Sunday, February 28, 2016

Retroactive (1997)

Warning: there are spoilers ahead

Former Chicago PD psychologist Karen (Kylie Travis throwing herself into the only good role she’ll ever play with all she’s got) is having a really hard time. She’s just quit her job after a hostage negotiation went horrible wrong, and is now going back to her roots somewhere in Texas. In this particular case, that means having her car break down out on a desert highway.

Things don’t improve for Karen when she’s picked up by a loud-mouthed asshole named Frank (James Belushi doing what he does best) and his at least psychically battered wife Rayanne (Shannon Whirry demonstrating that being mostly a softcore actress doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t act when a film lets you). Frank’s not just knee-deep in some sort of illegal activity but he is also just this short of breaking out into all kinds of crazed violent behaviours. Learning Rayanne is – quite understandably – cheating on him sure will do the trick. So soon Karen finds herself witnessing Frank murdering Rayanne, and just barely escapes into a one-man research facility where she just happens to get sucked back in time into her body of twenty minutes ago.

She still has all the memories and knowledge she had accrued in these twenty minutes though. Instead of sitting there slack-jawed as you and I would do, Karen at once takes charge trying to disarm the whole Frank situation, but her all attempts – despite her being ridiculously competent and off-handedly badass - only lead to an even higher body count and herself again having to flee into the research facility. Perhaps the next time’s the charm?

Retroactive’s director Louis Morneau is one of those generally ignored and unsung people who went through the early 90s under the tutelage/thumb of Roger Corman – the last point when that was a good thing for anyone but Corman. That means he’s learned how to shoot cheap, not necessarily stupid genre films and how to keep them entertaining as well as on budget.

The film at hand really is a case in point. It starts off with a preposterous set-up stitched together out of lost and found bits of other popular movies of the time that absolutely should not work together at all, but is redeemed by Morneau treating these ideas with utter seriousness and conviction, as well as with an eye for telling details that turns a cliché into something that feels real – or at least real enough for ninety minutes.

One of the great pleasures of Retroactive is when you realize – about halfway through when you’re me – how well constructed it actually is, how clever it uses facts it has established earlier on to turn any given situation into an even greater clusterfuck for Karen than the last time she went back in time, every attempt to change things for the better only making everything worse. The film’s solution to that problem is Karen just stepping back from the whole situation in the end, which also suggests her letting go of the guilt for the failed hostage negotiation. So, this is an action film that solves its plot by suddenly yet organically cutting off the increasing escalation of the violent proceedings by having its – utterly badass – heroine reassessing her situation and realizing what she isn’t able to change. I honestly don’t think I’ve seen something quite like this before.

Up to this point, said escalation is pretty brilliant too, Morneau squeezing an enormous amount of thrills out of four cars, half a dozen characters, a highway, a gas station and an underground time travel facility, using all these elements in a way that makes the film feel much bigger than he should by all rights do. The direction is tight, the plot runs at the proverbial breakneck speed yet the few slower moments and the finale when the film suddenly and very deliberately turns calm are just as effective. I don’t want to throw around a word like “masterful” but I can’t see how you could improve on what the director does with his material here.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

In short: The Bride (2015)

Original title: 屍憶

Apparently, ghost marriages were once a thing in Taiwan (and one supposes in other parts of China, too), a very peculiar bit of patriarchy in action. Unmarried women, you see, don’t properly belong to any man, therefore, in a society that just might have some mild problems with that sort of idea, she won’t get into the better bits of the afterlife or be reincarnated properly. How to solve the problem? Marry that unmarried corpse to a guy in a very particular version of a shotgun wedding.

This information is pertinent to the film at hand, for one of its two protagonists, TV producer Hao (Wu Kang-Ren), has been having nightmares and daymares ever since he’s gotten engaged to his fiancée (Nikki Hsieh Hsin-Ying). In these dreams, he’s pursued by a rotten-faced ghostly woman in a (traditionally red) bridal gown. Worse still, the dead woman’s attentions don’t stay in his dreams but take on rather threatening and spooky form in the real world.

When we don’t follow Hao’s unpleasant adventures in deeply unwanted marriage proposals, we spend some quality time with teenager Yin (Vera Yan Zheng-Lan). Yin has her own ghost troubles, for she’s starting to see ghosts wherever she goes. That’s something that seems to have been a common talent in women of her family in past generations, she’ll later learn; it seems to be her job to quiet the unquiet spirits. For a long time, Hao’s and Yin’s plots seem separate but they’ll converge in the end.

Lingo Hsieh Ting-Han’s The Bride is a fine bit of Asian horror. It’s not exactly deeply original, using most of the types of shocks we know from the last twenty years or so from horror films from places as different as China, Japan and South Korea, though it does replace the more typical long-haired ghost with the hidden face with its – effectively icky – ghost bride for about half of its shocks. Hsieh does use his well-worn material rather effectively, though, using some well-placed shocks and jump scares but clearly preferring the good old feeling of creeping dread; he’s rather good at creating that feeling too, playing sure-handedly with basic human fears.

The director hasn’t just learned the obvious bits from the last twenty years of Asian horror either. He also uses that calm, unhurried way of telling a story, providing more than enough of the creepy stuff on the way but building mood by not confusing his film with a carnival ride. That doesn’t just make the creepy things that do happen that decisive bit more effective (there’s little horrifying in horror films that only ever shout at you, after all, they’re just loud) but also leaves room for characters that are just deep enough to make their fates interesting. Hsieh also manages to use a certain structural trick connected with a plot twist (no, not that one, fortunately) while still playing fair with the audience and not making a film about the plot twist. Given how horrible these things more often than not play out in horror films, that’s probably The Bride’s greatest artistic success.

That it is also a traditional but effective and engaging bit of horror nearly seems beside the point in comparison.

Friday, February 26, 2016

OSS 117 se dechaine (1963)

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.

The American spy Roos (Jacques Harden) is killed while on a diving expedition set to find the place where the Russians are hiding their swanky new experimental atom submarine detector. This gadget would make US atom subs nearly useless, leading to dire danger for world peace because the Americans could incinerate the world's population only ten times over instead of twenty or something.

Renotte (Henry-Jacques Huet), the diving instructor Roos was working with (no, I don't know why he used random civilians in his work), convinces the French police that his charge's death was an accident, but the OSS is of a different opinion in the matter and sends its best man to finish the job Roos couldn't.

Said best man has been cursed with the dubious name of Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath (Kerwin Mathews), and quickly gets to work, mostly by making himself a pest to Renotte and trying to talk himself into Renotte's girlfriend's Brigitta's (Nadia Sanders) panties.

Fortunately for the viewer, a handful of Russian agents are making it their mission to complicate matters for everyone involved. It might even be possible that Brigitta is one of them too, without even the shady Renotte's knowledge.

Of course, what kind of secret movie agent would Hubert be if he wasn't able to kiss a Russian spy over to his side.

This, some helpful French spies, and a handily placed self-destruct button should be enough to make the world a safe place by keeping the potential number of victims in a war as high as possible.

Before Ian Fleming created his much loved super spy James Bond, French writer Jean Bruce had already penned an astonishing amount of spy thrillers about OSS 117, an American agent from New Orleans whose French roots were probably helpful when trying to sell him as a hero in France. As far as I (ignorant of French as I am) understand it, they must have been quite pulpy. There had already been a single attempt to adapt the series for the cinema in the 50s, but its lack of sequels doesn't exactly speak to its success.

Of course, in 1962 everything changed for the spy film with the appearance of the first Bond movie, showing everyone with an interest in money a new, unexplored genre to exploit.

It didn't take us Europeans long to jump on the spy bandwagon, and what better way to keep away from pesky law suits about intellectual property was there than to try and start another series of OSS 117 films?
OSS 117 Se Dechaine is the first of these new, improved OSS 117 outings. As these things go, the film is more a proto Eurospy effort with a heavy thriller influence than already a full grown example of the Eurospy genre. It has some of the hallmarks of later films, like the theoretically smart yet rather bland hero who doesn't really do much besides womanizing and punching people gallantly in the face, rampant sexism that should be much too ridiculous to offend anyone, and a happy disregard for the realities of violence and death I always find charming.

