’s is an effectively quiet approach to the zombie apocalypse that doesn’t include – or need – much gore, that uses suspense and the sad humanity of its characters more than outward action, and that feels, in lack of a better word “European” not just because its characters don’t have easy access to guns. As always, using the local well while telling a not terribly original story does a film a world of good, and turns it into something much more worthwhile than just another zombie movie.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Huntress: Spirit of the Night (1995)

Upon the death of her father, Tara (Jenna Bodnar) returns to the mansion in the small Welsh village in Romania where she grew up for the first ten years of her life before her mother died, when her father shipped her off to the US at once. There’s something rather strange going on in the village, for her father’s old friends warn Tara not to stay for too long, giving all the signs of Crazy Ed characters who never help anyone by muttering extremely vague warnings that sound even crazier than what they’d say when they’d just actually told a protagonist what’s going on.

Well, at least Tara’s childhood friend Michelle (Blair Valk) is greeting her with open arms (and an open blouse, if push comes to shove). Of course, as we will soon learn, she and Tara’s old childhood crush have plans on acquiring Tara’s family estate for cheap to get at something much more valuable that’s supposed to be hidden there, even if it means a bit of seduction and aphrodisiac use is necessary.

These plans will be a secondary problem for our heroine, though, because she soon finds herself afflicted by an old gypsy curse that make her eyes go black, provokes the dry-humping of furniture, and loosens her formerly tight inhibitions up for quite a few sex scenes. There might also be a killing spree in her future, but the film keeps things vague regarding that point.

When it comes to late night cable TV style softcore movies with a horror base, Huntress is certainly one of the more watchable ones, seeing as it actually bothers to have something of a plot, aims for style (even if it mostly arrives at kitsch and blue light, but that’s more than a lot of films I’ve seen manage), and makes mightily mood-improving use of the not at all Welsh looking locations in Romania where it was shot.

There’s a pleasant degree of the Gothic about Tara’s family mansion, there’s a gypsy curse, and those parts of the film not concerned with the obligatory and often quite hilarious sex scenes (though the film really prefers Tara having her way with furniture than with people) are even somewhat atmospheric. Plus, in which other sub-sub-genre would anyone think having one’s protagonist pressing herself against taxidermied animals would 1) be a good idea and 2) be sexy?

I’m also kind of on board with director Mark S. Manos’s (no relation to the Hands of Fate, one hopes, though the Master is silent about the matter) attempts at keeping ambiguous how bad the curse of the Beast Tara is suffering from actually is for her? Sure, it makes her hump furniture but it also gets her in touch with her sexuality and her cursed person that isn’t quite a werewolf superpowers do save her life at least twice.

Less great are the whole semi-gaslighting angle, as if an old gypsy curse just weren’t enough for a film, and the film’s interpretation of an open ending, which in this case consists of it simply ending one or two scenes before its story is actually finished. On the other hand, being actually watchable as a movie that’s visibly striving for and sometimes even achieving a gothic atmosphere (with added nudity), is more than I can say about many of the sub-sub-genre colleagues of Huntress I’ve seen.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

In short: The Martian (2015)

Well, at least it’s better than Gravity. But seriously, I basically have the same troubles with this film I had with Andy Weir’s book, namely that it’s such a typical example of that kind of absurdly optimistic SF that’s convinced every problem can be solved in a technical manner if one only applies enough elbow grease. And while I certainly prefer that to The Cold Equations style bullshit, this approach does ignore the fact that sometimes, you’re fucked even if you do not do anything wrong, that there’s situations you can’t escape from. One might even argue this sort of tale suggests if someone doesn’t survive a catastrophe, it’s their own fault because they weren’t plucky American enough. And people wonder why I’m sceptical about optimism as a concept. Though, when I compare this to the brilliant but also less elbow-greasy Interstellar, it’s not the optimism as such but The Martian’s inability to sell it, perhaps because of trouble number two.

For trouble number two is the incredible blandness of Matt Damon’s main character, a man whose emotional reaction to being possibly doomed to die on Mars is to shrug, quip, and go on to the business of applying elbow grease and science to grow some potatoes. As book and film portray him (though you could argue the book’s even worse), Damon’s Watney has no character traits, no psychology, and really nothing and nobody about Earth he seems to miss in a way that actually hurts, which makes it rather difficult to care about his survival – if the set-up and tone of the whole affair didn’t make it clear from minute one that he’s going to survive in any case, so there’s no reason to get excited about him from that perspective either.

If you can ignore that, The Martian’s not a bad huge SF disaster movie, with a cast ridiculously overqualified for the little the script gives them to work with, shiny special effects. Pretty much what you’d expect from a flick made by Ridley Scott in his by now nearly two decades old incarnation as a director who does little but add a glossy professional sheen to every project he’s involved in, his days of giving his films actual personality long gone. As Scott, his The Martian is big time Hollywood professionalism, for better or worse.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Past Misdeeds: Las Momias De Guanajuato (1972)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.
Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

Of course, everybody knows about the famous mummies of Guanajuato. What fewer people know is that a small room next to said world-famous mummies houses a bunch of different mummies whose hands and faces seem to be the only mummified parts of their bodies. The rest of their bodies looks rather wrestler-like. That's no wonder, as the diminutive tourist guide Pinguino (Jorge Pinguino) explains. You see, the largest of these mummies is a certain Satan (Manuel Leal) who once made a pact with the other Satan to become invincible in the ring. It didn't turn out too well for him, as the Santo of 1871 (El Santo, obviously) did win his title from him. It is said that after a hundred years have passed, Satan (the wrestler, not the pitchfork guy) will return to take his vengeance on Santo (and every other masked wrestler available). Who the other semi-mummified guys are, we never learn.

Poor Pinguino witnesses the revival of Satan, and does the obvious and best thing - he tries to get a hold of his wrestler friends Blue Demon and Mil Mascaras and convince them to get rid of the mummy threat. However Pinguino is, even with the help of Lina (Elsa Cardenas), nightclub singer and fiancée of Mil Mascaras, unable to convince the increasingly sceptical luchadores of a single word he says.

