Thursday, June 30, 2016

In short: Cell (2016)

You know what, says one Hollywood producer to another, why not adapt Stephen King’s very worst book? Yup, the luddite one with the cellphone zombies. The kids love ‘em zombies, and they sure will dig the whole thing about technology being evil, right?

And don’t you think the book’s ending is just not bad enough? I’m sure we’ll be able to stitch something together that’s even worse! Quick, now tell me the director of a bad but commercially very successful horror film? James Wan? Nah, to stylish. How about Tod Williams? You know, Paranormal Activity 2? I’m sure his experience with nailed down cameras will be a great asset here.

Now we only need a star or two. How about Samuel L. Jackson? He’s willing to be in anything as long as he gets paid, and we don’t have to be afraid he’ll believe anything below his dignity. The white guy we need, hmm, big ego, big talent he’s never actually using, career declining painfully… That has John Cusack written all over it! And what if he looks so bored with what he’s doing he might as well be talking in his sleep? And while we’re at it, why not hire a young actress (Isabelle Fuhrman) who’ll actually put effort into our crap like an actual professional, and whose character will die an hour in to add insult to injury?

I’m pretty sure that is exactly what went through various producers’ heads when Cell was greenlit. There’s no explanation how bad this thing is that makes any other sense, no reason for this to be quite as offensively bad as it turned out to be. Apart from Cusack’s sleepwalking and Jackson’s (whom I love, but honestly…) whatever performance, you get direction that – particularly in the first half of the film – goes all out on the lazy director’s favourite methods to produce “tension”: shaky cam and fast inconsistent edits, which also just happens to be the ideal way to avoid having to think about the actual framing of scenes. In this context, it’s hardly a surprise Cell also has the usual bleached out colour scheme going on, nor that Williams manages to waste some choice opportunities to add some weirdness and creepiness it desperately needs to the film, wasting the Kaufman-bodysnatcher with digital noises tendencies of his monsters on scenes that always manage to sell as ridiculous what should be nightmarish.

Of course, given how desperately the script (co-written by King himself, which is usually a very bad sign) tries to push as many elements of the book into a hundred minute running time as possible, the poor guy really doesn’t have the time to prepare any of the more interesting set pieces properly. After all, we need to rush to the next bit of the book, leaving the narrative a tattered series of barely connected episodes that lack any kind of coherence, weight and even the most basic thematic throughline. And then there’s that ending, a thing so misguided, vague and unparsable, even John Cusack’s Nic Cage on a very bad day style cell phone zombie face can’t make it worse than it already is.

I honestly can’t understand how this project could end up being quite as bad as it is – it makes World War Z look downright decent by comparison.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Last Girl Standing (2015)

Five years ago, Camryn (Akasha Villalobos) had been the final survivor of a group of friends encountering a slasher later dubbed The Hunter (Jason Vines) who did what slashers love to do. In the end, Camryn (and good luck) managed to kill the Hunter.

It doesn’t come as much of a surprise Camryn never really got over an ordeal that has left her very much alone and damaged. In the now of the film, she’s suffering from PTSD and is barely managing to make the way out of her front door to her job as one of the cleaners in a dry cleaner. Things like a social life, relationships or just a night’s sleep without nightmares are still beyond her.

One would hope for her the arrival of hipster-haired new cashier Nick (Brian Villalobos) in whom she is clearly interested would improve Camryn’s personal situation a little. Unfortunately, at about the same time Nick arrives, the Hunter seems to return, too. At least, Camryn sees him and feels threatened by him, though she’s the only one who does see him. She becomes convinced Nick and his assortment of mildly deepened slasher movie cliché friends and roommates just might have to suffer the same fate as her own friends did years ago.

Up until its final act, I was very happy with Benjamin R. Moody’s Last Girl Standing. After the intro in form of a pretty traditional slasher movie final girl sequence (if with a final girl that isn’t particularly active), the film quickly turns into a typical US indie movie about a damaged young woman who might just perhaps get some sort of chance for an actual life with added psychological thriller tension. That alone already is an unexpected surprise from a film whose basic idea threatens yet another meta-slasher that is more about commenting on other movies and excusing all one’s own failings through “irony” than having an identity of its own.

Even more pleasant was my surprise when the film went to great lengths to treat Camryn’s PTSD as more than a gimmick, with more than one scene that rang truer than usual when it comes to that particular illness. It’s clear the film is willing to take its time and space to get into the head of its main character, even when that means choosing a slow pace and only putting on its thriller hat when it’s appropriate. Thanks to a strong cast – particularly Villalobos, Danielle Evon Ploeger as one of Nick’s room mates, and the male Villalobos – the character scenes in an indie horror movie for once feel like actual human beings interacting instead of semi-professional actors declaiming their dialogue.

Unfortunately, that whole psychological care goes right out of the window when the final act goes for the most obvious (and pretty damn boring) solution to its plot. For no better reason, it seems, than that this wants to be a horror film, so it’s gotta go for the pointless bloody mess. Gone are the empathetic treatment of someone with a mental illness, gone is the thoughtfulness, and all that is left is the usual – if competently filmed – “crazy people are murderers!” stuff. Which are all things I’d accept quite a bit more readily in a film that did not for most of its running time demonstrate it does indeed know better. Sometimes, going the obvious route one’s chosen genre pushes one in is just the wrong decision, and it most certainly is here.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

In short: Night of the Big Heat (1967)

aka Island of the Burning Dead

aka Island of the Burning Doomed

Despite it being winter and the rest of Britain complaining about freezing temperatures the British island of Fara suffers under a terrible heat wave. Experts are baffled by the phenomenon.

The weather is only the start of the islanders’ problems, though, for there’s much worse, much stranger and much more fried egg shaped to come. At first, there’s only an inexplicable high-pitched noise in certain parts of the island upping the pressure but soon, sheep and people are cooked while electronics burst. And what does the mysterious guest of the island’s only inn, one Hanson (Christopher Lee), do with the science-y instruments he has in his room, and the tripwire and camera constructions he builds in the woods?

If your answer to that is: trying to find proof for an invasion by heat-producing giant, glowing fried eggs from outer space, then give yourself a gold star! Now the only question is: will you get through the film’s main concern, a love triangle between writer/innkeeper Jeff Callum (Patrick Allen as some sort of mid-60s John Agar-like manly man monstrosity who likes to blame the woman he fucked for their extramarital affair with charming declarations like “She was a slut! And I wanted her!”), his former lover Angela Roberts (Jane Merrow) who has smuggled herself onto the island as Jeff’s new secretary and is characterised in a way even a gracious interpretation can’t not call misogynist, and his wife, the wifely – yes, that’s her only character trait – Frankie (Sarah Lawson) to reach a finale where the aliens are beaten through a bit of rain, which never happens on the British isles?

Oh boy, this just might be director Terence Fisher’s worst film. It was produced by the same company responsible for the somewhat superior Island of Terror  with quite a few overlaps in cast and crew, with the addition of Christopher Lee and the relegation of Peter Cushing to a guest starring role. Which is rather unfortunate, seeing as Lee does the usual low effort thing he did when cashing his cheque for projects he was embarrassed by – looking grumpy, then looking grumpy, then looking grumpy some more – while Cushing doesn’t get anything to work with at all and still comes out looking the dedicated professional.

Though, to be fair, the script really doesn’t give Lee much to work with. It is much more interested in a love soap opera sub-plot that is badly dated, deeply unpleasant in his loathing of female sexuality and which can’t help but make every character involved in it look like a deeply horrible person. Sure, a better script could have used this approach to do something interesting about or with its characters’ general unpleasantness; unfortunately, this one’s not even average and therefore leaves us with a bunch of protagonists we have no reason to care about.

Night also suffers from sluggish pacing (that at least fits the whole heat wave concept, so there’s that), monsters that turn out to look like downgraded versions of the creatures in Island of Terror when we finally get a look at them in the last act, and the lamest deus ex machina ending imaginable. It’s really a rather dire film.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Arrowhead (2016)

Some time in a space faring future. Two generals - both clearly not kissed by the democracy fairy - have been fighting over the part of the universe the film takes place in for some time. One Hatch (Mark Redpath) is the losing general, and has gone from your more standard space warfare to guerrilla operations, in particular attacks on prison planets where his former men are held.

On one such prison raid, prisoner Kye Cortland (Dan Mor), former elite soldier, son of a close associate of Hatch, and now suffering from PTSD as well as a big case of bitterness, more or less saves Hatch’s bacon, having to cut off his own foot in the process. That earns him a new cybernetic foot, and an offer from Hatch to do a little bit of data collection for him that should lead to a way to free Kye’s also imprisoned father before his planned execution in a couple of month’s time.

Not surprisingly, things don’t go quite as planned, so Kye soon finds himself stranded on a rather lethal desert moon together with enemy biologist Tarren Hollis (Aleisha Rose). Your usual environmental dangers – and the race against time in an attempt to get off the planet – aren’t the only problems for our heroes. There’s also some sort of creature around and it does rather more interesting things than just eat humans.

Jesse O’Brien’s Arrowhead is a great example of the fine art of making a clever and entertaining low budget science fiction movie in the classic style, which is to say with a robot made out of vacuum cleaner parts and rubbish bin bits (apparently because the production’s 3D printer broke) and an alien planet that looks quite a bit like a South Australian desert patch. If that sort of thing doesn’t sound potentially exciting to you, this is not going to be a film for you; to my eyes, this approach to just doing things the best one can usually promises enthusiasm, perhaps even intelligence. Turns out the film holds that promise, and provides even a bit more than I’d have dared ask for.