What the movie misses is the full-grown insanity of later efforts in the sub-genre - there are no evil lairs of note (I don't think a normal mansion and a boring cave count), the villains are just relatively normal people, and their plans make a certain amount of sense, at least as long as you are able to run with the sort of logic the Cold War thrived on. Don't get me wrong, the plot is still silly enough to drive any arbiter of good taste to fits and the last half hour of the film or so even takes some good steps on the road to complete loss of reality, it's just that the film still seems to have illusions about being a film about dramatized espionage instead of a conglomerate of crazy ideas and scantily clad women.

Another expected element the film is lacking completely is the exoticism many a later Eurospy film used to cover up its lack of a budget and provide the film team with a nice vacation, as well as the viewer with some attractive filler material. Here, there's only black and white Corsica and Nice to look at, and not too many of the touristy parts of them for that matter.

It all feels a little low-key for what I have learned to expect from the genre. However, director Andre Hunebelle (who'd helm two further OSS 117 adventures and had before made quite a few swashbuckling adventure movies) is an obvious professional and makes the most out of what he has to work with. The action sequences aren't exactly spectacular or realized on the level of someone like Enzo Castellari, but are entertaining enough, the acting is fairly solid, and the soundtrack nicely swinging, very French jazz.

The whole film is also well photographed and should have enough of interest in it to keep people watching who have no historical interest in early Eurospy films.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Star Ship Troopers 2 (2004)

A troop of soldiers under chummy General Shepherd (Ed Lauter) cursed with godawful names like Lei Sahara (Colleen Porch), Billy Otter (Cy Carter) or Otis Brick (Billy Brown) has to flee from a bug onslaught into an abandoned outpost. Now their survival hangs on getting the outpost’s defence mechanisms working again, repairing the radio, and not getting killed until an evacuation ship actually bothers to arrive.

That’ll be rather difficult, for the General is thought dead somewhere outside for the first half of the movie or so, and the ranking officer isn’t competent Sergeant Dede Rake (Brenda Strong) but Psi Corps incompetent Pavlov Dill (Lawrence Monoson). Fortunately, the last garrison of the outpost has left behind embittered war hero V.J. Dax (Richard Burgi) to rot away in a cell for killing a superior officer. When push comes to shove, Sahara frees Dax who proceeds to murder a lot of insectoid aliens.

However, the traditional siege scenario soon becomes less important, because the film’s second half turns into an ickier variation on Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

And I’m rather glad it does, too, for where the first half of Phil Tippett’s direct-to-video sequel to Paul Verhoeven’s second-most annoying movie suffers a bit from not actually having the budget for all that much bug fighting and so uses bad lighting, fog, dust and awkward camera angles to hide the fact it can’t afford enough decent (for 2004) CGI to actually be the low budget SF war movie it’d like to be. Aliens and alien planets, it turns out, are much more difficult to do on a budget than Korea or France.

Unlike a lot of people writing this one up on the net, I’m pretty happy with the fact that Star Ship Troopers 2 – apart from some perfunctory stuff right at the beginning and the end and those horrible, idiotically awful character names – mostly avoids the blunt and painfully obvious satire of the original and leaves Verhoeven’s toe-curdling camp out in the woods for Jason Voorhees to do his thing with it. Of course, this also means this film doesn’t have much more to say about militarism and its culture than “war is kinda bad, you know but we really don’t like insects”, but on the other hand, that goes for the Verhoeven original too, and that one spent much more time on being obvious.

Despite its sometimes all too visible lack of funds and corresponding visual oomph or of a director visually imaginative enough to make up for that lack, the first half of the film is an okay SF variant of 50s low budget war movie tropes, from the inexperienced and cowardly Lt to the more experienced, battle-hardened Sergeant who still has to follow his orders, and of course the character who has enough of war but still will be a gosh-darn hero when the time comes. It’s played pretty unironically with little new added to the well-worn figures of this particular dance beyond the transplantation of the whole affair to a far way planet in the future. Fortunately, these tropes are so well-worn for a reason, and Tippett’s a competent enough hand to make things work on a basic level.

Still, the film grows a lot more entertaining once the paranoid second half gets going. The effects are certainly becoming more interesting, as well as pleasantly icky, and the plot grows more lively – if not exactly more believable – with characters actually able to interact more directly with the things threatening them than shooting at barely okay CGI that mostly stays away far enough from them they don’t have to appear in the same shot. This set-up also enables Tippett to insert some very familiar feeling suspense sequences, a bit of weirdness in the habits and customs of the bug possessed, and even a minute or two borrowed from the Species movies.

It’s most probably not art, but as a low budget SF war movie that turns into a paranoid invasion tale, Star Ship Troopers 2 is a perfectly serviceable film.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

In short: A Lonely Place to Die (2011)

Warning: there shall be slight structural spoilers

A group of friends and acquaintances (Melissa George and Ed Speleers among others) are on a mountaineering trip in the Scottish Highlands. They stumble upon a little girl hidden in what amounts to a buried large wooden box. They obviously free the kid and start to make their way to the closest village. That’s quite a stretch away, and even though our protagonists are clever and tactical in their approach to the situation, the people who have buried the girl soon take it upon themselves to fetch their victim back and kill all of the unhelpful witnesses they seem to have acquired.

Clearly, not everyone will make it back to civilization, and even there, the survivors’ troubles won’t stop, for the small town standing in for it isn’t exactly police central. As a further complication, the kid’s father has sent out some armed and violent men to find her.

Julian Gibley’s fine thriller surprised me repeatedly while I was watching it, particularly since it turned from one type of thriller into a different one half way through, not exactly subverting genre expectations but shifting the sub-genre the film operates in and the connected plot beats and clichés around rather nicely. This does make the film somewhat less predictable than expected, the shift from survivalist thriller to something taking place in a less isolated environment coming at just the right moment to keep the viewer expecting some very specific plot developments on his toes.

I also appreciated how ruthless the film’s first two thirds or so got rid of its characters, going for the quick and the painful rather than the melodramatically prolonged. The villains here are after all not very interested in making our protagonists suffer – unlike those in many other wilderness based thrillers and horror films – but only in getting rid of them. The tone becomes a bit more melodramatic later on, but at that point, Gilbey has earned the melodrama, as his characters have earned the sympathy of the audience.

Speaking of the protagonists, like our villains, they too are a bit different from your typical backwoods slasher fodder in that they are not hateful creatures you only want to die and watch take their shirts off; we’re not in the realm of very deep characterisation here, but the actors are decent enough and the writing sure-handed enough I didn’t want to see them die more than their actual killers did.

In the wilderness part, Gilbey makes excellent use of the Scottish landscape, the isolated feeling open spaces can provoke as much as cramped ones do. There’s precision to the action and suspense scenes, and only in the final third the film loses some of the resulting momentum through rampant overuse of slow motion by people not named John Woo. But at least it’s not whoosh cuts or a uselessly wavering camera.

And really, if “uses a bit too much slow motion in its final thirty minutes” is the worst I can say about a film, it must have been pretty good.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Three Films Make A Post: Watch. Learn. Don't have nightmares.

Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films (2014): If you’re like me, and going into Mark Hartley’s documentary expecting to learn anything more about Cannon and its films than you could via a Wikipedia entry, you’ll quickly realize you’ve come to the wrong film for that. This is nearly exclusively a series of chronologically sorted anecdotes and jokes as told by various talking heads once involved with Cannon. Some of the anecdotes are funny, and the film is well paced, but I can’t say I found myself all that riveted by this one, perhaps because I expect from a 100 minutes plus documentary to actually have something to say about its object, or because I found the large swathes of irony the filmmakers use to hide their own opinions about Cannon and what it was annoying. It’s a rather un-visual film too, with a lot of short, often decidedly random feeling clips from Cannon films breaking up lots of footage of interview subjects sitting in front of a black background, and very little reason for this not to be a piece made for the radio. But then, I’m quite clearly not the audience this was made for.

Last Shift (2014): Rookie cop Jessica’s (Juliana Harkavy) first shift as an actual cop is the last shift in an old police precinct, where she’s working a night watch job alone. Unfortunately, the station is haunted as all get out, and a past concerning a dead cult leader and Jessica’s own father just won’t stay buried. For most of its running time, Anthony DiBlasi’s satanic cult leader ghost movie (that’s a genre, right?) is a rather focused and effective little number. Sure, there’s a decided lack in originality on display, and the film has the tendency to throw in the whole kitchen sink of spooky phenomena but DiBlasi handles most of this stuff with enough aplomb it results in a rather entertaining, if not particularly new feeling, time.