That is something that will come and bite our wrestling heroes in the muscular asses when Satan, sometimes assisted by his henchmummies, starts a nightly killing spree. The evil one even goes so far as to ambush the exceedingly ambushable Blue and steal his mask and his pants to make the hapless man the police's main suspect in the killings.

Since the mummies also turn out to be unwrestleable, it does not look good for our heroes. Until a Santo ex machina arrives, that is. Afterwards, they're just not looking good and Santo finds his place next to Superman in the annals of dickishness
Las Momias De Guanajuato is the first in a short, increasingly cheap series of films which put luchadores who aren't El Santo against their natural enemy - the mummy. The first one in this case is really the best, thanks to the fact that while Santo might just be doing an extended cameo, good old Blue and fab and fashionable Mil Mascaras are much too loveable to be second choice (and further mummy films would steep as low as to feature Superzan).

It's just too bad that nobody seems to have told this to the script writers, and so Mil and Blue are mostly stumbling through their own adventure with a nearly comical ineptness (they don't even win a single fight outside the ring), while heroically keeping their game faces on. The masks were probably a godsend in this case.

Still, if one can ignore the indignity of Blue Demon losing his pants (and really, if you want to watch lucha films from this era, "indignity" shouldn't even be in your dictionary), Guanajuato has a lot of fun things to recommend it. Blue and Mil are in good form and are losing their fights in fun enough ways - well, ignoring the various times when Blue gets knocked out from behind.

There's just about a quarter of an hour of actual filler, consisting of some light touristy bits and two musical numbers and so little comical relief that blinking really means missing this time around. That's next to nothing in lucha time and should be absolutely no problem for anyone seeking out a film like this. Even better, the rest of the film is surprisingly fast-paced with nary a scene that does not contain some interesting view into the private life of our masked hero friends or some mummeriffic dastardly deed.

The two ringside fighting sequences (the second of the two a quasi dream sequence in which Satan relives his traumatic defeat at the hands of the old Santo) are some of the more dynamic you'll get to see in lucha films, with an audience that seems to be honestly enthusiastic and directed with exciting and fresh ideas like different camera angles and honest to god fast editing.

Even the organ heavy easy listening music has a strange and uncommon whiff of having been chosen with a discerning ear, that is to say, it does from time to time show an actual connection with the things happening on screen, something like a minor triumph if you ask me.

It's perfectly reasonable to praise the film's director Federico Curiel for the high entertainment value of the proceedings. Curiel directed more lucha and Mexican pulpy horror films in his life than most people have seen, among them personal favourites of mine like the Nostradamus series, La Venganza de las mujeres vampiro or Los campeones justicieros. Of course, he's also responsible for Ssuperzam el invencible, one of the more terrible crimes against humanity committed by cinema. Still, what I wanted to say before I started to list film titles and gaze into the abyss that is Ssuperzam is that Curiel was perfectly able to make an exciting piece of pop/pulp cinema as long as he got at least a little money and something that could be called a film script in the broader sense.

With luck, Curiel would even remember some of the things about the use of shadow in horror sequences he must have learned while making black and white films and apply them to his colour work to give some scenes an actual sense of mood and style. More often, there is an uncontrolled, dynamic feel to Curiel's work that is of course a product of the need to shoot his films fast and on the cheap for producers who couldn't care less about quality.

But this friction between actual talent (that does not need to be high-minded or even consciously interested in producing anything of quality, mind you) and pure greed is often where the fun happens in pop & pulp cinema.

And Las Momias De Guanajuato is a lot of fun.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Island of Terror (1966)

A rather peculiar human corpse is found on an isolated island between England and Ireland (I’m not sure if this is explicitly meant to be Pitcairn): it is boneless and has a jelly-like consistency. The local doctor (Eddie Byrne) has no idea what could be going on – a new infectious disease, perhaps? – so he jaunts off to fetch eminent pathologist Dr Brian Stanley (Peter Cushing) who in turn fetches “young” bone specialist Dr David West (Edward Judd as the most boring man alive) who in his turn again will – for reasons of plot contrivance too tedious to get into and so we have a character in the movie who is only there to be in hysterics at all times – fetch useless rich girl Toni Merrill (Carole Gray).

On the island, the doctors quickly find quite a few more dead bodies and soon realize their problem isn’t a new kind of disease but the accidental product of another doctor’s attempt at curing cancer, which somehow resulted in bone-sucking monsters. Nearly indestructible monsters at that, if not for the wonders of that glorious stuff we know as Strontium-90.

Island of Terror is never going to be an important entry in the annals of British SF/horror films, nor one of the important films directed by Terence Fisher, nor any kind of career highpoint for my spiritual house patron, Peter Cushing.
It’s just too leisurely a film, with Fisher only seeming to put the minimum of effort – though the minimum of effort for Fisher is the maximum for many another genre director – into filming a script that itself barely scrapes by. Just look at the way the film isolates the characters on the island and cry bitter tears of It’s In The Script!.

Speaking of the script, apart from being rather silly (which is perfectly okay for this particular genre), it is too often falling back on variations of 50s US monster movie tropes, with a female lead character so useless even said 50s US monster movies would be a bit embarrassed about it, and a romance that’ll send shudders of horror down even the spines of the most hardened of viewers. The script also suffers from making so little out of the somewhat more original or more grim ideas it has. It doesn’t even bother to do anything with the moment where our heroes decide to murder our heroine so she doesn’t have to suffer through being bone-sucked, keeping what could lead off into an actually interesting little scene about a woman’s right to choose her own death (or something like that) a deeply unpleasant paternalistic gesture that probably can still invite a perfectly justified feminist rant.