Sure, as it goes with this kind of production, Arrowhead has its moments of somewhat too vague scripting and not always terribly convincing special effects (specifically, the practical effect alien looks so screwy I think a crappy CGI effect would have actually worked out better for the film), but at its core, this is a clever little SF tale told with conviction and style whose plot actually goes into directions quite different from the sort of SF action film I expected it to be after the first fifteen minutes or so, and which features acting of a decency many an indie horror film of the same budget size would kill for. This is a proper science fiction film that takes on some proper science fictional ideas with dignity and conviction, and while it doesn’t add anything extremely new to these ideas, or becomes as psychedelic as some of its later ideas suggest it could become, it executes them very well indeed.

Apart from the alien – but honestly, if a viewer applies a bit of imagination there she should be able to cope - O’Brien makes fantastic use of his hand-made props, using their design to suggest parts of his universe’s background and giving the technology a lived-in and practical feeling, not as grimy as some films prefer but with a patina of reality that convinced me of the film’s universe as well as of the seriousness of the filmmaker. And while I don’t exactly buy an alien planet that looks quite this much like Australia, O’Brien uses the desert so well to provide moments of desolation as well as of beauty, complaining about this would be churlish, particularly since the desert does look rather alien to this German.

Even though I’ve mentioned the film’s budget a lot, the thing that impresses me most about Arrowhead is how quickly I found myself reaching the point watching it where this sort of thing just didn’t come to my mind anymore at all, for the film doesn’t feel like something filmed to get around problems and trouble spots but like a story told in exactly the way it was meant to be told.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

In short: The Beast of Hollow Mountain (1956)

Cowboy Jimmy Ryan (Guy Madison) and his friend Felipe Sanchez (Carlos Rivas) have established a cattle ranch somewhere in Mexico. Despite the obvious hatred the big man in town Enrique Rios (Eduardo Noriega) harbours for them, things have been going well so far. That is, until a few weeks ago. Now, cattle is disappearing in surprising numbers, and it looks as if someone is driving the animals into a nearby swamp surrounding the titular Hollow Mountain.

Or it might just be the swamp is cursed, for whenever a particularly heavy summer heat wave strikes, as it does this year, and the swamp shrinks, something attacks and eats men and cattle alike in the area.

What is clear is that Enrique is stepping up his attempts at sabotaging our protagonists, not only because he doesn’t approve of an American undercutting his cattle prices but also because his fiancée Sarita (Patricia Medina) has taken quite an obvious shine to Jimmy. Of course, Jimmy’s a true white hat, so he’d never do much more than pine for Sarita, but Enrique’s the kind of guy who projects his own rather more aggressive approach to life on others, so more trouble has to ensue.

If you think this sounds as if Edward Nassour’s and Ismael Rodríguez’ Beast of Hollow Mountain, the first of the tiny handful of cowboys versus dinosaur films is rather more interested in its B-western elements than it is in its stop motion dinosaur, you’re absolutely right. In fact, if you’d leave the dinosaur out of the plot completely, there’d be little about the film that would have to change.

That’s particularly disappointing since the fifteen minutes or so of cowboy versus dinosaur action we get are rather good, with solid stop motion and a handful of clever action set pieces. Still, if you’re going into this expecting much dinosaur or monster action, you’re bound to be disappointed.

As a B-western in the non-psychological style, Beast is perfectly alright fare that starts out with a bit of neat action but suffers from a middle that’s too talky for the flat characterisations it offers. There’s not even a decent shoot-out in there, even though there are at least two scenes that would set the scene for one beautifully. The film also suffers from a wide sentimental streak that mostly involves a sub-plot about the mandatory little boy and his alcoholic father. The Western parts are certainly not horrible if you like this side of the genre – which I do to a degree - but it’s not terribly exciting either.

At least the film looks good. Thanks to being a US/Mexican co-production (there’s supposed to be a Spanish language version shot back to back), it was actually shot in Mexico for the most part, providing the directors with ample opportunity to show off the local landscape, which they do with decided enthusiasm. It’s also quite pleasant to encounter a western whose Mexican characters are played by actual Mexican actors instead of white guys from Brooklyn in brownface.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Past Misdeeds: The Real Pocong (2009)

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.

As is somewhat traditional in films, a small, young family consisting of mother Rin(i) (Nabila Syakieb), father (I)Van (Ashraf Sinclair) and little daughter Laura (Sakinah Dava Erawan) moves into a new home in the country, although as a non-Indonesian I'd call it "the jungle" or at least "the deep dark woods".

Rini and Van are enthusiastic about their new house. It was cheap, and there are none of the dangers of the city threatening their daughter now. One would think that the country air could also be good for Laura's asthma. There's a certain lack of neighbours, though, with the only person living nearby the young physician Dr. Nila (Kinaryosih). At least she's friendly and could probably be of help when little Laura has one of her attacks.

Less friendly are other inhabitants of the area. Right on the family's first day in the new house, Laura follows a strange, unsmiling girl of about her own age deeper into the woods, until she comes to a weather-beaten old shack beside a well. There, the other girl seems to disappear into thin air. Instead, something dressed in white funeral shrouds jumps Laura.

When Rini finds her deeply disturbed daughter, she can't get a word out of the girl, and puts her strange behaviour on an understandable reaction to the new environment. In truth, a pocong (female Indonesian ghost dressed in white shrouds that often seems to have religious connotations I won't pretend to understand) has taken an interest in the girl. At first, it seems relatively benign, turning into a kitten and sneaking into Laura's room, or singing her lullabies, but just too soon the ghost again lures the girl to the shack.
Only this time, Laura doesn't return.

The police (who are never actually shown by the film) find not a trace of the child, nor any explanation of what happened, so the desperate Rini seeks the help of a medium, very much against Van's will. The medium diagnoses the place to be haunted and declares a pocong to be the child snatcher, but seems unwilling to act on her findings. Only when Van calls her out in a fit of aggressive scepticism she deigns to do something, and I can't say that I find giving the sceptic an amulet that is supposed to help him cross over to the spirit world and then drive away never to return to be a very responsible action.

Surprisingly enough, Van actually uses the amulet to cross over (through a gate of pine trees, no less), and manages to bring Laura back. Of course, this is not the end of the family's troubles.

The more films of the (as it seems still merrily continuing) Indonesian horror film boom I see, the more impressed I am with it. Of course, quite a few of the films are terribly generic, or marred by the sort of comic relief that is neither comical, nor any kind of relief, but you can say that of every country's genre film output at the best of times. The important thing is the good films, and the good horror films made in Indonesia in the last five years or so tend to be very good, and quietly ambitious in exploring the possibilities of their genre.

The Real Pocong definitely is one of those good films. Directed by Hanny R. Saputra (whose other films I unfortunately know next to nothing about), it is a film that treats its horror story as a fairy tale. One just needs to have a look at the plot structure - like the way the film uses repetition - or the elements (the deep dark wood, the road into the other world, the child-snatching supernatural creature etc) of the plot to realize this.

The characters are more archetypes than psychologically "realistic" people. As such, they don't always act as rational or logical as some viewers might want them to - especially Rini's inability to completely understand what is happening around her in the final third of the film could be very problematic to some - but I'm not too sure I would find people learning that their little daughter has been kidnapped by a ghost and then acting rationally and logically that much more believable. Thankfully, the handful of actors is good enough to provide performances which do not confuse the archetypal with the inhuman.

I was especially impressed by Sakinah Dava Erawan. Child actors are often terrible, and I find it somewhat unfair to blame them for it, seeing that they just don't have much life experience they could draw from, but I didn't find it difficult at all to sympathize with this little girl. Cleverly, the first part of The Real Pocong lets the film's audience share Laura's perspective, her mixture of terror and wonder and the naturalness with which she treats the stranger occurrences around her; as a child, she doesn't have the grip on what should be reality and what not a grown-up possesses, and because we share her view of the world, we don't get to have that grip either.

As any good fairy tale would, the movie does well addressing anxieties people typically don't want to be confronted with quite directly. The Laura-centric half of the film embodies many childhood anxieties. It's not only the more banal ones like "the thing in the cupboard" or "the thing under the bed", but the fear of not being understood by one's parents, and the more painful fear of not being able to trust them.

The second half of the film puts the same (slightly painful) spotlight on the big parental fear of the loss of one's child without going down either the road of Spielbergian kitsch, nor that of exploitative melodrama.

Apart from that, The Real Pocong also manages to be quite creepy (again, as a good fairy tale should be). While some of the special effects look a bit ropey, the production design and photography are excellent. This is one of the few horror films whose actions take place nearly entirely by daylight, and it proves that a director who knows what he's doing doesn't need darkness to build a mood of dread.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Collection (2012)

A bizarre serial killer called The Collector (Randall Archer) has made his way into a sequel. His modus operandi sees him locking up a group of people somewhere and slaughtering them with the help of physics-sceptical death traps as well as more hands-on efforts until only one victim is left. Him or her, he loads into a neat little trunk and carts to his murder castle (quite traditionally situated in an old hotel building named after Dario Argento) where he has fun with torture, drugs, and the creation of modern art of the sort I suspect Rob Zombie would love.