Enter the Void (2009): I had avoided this particular void until now because most of what I had read about Gaspar Noé’s inspiring and self-indulgent head trip of a movie let me assume this to be one fast, flashy, loud, yet still very long piece of sensory overload.

It’s rather the opposite, apart from the sensory overload, though, the film winning its often dream-like quality through a calm and floating approach to, well, everything, Noé hitting the spot where a just ridiculously showy sounding visual approach feels rather natural, and like the only way this particular narrative could have been realized. The floatiness of, well, being dead, makes a fantastic contrast to the rawness of the characters’ emotions.

From time to time, particularly in the last third or so, the film does drift off into moments I don’t think are supposed to be funny yet are, pat Freudianisms make themselves known, and the silliest money shot never to have made it into a porn movie makes an appearance. Of course, Noé makes up for that with what looks like a deep compassion for some deeply messed up characters to me, as well as with the little fact there’s  little else quite like Enter the Void.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

400 Days (2015)

Warning: there will be spoilerage, or I couldn’t praise a part of the film that deserves praise

Prospective astronauts for a commercial company with big plans Emily (Caity Lotz), Theo (Brandon Routh), Bug (Ben Feldman) and Dvorak (Dane Cook) have agreed to go on a 400 day simulation of deep space flight. They’re going to be buried in a fake space ship below a field, tested by psychologist Emily and confronted with various “surprises”, with no contact to the outside world except for their mission control.

Things don’t go off to a good start, though, for Emily has broken up her engagement to Theo just a few days before the beginning of the experiment, which is totally how you do a psychological experiment, obviously. The alternative wouldn’t have been much better either, with Emily tasked to analyse her own damn fiancée. But I digress.

After that bad start, things become even worse when our heroes soon lose any contact to mission control during some very dramatic shaking of their ship. Nerves become increasingly frayed, Dvorak demonstrates a tendency towards violence and paranoia, and the rest of the team isn’t much more stable either, with hallucinations and other fun stuff abounding. One would expect the would-be astronauts to start killing each other soon, but things take a more peculiar turn when a stranger (whom the characters and the audience first take for a hallucination) manages to scratch his way into the ship, looking half dead, malnourished and ill.

One of the oldest yet still loved (because it actually works pretty well when you know what you’re doing) tricks in the low budget movie director’s (and writer’s) book is to take a couple or two characters, put them into an isolated, cramped environment, and hopefully let the sparks fly. The approach is cost-conscious, it provides a filmmaker with the opportunity to show his skills at building suspense with comparatively simple methods, and it keeps a film from making promises it just can’t deliver on while pushing it to concentrate on only a handful of actors in an intimate space.

This approach can – and does more often than I care to remember indeed does – still go wrong, of course: the wrong acting approach can kill this sort of thing stone dead, the dialogue can be too stilted or too dumb, and the needed concentration can bring out directorial flaws in a particularly stark fashion.

Director and writer Matt Osterman’s 400 Days turns out to not have any of these problems, and is indeed a textbook demonstration of how to do the whole “isolated people go at each other’s throats” thing economically. Even better, Osterman changes up the formula about midway through and lets his characters emerge from their prison into a small piece of a world that has catastrophically changed while they were away. Unless, of course, their emergence is still part of the experiment, something that is given further probability by the plain strangeness of the end of the world they find themselves surrounded by: eternal darkness, the downright weirdness (and potential homicidal mania or cannibalism) of the survivors they encounter, and so on, and so forth. Thanks to its weirdness (and some logistical problems in the script) it would be rather more difficult to believe in this world outside without that doubt in the reality of the characters’ surroundings or in their sanity, but because Osterman plays it as he does, we get the best of both worlds: a world that is feeling wrong, and a reason why it might feel wrong.

In this regard, I found myself also pretty happy with the half open – there are enough bits and pieces spattered around to at least provide enough data for a good guess to what’s actually supposed to be going on – ending. Blankly stating on of the two possibilities of what has happened would make it sound utterly preposterous but keeping it elegantly open to a degree of interpretation will convince a viewer her favoured explanation is actually the right one. And the right explanation can’t be preposterous, obviously. Plus, this also absolves the film from having to go through the whole rigmarole of the final five minute plot twist and info dump while dramatic music plays.

The cast does a decent job, too, without any moments of !ACTING! that can break the tension in this sort of film all too well (though we later get some excellent scenery chewing of the right kind by Tom Cavanagh); as always, Lotz and Routh are much more convincing actors when they are not in Arrow.

Osterman’s direction for its part doesn’t call attention to itself, avoiding the temptations to show off without coming across as blunt. Very much how I like this sort of thing to be directed, unless a film goes for an all out psychedelic freak-out.

Which, all in all, leaves me with a clever, entertaining little movie that’ll not rock the world but certainly rocked my evening.

In short: Sinister 2 (2015)

I’m not exactly surprised the sequel to one of the good mainstream horror films of the last few years isn’t any good itself, though I am still somewhat disappointed by it. Why, you might think not every narrative lends itself to become a franchise, and some stories are better told in a single film and don’t actually ask for a sequel!

What I didn’t expect, given that the sequel was again written by director of the first film Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill, is quite how mechanical and lifeless the thing would be going to feel, with so many inserts of “creepy home videos” they absolutely stop being creepy, character beats the film fails to exploit thematically even when the connection should be obvious and would make the film so much more resonant. There is an overall feel of the writers going through a checklist of parts from the first film they need to repeat, but in a less effective way, instead of writing an actual movie. Despite a decent cast, the characters aren’t actual characters either, but walking, talking plot functions whose destinies never become much interesting or relevant because there’s so little substance to them, as much as James Ransone tries to pretend he’s awkward yet quietly heroic and Shannyn Sossamon raises her chin.

Director Ciarán Foy goes through the whole rigmarole with basic competence (he’s not going to nail the camera down or forget how to prepare functional blocking and so on) but with little flair or style. In fact, I found myself giggling through too many of the film’s (many, many, many, many) jump scares and most of its ghostly and demonic apparitions, thanks to the often unconvincing way they are staged and Foy’s emphasis on their mechanics. It’s all very much a professional looking 2015 mainstream horror film, but there’s such a lack of vision, heart or even just a little bit of passion here, I’d rather prefer a technically incompetent one that wants to say something or does make an honest attempt at making me uncomfortable instead of just going through the motions. Sinister 2 might as well just not exist for all the movie itself seems to care.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Past Misdeeds: Blood Delirium (1988)

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.

One evening, while she is bare-naked and preparing dinner for soon-to-be-arriving boyfriend Gregory, French concert pianist Sybille (Brigitte Christensen) is suddenly accosted by some of those pesky interior winds, blue light and a female voice from nowhere. The voice tells her that she has come to warn Sybille, and that she is Sybille, yet not Sybille, "like two flames coming together" and that she comes from the future. Too bad the ghostly voice never does bother to utter a somewhat more detailed or practical warning. This way, Sybille is just a little out of it, frightened and bewildered. Later a mysterious gust of wind blows an invitation to the art exhibition of the paintings of a certain Charles Saint Simon (John Philip Law) into the room, which Sybille now plans on visiting.

In something that must be a very long flashback or the film's chronology would break down, which would however make a lot more sense if the voice had said it came from the past, we see the source of Sybille's ghostly voice. Christine (also Brigitte Christensen), the muse and wife of Charles Saint Simon and a pianist like Sybille, is dying, very much to the dismay of the Maestro (as everyone calls him). He seems mostly pissed that she won't be able to inspire him to more art, though, and less by the "his beloved dying" thing.

And look there, he really isn't able to paint without her, leading to wonderful moments of insane rambling and ranting in front of his servant Hermann (Gordon Mitchell). Hermann can't complain about his boss too much, though, since Charles caught him trying to have his way with Christine's corpse. I'd like to know what the servants union has to say to that one.

Be that as it may, even snatching Christine's maggoty yet also already skeletal corpse out of her grave, putting a rubber mask on her head and draping her skeletal hands on a piano can't awaken the Maestro's talents again.

Fortunately, he meets Sybille at his art exhibition and - after some mad rambling about her sharing a soul with his dead wife that would send most women not the pianist running - convinces her to spend some time in his castle as his model.

Once there, even someone as thick as Sybille soon understands that her host is a raving lunatic, what with his insistence on being the reincarnation of Van Gogh, the room with the electrified lash and his ranting breakdown when he still isn't able to paint again although she is modelling for him. It's really the fault of his dead wife's ghost mocking him with laughter and glowing globes.