Fortunately, there’s some enjoyable nonsense in here too, starting with the adorable looking monsters (or “silicates”, as the film calls them) that remind me of a some kind of English dish, only moving and with a single front tentacle, and that make the sort of electronic noises you also could have found in a contemporary  Doctor Who episode. And how many films are there whose grand finales are based on the heroes feeding cows they have poisoned with Strontium-90 to the monsters to then hope the creatures will die before they can bone-suck the rest of the cast?

Peter Cushing’s fine as always, of course, even with the little the film gives him. He milks the scene where he loses his hand for all it is worth and gets a few quips in I very much suspect were improvised on set and not in the script, and is otherwise the sort of presence that will improve every film. His old partner behind the camera Fisher does get around to two or so effective scenes between the parts of the film where he isn’t doing much beyond pointing the camera. Particularly the film’s finale is rather good, while the sting in the tale is not unexpected but fun enough in suggesting an imaginary Toho sequel.

Otherwise, Island of Terror is nothing to write home about, but is enjoyable enough.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Three Films Make A Post: For 500 years the secret lay dormant... Until now!

Ghost Town (1988): There’s a lot about Richard Governor’s only film (as finished by its DP Mac Ahlberg) Ghost Town that should make it an easy recommendation: the charm of its ghost town, how courageously it aims for the dream-like and the ambiguous, and more than one clever idea. But all that gets buried by a film that never actually finishes anything it starts, a plot that meanders all over the place without rhyme or reason, a big bad who never can shut up spouting his horrible, pseudo-creepy monologues and the damn one-liners, and a lot of the wrong kind of tedium.

Spooky, Spooky (1988): Tedium isn’t something happening in this Sammo Hung-directed horror comedy from Hong Kong, on the other hand. If you’re familiar with the genre, you know what to expect: characters with the emotional life of children, slapstick, martial arts, some mildly icky stuff, Chinese folklore, utter weirdness, a whole load of blue light, and a film philosophically and ethically set against being boring. This one actually starts a bit slow, but once it gets going, Spooky Spooky doesn’t stop anymore until it’s time for the credits to roll. On the way, Hung also somehow manages to include slapstick and martial arts based suspense scenes that are as tight as the ones in more earnest-minded films would be and teaches us the best use for a watermelon.

Creepozoids (1987): But let’s not end this post on too much of a high note. So who better to come to my help there than David DeCoteau, carrying an early epic about some non-entities played by non-entities and Linnea Quigley’s breasts wandering through a warehouse for fifty minutes or so. There’s some business about a virus that makes you allergic to food in the worst possible way, an adorable giant rat, and more tedium than you can expect from three movies of this sort. Why, even the big finale is a long slog. A long slog, that is, until the film’s horrid monster suit births a monster baby. Then, it’s ten minutes of hilarity during which one guy (seriously, using actor and character names would suggest an individuality that’s just not on screen) pretends to get attacked by the monster baby thing by shaking the doll around, repeated as often as necessary to get this thing on sort of feature length.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

In short: Hospital Massacre (1981)

aka X-Ray

Susan Jeremy (Barbi Benton) is just popping in to the local hospital to get the results of a routine check-up, but soon finds herself kept in for a possible deadly disease the doctors won’t name. Of course, given that this is the kind of hospital that has a random room full of creepy people with respiratory problems, another one loaded with moaning patients bandaged-up mummy style, where the patients of the mental ward seem to be randomly mixed with the rest of the patients and which employs doctors who put the sexual assault into medical examination, this sort of thing is par for the course for the place.

The root cause of Susan’s troubles is a particularly weird slasher killer who goes around killing off doctors and nurses all in service of faking Susan’s tests so she has to stay in the hospital. And here I thought Jason Voorhees and his adventures on a cruise ship and the New York sewers were weird.

Boaz Davidson’s Hospital Massacre is Cannon Film’s attempt to catch a bit of that sweet slasher trend money; the emphasis here is strictly on the word attempt, for this thing is a dire abomination whose divergences from the standard slasher formula are actually so bad, they could grant one an appreciation for the more classic tropes it eschews.

If the synopsis didn’t already suggest it, the whole thing takes place in a parallel universe where nothing makes sense, hospitals operate on the basis of random assumptions, and slashers have even better teleport powers than in more sane (I’d never believe I’d use that word to describe the slasher genre) pastures of the genre. Seriously, our killer here can basically be in two places at the same time.

Now, given my usual tastes, the film’s utter you have to see it to believe it weirdness should make this an easy recommendation for the easily distracted who always wanted to see a movie that needs a creepy medical examination as an excuse to show its Playmate lead actress’s breasts, or features a hospital so puzzling it might have been dreamed up by Thomas Ligotti. Curiously, though, I found myself mostly bored and annoyed by the film’s randomness, Davidson’s shoddy direction, the lack of even basic narrative structure in the script, and an “acting” performance by a female lead who can’t even express the most basic of human emotions. In the world of nude models acting in B-movies, Benton makes Pamela Anderson look like Harvey Keitel.

It’s a film so off, so strange, and just so obviously confused about how a horror film is supposed to work, it should be pushing all of my buttons, but in practice, I never, ever want to suffer through the thing again. Perhaps it is the film’s visible lack of enthusiasm for its own ideas that’s putting me off this much?

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Doctor Mordrid (1992)

Extradimensional sorcerer supreme Dr. Mordrid (Jeffrey Combs) is spending his time on Earth awaiting the earth-shaking attack of his arch enemy Kabal (Brian Thompson). I’m not sure that’s the best use of his time, seeing as he himself imprisoned Kabal in a magic space castle and knows very well where the guy is, so he might look out for him there, but what do I know.

Obviously, Kabal does break out of his decrepit space castle prison and starts spending his time stealing silver, diamonds and other elements useful for his plans to free a bunch of demons from said space castle prison and rule Earth with them, like the most overpowered petty criminal you’d care to imagine. Once he finds out, Mordrid probably would do something against Kabal, but before he can, he gets arrested for a sacrificial murder Kabal committed, on proof so non-existent the film doesn’t even bother to make anything up, but mostly because his love interest and neighbour Samantha Hunt (Yvette Nipar) – who works for the police as an advisor – sends her cop friends over to him to ask him for clues in the case. Nope, I have no idea, really.