For reasons, the Collector likes to bring an earlier trunked victim to his next crime. Which affords thief Arkin (Josh Stewart), the survivor of the first film I believe, an opportunity to escape the crazyman while he’s killing a horde of teenagers on a warehouse party in various hilarious way. The Collector then trunks survivor Elena (Emma Fitzpatrick) and carries her home to have his various ways with her. Elena, it turns out, was not a terribly good choice of victim. She’s a ten out of ten on the Final Girl effectiveness scale, and I’m pretty sure she’d kick the guy’s ass herself rather well.

However, she doesn’t have to do the job alone, because she’s also the child of a very rich father as well as under the protection of a rather effective security guy named Lucello (Lee Tergesen). Lucello convinces Arkin to lead him and a small band of mercenaries (among them Andre Royo and Shannon Kane) to The Collector’s murder palace. Arkin has seen Aliens so he’s not willing to lead Lucello and his people any further than the entry to Collector central but once there, their guns are rather convincing for him to change his mind.

Now they only have to fight their way through a bunch of the killer’s drugged up zombie victims, survive a cornucopia of death traps, and somehow find Elena in this somewhat creepy labyrinth. It’s good for all involved that Elena can take care of herself and that Arkin will find his heroic spirit.

I thought Marcus Dunstan’s The Collector was a pretty useless Saw-alike crossed with a slasher with even less substance, care and style than that series or that genre show; Dunstan’s own sequel, on the other hand, doesn’t just beat the Saw movies by a wide margin but also has a personality of its own. Sure, its personality is stitched together out of the parts of other movies but it’s the right parts put together in the right way, presented with an eye for the lurid and the outrageous.

While nobody – certainly not I - would suggest The Collection to be subtle, it is a rather more clever and coherent film than I expected it to be. Early on, around minute eleven or so, the film establishes that it isn’t taking place anywhere that might be confused with the real world through the rather fun, rather absurd and rather cool party slaughter scene. After that point, one might expect the film to continue to just throw random disjointed crap at its audience but the first fifteen minutes or so actually establish the specific kind of luridness and craziness the film is going for, and Dunstan just follows through for the rest of the movie, turning what by all rights should be a warehouse horror piece about people wandering from one random shock to the next (and dying) into a film that is lurid as hell but also of one piece – while still being all about people wandering through a warehouse, being shocked, and dying.

There’s an unexpected sense of aesthetic coherence on display into which the Collector lair’s Goth Metal cover look and feel fit perfectly well, making sense in context and providing the film with a coherent mood and style, as do the set design and the film’s very un-2012 thoughtful use of colours that reminded me of some of the better bits of 80s horror.

Even the writing works rather well, with the script going out of its way to add surprising little moments where a character’s action comments on other actions that happened before. Clearly a lot of effort is put into keeping the film’s main victims more than just meat for the killer to slaughter; this being the rare slasher film that actually realizes its killer is a right prick. I also very much enjoyed the little bits of action movie cheese that are sprinkled throughout the film, keeping things pleasantly crazy while never going so far as to breaking the established rules of the film’s world.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

In short: The Ouija Experiment 2: Theatre of Death (2015)

aka The Ouija Resurrection

Oh, how meta! Turns out, in the world of The Ouija Experiment 2, the first film was only a movie, so the film brings back three of the first film’s main actors, now playing themselves. Now I can’t keep Swisyzinna, Justin Armstrong and Eric Window anonymous anymore, but it’s their own damn fault. Anyway, our heroes – such as they are – have just taken part in the “world premiere” of their film in a shabby movie theatre in some god-forsaken Texas town. In what is difficult not to read as an act of ever so slight wish fulfilment, the audience is really excited about the film. But wait, there’s more!

In the next few days, the supposedly haunted cinema will be turned into a haunted house attraction to promote the film, with the high point an extra special haunted tour behind locked doors for lucky winner Michelle Joy (Sally Greenland) and two invitees of her choosing – her gay best friend and the local mildly psychic goth girl.

Alas, Window farts around with the original ouija board from the first movie while trying to impress a local bimbo and of course does not say goodbye, which invites in the local incest ghost who proceeds to first kill the actors and then anyone else it can get its claws on. There’s also a bit of “darn those backwoods” people horror thrown in in the end, but let’s not go there, particularly since that part of the film gives us an overlong expositional speech of highly dubious merit.

You know when I said about the first film that I found myself somewhat charmed by it because it clearly tried very hard, as well as by the existence of some decent scares? That pretty much holds for the second Ouija Experiment too. The film is a bit more ambitious with its attempts at meta horror but that never really amounts to much more than a handful of scenes that wink at the audience in a not too penetrant way. The cinema is certainly a spookier place than the first film’s apartments/bungalows/wherever you American people live, lending itself well enough to this second film’s eschewing of POV horror for more standard filmmaking.

The acting’s still pretty bad – though the actors from the first film have improved a bit – and the humour goofy in a somewhat charming manner, while the horror sequences go from fun to aggressively annoying and back again. As a whole, I enjoyed the film more than it probably deserves. Maybe because it – as well as its predecessor – feels to me like the direct to video version of the goofier side of 70s and 80s local filmmaking, or because I kinda like its particular type of silliness, or perhaps just because I can’t help but root for a sequel that doesn’t just repeat its predecessor beat for beat.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Tag-Along (2015)

Original title: 紅衣小女孩

Warning: spoilers are inevitable in this case

Real estate agent Wei (River Wong Hiu) and his talk radio DJ girlfriend Yi-Jun (Tiffany Hsu Wei-Ning) have a rather difficult relationship. She doesn’t want to marry at all while he mortgages his grandma’s house to buy a family apartment for the time after they’re married behind everyone’s backs (somehow, even his grandmother’s), which does not promise a very glorious future to anyone involved.

Things become definitely inglorious when Wei’s grandmother (Liu Yin-Shang) disappears, or rather, as the audience knows, is kidnapped by mountain forest spirits who seem to be putting human souls where once trees stood (or something of that sort), sometimes putting an evil spirit in the place of their victims. The victims can call their loved ones for help, but when those react, they are taken in their stead. It’s a bit of an awkward arrangement, if you ask me, but I’m no forest spirit. Obviously, after a handful of frightening occurrences, Wei takes the place of his grandmother, and Yi-Jun becomes our protagonist.

It falls on her shoulders to save Wei by changing her mind about marriage and children. But hey, at least it’s okay for her to work, it seems.

So yeah, it would take quite a bit of mental gymnastics to call Cheng Wei-Hao’s The Tag-Along anything else but socially conservative (as most Taiwanese films I’ve seen seem to be). Given that my own predilections lie in a rather different direction, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I still enjoyed the film. Certainly, that has a lot to do with the fact that Cheng isn’t out to punish his characters for living the “wrong” way as a lot of explicitly conservative horror is – the film is even willing to let an abortion slide which these films usually never do – but seems more interested in seeing them become happier and ghost-free through marriage and babies. The film seems to genuinely feel for its characters, and while I disagree with what it says is good for them, it does have its heart in the right place.

There’s also an only slightly more subtle aspect to the film’s subtext, in that the spirits are leaving their forest home to harvest souls in the city because the balance of things in their forest has been disturbed by people, only to come to a place where the natural order is just as out of joint. Young people not marrying! Women who don’t want children! OMG!

I…don’t seem to be selling the film very well, am I? But despite its basic message, I do think The Tag-Along is a rather fine horror film that tries to sell its message in an honest way, without being too much of an ass about it and without feeling the need to disrespect the integrity of its characters for its message. Even Yi-Jun’s change of heart when confronted with nasty spirits makes sense for her, so that I didn’t found myself manipulated – at least until the very end when the film’s laying it on much too thick (though that does feed into a kicker ending which you could see as a subversion of the whole conservative message of the film, but that I read as your standard horror movie ending being just that).

The thing is, this is a genuinely good horror movie, a film featuring some simple yet effective ghost scares, CGI that goes from silly to creepy and is charming in both ways, decent acting, as well as one of the ickier bug eating scenes in memory. It’s a film that builds mood and establishes characters and place economically and effectively, as well as one that does understand the special vulnerability you feel just after waking up from a nightmare. I also found the way the protagonist role shifts over time very elegantly realized and organic to the film while still being surprising.

So it would be pretty shabby if I’d look down on The Tag-Along just because I disagree with it on the importance of marriage and babies.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

In short: Venom (2005)

The young population of the appropriately named Louisiana swamp town of Backwater is under attack, for an accident involving a suitcase full of magical snakes has left the corpse of town outcast and gas station owner Ray (Rick Cramer) possessed by all the evil the local voodoo priestess milked out of people (don’t ask). That’s obviously a whole lot of evil, and so Zombie Ray first kills the coroner, then Method Man, and then starts on the town’s young.

Will obvious final girl Eden (Agnes Bruckner) manage to save some of her friends from certain doom? And how will she get rid of a tow truck driving zombie?

Despite appearances, Jim Gillespie’s throwback to the supernatural slasher stylings of the 80s is a rather fun little flick. As it goes with its particular subgenre, it’s not a terrible clever film, but at least it is not the kind of film where the bad guy is dispatched by a kung fu kicking Bustah Rhymes. Instead the film takes its own silliness seriously and expects the audience to roll with it.

That’s not particularly difficult, for there’s quite a bit to recommend here. For one, the film puts in a decent effort to portray its Louisiana dead end town as a place, if the kind of place where only our young murder victims, Ray, a sheriff and deputy, a coroner and a mother seem to live. It’s not exactly a naturalistic approach, but the film does have quite a few atmospheric shots of swamps and the always empty (apart from the diner) town, driving home that this isn’t a generic backwater, but indeed much more specific Backwater.