It turns out that what our Maestro also needs to paint is fresh blood. What luck that Hermann isn't only a necrophiliac but also a hobby rapist who prefers his women unconscious or better dead, and so able to deliver a bit of blood by way of his victims. The corpses are either taxidermied and put in the cellar or just fed to the dogs and dissolved in one of those useful acid vats every good castle has.

When Sybille witnesses Hermann getting rid of a corpse, she makes a half-hearted escape attempt, but soon finds herself drugged to sleep, put into a bridal gown and laid out in a glass coffin, with regular visits from dear sleeping women loving Hermann.

From time to time I still find a film so batshit crazy that I'm not too sure what to say about it, because writing sensibly about it would be an experiment in applied paradoxicology much too difficult for a simple man like me. Blood Delirium truly is such a film.

The above plot synopsis does make a lot more sense than the film makes when you are actually watching it. Out of a sense of responsibility for other people's sanity I have been trying very hard to make life easier for those of my readers who aren't permanently touched in the head by Italian horror like me. The trick is to just leave out some of the absurd details the film piles on and on and on and not to mention the glorious and idiotic way Charles gets his final comeuppance. Yes, the film truly makes even less sense.

You might know Blood Delirium's director Sergio Bergonzelli from his utterly puzzling, yet stylish giallo In the Folds of the Flesh. The difference between the two films is probably mostly down to the different decades in which they were made, with the stylish one being made in the 70s and the visually decidedly bland Blood Delirium in the far less stylish 80s - and surely on a comparatively small budget. However, what Bergonzelli's work has lost in visual inventiveness in the years between, it has won in insanity. While In the Folds never actually did make a lot of sense in the way we usually understand the word, it was still trying for something vaguely resembling a narrative and characters with human psychology. Blood Delirium has given up on silliness like this and does only exist to do three things: being sleazy, being tasteless and being as bafflingly insane as its main character. It succeeds admirably on all three counts.

As I said, visually the film is mostly ugly and non-descript in a "we couldn't even afford coloured lights, but look at the impressive castle ruin we are not going to use as it deserves!" way, however it is too mad a work for this to truly matter.

On the acting side, there is at least John Philip Law to mention. I suppose he must have been in dire need of money to stoop as low as appearing in this one, but like the true professional he was, he does some wonderful shouting, ranting and bug-eyeing and also does his best in trying to look like Van Gogh. Brigitte Christensen doesn't truly register beside him and Gordon Mitchell just has to do the silent straight-man lunatic next to Law's raving one.

As is so often the case with the films I might make sound sort of enticing, Blood Delirium is only recommended to the advanced viewer of cult cinema. So, if you think Black Magic Rites is one of the greatest achievement in the history of the cinematic arts (and golly, do I think that), this is one for you, if you are still at a point in your cinematic life where you'd rather watch films with some redeeming qualities, it probably isn't.

In short: The Cave (2005)

An archaeologist hires the cave diving expert team of Jack McAllister (Cole Hauser) to help him explore a cave system that was sealed up under a church somewhere in Eastern Europe (the film was shot in Romania and Mexico, apparently). The team includes characters played by Morris Chestnut, Eddie Cibrian, Piper Perabo and others, while the scientific side adds Dr Kathryn Jennings (Lena Headey) and cinematographer Alex Kim (Daniel Dae Kim).

Of course, the cave system had been sealed up for a reason (having to do with the truth behind a legend concerning Templars fighting winged demons), and so the expedition members soon find themselves with quite a few problems: there’s rather active and increasingly monstrous fauna down there, and an early death seals up out heroes’ way back outside. And, to put insult to injury, our guys only have enough supplies to last them until exactly the point when someone might start looking for them. The planning of dangerous expeditions is more difficult than you’d think.

So there’s nothing to it, our heroes have to find a different way out.

When it came out, Bruce Hunt’s The Cave quickly got a reputation of being the stupid person’s The Descent but I don’t think that’s fair, for it never actually tries to copy that great film very much. Unless every horror film with monsters taking place in a cave system must be called a rip-off of The Descent, but that’s an assumption I’d call neither fair nor helpful in actually looking at a film.

It is pretty clear right from the start that The Cave isn’t at all interested in the psychological depth of the film I’ll be ceasing to mention any sentence soon now, nor has is any feminist ideas in its head (if it indeed has a head containing ideas beyond “monsters cool”). This is very much a creature feature with a big dollop of adventure movie tropes added in, and it is neither ashamed of that, nor is it trying to be anything more meaningful.

And as such, I actually think the film is rather successful. Sure, Hunt may sometimes overdo the shaky camera stuff, the film completely wastes Lena Headey (who is still game), and some of the monsters don’t look all that great. On the other hand, the film is rather well paced, goes through its series of well-worn plot beats with conviction and verve (which is the way to go when you’re not trying to subvert them, I’m convinced), and features at least three tightly staged, cleverly imagined and pretty damned unbelievable in the best possible way action set-pieces in its final third. I’m particularly fond of the one concerning a horrible creature, Perabo (and her stunt double) and some frightful rock climbing action, a scene that’s as good an action scene as you’ll find anywhere, ending in a perfect downbeat moment I didn’t think the film had in it.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

End of the Line (2007)

Warning: there’s some mildly spoileriffic discussion further on.

After some disquieting foreshadowing of things to come including hearing of the suicide of a former patient at her workplace, psychiatric nurse Karen (Ilona Elkin) is probably looking forward to a quiet, drunk night at home. Unfortunately, this isn’t going to happen, for a Christian cult with a huge following has decided that tonight’s the night of the Apocalypse. Their interpretation of scripture is rather avantgarde, for they believe that it is their duty to gruesomely murder anyone they can get their hands on to save their souls. They think the parts of humanity still alive when it’s time for the Anti-Christ’s arrival (coming-out?) are all eternally damned, and will possibly become the basis for the army of the devil.

It’s a theory at least. Karen soon finds the few passengers of the nearly empty subway she’s riding in who aren’t crazy cultists in the process of being violently saved. A small number of survivors has to make their way through the subway tunnels fighting the Christian hordes.

As far as I understand it, Maurice Devereaux’s End of the Line was financed by the director/writer/producer editor out of his own pocket, which explains some of the weaknesses of the film but also makes the surprising number of qualities the film does have even more impressive.

However, let’s start with the worst, and it’s not exactly an unexpected problem in indie horror – it is of course the acting. As is often the case in this part of the genre, the general acting approach is rather stiff and unnatural, with an emphasis on acting as a pretence an actor assumes instead of anything that feels more organic. I assume it has something to do with actors who don’t have much actual experience with screen acting working for directors who don’t have that much either and simply can’t afford going all Kubrick on their talents. Then there are the handful of actors who are just plain bad, most probably a problem nearly unavoidable when you’re getting a film on the ground with only the most basic means and no entourage of high class actors out to do you a favour; those guys prefer buddying it up with Steven Soderbergh. Fortunately, Devereaux does keep the worst of the bunch in the least important roles (not always a given in these films), and the central speaking roles are in the hands of actors who are only a bit awkward.

That’s the film’s main indie horror trademark, though. Sure, some of the attack scenes aren’t staged perfectly, and the gore’s more enthusiastic than effective, but End of the Line is missing the major hallmarks that make indie horror (where “indie” actually means self-financed or financed on a private level, not professionally made by small production companies – so homemade, if you will) often so frustrating: the editing’s professional, sensible and effective, there’s a decided lack of those scenes that just won’t stop for no good reason, no feeling of the film ever dragging its feet – everything we see is actually part of the story Devereaux is telling; the film’s staging is usually atmospheric, providing an actual sense of the subway train and the surrounding tunnels as a physical space, which the director uses for to good effect in various chases and assorted suspense scenes; and the script just happens to be tight and clever.

Indeed, the script just might be End of the Line’s strongest point, with deft characterisation, a sense for the creepy based on slight and then increasing exaggerations of the normal, and an ending that keeps the truth of the cultists’ beliefs ambiguous while still showing the monsters. This ambiguity is desperately necessary too, for otherwise, the film would actually be about a bunch of Christians singing a horrible hymn saving everyone’s souls by brutal violence, turning our actual protagonists into future agents of Satan, which would open up all kinds of problems, like pissing off every non-Evangelical in the audience. As the film handles it, there’s a breadcrumb trail of hints for a more natural – if somewhat bizarre - explanation of the film’s plot running through it that you might notice, or you might not, and that you might accept, or you might not, and the possibly supernatural things we witness only fits half to what the cultists state they belief; plus, they’re clearly crazy.