Eventually, Samantha helps Mordrid break out and there’s a kinda-sorta show down in a museum. The End.

In the dark times of Marvel cinema licenses, the option for a Doctor Strange movie did actually land with Charles Band’s Empire for a time. Fortunately, that option expired before Band could actually make the film. Not to be discouraged by little things, Band re-tooled what already existed of pre-production materials into a project called “Dr. Mortalis”, which - with the end of Empire - then again got retooled into the Full Moon production we have here, which may or may not have started out as an all ages project that grew some breasts and mild ickiness.

Given that history, it’s no surprise the resulting film is a wee bit uneven. One would think, though, that all that reshuffling and rewriting might have convinced some of the people involved, let’s say Band who is co-credited as a director together with his father Albert, to include a plot that at least tries to hang together instead of delivering the series of scenes with little actual connection we get here. Now, I’m really not asking much of my movies, but I do prefer a film about battling extradimensional sorcerers to not take a twenty-five minute plus detour into a police station without any need apart from making the film longer. Bonus points would be available for a plot that would hang together a bit more, and a villain who’d be doing something mildly more interesting than stealing stuff.

As it stands, this is the most pedestrian use of its set-up imaginable, with a handful of pleasantly strange (sorry) scenes unable to keep one’s interest awake during all the boring tedious bits.
It’s too bad, too, for Doctor Mordrid does have some things going for it. First and foremost, Jeffrey Combs gives his character with an admirable lack of irony, so much so I’d be okay with having watched this thing just for the sake of seeing a man treat things with dignity and seriousness I wouldn’t have believed you could react to without hamming it up. I bet he’d even have been able to talk about the Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth with an impression of absolute sincerity.

The production design has its moments too, particularly when it comes to Mordrid’s space sorcerer age bachelor pad and the space castle prison (the film doesn’t even bother to give that place a snappy name). There’s also a very mild tyrannosaurus versus mammoth skeleton fight in the finale, but there, the fun idea is – as is so much else in the film – buried under a half-hearted execution that spends more time in a police station than on a sorcerous duel.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

In short: Campfire Tales (1997)

After a short black and white retelling of the good old tale of The Hook featuring Amy Smart before she was famous, a quartet of youngster (says the old fogey) stumble from the site of a post Iron Maiden concert car crash into some ruins in the woods to await the police. It’s night, and it’s cold, so they soon have a campfire going and begin to tell each other variations of some well-loved urban legends.

First, we follow the misadventures of a honeymooning couple landing in the wrong part of wilderness, then it’s off to a bit of a licking when an early chat room predator makes a house call at a little girl’s home, and in the final story, a motorcycle nomad breaks down close to the home of a decidedly attractive mute young woman, where love and ghosts occur, and somebody loses a head.

Campfire Tales is your classic portmanteau horror movie directed by three directors – Matt Cooper, Martin Kunert and David Semel – with visible love for straightforward yet effective horror tales. Which, obviously, is pretty much the only way to film urban legends, because these are stories that work much better when they are kept short and simple, with what they have to say about contemporary fears exiled to the realm of the – usually pretty darn obvious – subtext.

Because this sort of tale is quite so simple, it doesn’t lend itself to deep characters or attempts at art-housing it up through the addition of frightening things like meaning, philosophy or thought. Consequently, I’m very unironically happy the directors don’t try that sort of thing with their tales, instead aiming directly and unpretentiously for the small creeps and the decent moments of suspense, keeping their ambitions in check to actually do justice to their urban legend theme.

They’re doing a fine job with that too, ending up with a film that does the single, in theory simple but in practice often quite difficult thing of telling truly straightforward horror tales in an effective and atmospheric manner very well indeed.

In fact, Campfire Tales does it so well, I can even – if somewhat grumpily – accept that it uses the same final twist about forty percent of all anthology horror movies use. You know which one I’m talking about, but honestly, it’s okay here.

Friday, January 15, 2016

On ExB: 2012: Curse of the Xtabai (2012)

Original title: 2012: Kurse a di Xtabai

This certainly is the first film from the Central American country of Belize I’m writing up here (or have seen). It does fall into an idiom I’m quite experienced with, though. It does change the formula with a few things all its own, so it’ll come as no big surprise this month’s column over at the floating witch-woman known as Exploder Button is rather happy about this encounter.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Puppet Master III: Toulon’s Revenge (1991)

Welcome to backlot Berlin in 1941. Mild-mannered maker of living puppets Toulon (Guy Rolfe) and his beloved wife Elsa (Sarah Douglas) are putting on anti-fascist puppet plays for the little ones. Note: if your brain already starts to dribble out of your ears now because of historical idiocy, do not continue with the film.

Not surprisingly, this does awaken a degree of interest in the Toulons from Nazi circles, who also quickly cop to Toulon’s puppets actually being alive by virtue of Toulon haven’t mastered the skill of hanging up curtains. Toulon’s puppet science is exactly what one Dr Hess (Ian Abercrombie) needs to perhaps lead his project of creating viable Nazi zombie soldiers to success, so Hess would really rather get Toulon alive; GESTAPO Major Kraus (Richard Lynch) on the other hand – in the film’s most historically accurate element - just wants to kill everyone. During the resulting Dramatic Developments™, Elsa is killed by the Nazis.
Toulon manages to escape and starts on a plan to murder as many of the Nazis with the help of his puppet buddies.

Puppet Master III is a much more entertaining film than it has any right to be, more often than not managing to surmount a cornucopia of flaws by the sheer power of dubious yet awesome ideas. The main strike against it is of course that it is directed by David DeCoteau, a guy who could not and still can not shoot anything decently, like the living return of William Beaudine. There’s the expected aura of vague disinterest surrounding every scene that is certainly not helped by the fact DeCoteau can’t even squeeze in any of his trademark as-much-as-possible nudity of extremely vapid looking young men, which usually are the only times when his films come alive. Not ideal for a purported director of horror films.