It also puts a bit of effort into giving its meat broad stroke character traits and conflicts slightly above and beyond the question of who sleeps with whom. It’s not deep, but it’s deep enough to make most of the characters feel a bit less disposable, even though I have a hard time imagining anyone being crushed by anyone’s death.
These deaths aren’t half bad either, realized with decent practical effects and a good eye for the slightly gruesome (it’s mainstream horror and not a gore movie after all) and embedded in just as decent slash and stalk scenes.

The longer Venom goes on, the larger its sillier vein becomes, and once we enter the final third, bets are off enough that a completely straight-faced scene where the more survivable of our protagonists use the dead body of one of their friends as an oversized voodoo doll with an assorted discussion about the morality of such a thing is just par for the course. I’m not complaining, mind you, because I do prefer imaginative nonsense played straight to the alternatives of unimaginative nonsense or awkward irony, or worse, a combination of both.

So, while Venom certainly isn’t an overlooked classic, it is a good-sized chunk of effective, slightly crazy fun, just the thing to watch when you’re not up for something more involving.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

SyFy vs. The Mynd: Ominous (2015)

Rachel (Esmé Bianco) and Michael (Barry Watson) Young’s little son Jacob (Gavin Lewis) dies when his father doesn’t hold to the old rule that drinking and reversing out of one’s driveway don’t mix.

When a not at all ominous (see what I did there?) stranger (Mark Lindsay Chapman) offers them to resurrect their son they are a bit sceptical at first. Fortunately, Michael is such a menace when driving they just happen to carry a freshly run over dog in their car, which the Stranger promptly revives. Given further developments, I’m pretty disappointed we never hear from the dog again afterwards, Ominous cheating us out of some perfectly good Devil Dog remake action.

So off our heroes drive to dig out their son. The Stranger does as he promises, but would you believe it, little Jacob isn’t quite as was once before what with him killing the family dog to for being barked at and all. Three months later, the family has relocated to avoid what would have been some truly awkward – yet hilarious – questions. Michael’s sober, Rachel’s happy, and Jacob murders small animals or causes telekinetic playground massacres when he’s getting really annoyed. One Father Francis (Eric Etebari), dagger-fighting devil-hunting priest, informs Michael that his son is the Anti-Christ, and thanks to Jacob’s total lack of restraint when it comes to using his magical powers in public, it very quickly becomes rather difficult for Michael to disagree. Rachel, on the other hand, will need a while to come around to the proper point of view.

Well, say what you will against Peter Sullivan’s Ominous, it sure doesn’t follow the usual SyFy Original formula (on account of it being a film made for but not by the Channel, I suppose). Instead, it’s a cheap, frequently hilarious riff on The Omen and other kid Satan films. I can’t remember ever having seen an entry into that exclusive sub-genre that wasn’t any good, so it doesn’t come as much of a surprise Ominous is pretty bad too.

However – and fortunately – it is bad in all the best ways, with a cast that treats the hilarious and usually deeply stupid things they have to do or say as if they were involved in matters of great gravitas and import, special effects that try to make up for their lack of imagination with a lot of digital gore, an evil Satanic conspiracy that seems to have only one member, a haunted priest who looks like he spends more time in front of the mirror taking care of his facial hair than fighting evil and who has the astonishing ability to decapitate a teenager with a dagger, a possessed boy whose last act super power seems to be to transform into a teenager-sized version of himself in bad demon make-up (or might that be the film being a wee bit nervous about showing a little kid axed and knifed by his own parents?).

If that’s not enough for your brain – mine’s already dead, so don’t look at my like that – the film’s final act also features a fight between a SWAT team and a digital unkindness of ravens or a digital murder of crows – who can identify digital bids? - which the SWAT team manages to lose, and that features a bird swarm so badly done it’s nearly on the sub-basement level of Birdemic.

What’s not to like?

Friday, June 17, 2016

Past Misdeeds: Sheitan (2006)

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.

I'm going to explain a bit more of the film's subtext than I'd strictly like in the course of the write-up, so anyone planning to see this with fresh eyes shouldn't read any further.

It's the night before Christmas. After being thrown out of a club thanks to the douchey behaviour of their friend Bart (Olivier Bartelemy), Ladj (Ladj Ly), Thai (Nico Le Phat Tan), the barkeep Yasmine (Leila Bekhti) and vague acquaintance Eve (Roxane Mesquida) decide to drunk drive to Eve's country home to spend some time there.

The folks' place must be far from Paris, because the group only arrives some time the next morning. There's no trace of Eve's parents at her place, only Dad's doll collection. The only people home are the family's satyr-like groundskeeper Joseph (Vincent Cassel) and - unseen by the Parisians - his highly pregnant wife Marie (Georgette Crochon). Marie mostly seems to spend her time making a doll out of spare parts and hiding, but the city folk are too busy with other things to notice.

Ladj would really like to get into Yasmine's pants, merrily ignoring the fact that he has a girlfriend at home, while both the obviously douchey Bart, and the more subtly douchey Thai both feel very attracted to Eve, who for her part isn't exactly discouraging anyone (although I don't think these guys would notice if she were). Joseph for his part seems strangely interested in Barth, but for what reason won't become clear until much later in the movie.

Suffice it to say that these reasonably friendly country people have some rather strange hobbies, besides throwing smiling racist insults around. Everything Joseph and the country youth do has an undertone of violence and weird menace that people a bit more sensitive and sensible than our "heroes" would find creepy, if not outright disturbing. Of course, the violent undercurrent will come to the surface in the end, if in a different way than you would expect.

Kim Chapiron's Sheitan really is something different than you'd think on first (or even second) sight.
It all starts out as a French variation of the backwoods slasher, promising a gore explosion in the manner of much of the French horror renaissance for its final thirty minutes.

But the longer the film is running, the clearer it gets that this is not the kind of film it initially pretends to be. In spirit, it is much closer to the great weird European films of the fantastic made in the Seventies than its contemporaries, willing to give up on the notion of plot or characters nearly completely to better be able to drag its viewers into the realms of utter strangeness and dry, wrong-feeling humour.

Instead of the expected revue of kills, the film plays out as a series of increasingly disquieting, often erotically charged set pieces bound to confuse, annoy, amuse and confound anyone with their grotesquerie. While it is obvious to the film's audience (the characters are rather dense, I'm afraid) that something very unpleasant is bound to happen rather sooner than later, the film virtually wallows in not explaining itself too early. But, unlike in some of my other very favourite weird ass European films, everything happening does in fact happen for a reason. You see, it is important that Sheitan takes place at Christmas, because the child Marie is going to give birth to is the Anti-Christ, or at least that is what the country family thinks - there is nothing overtly supernatural going on. Much of what happens during the course of the movie happens as a twisted mirror of Christian tradition, sometimes more subtle and sometimes less (Mary and Joseph, anyone?).

Still, as I said, the film never does actually say this outright, and instead treats its high concept a bit detached and with a feeling of sardonic humour, like a joke it doesn't need you to get to find funny.

I'm very fond of the way Chapiron directs the film. It is steady, technically adept, but doesn't try to out-weird itself like a lot of modern horror films going for weird are wont to, very often to their detriment. This does not mean that Chapiron just points and shoots. Rather, he is building the mood of intense strangeness required for his film in more subtle ways and does not seem to need or want to put too much emphasis on his own abilities.

"Subtle" isn't a word I'd use for Vincent Cassel's performance here. From a certain perspective, he's chewing the scenery outrageously, but still manages to give this outwardly blustering performance a much more disturbing undercurrent, as if his outer madness is hiding something much worse (which it in fact does). Roxane Mesquida's performance as Eve is nearly as intense as Cassel's, but not as aggressively over the top. She projects a quiet eroticism that also hints at something different beyond or below it.

Our theoretical heroes are just as well played, but the characters the actors are left with don't have much depth to them. They're supposed to be a bit dense, a bit too aggressive, and utterly unlikeable, and they manage that perfectly. Of course, this isn't a character study, but a trip into the land of the weird, so I'm not complaining.

There isn't much to complain about in Sheitan anyway. Sure, it doesn't have a plot, but watching something this clearly in the tradition of 70s Eurohorror and demanding "plot" instead of a  moody trip into a strange place in someone's head is just wrong-headed, like complaining that the moon isn't made of green cheese.
If you let it, Sheitan can beautifully mess with your head, and make your mind a more interesting place for its ninety minute running time (and possibly afterwards). I couldn't wish for more.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

House of Lost Souls (1989)

aka Ghosthouse 3

Original title: La casa delle anime erranti

A gaggle of geology students – actor and character names don’t matter at all even though one of the female students has been diagnosed as a medium by her doctors – are trying to make their way out of the Italian Alps (I think) where they were involved in some sort of research project. Alas, exactly the rock falls they have been concerned about are making the roads back to actual civilization impassable.

Fortunately, there’s a hotel just a bit off from where the roads are blocked, so our intrepid heroes check into an ugly, somewhat brutalist building that probably hasn’t seen a new coat of paint since World War II. The proprietor is monosyllabic, rude, and somewhat creepy. He has good reasons for these character flaws though, for he has been dead for quite some time now, and is in fact just one of the vengeful ghosts haunting the hotel. In the coming nights and days, the number of geology students in Italy will shrink a bit.