It’s quite wonderfully done, and film handles most everything else it attempts with the same thoughtfulness and through the same cleverness of solution, turning End of the Line into a much better film than anyone could expect of it.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Three Films Make A Post: A Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste

Abracadabra aka Loves of the Living Dead aka Heaven Wife, Hell Wife (none of which actually is a very useful title for the film at hand, but what can you do?) (1986): It’s a late 80s Hong Kong horror comedy, so you should pretty much know what to expect – weird slapstick, the frightening mating rituals of the late 80s HK movie youth, lots and lots and lots of blue, red and green light, dry ice machines running overtime, much running around and a barely discernible back story that could work for a ghost tragedy if the film cared to use it (of course it doesn’t). We also learn things like the fact you can get rid of ghosts with blow driers because they hate electricity (ghosts are radio waves, you see, and therefore allergic to electricity), meet a friendly ghost taxi driver who likes punk-style haircuts, and so on. It’s not so crazy it deserves its own blog entry, but there’s quite a bit of fun to be had with Peter Mak Tai-Kit’s film, and some rather stylish use of said traditional HK ghost colours to gawk at.

Harry Price: Ghost Hunter (2015): If you’re like me and could care less this isn’t even trying to be a portrait of the actual historical Harry Price, nor about an “actual” (cough) haunting, you just might appreciate this fine British TV movie for the clever film about truth, lies, belief and the unsuspected depths of people beyond their outward signifiers of “identity” for what it is. Sure, the haunting bits aren’t particularly creepy, but this is really rather a character based mystery that include the possible supernatural as something to put pressure on the characters, so it doesn’t need to be. What the film offers instead is more thematic richness than I expected going in, or as the film’s tone suggests, more Sarah Grey than Harry Price (which is a good thing), some deft ways to place the plot historically, and the typical high standards of acting and art direction of British TV period pieces.

The Oxford Murders (2008): When one thinks Álex de la Iglesia, one usually would not have in mind a film like this British/Spanish/French co-production based on a Spanish philosophical mystery novel that looks rather well-funded. Well, at least I would not. Which is a bit of a shame, because I did enjoy this one rather more than the shrilly screeching cinema de la Iglesia usually delivers. Turns out the man can build a mood, knows how to provide space for an actor like John Hurt (who has been doing wonderful work wherever he goes during the last ten years or so, as a journeyman actor in all the good meanings of the term, leaving behind class wherever he goes), can film long dialogue scenes without either feeling the need to show off how creatively he can film them or leaving his film feel draggy, and uses his senses of play and of the grotesque much more effectively when they are not the only tricks he has up his sleeve.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

In short: Bats (1999)

A small town in Texas has developed a bit of a bat problem. Two flying dogs infected with an experimental virus have escaped the laboratory of mad scientist Dr. McCabe (Bob Gunton) and have infected the local bat population, turning them into a murderous, tactically adept swarm of super bats. Of course we will later learn McCabe was trying to weaponize bats for the government, turning them stronger, more intelligent, omnivorous and just plain evil. Whatever could go wrong?

The CDC very quickly flies in chiropterologist Dr. Sheila Casper (Dina Meyer) and her assistant Jimmy (Leon). Together with local Sheriff Emmett Kimsey (Lou Diamond Phillipps, of course) they’ll have quite the time fighting what will turn out to be not just a murderous bat-menace but in fact the dawning of the batpocalypse. (And let’s not even think about what’ll happen if that virus reached Gotham City).

Yes yes yes, I know the plot of this thing is silly, its science absurd, and its characters shallow, but Louis Morneau’s Bats is also a whole load of fun when you’re in the mood to watch a highly traditional film about animals/monsters attacking a US small town. It might even be the platonic ideal of the form, cutting off all extraneous meat – nobody needs to get over a divorce here, there are no children involved except as bat food – only leaving the most important and tastiest bits of its genre. On the writing level, it also recommends itself by having a female lead scientist who never becomes The Girl but stays convincingly competent and tough without being an asshole about it (which is just the right role for Dina Meyer), no romance but more a not even grudgingly growing friendship between the main characters, a black character who might be the comic relief (of dubious merit) but is still allowed to actually do something and – spoilers, sweeties! - doesn’t die, and possibly the most ridiculous animal species to weaponize imaginable (unless there’s a film about killer goldfish I’m not aware of, Megashark vs Giant Goldfish, perhaps).

Add to that Morneau’s typically excellent direction, filled with cleverly set-up moments of classic suspense, breakneck pacing and an ability to create a sense of place that helps proceedings feel less generic than they actually are, and you have one of the finest examples of this sub-genre you could imagine. But that’s not all: there are also the ridiculously awesome animatronic bat puppets used for most close-ups of our monsters, as well as the film’s many scenes of bats crawling around that look less like bats than like the stuff of nightmares, a fine send-up of the genre-typical “but one still survived!” ending, the total uselessness of the US military, the Sheriff rocking Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, and so on and so fort. I think I’m in love, and it’s Bats!

Friday, February 12, 2016

Past Misdeeds: El Trono Del Infierno (1992? 1994?)

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.

During archaeological excavations with the typically destructive tools film archaeologists are wont to use, Dr. Rosa Maria Castro (Telly Filippini) and her team make a very exciting find.

Hidden under a peculiar seal made from pure gold is an offering jar that contains an idol picturing a demon and some kind of omen-o-matic that causes a short eclipse of the sun and an earthquake. We will later learn some rather strange facts about the seal itself, for example that it is marked with a European design once used by the Templars, but must have been made before the building of Tenochtitlan.

Right now, we have to note that the dig's foreman Jose Juan Jimenez (Roberto Ballesteros) accidentally breaks the jar through the influence of EVIL and breathes in some red gas that was floating around the idol. We all know where this sort of thing always leads, and sure, a few days later Jimenez is doing some fierce "I am possessed" mugging and throwing a priest out of a window. Afterwards JJJ goes on the run, trying to bring the idol in his possession and put it on its throne in hell to start the reign of Satan. Yes, the small statue is Satan itself. And by the way, hell's location is written down in the Popol Vuh. No, I don't think the film is consciously kidding.

Fortunately, the Catholic church is on the ball and sends a beardy, extensively mulleted man only called El Hombre (director Sergio Goyri himself casting himself with greatest humility as the saviour of humankind) with his trusty sword Excalibur to use the seal and the other six seals which have been found during the course of human history to put Satan away forever. El Hombre, the Excalibunator, isn't all he's cracked up to be, though. He spends most of his time floating in meditation and walking on water, and when he finally takes action, he turns out to be the sort of crap fighter who even has problems to kill a troll armed with a wobbly rubber club. My RPG characters are mocking him.

For this reason, we don't spend too much time with him. Instead, we follow the investigations of Dr. Castro and the also quite awesomely mulleted police lieutenant Moran (Jorge Luke, who needs the mullet badly to distract from his face and acting abilities) who are going to puzzle together all the stupid exposition I just explained. Then, they are going to find even more stupid exposition and lend our man El Hombre a hand.

Now, if I tell you that El Trono Del Infierno contains everything I just told you, and additionally an exploding cop partner, awesome animal imitations on the soundtrack whenever JJJ is on screen (he is "The Beast", you understand), an evil empty plate mail armour and a home-made crucifixion, you'll probably want to just run out and acquire a copy of this masterpiece. You better not run too fast, for moving very slow and deliberately will put you in the right frame of mind for experiencing the movie as it was meant to be watched.

Goyri, foremost a veteran actor in all kinds of genre films and just a dabbler in the director's chair has learned quite an important thing about making a cheap movie. It is the following main rule pulled directly from Making Movies For Dummies: "Viewers are of a weak constitution and therefore need to be prepared for scenes of potential awesomeness by first letting them walk the slow and deliberate road of utter boredom". And boy, does he ever follow this rule.