As is his wont, DeCoteau does his best to drag down even the most exciting bits of the film through the sheer power of visual blandness, an impossible number of needlessly cramped shots (as if this thing were exclusively filmed on one meter by one meter sets), no clue about atmosphere and so on, and so forth. Just imagine a film made by someone without any visual imagination or much of a sense for drama or fun, and you get the drift.

Additionally, there are also flaws DeCoteau isn’t responsible for: the budget of a Full Moon production of 1991 just isn’t one that could provide for a decent period piece, so everything looks even cheaper and shoddier than a comparable Full Moon film taking place in the then and there would have; the script neglects to truly capitalize on some of its great ideas and tends to add meandering to the direction’s dragging; I’ll grant the thing its historical stupidity for being made by Americans and only aiming for a pulp Nazi thing anyhow.
After this list, I’m rather surprised by how much I did in fact enjoy this thing. But then, what the film’s got going for it is easily understood. For one, it’s the sheer pulpy fun of the killer puppet versus Nazis plot, something whose basic weird energy even DeCoteau’s direction can never completely sabotage – too huge is the power of seeing our favourite killer dolls shooting, slicing, leeching, drilling and so on and so forth Nazis, too ridiculously over the top is Richard Lynch doing the naziest of all Nazis. There’s a delightful sense of the weird and the perverse running through many of the film’s details (which ironically are also the parts of the film I wish the script had done more with, but you take what you can get). This does, after all, feature a scene where our perhaps ever so slightly mad hero uses the life force (soul?) of his dead wife to turn the doll he gave to her to commemorate their love into a leech vomiting (while making sex noises) killer puppet with a much better hairstyle and dress sense than before. That isn’t just Weird but also the kind of potent metaphor for the failings of the human heart you can only do in films as this which are absolutely not beholden to good taste, sense, or sensibility. Toulon’s explanation of the origin of his other dolls as housing the souls of his Nazi-murdered friends fits nicely in there too, and even though the film is too dumb to ever realize how horrible and sad this idea actually is, it’s still there, and for my taste strong enough to make up for many of the film’s failings.

Your mileage may of course vary, but I find myself drawn to the film’s shameless – and at this point in the Full Moon puppet world still blessedly untouched by irony – strangeness, its pulpy nature (even if it is pulp with hugely reduced energy thanks to its director), and perhaps even the all-around tackiness of much of the production.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

In short: Open House (1987)

Oh noes! Some crazy killer is slashing his way through the – preferably female – realtors of Los Angeles. But don’t worry, realtors of the world, the worst cop in town (Robert Miano), whose attitude is much further evolved than his competence, is on the case, doing diddly-squat but complain.

Things kinda-sorta start moving when radio psychologist David Kelley (Joseph Bottoms) gets involved in the investigation because one of his regular callers just might be the killer. Plus, Kelley’s girlfriend Lisa (Adrienne Barbeau) is a realtor, and whatever plot there is will get moving some time soon, right?

If you know Open House’s director Jag Mundhra at all, you probably know him as a purveyor of mildly up-market softcore smut (though he has some films in his filmography that aren’t), and even if I hadn’t known that before, watching this awkward attempt at mixing slasher and thriller tropes to mind-numbing effect would have suggested it. For this is very much a particularly lame softcore movie where many a scene is comparable to the pre-sex scenes of lame softcore with somewhat attractive, deeply untalented actors working their way up to a sex scene that then doesn’t arrive but is replaced by a bit of the old slasher violence. It kinda makes one miss breasts, particularly since the slashing and the stalking might be somewhat mean-spirited but are most definitely pretty damn boring. Turns out you need somewhat different talents for filming sex than for staging a thriller. My working theory is that Mundhra was initially planning to make a sex romp about realtors but had to change tacks half way through the production and just shoved half of a slasher script he found in a trashcan in.

Being a series of generally terrible scenes that end with the wrong kind of pay-off isn’t quite enough for Open House’s particular brand of dullness though. So, Mundhra fills the spaces between the sexless sex scenes with random scenes of Shapiro metaphorically scratching his ass (scenes of cops doing nothing while the audience has to watch being a special favourite of shitty horror films, as we all well know), various business about the Bottoms/Barbeau romance that is neither of import nor interesting to watch, a dire red herring plotline about Lisa’s evil low class (because of course this thing also has a nice line in being classist) competitor, and a lot of the usual stuff films include to avoid getting to their plot when they don’t have enough of it to fill a ninety minute slot. Some of this stuff may or may not be meant to be comical, but given the quality of the writing and the hackjob of the direction (what’s a transition?), it’s rather difficult to tell these things apart in this particular case.

It’s just as riveting as it sounds – not at all. While he’s at it, Mundhra also manages to get bad performances out of perfectly decent thespians like Barbeau and Bottoms, leaving this writer feeling rather shell-shocked by a film that combines all the issues of bad softcore and bad horror films without including any of their upsides; it’s not even bad in a way I could find myself amused by.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Slow West (2015)

Young Scottish upper-class guy Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee) makes his way westward through an Old West in its final stages. So there are still natives being massacred, and outlaws roaming, but the end of the old ways, and what we might for better or worse call the dawn of US civilization, is in sight. Jay’s looking for Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius), the woman he loves (even though it becomes pretty clear rather quickly she doesn’t love him that way), who has fled to America with her father after they accidentally killed Jay’s uncle in what was more a comedy of errors than murder.