By 1989, the once grand – if often bizarre – project of Italian horror was nearly over. Why, even old hands like Umberto Lenzi were lucky if they could at least get stuff like this TV (though at least cable style) movie under way. This time around, Lenzi brought his A game with him, which in my view of Lenzi (there are some of my peers who like his films in general quite a bit more than I do) means he avoided his tendency to bore and sprinkled the sugary deliciousness of non-sequitur craziness all over the proceedings here. The resulting film may be no Spasmo but it sure as ghosts provides the sceptical viewer with all the cheesy nonsense and the bizarre “why not” ideas she might wish for from this sort of things.

So the film is full of interesting dialogue you’ll already learn to love in the very early scene in which we learn that Italian physicians apparently diagnose people as mediums, features acting that fluctuates between the absurdly overdone and the just as absurdly deadpan and which is only made more bizarre by a dubbing track that is special even for English language dubs of Italian films, and presents the audience with a whole lot of nonsense Man probably Wasn’t Meant To Know.

The ghosts are of a rather hands-on type, preferring to kill their victims with knives, except for the Buddhist monk ghost who prefers making classic strangler hands – yes, there’s a Buddhist monk ghost, why do you ask? – and the little boy ghost who is really into telekinesis. All of ‘em really, really love decapitation so there’s are a lot of heads rolling/flying/going around. The film’s best/probably funniest scene presents a little boy being decapitated by a wayward washing machine, curiously enough not the only time I’ve seen a washing machine attack in an Italian movie; hopefully not the last time either.

Other demonstrations of Lenzi’s particular gifts can be found all over the film: there’s an hilariously awkward yet also kinda cool scene where diegetic music is at once the appropriate soundtrack to a murder and the reason the other characters don’t notice it (also featuring one of the female characters leaving the room in disgust – of the music and the company – snarling something about just getting her cigarettes with the loudest silent screw you imaginable appended). Or that moment when half of the characters are already convinced the hotel they’re staying in is a very dangerous place, yet some still stay behind there for no reason whatsoever while the rest goes on a fact finding mission in town.

Ah, they just don’t make stuff like this anymore, and in fact, they didn’t even make stuff like this anymore in 1989, so thanks, maestro Lenzi, for keeping the torch burning.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

In short: Puppet Master 5: The Final Chapter (1994)

Colour me confused, because for once, a Puppet Master movie is a direct sequel to the one that came before. Don’t you worry, though, there will still be inconsistencies between the films even though director and writers are the same. Our hero Rick (Gordon Currie), despite having been declared the new Puppet Master by Toulon’s (still Guy Rolfe) puppet head at the end of the last movie, is in a spot of bother. Turns out one comatose woman, one dead asshole and two dead colleagues in their respective laboratories do make the police a bit suspicious of a guy. Our boy seems to have mentioned some of the supernatural elements of the story to the police - though not Toulon’s puppets - and is now the main suspect for a few murders, which the police think he has committed via tiny robots. Because that’s much more probable than little evil demon things.

But no matter, with which I indeed mean this part of the plot will stop mattering at all to the film once Rick is out on bail. Eventually, Rick, Susie (Chandra West again), Rick’s new evil boss (Ian Ogilvy) and his three random henchmen will find themselves wandering the same old hotel, helping the puppets fight off a single, but super-powered version of the evil puppet things from the last movie.

Jeff Burr’s second and last job as a Puppet Master director starts rather promising, using the in the genre too seldom visited aftermath of a horror film for a bit of self-conscious fun. You’d think this just might be a good way to steer the Puppet Master films in a somewhat different direction, some sort of Puppet Master Junior on the run tale, say, or a script working hard at coming up with ideas about treating the world of the Full Moon bizarreness seriously. Alas, though not exactly surprising, there will be nothing of the sort. Rather, the film is just dragging its feet for the first half hour or so to get a bit of exposition out and get up to full length.

After that, the film turns into a repeat of the last film, with people wandering through the same hotel people have been wandering through in three of the four other Puppet Master films, some very mild violence, and the sad reduction of the film’s main threat to a single puppet. On the other hand, the flame throwing puppet that missed in the last film is back again, treated by everyone as if it had been in film number four too, because giving a crap is not the Full Moon way.

Consequently, and despite Burr’s still competent and sometimes even moody direction, not giving a crap turns out to be exactly what I feel about this one myself. There are two or three okay moments of weirdness, but otherwise, too much of Puppet Master 5 has been done to death in the other films of the franchise. This entry never develops anything you’d might call a personality of its own.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Puppet Master 4 (1993)

Warning: if you’re an adherent of the mighty Sutekh (though I’m not convinced the film doesn’t actually mean Sobek), this’ll probably piss you off royally.

Wunderkind scientist Rick Myers (Gordon Currie) has retired to Puppet Master Toulon’s old hotel to develop true artificial intelligence. He doesn’t realize it, but he is actually sitting on the mother load in that regard, what with Toulon’s living puppets and his magical serum (consisting of whatever the hell the franchise entry at hand wants) just stashed away in various corners there. For some reason, Egyptian god Sutekh has already started to kill off Rick’s colleagues working in other labs with some rather impressive magical puppets of his own because Toulon’s secret was stolen from said godhood this time around (wherever will it come from in film number six?), and he seems to be too impatient to wait with killing people until he actually has a reason to. Or something.

Rick doesn’t know that at this point of proceedings, though. In fact, he only stumbles upon Toulon’s puppets and the mysterious serum once his love interest Susie (Chandra West), her friend, channeler Lauren (Teresa Hill) and Lauren’s boyfriend, Rick’s old university enemy Cameron (Ash Adams and his truly frightening hair) arrive and Lauren throws a mediumistic hissy fit when confronted with Toulon’s doll depository. Soon enough, Rick plays laser tag with some of Toulon’s puppets, and Sutekh’s killer dolls arrive. Fortunately, Toulon has calmed down a bit in his time being dead since the last few films, and so his helpful ghost provides Rick with his own little puppet army including a secret weapon known as Decapitron.

For some bizarre reason this had an R rating in the good old US of A at the time when it was thrown into video stores, but to my eyes, Jeff Burr’s Puppet Master 4 is something like the family friendly rebirth of the little franchise that could (make horrible films of high entertainment value for ages), where the puppets now – for a time – really turn into the good guys (even the film’s tag line says so), and the Big Bad is basically a less frightening Skeletor and his actually somewhat creepy puppet representatives. There’s bodily harm involved, but the body count is astonishingly low (and even lower as you might have thought once you pop the sequel in) and the tone is generally more in tune with the Sunday matinee gee-whiz idea of horror filmmaking. This isn’t a complaint, mind you, for Burr does exactly this sort thing rather well.

This Puppet Master being directed by a generally competent (and often more) guy this time around, the film isn’t as bug fuck crazy as some of the other films in the franchise. At least in comparison – we still get Guy Rolfe’s head projected onto a doll, the embarrassingly cramped and shoddy place where Sutekh lives (being a god obviously doesn’t pay) and a main character whose reaction to a bunch of living puppets with creepily sadistic weapons is pretty much the opposite of being creeped out.

Thanks to Burr – as well as acting that’s just a bit bad instead of astonishingly horrible – Puppet Master 4 actually is a high point of the franchise, with a plot that actually has a decent amount of dramatic pull, direction that’s not by David DeCoteau and therefore actually invested in making a film that’s somewhat entertaining to watch. Why the film even has a sense of pacing that works out quite well for it! Sure, it’s not the greatest horror film ever made, but it’s entertaining, and for once in the franchise, the general silliness does not seem to be caused by nobody involved giving much of a crap about doing anything beyond providing the basis on which to sell doll-shaped merchandise.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

In short: Emelie (2015)

Watch out bourgeoisie, those fiendish lower classes, in this case in form of a mentally ill babysitter (Sarah Bolger), are out to steal your children again (instead of doing the decent thing and sacrificing them to trees)!

Little do innocent whatshisface and whatshername know that their new babysitter isn’t the new babysitter they thought she was. So, while they have a somewhat frayed wedding anniversary dinner, said babysitter is trying to steal their youngest kid. Though not without first playing mind games with all three of the children, because otherwise we wouldn’t have much of a movie here.

While there’s not much wrong with Michael Thelin’s thriller beyond subtextual politics I’m rather sure the film just didn’t put any thought in, there’s also very little that’s right with it apart from basic visual competence and decent acting. The script goes from the obvious to the all too well-worn and isn’t even terribly good at milking that emotionally cheapest of all thriller set-ups, threatened children. Which might have something to do with the fact the film is always circling around the truly nasty things or any actual abysses and prefers the most well-trodden paths. In part, I find it even somewhat commendable the film is staying a bit too classy to show too bad things happening to children, yet this also means it doesn’t demonstrate much of a personality of its own, and never does much that’d actually hit its audience hard in any way. I have indeed seen quite a few Lifetime movies that were quite a bit more daring than this one is, and those films do at least have reasons for not touching on certain things. It’s all just a bit tepid, really, and tepidness isn’t exactly the thing I want from my thrillers.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Search and Destroy (1979)

Vietnam veteran Kip (Perry King) hasn’t gotten over the war in any meaningful way, working a bar in Niagara Falls with his war buddy R.J. (Rob Garrison) a shady uncle of R.J.’s has gotten them, and treating his future as a thing already over and done with. At least his girlfriend Kate (Tisa Farrow) is willing to put up with his mix of post-traumatic stress and plain bullshit.