For every minute of silly fun, there are five minutes of inane, badly written and acted exposition, that usually explain everything two or three times and another five minutes of glorious, glorious filler. You probably know the sort. It is the dreaded transitional scene cancer, when all transitions are shown, however unnecessary they might be and when each and every scene in which nothing at all happens drags on and on and on. See the airplane in the sky! See the priest waiting for the plane! See the airplane! See the priest again! See the airplane land! See the runway stairs rolled to the plane! See the plane door open! And so on, and so on. The film even does this in scenes that should by all rights be more interesting (poor exploding policeman!), but at least not as much.

Still, there are some positive things to say about El Trono Del Infierno - the camera is mostly in focus, the editing does at least make more sense than the plot, the acting is absolutely atrocious, but JJJ is an excellent scene chewer, Jorge Luke knows how to sweat and look constipated like no other and Telly Fillippini is kinda cute in her earnest scientist garb. And, you know, there are at least thirty minutes of fun tucked away between the insane repetition and the outright boredom.

However, I don't believe too many people will be willing and able to excavate these minutes of fun from among the dross. Of course, I count myself among the number of people who do exactly that, and seen from this position, I'd even call the film mildly entertaining.

Just don't say I didn't warn you.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

In short: Prom Night (1980)

A few years before the start of the film, and therefore pre-DISCO, a quartet of children kinda-sorta accidentally murdered one of their own. Being kids and all, they just run and pretend it didn’t happen, even when an innocent man is blamed for their crime and is horribly injured in a car chase. The supposed murderer has spent the last six years in a mental institution, but now he’s broken out, and he may or may not be out for vengeance.

He’s just in time for the anniversary of the death, too. Well, that and for prom night in the high school the now older kids go to. And look at that, someone wearing a glittering ski mask is carving a violent path through the kids and a couple of innocent bystanders! But is it truly that guy or someone else the film hasn’t spent more than a minute on before doing the deeds? And will the dead girl’s sister Kim – who didn’t have anything to do with the death – do what characters played by Jamie Lee Curtis in slasher movies do?

To be frank, no, she won’t exactly, for Paul Lynch’s Prom Night might want to drink from the money well of the slasher (there is such a thing, yes), yet is only beholden to parts of the more traditional slasher tropes. It’s a bit of a shame the film does eschew an actual final girl scene while keeping the obsession with the virginity of its characters (even though virgins die here too), but what can you do? In other regards, it’s a pretty typical slasher in form and function, though one that doesn’t go for much gore. One is nearly tempted to call the film classy, but then the next virginity discussion comes around, and I’m more tempted to call it fluctuating between squeamish and exploitative. So, it is a typical slasher.

Despite that, and the expected at times sloppy writing, the film still belongs in the upper third of films of the early slasher boom, mostly on the strength of some decent acting, a cast of characters you don’t necessarily want to see die in horrible ways, and first and foremost some damn good stalking scenes that make it a double shame the film doesn’t have a true final girl fight in the end. Lynch – assisted by Robert C. New’s cinematography and a string-heavy score by Paul Zaza and Carl Zittrer – shows himself highly adept at the classical suspense notions these scenes live on. The movement of characters into ever more tight and threatening spaces can hardly be done more effective than in the scene where Anne-Marie Martin kicks the bucket.

If that’s just not enough for a discerning viewer, Prom Night also recommends itself with a mind-blowing scene of disco dancing Mithun Chakraborty would be proud of, yet no words could describe appropriately, and a little finale between axe murderer and victims also set to the oh so appropriate tones of DISCO!

Momentum (2015)

Alex Farraday (Olga Kurylenko) is helping out her former boyfriend with a little bank robbery on demand. It’s the sort of affair where one dresses in what we in the business call space ninja suits. Despite Alex being really good at penetration (yes, that’s what the film will later tell us, and not with a joking face on), things don’t go too well: one of the other bank robbers loses control so much she rather shoots him than let him kill an innocent. To add insult to injury she loses her mask during the altercation.

Afterwards, when our heroine is trying to relax a little before she can flee the country with her own little sack full of diamonds, things go from bad to worse. Turns out, the evil US senator (Morgan Freeman with a screen time of at least three minutes) who hired them wasn’t actually interested in diamonds or money so much as in a little USB drive that contains information he’d really rather not see going public. He’s also little interested in having loose ends, so he sends out evil Mr. Washington (James Purefoy overacting rip-roaringly and assuming an accent that might supposed to be German or Afrikaans or Dutch or Elvish) and his multi-racial, gender-progressive gang of henchpeople to cut them off.

Boyfriend doesn’t survive the night, but Alex – no surprise with her action movie protagonist name – makes Washington’s business very, very difficult. Turns out she isn’t just good at getting into places but has superior ass-kicking powers as well as a penchant for improbable plans that somehow work against all sanity and logic.

Basically, Stephen S. Campanelli’s Momentum already had me at least half way at Olga Kurylenko and James Purefoy, both the sort of somewhat luckless actors who’ll appear in just about anything and always put their game faces on – no matter if they are in a mid-level action movie like this one or a mid-brow costume drama. As a viewer of much crap, I appreciate actors who do get their hands dirty to make my life that much more enjoyable.

In Momentum’s particular case, Purefoy goes the well-worn route of portraying his bad guy exaltedly insane to the border of high silliness I generally hope for from the big bad in my silly action movies, while Kurylenko once again demonstrates she makes for a pretty fun action heroine and can act other emotional states than angry and determined your typical male action movie star will have his troubles with (I love my Jean-Claudes, and Dolphs and so on, but you gotta be realistic). Fortunately, the film uses that ability rather sparingly and doesn’t fall into the horrid mistake of making an action movie with a female lead “more relatable” by having her cry a lot, because girls are supposed to be like that.

In fact, and to my delight, Momentum doesn’t play up Kurylenko’s gender at all but just – correctly – assumes it’s normal for a female character to go through the same action movie hero tropes and plot beats a male character would have to. Why, the film even gets away with a bit of child protecting business without drawing on the typical and often very annoying mythical “motherly feelings” supposedly slumbering in all of them thar wimmin.

When it comes to the action, Campanelli – and very rightly so – bets on variety, including the by now traditional cat and mouse game in a hotel, car chases, wild shoot-outs and some rather fine close combat, as well as scenes in classic thriller and suspense tradition (though louder) with a tiny bit of the conspiracy thriller for added flavour. Campanelli’s direction thankfully eschews the flash cut and whoosh zoom aesthetic that has ruined many a US action film over the last two decades or so. The action is fast, it’s professionally staged and generally exciting (if not breath-taking), and thanks to Campanelli’s efforts, you can actually see much of the stunt work. The man’s no Isaac Florentine, obviously, but he clearly knows what he’s doing, and does it in an enjoyable way.

I should probably comment on the plot and the characters, but as it goes with this sort of film, looking for a logical narrative and deep characterisation seems to me to be rather beside the point. Let’s just say the action scenes are connected via vaguely sensible (if you don’t stop and think about them) developments, Kurylenko’s character moments are well enough placed, and the ending’s a curious attempt at either being ambiguous or attempting to hawk a sequel that won’t come (because people rather preferred the showy and offensively stupid John Wick with that wooden puppet in the lead to a decent film, I suppose). That’s enough for me, particularly in a film that does its work of letting people die in creative ways and furniture explode as well as Momentum does.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

In short: The Borrower (1991)

Some alien insect species (so Lovecraft was right) banishes one of their greatest serial killers to earth “devolving” him into a human. Here, the charming guy goes right on with the killing. The problems of the devolution process do make his life rather difficult, though, so he not only murders people but also steals their heads and wears them as his own. As you do.

Diane Pierce (Raw Dawn Chong), a cop slowly despairing at the world (or the state of New York), kinda-sorta gets on the killer’s trail, but saying she actually investigates the case or is hunting the alien would say too much. She’s a bit distracted by hunting human rapist and serial killer Scully (Neil Giuntoli), though here too, the film doesn’t show her doing much actual investigating. Of course, Scully’s head is going to end up on the alien in the end, but as with everything else, The Borrower gets to that point slowly, and in the least dramatic way possible.

I’m not surprised that John McNaughton chose to make something completely different in tone and style as his next film after his masterpiece Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, but it’s difficult not to be disappointed by the mediocrity of this horror/SF/comedy/cop movie hybrid thing. It’s not as if there weren’t any cheesy, entertainingly gory or just plain weird scenes in the film, or that it didn’t include some poignant scenes of urban decay. These are all there and accounted for, but there’s no visible effort at all put into actually turning the random assemblage of scenes into a narrative, or much of a movie.