Fortunately for Jay, whose mixture of mildness of manner, naivety and optimistic kindness is not fit for survival in the place and time he’s wandering through (one is a bit surprised he survived even Scotland until now), he encounters outlaw Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender). For a bit of money, Silas promises to lead Jay to Rose safely. Unfortunately, the outlaw isn’t quite honest with Jay, for he knows about a bounty placed on the heads of Rose and her father all the remaining outlaws and bounty hunters of the area (the difference is fluid) are itching to cash in. So, perhaps, he’s just using Jay to find Rose. That, however, along with the question of Rose actually wanting or needing to be found or rescued by Jay, is something that’ll only come up after a slow trail through the surreal cruelty and cruel surreality of the West and the people dwelling there.

I am generally very, very suspicious of artists with talent and a career in one type of art moving onto a completely different one, so I did go into former Beta Band member John Maclean’s first full feature film with an undignified degree of scepticism for someone whose main wish when approaching movies is to actually enjoy them. As always when I use this kind of intro in a write-up, I was wrong, wrong, oh so very wrong, and can happily report that Maclean is quite the director. In fact, Slow West just might be the best surreal – or at least non-naturalistic - European art house Western I’ve seen in a long time, moving from one strange yet meaningful encounter to the next with unhurried grace and style, as well as with a methodical approach to letting even its strangest moments carry meaning for its characters and its world.

The film’s West, as in many a European Western, is a state of mind, and a place you really don’t want to get your head into (nor the other way round), turning promises of freedom and new beginnings into lies carried by the rule of cruelty, a place without any protection from the grim humour of the universe or the meanest parts of the human spirit. Well, actually, it’s very much like I imagine Los Angeles to be now, which is only fitting, given that city’s location. But I digress. On the other hand, I don’t believe this is meant to be any kind of deconstructive Western, or indeed a film very much interested in talking about the genre in which it is situated in a meta way; it’s more taking an approach where you use what you need and find interesting and useful about a time and place and genre, and discard the rest without a second thought.

Unlike many Western of the past (the small yet powerful bunch of contemporary films of the genre pool made in the last few years is quite different there), Slow West does take pains to paint its West as a place not populated exclusively by white men, so, even though our nominal heroes are indeed pretty white and male, there’s more than room for everyone else too, with Native Americans, people who are clearly the immigrants all Americans were, and so forth, and so on, shown in all the places popular culture has so often denied them. There’s nothing showy about this approach here: Maclean doesn’t seem out to prove a point, but only does what is natural and true. And really, it’s also a nice opportunity to have three Congolese gentlemen sing a love song (as universal as death, Jay knows), which feels more surreal than it actually is thanks to one’s expectations of what the West was. Ironically, it’s also probably an absolutely realistic scene, which might tell us something about how we decide what is real and what not.

Maclean does something similar with the relationship of Rose and Jay, not actually telling a a story of a guy saving a girl yet also not just going on a rant about how evil and paternalistic this would. The film’s criticism is more polite, more compassionate, and also quite a bit sadder than that.

So, yeah, it’s quite the film.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

In short: The Editor (2014)

In the last few years, filmmakers have tended to make their love for the giallo more explicit, some aiming for your typical homages (take your pick), some using the visual style and some of the themes as jumping off points for art house mediations on everything or nothing (like Amer), others to critique the genre and think it further (see Berberian Sound Studio).

Astron-6’s Adam Brooks and Matthew Kennedy parody the genre through over-immersion in all of its tropes and signifiers while also adding a bit of the most loopy side of the Italian horror movie. The immersion technique used is so diligent, the film was shot without sound and – like the Italian movies it relates to – dubbed in the studio with sentence structures and line deliveries that are ever so slightly (or not so slightly) off, even to the owner of a German ear not unaccustomed to writing weird sentences like that himself. Every single scene here is staged, blocked, and lit right out of the (non-existing) giallo filmmaking handbook but moreso, the cast is getting the appropriate acting style (and fake facial hair) oh so right, unless they are Udo Kier, who does this sort of thing naturally anyway.

The resulting film is often very funny, clearly (just look at the number of quotes and nods towards the original films and how well they are done) highly knowledgeable of the genre it parodies by turning its many absurdist elements even more absurd and pointing out some of its obvious subtexts; and because it is just as weird and as weirdly intense as the genre it’s working on/off, it also manages to be just as dream-like and fascinating as the best of its Italian forebears. Because of this, The Editor doesn’t work so much like a normal parody of the giallo but as a film aiming to be the Ultra-Giallo (kaiju filmmakers, please phone me) while staying conscious of the absurdity of this endeavour.

Needless to say, I loved the film all the way through to the appropriately bizarre twist ending. All fears this might be based on smug superiority over the genre its working with I might have had turned out to be completely unfounded, for this is a labour of love as much as it is a parody. Or at least it very much feels like that.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

In short: The Shrine (2010)

Warning: despite being short, this is going to be full of spoilers, beginning right at the next sentence.

So, just imagine you were part of a small village in OntarioPoland full of CanadiansPoles who are protecting a cursed place that causes possession in anyone entering it? Would you build something, anything around it? Like, for example, a fence with no entry signs? Would you perhaps guard the place? Oh don’t be silly, how ever would you get around to being part of a plot twist that (surprise!) reveals the murderous (probably) inbred country folk to be murdering (probably) inbred country folk out to protect the world against DEMONS! Yup, that’s the twist here, and it’s about as well thought out as you’d expect, which is to say, not at all.

Add to that the usual crap about English language people visiting the horrors of a foreign country where everyone is primitive (and, as I have been told by people who know, speaks Polish with a heavy accent) and dresses medieval peasant-y, the absolutely pointless contortions the film goes through so that nobody knows where its main characters are even though there’d be no difference in the plot if people knew it (because the whole main plot takes place during the course of a day or so anyhow), and how much the main characters act like totally clueless horror movie characters (the sort of behaviour that only gets worse from a – plot-mandated or otherwise the writers would have had to think - point where we start out with them expecting to get around in the Polish countryside just with their English and their perfect American teeth), and you see me losing my patience with The Shrine rather quickly.