Things go further downhill when R.J. is murdered by what will very soon turn out to be a former South Vietnamese officer (Park Jong Soo, who obviously isn’t Vietnamese but Korean) Kip’s unit left behind to die, now looking for revenge. There aren’t many of the old unit left anyhow – after R.J.’s death Kip and his other friend Buddy (Don Stroud) - also living and working in Niagara thanks to R.J.’s uncle - are the only ones left alive. The local police under Anthony Fusqua (George Kennedy) is well-meaning but of little help, so it’s for once rather difficult to blame our protagonists when they try to turn the tables on their hunter on their own.

William Fruet’s Search and Destroy is certainly a minor entry into the thriller and action movie sub-genre concerned with the consequences of the Vietnam War coming home to roost in the USA in a violent manner, and certainly didn’t spawn an inappropriate series of jingoistic action films like a certain other movie of the type, but it’s a fine little film nonetheless. Fruet tells his tale with a wonderful no nonsense attitude, spending no time at all on digressions, distractions and by-ways, instead establishing time, place and characters with broad but sure strokes and letting things develop from there with the appropriate cold and brutal logic.
Search and Destroy is quite good at evoking its time and place, mostly by actually showing a lot of its time and place in a way that looks authentic or at least not too artificial (workaday grubby comes to mind as a description), adds some sharp and direct late-70s style hardboiled dialogue, and then stops and doesn’t think about laying anything on to thick. There’s something effectively laconic about the film’s presentation, an understatement in direction and style that isn’t so much subtlety as it is a directness born of the knowledge that there’s really no need to add any flourishes to the narrative. It’s a film that does seem to know exactly what it wants to be and how to be it, and I think there’s a lot to praise about that approach.
But it’s not only a case of Fruet being in the right place at the right time with the right script. Search and Destroy also works as well as it does thanks to a fine low-key cast of character actors that fit the fine low-key action film they are in to a t. Why, even Perry King gives one of his better performances, while George Kennedy gives his character’s slow realization that he’s failed Kip and his town, and now can only let things play out for the worst, a surprising emotional punch. As someone who has seen quite a bit of Kennedy coasting in genre films, it’s a very pleasant surprise to see the veteran actor here clearly realizing his character is metaphorically standing in for the way his generation has failed men like Kip and running with that. Tisa Farrow breathes some life into the eternally unthankful role of The Girlfriend, Park Jong Soo does much with practically no dialogue, and Don Stroud is Don Stroud.
The action uses Niagara Falls to its full advantage with scenes that swerve around being generic by feeling specifically tailored to their locality, some good stunt work, and the gritty feel that is so typical of 70s genre cinema.
For a little US/Canadian independent production, that’s rather a lot of things going right, leaving Search and Destroy as a film that would deserve more of an audience than it has. 

Past Misdeeds: Maid-Droid (2009)

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.

In a near-future Tokyo where human-like (and dog-like) androids are quite typical household appliances for the discerning otaku, an old man reminisces wistfully to his beloved, now battery-less and unmoving Maid-Droid Maria (Anri Suzuki) about their shared life. A sexless life (at least in the Bill Clinton sense of the phrase), I might add, because Maria was a prototype of her kind and not fit to be updated for sex. Since the old man was pure-hearted and terribly in love with his android, this meant a pure virginal love with occasional blowjobs for them.

While the old man is reminiscing, a robot rapist stalks Tokyo and a female cop (Mari Yamaguchi?) with strong emotions about the whole android business is trying her best to find out who built the robot and what went wrong. She will find a truth bound to bring the film's audience to tears of laughter.

Both plot strands - I use the word "plot" in the broadest possible sense here - will never meet, but are supposed to mirror each other while demonstrating the differences between men and women in the writer's and director's minds.

You'd expect a pinku mixing the Japanese pervy love for maids, robots, panty shots and rape to be the sort of film that's easily explained and dismissed by exclaiming "Oh those whacky Japanese!" and then looking piously the other way. Maid-Droid, however, is a bit more complex than it seems.

There is no question that the film is cheap, silly, and at times nastily misogynistic, but it also very obviously strives to be more than the masturbation manual it could get away with being for most of its audience. That's a tradition for the better pinkus, but one wouldn't expect this tradition to hold in a film this extremely designed for the sensibilities of the most clichéd otaku.

Of course, the film was directed by Naoyuki Tomomatsu and scripted by his usual writer Chisato Ogawara (a woman, interestingly), the people who also brought us Zombie Self-Defense Force and Stacy - Attack of the Schoolgirl Zombies, so the merely normal is quite out of the question. Instead, Tomomatsu spends most of the film's running time taking up the ideological position of a certain part of sex doll loving otaku-dom, which declares its love (and they mean love in the spiritual sense, too) for submissive objects to be kind-hearted and pure. I'd even be willing to buy that argument, if the film wouldn't then go on and blame the android lovers' love for objects all on human women, who, it argues, all only want pretty, abusive guys. It's at this point where the misogyny enters. The film first presents the its argument in its only truly violent scene where a doll lover we seem to be supposed to identify with kicks the shit out of some women who mocked him on TV.

Hopefully, I don't have to explain why that part of the film bugs me. It doesn't help that the film's argument becomes rather muddled the longer it is going on, until it might also be possible that the misogyny is meant as an ironic way to criticize otaku misogyny through the back door. If that's the case, it doesn't really work out that way and looks very much look the film's creative team wanting to have it both ways.

On the other hand, I can't help but admire this little softcore porn film for trying to think through some of the moral and intellectual questions its premise brings up, like you'd expect any proper piece of SF to do, just with more pretend sex. And how many contemporary SF films (with sex or without) want you to think about them, or take any kind of philosophical stance at all?

Maid-Droid's world-building is also pretty good. Future Japan here functions quite like you'd expect a land with artificially intelligent robots who are mostly used for sex and emotional comfort to work, with backlashes against the androids on one hand, insane sex-bot modders on the other, and a guy who has uploaded his consciousness into an intensely creepy doll on the mutant third.

There's a merry sense of insanity dominating the second half of the film, beginning with a hilarious sex bot test-drive scene and ending with the true identity of the rapist robot. It (and his glorious red-glowing, rotating penis) made itself from the part of discarded robot-dogs, you see, still trying to please its predominantly female owners. Yes, again with the misogyny here, but also insanely fitting the tone and style of the film and quite funny in its way.

As if that wasn't enough, the conclusion of the old man's part of the story takes on such a strange fairy-tale mood that I really don't know what to make of it. The turn from SF into wish fulfilling fantasy is unexpected, and I'm not sure how much sense it truly makes in context with the rest of the movie.

Maid-Droid is the sort of film only a select few will like. You need to stomach its problematic ideology, go with the muddledness of its ideas, overlook some ropy acting (especially Anri "Maid-Droid" Suzuki's - there's a reason why she isn't moving or talking for much of the film), and just accept the insanity and weirdness of it all. But I think that's a perfectly good place to be in for a film.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

In short: The Ouija Experiment (2011)

A bunch of idiots plays around with a Ouija board. One among their number is the obligatory film student (actor names are withheld to protect the guilty), so it’s time for some hot POV horror action. Thanks to various somewhat hilarious soap operatics, our protagonists repeatedly forget to end their séance sessions on the board with a goodbye, so ghosts good and evil are having their way with them. It’ll also turn out our protagonists have chosen a pretty bad place to contact the spirit world.

For the first two thirds of its running time, Israel Luna’s The Ouija Experiment is pretty dreadful: the script is as obvious as it is slow in getting going, the characters are annoying as hell thanks to dubious writing decisions, jokes land with the dull thud of lost souls, the best among the actors on screen could politely be described as “not very good”, and the ghosts make noises like a PlayStation 1 era video game monster. However, it’s a strangely compelling and companionable dreadfulness, with everyone in front of and behind the camera clearly giving their respective bests in a more or less enthusiastic manner. Only a tiny little budget and a lack of experience seem to be holding these people back, and I found myself somewhat charmed by the film’s honesty and a decided lack of pretension.

It sure helps that impression that Luna actually does manage to create some simple yet effective scares in the film’s final third or so. Obviously, there’s still nothing going on that’ll haunt anyone for years, but there’s enough happening in the third act to make up for some of the film’s failings. That’s more than I can say about many a microbudget horror piece. Even the dreaded final twist is pretty cool, and certainly realized well enough.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Forever Evil (1987)

Inventor Marc (Red Mitchell), his fiancée and a few friends are having a little get-together in the proverbial cabin (okay, house) in the woods. A rather rotten looking creature which more than just suggests the supernatural slaughters everyone but Marc, who manages to escape.

During the course of the next hour of run time or so, Marc’ll learn that his friends aren’t the first people to be murdered in the area in this way, and that the killings are in fact part of a ritual to open the gates for one Yog-Kothag to bring about the end of the world as we know it. For the ritual to work properly, the killings have to be timed to the pulses of a quasar that only does its thing every few decades or so, because, well, because! Take that, astronomy! There’s a lot of pointless to and fro making up the middle part of the film, scenes of a ghost dog whose actual relevance to the plot (except its cuteness) I couldn’t puzzle out, some hot tarot action, dream sequences that are actually pretty great, and other digressions. Sometime during all this, Marc also teams up with an elderly cop (Charles L. Trotter) and Reggie (Tracey Huffman), another survivor of an earlier attempt of the movie’s rather incompetent real estate agent cultist (finally, some realism in horror) to bring his Master to Earth. There’s awkward romance, stuff and more stuff, until the film gets around to a just as awkward but actually rather fun final half hour or so.