In fact, the script seems to go out of its way to half-arse even the most obvious dramatic beats, generally starting off with something nice, cool, or interesting and then doing fuck all with it. It is, for example, pretty wonderful to find an early 90s genre movie from the US having a female protagonist, an African American one to boot, and even better, one that doesn’t have to prove her worth to anyone. It’s much less wonderful to then find this purported protagonist of the film never actually doing much of anything apart from wandering around looking miffed and a bit bored – and who can blame her, with her only actual confrontation with the alien taking up all of five minutes and leading up to one of the laziest endings one could imagine.

This isn’t an exception in The Borrower either, for if ever there was a script to call lazy, this one’s it. So how, just to make another example, do you get the alien and the human killer together for the head-exchange? Why, you just put them in the same morgue, of course, because screw drama, screw thematic resonance, who wants to write this damn movie anyway! If I sound offended by the quality of The Borrower’s writing, that’s because I am. There’s absolutely no need for it to be quite this lacking, and in result for the film as a whole to be quite this half-arsed. This isn’t shot in Mom’s backyard, after all, or made by people who don’t know how to point a camera in the right direction, and still it very much feels like it were.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

In short: A Wicked Within (2015)

One Dr. Woods (Eric Roberts cashing in his usual pay check for one day or so of work) is interviewing the survivors of a family meeting that ended with quite a few dead bodies. During the course of these interviews, Woods uncovers a story he quite understandably doesn’t believe. Looks like family member Bethany (Sienna Guillory) came down with a bout of demonic possession during the proceedings, adding all manner of fun stuff to the usual mix of secrets and lies dominating this charming little family.

It looks like I’m not the only one who always asked himself when watching another movie about a bourgeois family unit breaking down during some sort of family meet-up, “how much more fun would this be with demonic possession?”, for verily, director Jay Alaimo and writer Stephen Wallis made exactly that film, and it turns out to be rather great, or at the very least damnably entertaining.

This is not one of those psychological horror films that take ages to get going, nor one of these exorcism films that get to the fun stuff only an hour in: after thirty minutes, we’re already at the point where the family calls in a very matter-of-fact psychic (Sarah Lassez), and about fifteen minutes later, a not terribly competent priest (Heath Freeman) arrives. A Wicked Within sure isn’t fucking around except (perhaps) in a framing device that really rather reminded me of The Unusual Suspects, just not as cleverly used and with a lot more Eric Roberts than can be good for your health. That framing device, though, is quite useful for the film’s theological high concept, so there’s something more to it than mere Roberts-ploitation.

Anyway, the film starts really fast, drops the family’s dirty laundry quickly on the audience’s doorstep, and doesn’t stop for breathe at all, achieving a flow of pleasant hysteria, flying urns, and so on and so forth with such great enthusiasm even a confessed exorcism horror party pooper like me can’t help but have a lot of fun. Parts of the film are – true to the title - wickedly funny, some of it are fun, and some of it even demonstrates the filmmakers did think about what possession in the world of their film is actually good for.

This approach doesn’t lend itself to a film that’s very uncanny or creepy, but sometimes hysteria is just as good an emotional anchor for a horror film, particularly one featuring not just an entertaining ensemble cast (apart from the actors already mentioned Giannia Capaldi, Enzo Cilenti, Michele Hicks, Sonja Kinski and Karen Austin) but a particularly spirited possessed performance by Sienna Guillory who does all the spitting and gnashing of teeth, the writhing (sexualized and not), the cajoling, the sudden breakdowns into human fragility, and so on, and so forth with wonderful commitment and the kind of pizazz this sort of thing really needs, turning out one of my favourite possessed bits in any movie.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Past Misdeeds: The Curse of the Living Corpse (1964)

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.

Rufus, the patriarch of the Sinclair family, is laid to rest in the family mausoleum. Nobody seems all that shaken by the old man's death, in fact, it would be difficult not to diagnose the bereaved with a certain amount of happiness. If we can believe their tales, Rufus must have been something of a sadist and a madman, making the life of his wife Abigail (Helen Warren) and that of their children a living hell. Which is not something I'd recommend to people like Rufus who have an uncommon physical illness that makes them prone to seem quite dead when they are still most definitely not, awaking fears of being buried alive. He might have set down certain security measures against it in his will, but no one is actually willing to take them. As you might have guessed, the Sinclair family is about as pleasant as Rufus himself was, with the exception of cousin Robert (Dino Narizzano), the boyfriend of Benson's daughter Deborah (Carnival of Souls' Candace Hilligoss in her completely forgettable other role). He's the young, bland guy the gothic trappings require to survive everything on account of the power of pure, concentrated boringness.

The opening of the will by family lawyer Benson (Hugh Franklin) doesn't go well, anyway, because the will also keeps the money out of the family's hands for a whole year, to make sure Rufus is truly dead. Oh, and by the way, dear children, if you are not doing what I told you, I'll come back from the dead and kill you all after a fashion based on your worst fears.

Obviously, it comes like it has to come - the old man's coffin is soon empty and a disguised figure is slaughtering the charming family one by one. The family calls the local chapter of the keystone cops, but those aren't of much help to anyone, so it's either up to alcoholic son Philip (a young Roy Scheider) or the bland one to step up to the occasion.

And lo! It happened that AIP made a shedload of money with Roger Corman's Poe adaptations and the early Gothics of Mario Bava. And Del Tenney said "I want some of that money too!", and decided to make his own little Gothic picture on the grounds of his father-in-law's highly photogenic property. But something strange and terrifying happened to Tenney. We are not sure if it was a sudden bout of artistic ambition or just a knock on the head with the rubber suit out of his The Horror of Party Beach, but in any case, Tenney suddenly developed the idea of making a cheap knock-off that was also trying to emulate the visual flair of the films (in a sense cheap knock-offs themselves) it stole its ideas from.

So the courageous viewer of Curse of the Living Corpse is confronted with things he won't usually connect with Tenney's handful of films - carefully constructed shots, rather thoughtful framing and effectively moody outside locations. It is really impressive to look at, and even though the sets used for inside shots are a little drab and perfunctory, Tenney (or is director of photography Richard Hilliard to praise?) for once films in a way developed to cover up these limitations.

Alas, while Tenney the director is showing actual artistic development from his earlier films, Tenney the scriptwriter isn't able to rise to the occasion. The script's weakest point is the terrible dialogue, obviously based on the way people in Corman's Poe adaptations speak, but Tenney is neither Charles Beaumont nor Richard Matheson and decides to turn the dialogue up to a crescendo of unbelievable stiffness that is at times difficult to stomach. It is the way stupid people think cultured people of the 1890s used to sound, I suppose.

The dialogue's weakness is quite a shame, too, because the basic character concepts that are lost among all the monologizing aren't bad at all. As a matter of fact, they remind me of the giallo principle of packing your cast full of the most unpleasant people you could imagine (and aren't all rich people unpleasant and of dubious morals, young grasshopper?), giving them more psycho-sexual hang-ups than necessary or in good taste and then killing them off in even more unpleasant ways. The slightly cruel streak as well as the violent-for-its-time murder scenes also give up a whiff of American proto-giallo (more than of proto-slasher), just less class-conscious and less willing to really go to the unpleasant places.

Pacing is of course also a problem. The film is money-savingly talky, something I am willing to tolerate, but also cursed with a bad sense of timing that usually puts the most annoying comic relief imaginable right after a scene that is atmospheric and immersive, as if something in Tenney just couldn't abide the thought of his audience actually being interested in his film, or even thrilled by it.

Acting wise, Curse of the Living Corpse is better than one would expect of a film that affords its - obviously not costly - cast to speak dialogue this stiff with fake English accents. Sure, the accents are sometimes off, but very tolerable, and most everyone does her or his role with solidity. Scheider and his film wife (and Tenney's real life wife) Margot Hartman are even rather good, obviously having fun with being less than pleasant human beings.

The three (oh yes, the humour is so painful it had to be divided between three people, or someone would have died from it) comic relief actors are of quite a different calibre, of course, even making me think wistfully of people like Johnny Walker (at least not, fortunately, of Jagdeep), but when has the odious comic relief ever been well acted, not to speak of funny?

All of this might make the film sound a lot worse than the experience watching it was for me, but I am a fan of Gothic and mock-Gothic horror and therefore easy to please in this regard. Your personal mileage will certainly depend on your love for Gothic tropes.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

In short: The Horror at 37,000 Feet (1973)

Clearly, not at all named with any hopes in mind people might confuse it with a certain Twilight Zone episode, oh no.