It’s too bad though, for the film’s pre-possession supernatural phenomena in form of an unnaturally unmoving fog and a moving, bleeding statue are rather creepy, and the basic idea of having people do terrible things in an attempt to push back the darkness would lend itself to a much more thoughtful and deeper approach instead of this one’s bad comic book stylings. As it stands, this is a technically competent film let down by a script that doesn’t seem to know what to do with its more interesting elements and puts its money on a lot of generic horror film gestures I’ve seen dozens of times in better films. So, the usual.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Past Misdeeds: Mirageman (2007)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

When he and his brother were young, Maco's (Marko Zaror) parents were killed in a robbery. Maco now works as the bouncer of a slightly classier strip club, but his parents' deaths hasn't left him with much of a life - he's honing his martial arts skills alone in his nearly empty cellar hole of an apartment and is obsessed with physical fitness, and that's all he has in life. He certainly has neither friends nor lovers.
Maco is still less hurt than his brother who lives in a mental institution, traumatized and depressed and unable to even leave his room.

One night on his way to work, Maco witnesses a robbery. He kicks the perpetrators' asses, donning the mask he takes from one of them for no reason he himself could explain, rescues their victims and flees. One of the victims (Maria Elena Swett) is a TV reporter and on the next evening news, Maco finds himself styled as a masked vigilante hero.

His brother sees the news too, and the newly made hero seems to help him to get in contact with reality again. With a motivator this strong, Maco really doesn't have much of a choice. He buys himself a reasonably silly outfit and tries to become the masked vigilante his brother dreams of.

At first, his exploits aren't always dignified, but everything goes reasonably well. Things change for him with rising popularity, though, and soon he has to cope with the dark side of the vigilante business - a media circus that wants to use him and eat him up, criminal enemies who are more dangerous than your typical street thug and the simple fact that Maco himself is not made of steel nor a millionaire playboy.

Mirageman demonstrates admirably that you don't need Hollywood blockbuster money to create a good superhero movie. Director/writer Ernesto Diaz Espinoza and his star and martial arts and stunt expert Marko Zaror (who before made Kiltro, "the first South-American martial arts movie", if I can believe what I read) take the whole masked vigilante thing down a to the street level and into something more akin to reality as we know it and ask the question how and why a physically normal man in modern Chile would go about being a hero of a sort. It's probably as close to realism as you would want a film like it to be.

The film's low budget aesthetic helps a lot to build this mood. Espinoza uses a lot of handheld camera (not to be misinterpreted as "shaky-cam"), while at least some of the film is obviously shot guerrilla style on the streets, giving everything a gritty sheen which reminds every reviewer writing about the film - me included -  of 70s cinema, as does the third generation funky soundtrack. The colours are unfortunately very much of the yellow, blue and grey 2000s, but I'm willing to let this slide as one of the compromises people making movies without much money have to make to be able to produce something at all.

The first half of the film plays at least in parts for laughs, but it never overplays the humour in the way your typical spoof would do it. The film's humour instead arises mostly from thinking the difficulties of things like costume changes in real life through and looking at them in a clever and dry sort of way without any need to fall back on meanness or slapstick.

But Espinoza is also able to handle the darker and more tragic parts of his film well, shifting its mood from lightness to grimness in a fitting replica of the history of superhero comics. If one goes into the film only expecting sweetness and light and broken bones, one would probably be shocked by the big final battle.
There are also some very fine fights on display which Espinoza decides to show instead of hiding everything in them away by way of fast cutting and stupid camera effects. It does of course help that Zaror is an actual martial artist who is able to perform authentically enough looking fights without problems. To my surprise, Zaror shows himself also to be quite a decent actor, able to sell the psychological scars of his character well enough.

Of course there are flaws - the film's pacing is a little jagged and not every element and character is as clearly or logically developed as our hero and his brother. I found the deus ex machina character who helps Maco a few times especially clumsily inserted.

Still, its healthy mixture of believability and playfulness, comedy and tragedy is what makes Mirageman so satisfying. It's the great little superhero movie that could, even though too few people know about it.

Three Films Make A Post: For fourteen thousand years... It waited.

Manborg (2011): If you want to understand the kind of movie this Astron-6 production is, you need to imagine the fabulous video store in the sky, where all the most bizarre elements from the cheapest post-apocalypse, martial arts, action, videogame and probably Godfrey Ho  movies have somehow been genetically merged, turning into the mighty MANBORG, a culmination of the art form that could not have come to pass until the 2010s because people crazy enough to make it on the monthly budget of a not particularly rich family of three do not fall from trees. All more concrete description would make this sound like a Troma film, but unlike Troma, Astron-6 cares, their jokes are actually funny, and their films not just pretend they’re fever-dream crazy, they actually are. They’re also not feeling like parodies to me so much as the ultimate love letters to things utterly ridiculous and therefore awesome.

Wrecker: Staying in Canada, but entering a much less rarefied space, Micheal Bafaro’s film is an ill-advised backdoor remake of Steven Spielberg’s Duel that really can’t survive the comparison with the original movie. And because Spielberg’s film was a TV movie shot on a tiny budget and on a very tight schedule, you can’t even excuse this one’s failings with it being a low budget film. It’s just that Bafaro is no young Spielberg. Not many directors are, of course, but then not many directors are inviting the direct comparison this openly.

The only interesting change here is replacing Dennis Weaver’s character with two young women (Anna Hutchison and Andrea Whitburn), but since their interactions are not exactly riveting, and this also eats into the feeling of isolation for the films’ respective heroes, this looks more like a film desperately trying to do at least something differently and failing. The rest of the affair is easily described as “Duel but bad”.