It’s a bit of a shame the production history of Forever Evil is so well documented, for now I can’t really use my theory the script to this one is actually a play-by-play-adaptation of someone’s homebrew Call of Cthulhu scenario, which would explain so much about it, like the film’s insane running time - the “director’s cut” is a full two hours long  - or the way the script adds random pointless characters it spends unhealthy amounts of time on for a scene or two, only to have them disappear shortly thereafter. Hi and bye, Leo’s magazine-commenting neighbour!

This one’s a very early direct-to-video horror film shot in Texas on actual film stock (!), and it carries all the hallmarks you’d expect from that pedigree: the acting is awkward, and sometimes pretty darn awful, but more often than not in a charming way that helps you get over the film’s many, many lengths and digressions (I think you could cut it down to an hour or seventy minutes and you wouldn’t use anything actually important or useful to the narrative, he said in a digressive bracket spitting on the rules of good or readable writing).

Charm’s the thing with this kind of production to me. Sure, all the curious characters (see also, Master Magnus, tarot reader extraordinaire) the film introduces for no good reason bog the narrative down terribly and destroy any chance it has for developing something amounting to tension but they’re also what gives it an identity all its own, personality and local colour, things that make a film enjoyable despite technical flaws, a stop-and start narrative and an ancient evil my mind turned into Yog-Cassock the first time the film mentioned its name. And, you know, there’s the whole Lovecraftian angle I can’t help but enjoy.

On the technical level of editing and camera work, Forever Evil is surprisingly decent. The camera isn’t nailed down, the edits make sense if you ignore the fact most scenes are twice as long as they should be (this must be the birth of “indie horror”), score and picture cohere. The special effects are even pretty good. The gentleman zombie and Marc’s nightmare baby (don’t ask) aren’t exactly looking lifelike, but director Roger Evans uses them to full advantage and they show a good grip on the basics of what makes things creepy.

Consequently I found myself having a lot of fun with Forever Evil. Sure, the middle part is easier to survive if own has the sense of time of an ancient evil (you know, decades are mere seconds to it), but most of its pointless digressions are somewhat fun. The film also has a lot of ideas – not all of them good, mind you – and isn’t ashamed to use all of them, putting its dream sequences, its scene of a woman commenting on the magazine she reads over the phone, the ghost quasar, the ghost dog, the difficulties with killing a gentleman zombie (not to speak of an evil magician), a random duel between a tarot master and some hooded guy (who may or may not supposed to be the ancient evil itself or the real estate cultist) and so on and forth, for the audience to sort out and enjoy or fall asleep to. Falling asleep to a movie presenting so much random weird stuff isn’t my way, fortunately; instead, this thing made me inordinately happy.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

In short: The Zero Boys (1986)

A bunch of survival game mad college idiots going by the moniker of “The Zero Boys” under the leadership of one Steve (Daniel Hirsch) – easily identified by a lack of facial expression that I suspect is supposed to read as cool but doesn’t – their girlfriends, and Jamie (Kelli Maroney), the girl whose presence Steve won from a Nazi regalia wearing Jew (please don’t ask), are invading a backwoods area. Because that’s the kind of people our heroes are, they make themselves at home in an empty house and are more than just a bit surprised when the local crazy backwoods killers – counting among their number Joe Estevez hiding under the nom de plum of “Joe Phelan” - start stalking them.

Alas, the Zero Boys are carrying “perfectly legal” semi-automatic uzis, and the backwoods folk are some of the most incompetent of their kind.

Welcome back to the wondrous world of Nico Mastorakis, where at least half of the lines the characters have to deliver make little sense, and the other half sound utterly ridiculous, where a bunch of stupid teen survivalist assholes are supposed to be our heroes, and where not enough of said assholes die. The last bit is somewhat understandable, for to make more then a half hour epic out of the adventures of our protagonists – such as they are – the killers really had to be written to show as little competence as possible too. Getting through Zero Boys means watching a backwoods slasher where not just the meat are the expected idiots (and by gawd, they are), but where the killers act so incompetently they’re probably temps working the backwoods beat while the more competent cannibals and crazy people are on vacation in Ibiza.

To add insult to injury, Mastorakis doesn’t even bother to give his characters at least slasher character shorthand traits, so it’s difficult to remember anyone apart from Jamie and Steve. In fact, I’m not even sure anymore how many members the Zero Boys had, an hour after watching the thing. I should probably have taken notes like a responsible blogger but the film probably should have had a script beyond some notes scribbled on a napkin, so I’m still good, I believe.

This isn’t too say The Zero Boys isn’t fun to watch. In typical Mastorakis fashion, the bullshit flies hard and fast, with hardly a scene going by that doesn’t contain at least some low level bit of adorable nonsense or a “what the hell were they thinking” moment like when Jamie and Steve have a heart to heart about her boyfriend that’ll have you gasping for air. If that’s not enough for you, apparently this was shot on the same locations and sets as the 3rd Friday the 13th film and definitely contains many a bad Jason reference to really rub our noses in it, so you can really feel at home.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Cherry Tree (2015)

Welcome to the charming town of Orchard that got its name from - and I quote - an “evil cherry tree” and the shenanigans witches trying to betray Satan got up to some centuries ago. In the Now, Teenager Faith (Naomi Battrick) lives in Orchard with her father Sean (Sam Hazeldine). Alas, Sean is dying of leukaemia, the experimental drug his doctor gave him not having the hoped for effect.

Faith’s new hockey teacher Sissy (Anna Walton) – the old one got murdered by a satanic witches coven wearing stylish sacks on their heads in the prologue – offers the girl a pact: she’ll save Sean’s life with black centipedes and evil cherry tree based magic if Faith agrees to be impregnated and carry Satan’s love child for the witches. Obviously, there’s no way this could possibly go wrong for anyone involved.

Now, if you’re like me (or even better for you, if you are indeed me), you’ll probably have expected a witch-based horror movies by the director and the scriptwriter of Wake Wood to be some sort of folk horror film, probably with quite a bit of emotional depth. Then you’ll read about the evil cherry tree, get the first (and only, boo) lesbian kiss in the very first scene of the film, encounter the first moment of gratuitous female nudity about five minutes later, and just might change your expectations in the right direction. For this is indeed a deeply silly, trashy, and somewhat lurid horror film that reminds me a lot of many a regionally produced US occult horror film from the 70s, with a bit of Eurohorror of the same era thrown in, just much slicker looking than the former (Keating’s visual style has improved considerably since Wake Wood), and not as authentically dream-like as the latter.

If that’s the sort of thing that sounds as if it might float your boat, Cherry Tree will most probably indeed do so, for while little of the film makes sense, or shows much depth or insight into humanity at large or in detail, it does dance the seductive dance of lurid trash very, very well. After the comparatively sane and serious first twenty minutes or so, there’s hardly a scene going by where the film doesn’t adorably work up to something awesome, be it one of the more absurd demon sex scenes I’ve seen, or its attempts to try and find more use for centipedes than Centipede Horror had, or the grand finale including random demonic violence, ripped off skin, and the not-inspired-by-Hellraiser at all look Anna Walton spouts there. It makes little sense – be it as a narrative, a dream, or just a film with a coherent idea of what its supernatural is actually about – but it looks and plays really well as what it is. Whatever the hell that may be.

Speaking of Walton, I’d be remiss if I didn’t praise her overacting here, as well as her pretty successful attempt at not throwing a single look (and she really throwing every single one of them with greatest gusto) that doesn’t paint “I am an evil evil witch!” in the sky in letters made of blood and centipedes. Naomi Battrick for her part plays Faith as if she were in some sort of at least semi-realist kitchen sink drama, making a dignified teenage (well, sort-of) mien to the insanity going on around her. And the film really does get pretty insane, not just with one of the more hilariously absurd stinger endings I’ve seen in quite some time (so bizarre I couldn’t even get annoyed by it) but also with all of the random stuff it throws out again and again. Why does Faith wake up in a big cocoon she shares with her dad, and what’s with the webbing surrounding it? Is that something Irish centipedes do? Why does Satan need a teenage girl to fight his battles? And so on, and so forth, until one’s mind is all filled up with the incredible nonsense Cherry Tree produces, and the special kind of joyous glow that comes with pregnancyhorror films this unashamed about being schlock.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Three Films Make A Post: A Campfire Legend of Flesh-Eating Terror!

Holidays (2016): This holiday (all the Western holidays, I’m still waiting on Christian Orthodox horror, Chanukah, and so on, and so forth, though thanks to Hong Kong we’ll never need to be without a Lunar New Year horror fi´lm) anthology starts off strong, with a first half of segments that are female-centric, weird as all get out (I have no words to describe Nicholas McCarthy’s Easter bit) in all the best ways and not as dumb as V/H/S style horror anthologies often are. After that, unfortunately, there comes a dreadful Kevin Smith thing, and two five minute jokes that sort of work but aren’t exactly the place you’d want to end a film. On the other hand, Sarah Adina Smith’s and Anthony Scott Burns’s pieces in the first half are so strong, it’d be worth watching the film for those two alone.