An extra flight – therefore populated with few enough characters from the disaster movie playbook we’ll get to know them all, yay! – from London to L.A. runs into a spot of trouble. Nope, it’s not just William Shatner’s acting as a defrocked priest (though it is indeed hilarious enough to be dangerous to the weak of mind – see also, Things Man Was Not Meant To Know) that’s the problem here. Part of the plane’s cargo consists of altar pieces taken from an old English abbey, and as every reader of Jamesian ghost stories knows, that sort of thing can only lead to danger. This particular altar also includes a former Druidic sacrificial slab, so soon, women are speaking in Latin, the cargo hold freezes, and the plane isn’t moving very far any more.

What follows is mostly a competition between the actors concerning who can chew the horrible 70s psycho-babble dialogue the best/worst, some moments of “people not played by Paul Winfield become utter shites when under pressure”, and a lot of wind noises with a bit of added chanting.

As far as US 70s TV horror movies go, David Lowell Rich’s epic isn’t anything special. There’s little of the cleverness and actual sense for the creepy films like Gargoyles knew on display here, with Rich fumbling every possible fright scene through his nearly improbable bland professionalism. The script buries the seeds for what could be a cool little British style ghost story - but on a plane! -, or for an interesting little film about the differences between superstition and faith and what happens when these collide with something supernatural you really shouldn’t pray to, under a few too many 70s disaster movie  clichés, the already mentioned psycho-babble (where today’s TV is inordinately fond of clever quips, the 70s just loved to pretend to psychological depth by people spouting self-help book nonsense), and a haunting so hokey it’s pretty darn impossible not to use that dreaded word “camp” (the horror!). It’s rather frustrating, really, particularly once the film gets around to theoretically incredibly resonant scenes like the passengers preparing a doll as a symbolic sacrifice, and just buries them under the all-around hokum.

That impression of camp is certainly not dispelled by half a dozen actors fighting to out-act one another as outrageously as possible, resulting in so many bugged eyes, melodramatic pauses and weird line deliveries William Shatner’s acting approach here impresses as downright subtle, something that is bound to convince even a hardened sceptic like me of the existence of the supernatural.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Cold Harvest (1999)

Welcome to the double-apocalypse post-apocalypse. First, a comet collided with Earth hiding the sun away behind eternal clouds that just happen to make a film shot in the studio much more believable (in theory). Then, a mysterious virus with symptoms so mysterious the film never shows them or tells us about them rolled around to mop up the rest of humanity. In the end, it’s all darkness, people dressed in your typical post-apocalyptic rags (extra cheap edition) and something called “The Safe Zone”, whatever it may be.

Roland Chaney (Gary Daniels) roams decidedly not safe zones as a bounty hunter, for the world seems to have returned to some kind of frontier law. Being our action movie hero, Roland is of course haunted by a dark past. Things do not get lighter when hilariously sadist evildoer and Chaney childhood playmate Little Ray (Bryan Genesse) ambushes a government convoy in the hopes of picking up some goodies. Instead, he kills a bunch of civilians, as well as Roland’s twin Oliver (guess). Only Oliver’s wife Christine (Barbara Crampton) escapes.

Turns out Little Ray’s murder spree was an even worse idea than your typical murder spree, for the civilians in the convoy were the only surviving carriers of a gene that could make the virus a thing of the past. Thanks to a tracking device with extremely vague operational parameters, Ray follows Christine in the hopes of selling her on to the government; possibly after having had his way with her.

Too bad for him Christine and Roland meet and team up, and Roland’s the kind of bounty-hunting ass-kicker you really don’t want protecting your dedicated victim. Much violence, kidnappings, and a few explosions ensue.

I don’t think Cold Harvest is the biggest milestone in director Isaac Florentine’s decades-long crusade to make US direct-to-video action and martial arts films that are actually worth watching, carry a consciousness of genre history, and handle genre tropes knowingly yet lovingly. That doesn’t mean this isn’t a fun movie. In fact, it’s rather a lot of fun, but it does have a couple of problems.

For one, the post-apocalyptic world the NuImage budget provides is the usual mix of abandoned industrial buildings, and grotty sets, just with no lights in the sky (yet still an abundance of working light sources) and as such not exactly a delight to look at – it’s more than just a bit drab, and there’s very little to actually gawk at. Secondly – and I’m sorry, Gary Daniels fans – dear Gary Daniels only barely manages to get through the moments when the film actually needs him to act (and the script does take care not to put that much of a strain on him), even in scenes where saintly Barbara Crampton puts in rather a lot of effort to make him look good.

Which of course already leads us to some of Cold Harvest’s strong points, namely, Barbara Crampton who’d lighten up a shitty film and surely doesn’t do less to a really fun one like this, Gary Daniels when he’s not acting but hitting, kicking, shooting and pitchfork-ening people, and Isaac Florentine, esquire.

I’m not even sure it’s still necessary for me to praise Florentine’s action direction, but I’ll do it just to be sure: as usual, Florentine’s action scenes are incredibly energetic – it’s difficult not to use the old cliché of them exploding off the screen – yet never feel the need to go for the “cool” cop out shot that makes it more difficult to see what stunt actors and actors are actually doing. The basis of Florentine’s approach to action is based on the idea that the stuff his performers actually do is as cool as things can get, and it is his job to emphasise what they can do instead of hiding what they can’t. This time around, the style feels particularly Hong Kong to me, with 80s and 90s martial arts scenes and gun fu with a Western genre influence being the centre of Florentine’s attention. There’s a lot of action going around too, of course, but, as always, Florentine’s putting creativity and thought into the bits where nobody dies too.

Sure, the emotional parts are consciously cheesy (just look at the hilarious bit where Crampton washes her back while Daniels polishes his gun and watches her in a mirror and oh so many ever so slightly sexually loaded gestures are made) but then, that’s the only emotional content that fits a film like this.

Other joys are Genesse’s awesome and strange performance as Little Ray, a main henchman who is into noses (don’t ask him why), and a whole lot of overdubbed whoosh and swish noises. Turns out Gary Daniels can’t turn his head without the air around him going “woosh” in sheer excitement. And who could blame it?

Tuesday, February 2, 2016


Unnatural (2015): So, how to prepare our dear animals for the horrors of climate change? One fine corporation says: genetic chimeras are the way to go, so let’s say hello to a polar bear with some wolf genes. Whoops, turns out you only get an animal attack horror movie out of that (they might perhaps have experimented on tiny little rabbits?). Consequently, a handful of people in a resort hut in the wintery wilderness of Alaska get eaten.

The resulting film is an okay, but most definitely not spectacular entry in its genre, with James Remar being quite overqualified for what he’s asked to do in the lead, an adorable bear thing, a bunch of decent actors having little to do, and few news for anyone who has seen this sort of film before. There are some laudable attempts at emphasising the mental strain on the characters, but the writing’s not really sharp or deep enough for that to lead anywhere interesting, and Hank Braxtan’s direction is too bland to at least milk the stuff for melodrama.

Demon Keeper (1994): How can you go wrong with the good old “demon drives boring rich people trapped in a house to deeds of sex and violence” set-up? Well, for starters, keeps the demon’s shenanigans as boring as possible, do not dare to make any scene of the demon tempting someone even mildly interesting, or tempting, or kinky, or anything else that might keep an audience awake. Then, never actually make anything of the opportunities your character set-up provides for giallo-esque wallowing in decadence or pseudo-decadence. Finish it off with some of the least interesting bits of “eroticism” you can imagine, and not even Dirk Benedict hamming it up as a medium and secret horror star Edward Albert can save your movie.

Monster in the Closet (1986): I’ve repeatedly gone on record with not being too fond of Troma’s particular brand of cheese. An overdeveloped self-consciousness with an underdeveloped sense of trying to make a film that isn’t actually crap will do that to me.

However, Bob Dahlin’s closet-based monster movie is one of the great exceptions to the rule for me, mostly because its self-consciousness doesn’t result in self-sabotage, and because it feels like it tries to be a parody of classic monster movies first and a Troma brand film second, so it comes by its weirdness the honest way.
And what a charming monster movie parody it is, often very cleverly playing with the tone of the original films, sometimes drifting off in pretty goofy and peculiar directions, sometimes subverting pretty annoying classic tropes, and sometimes just farting around rather adorably.