Lighthouse (1999): Our final film of the day leads us to the UK, and while it is not the catastrophe that Wrecker is, Simon Hunter’s film isn’t exactly exciting. Sure, there’s a lot more talent visible on screen than in the Canadian film, but in the end, this is the ultra-generic tale of various people in an isolated place being murdered by your usual near supernatural psycho. Having read that description and the title, you’ll know exactly what you’re in for, with only a handful of over-constructed suspense scenes to distract you from the fact that there’s little reason to watch a film quite this lacking in personality. If you’re a collector of slightly more famous actors in early(ish) roles in (sort of) slasher movies, this one gives you James Purefoy as “the good, potentially innocent criminal”. Other excitement is pretty much absent.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Hallow (2015)

aka The Woods (because there just aren’t enough films called like that)

Warning: spoilers are sometimes inevitable

Biologist (or maybe botanist, or conservationist?) Adam Hitchens (Joseph Mawle), his wife Clare (Bojana Novakovic) and their baby son Finn have moved into an old house in the woods somewhere in Ireland to evaluate which parts of the local forest are ripe for milling. The locals, particularly the family’s nearest neighbour Doyle (Gary Lydon), aren’t too happy with that, though not for ecological reasons but because they fear the revenge of the “Hallow”, the faerie population supposedly dwelling (and being unpleasant) in the area.

None of the grown-up Hitchens’ gives much about the vague superstitious murmuring around them, of course, which, given their improbability and vagueness does not come as much of a surprise.

Alas, even though they are interpreting things through a distorted lens, the villagers aren’t wrong; things are very much stalking the woods, and they are acting according to the traditional legends, if not for the reasons those legends would give. Given the child-stealing tendencies of the Good Folk that’s not good news for a family with a baby.

The first seventy minutes or so of Corin Hardy’s The Hallow are quite a wonderful achievement. The film cleverly updates classic faerie lore with a bit of body horror, providing a somewhat scientific explanation for it while still keeping most of the lore applicable and true. So, the non-scientific legends aren’t so much superstitions here as the result of people observing actual (horrifying) phenomena they can’t quite explain correctly because they lack the proper frame work for it, while on the other hand the scientific side discards these observations with their and because of their wrong explanations. This approach can’t help but remind one of Nigel Kneale, though Hardy doesn’t think things quite as far as Kneale would have.

Hardy presents this not in a dry and distant approach but as a tight creature feature with all the eye-mutilating ickiness you’ll hope for in a film that explains faeries via a fungal infection that leaves much room for body horror. Hardy makes good use of these body horror elements too, yet never falls into the trap of only banking on physically unpleasant transformations as the be all and end all of his film. Hardy’s a much too controlled director for that, instead using many a classic creature feature strategy to creep out his audience. There’s an intensity and a focus to the direction that looks very special to my eyes, the sort of directing approach that isn’t afraid of just cutting out the uneventful middle of the style of film he’s working in, going from the set-up directly to a series of climaxes without the film seeming to miss anything important.

The creatures (and babies) here are mostly based on practical effects (with a bit of digital help), demonstrating ably that this particular art still hasn’t died out, and giving the creatures a physicality and presence CGI (particularly on a budget) can’t always achieve without any visible drawbacks.

Having said all this, I couldn’t help but feel somewhat disappointed by The Hallow’s final climax (the final finale?), because it’s much too conventional for a film that has put this much energy and inventiveness into updating its monsters and changing its expected structure. So, we get a film that ends with the infected main character saving the life of his child because he can desperately cling to his humanity thanks to the power of baby love, followed by the film eschewing a possible and much more horrible final sting for one so been-there-done-that it left me in utter disbelief a film with this much clever stuff going on in it felt the need to go for a horror movie bullshit ending nobody will feel anything about instead of something actually disquieting and tragic that itself suggested so clearly before.

Of course, this does not turn The Hallow into a film not worth watching. For my taste, it however did turn a potential classic into a very good movie that just misses the final kick and falls back on highly competently realized conventionalities it should be too good for.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

In short: The Transporter Refueled (2015)

For the standards of Luc Besson’s Europa Corp. this attempt to get back to one of the company’s defining franchises without its defining star is a bit of a middling film, providing the expected amount of car chases, some martial arts set pieces that somewhat suffer from new lead Ed Skrein not being a seasoned (or good) screen fighter and clearly not a dancer either - which usually is the next best thing for fake martial arts in movies - and a bunch of stuff and nonsense.

Said nonsense is just general action movie silliness this time around and not Europa Corp. trademark brain-breakingly offensive stupidity, which should not be a complaint coming from a guy who has so often complained about the EC brand of stupidity in the past, but actually very much feels like one right now. Either it’s Stockholm Syndrome, or I’ve just gotten used to Besson’s very particular view of the world and the natural laws that govern it, but I’m missing the deeply stupid bits here, perhaps because most of Refueled’s silliness feels so pro forma and bland.

The word bland leads us directly to Ed Skrein, a man who I’ve seen act, so I’m pretty sure he can, but who doesn’t bother here. Instead he just shows up, mumbles through his dialogue in the most toneless voice imaginable, stiffly goes through the action sequences even though director Camille Delamarre – not being the terror we know as Olivier Megaton – does his level best to film around his lead actor in an action movie not actually being much cop for action sequences. Now, I’m really not a fan of Jason Statham, but Skrein’s performance at least gives me a new appreciation for Statham’s screen presence and acting abilities. Sure, it’s a pretty one note shtick, but unlike Skrein here, Statham always hits his one note.

Given Ray Stevenson’s presence as Frank’s father, I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one not terribly convinced by the film’s actual lead, so at least the film gives us the Europa Corp. mandatory aging English language actor having a bit of fun on camera. Stevenson’s cast in a bit of an atypical role here (he’s still a tough guy, but the charming and mildly cultured sort), and whenever he is on screen, proceedings become that important bit more lively. Why, even Skrein seems to wake up from his slumber a bit when Stevenson’s around to drag him out of his coma.

Thanks to Stevenson, as well as the fact that Europa Corp – whoever is actually directing any given movie there – can by now film solid action sequences in their collective sleep (and you could argue that’s how the action here came to be), The Transporter Refueled still works as an okay little Euro action movie. The genre – and even EC’s back catalogue – is just so full of more worthwhile films I’m not sure why you’d bother with this one unless you’re really, really bored.