Retribution (1987): Guy Magar’s late 80s low budget horror about a depressed artist attempting suicide by jumping off a roof only to survive and add “astral body possession through burned to death gangster” to his list of problems is a bit of a frustrating affair. It’s a film that’s often too subtle and interested in its characters as relatable human beings instead of fodder for the killing scenes to be your typical piece of 80s horror, but on the other hand way too interested in your typical 80s horror nonsense (neon and disturbing haircuts and overlong gory kills) to work as the subtle and psychological horror film the other half of it attempts to be, ending up in an awkward half-way place. It’s too bad too, for there aren’t too many places elsewhere in 80s horror where you will find actual sympathy for (and a bit of a romantic idea of) the left behind and losers of this world, a competent yet empathic female psychiatrist who isn’t falling in love with her patient, and Dennis Lipscomb in a pretty great leading performance?

The Green Inferno (2013): This on the other hand is exactly what you’d expect from Eli Roth making a cannibal movie: it looks really nice, but is utterly thoughtless and vapid. It is of course the sort of stupid film that thinks it’s oh so clever and can’t help but grin smugly in your face. Unlike the Italian cannibal films, which at least came by their bad taste in an honest attempt to do the Roman circus thing, this is tasteless in that pointless sort of way I can only tolerate from three-year-olds playing with their own poo.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Past Misdeeds: The Return of the Vampire (1944)

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.

Armand Tesla, (Bela Lugosi) vampire has a grand old time sucking the blood of the British and ordering his mind-controlled, talking werewolf slave Andreas (Matt Willis) around, until the fearless vampire hunting duo of scientist(!) Lady Jane Ainsley (Frieda Inescort) and her mentor, Professor Walter Saunders (Gilbert Emery) put a stake through his heart.

About twenty years later, during World War II, Saunders dies, leaving behind a manuscript describing his and Lady Jane's legally dubious adventures in staking a man in his sleep. It could really get the good Lady in trouble with her copper friend Sir Frederick Fleet (Miles Mander), who quickly arranges the exhumation of Tesla's body after reading the manuscript and having a little talk with the scientist. Before that wonderful event can take place, the combined unhappy circumstances of an especially unluckily falling bomb and a gravedigger who likes to pull stakes out of corpses revive Tesla.

Not surprisingly, the vampire has revenge on his mind. Quickly he has brought Andreas - who is now working as Lady Jane's servant - under his control again and uses the hypnotized wolfman to acquire a new identity from an unlucky scientist Andreas was supposed to help smuggle into the country. Tesla uses his new name to get close to Saunders' granddaughter Nicki (Nina Foch) and Lady Jane. It doesn't take the good lady too long to figure out that the so-called Dr. Bruckner isn't exactly what he seems, but it will take all her determination to save Nicki and the young woman's fiancée John (Roland Varno), who just happens to be her own nephew, from Tesla's revenge.

After wading through half of the terrible movies which make up the Universal Cult Horror Collection I had nearly given up hope for so-called classic horror beyond the obvious films. Fortunately, The Return of the Vampire has come along to restore my faith. It's just too bad that it's a Columbia production and not part of Universal's crappy horror set, so there's still nothing in that one worth the money I paid for it.

Be that as it may, this film is of a whole different calibre than my last expeditions into 30s and 40s filmmaking. While it's obviously done on the cheap, Return's director Lew Landers (not usually praised for being all that competent) uses much of what could have been learned from the first and second generation of Universal's horror films. There's the shadow play that harkens back to expressionist silent movies, the gothic sets, the (after my last experiences surprising) gliding camera work, the fog - in short all the visual elements one can hope for in a film of this vintage, brought together with not inspired but expert hand.

Return is also quite pioneering in its use of a very contemporary wartime London as backdrop for its gothic trappings in a time when many horror movies - and especially vampire movies - still tended to take place in the past, as far away from the daily experience of their audience as possible.

We don't see that much of the Blitz or of ruined London, but Landers puts in enough of it that the viewer can hardly ignore the subtext of a modern horror taking its part in reawakening an older horror.

What the contemporary audience of 1944 made of this aspect of the film is anybody's guess.

The script doesn't always fare as well as Landers' direction. Some of the film's ideas, especially Andreas the talking wolfman are a bit too silly for their own good and would fit much better into a monster mash than into this comparatively serious film. I also found it hard to swallow that Lady Jane doesn't recognize Tesla at once. You'd think she has staked so many people in her career that she just forgot this particular one.

Fortunately, the script also has its good sides, first and foremost casting Lady Jane as a competent and determined chief vampire hunter, as far as I know the first time we witness a middle-aged woman put into that place. Even in this post-Buffy age this kind of female lead is not exactly a matter of course, so it is all the more surprising how normal this much older film treats her and her position. Of course and alas, the film doesn't keep its surprising brand of feminism up all the time, and Lady Jane and her policeman assistant are relegated to waiting in the sidelines when it comes to actively dispatching the vampire.

The finale is not worth all that much. There's too much hand of fate and too little planned action in it. Worse, the actual mechanics of Tesla's demise are based on a character arc of Andreas the film doesn't build up believably enough.

The ending could probably have been saved if only Matt Willis' acting as Andreas would have been a bit more subtle and/or his wolfman make-up less cuddly and cute. The latter is very much a problem not just of this particular movie, but of the whole cycle of early wolfman films. As it stands, Willis is also the most whiny wolfman around. In his way, he fits perfectly to Nina Foch, who does look very nice indeed but really should have piped down the melodramatics.

Both Willis and Foch are further hampered by having to play most of their scenes alongside the two dominant actors in the film in form of Lugosi and Inescort.

Dear Bela must have had a very good week while filming this. Lugosi's remarkable screen presence is always a given, even in the late phase of his career, but the subtlety he was capable of was often drowned out by his love for grand gestures (and really, the shabbiness of most of the productions he worked in). Somehow, the great man managed to find a very fine middle path between grand theatricality and subtlety for this film, and his performance is all the better for it.

Frieda Inescort is Lugosi's perfect adversary here. Where Lugosi is all menace and slimy charm, her Lady Jane radiates the perfect mixture of calmness and steely determination while never overplaying it to become the insufferable blowhard the elder vampire hunter before Peter Cushing so often became.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

White Tiger (1996)

Australian Mike Ryan (Gary Daniels) and his best buddy Josh (John Kirkconnell) are part of a raid on triad-connected drug kingpin Tang. Unfortunately, things go horribly wrong, for instead of raiding a major drug deal, the DEA step right into a minor drug war. A guy called Victor Chow (the inevitable Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) is hard at work at a bit of a revolution in the triad drug biz, you see. He has developed some sort of super drug the triad elders aren’t too fond of and is planning to murder his way to selling it, and the DEA raid and his ambush on (dressed up as a deal with) Tang are happening right at the same time. Oh, and Chow’s pretty crazy.

In the ensuing chaos – and certainly also thanks to Mike’s unwillingness to wait for backup – Chow kills Josh and escapes. Since the whole operation has to be written off as a fiasco, his boss wants to send Mike back to Australia, but our hero does of course no such thing as going home. Instead he tries to infiltrate the triad underworld of the local Chinatown. Which is to say, he goes into nightclubs and asks around for Chow, perhaps in the hopes he’ll attract unwilling attention, or perhaps because he’s not the brightest bulb in the chandelier.

Be that as it may, soon enough, Mike annoys the very short-fused Chow enough he is willing to sacrifice his pet corrupt cops in a murder attempt that quickly turns into a frame-up job on Mike when our hero turns out to be a bit more resilient than expected. Now, Mike is hunted by the police as well as by Chow’s people. His only help is the mysterious Jade (Julia Nickson) who may or may not have connections to Chow.

I have to admit, I am not the biggest fan of Australia’s very own Gary Daniels. He’s a bit wooden an actor even by low budget martial arts movie standards for my tastes, I don’t think he’s terribly charismatic, and while he’s certainly a more competent screen fighter than Joe Normal could ever be, there are dozen guys on his level, some of whom are somewhat better actors, somewhat more charismatic, or just luckier when it comes to their choice of films. This doesn’t mean I hate the guy – he’s not Steven Seagal after all – but it doesn’t exactly make me jump for joy when I read his name on a DVD cover.

Fortunately, Richard Martin’s White Tiger is one of the better Daniels vehicles I’ve seen, clearly attempting to orient itself on Hong Kong’s heroic bloodshed films. It’s rather good at that too, trying to add a bit more background to most characters than typical in US low budget action movies, and certainly having learned different lessons from the way Hong Kong action looks than “just add slow motion and pigeons”. It’s a bit of a shame that Daniels’s Mike is the big exception in the added background department, but then, he’s no Chow Yun-Fat, and the film might just be keeping with what he can do. Certainly, Daniels can do what the film asks of him well enough, throwing himself in all the right poses, usually making the appropriate faces, and looking good kicking ass. While I’m criticizing, I also would have wished the film had told us about the shared past between Jade and Chow earlier, had made clear exactly how crazy Chow is earlier, and had done more with the whole “cop has to ally himself with the triads angle”. Basically, what an actual heroic bloodshed movie would have done.

The action’s fun though: directed with an eye on readability, well – if not incredibly well – choreographed and providing a lot of variety too. The latter is more important for an action movie than quite a few directors in the genre seem to realize, for it is all well and good if you can show us two guys kicking each other in the face, but unless you put these guys in different environments, or even use other kinds of violence, even the best choreographed face kicking gets old when it is repeated too often.

While it’s certainly easy to imagine what White Tiger could have done better – or in this case, really done more or done deeper – there’s also no denying this is a very fun little flick, showing Daniels and everyone involved from their best sides and providing more than just the mandatory amount of fisticuffs, face-kicking, gunplay and explosions.