Thursday, March 31, 2016

In short: Fantastic Four (2015)

I’d love to pretend that this is an unfairly maligned attempt at a superhero movie that actually has a lot going for it, but this thing is indeed as bad as everyone says it is.

Some of the film’s direness can surely be explained by the fact that director Josh Trank (who made the much, much superior pseudo-realist teen superhero movie Chronicle before) and studio Fox didn’t see eye to eye about the film at all, leading to a movie that never can decide what it’s actually about, what tone it wants to take, or what its reason of existence is apart from keeping the Fantastic Four out of Marvel’s hands where we’d risk to get an actually watchable movie out of the first modern Marvel heroes. However, there’s really very little on display here that suggests that anyone involved – either on Trank’s side or the studio’s - had actually any idea how to do a Fantastic Four movie.

You’d think the Fantastic Four would be superheroes that are rather easy to get: they are a family, and they have SCIENCE! adventures. Clearly, nobody involved actually wants anything to do with either aspect of the characters, so instead we get a semi-grim dark movie about random, bland people (seriously, can you remember a single character trait about anyone here?) doing…

Well, doing not much at all, really, for beyond its general lack of any kind of point (and be it the old-fashioned one to actually entertain its audience), Fantastic Four is also moving at a snail’s pace, strictly avoiding anything of the spectacle I (and I suspect large parts of the audience) expect from my superhero movies. Which would be a workable approach if the film put anything meaningful in place of spectacle – say interesting character work. Unfortunately, it doesn’t, leaving us with a film where little of consequence happens, and a would-be blockbuster that avoids anything that might be spectacular or even just interesting to look at while it very slowly grinds through a very boring version of an origin story any sane script would have told in fifteen minutes, twenty minutes tops.

And don’t get me started on the film’s only success: including a Doctor Doom who is even less fun or interesting than the one in Fox’s last failure at getting the Fantastic Four. I could go on criticizing and nitpicking for another thousand words or so, but honestly, Fantastic Four is such a failure in every single aspect I don’t see why anyone should bother.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Three Films Make A Post: You get one shot Before he kills you.

The Sleeping Car (1990): As we all know from suffering through a lot of tripe, horror comedies are difficult. Case in point is Douglas’ Curtis film about David Naughton fleeing from his divorce to college, a very young new girlfriend (Judie Aronson) and into a haunted sleeping car where only the most rote of the spooky stuff will happen, so the horror part’s pretty much a non-starter. It’s also not helped by hatchet-style editing and the often made error of confusing shouting with things being creepy.

The comedy part isn’t any better, either, for the in theory decent cast (also comprising Kevin McCarthy as hippie exorcist and Jeff Conaway as the scenery chewer of the week) has to wrestle loads of terrible dialogue that can’t let a second go by without trying to have a punch line. Which is a bit of a problem when the punch lines don’t have any build-up time, none of them is funny anyway, and the witty repartee comes over as stilted, stupid, and torturously contrived.

La Entidad aka The Entity (2015): Eduardo Schuldt’s Peruvian POV horror film about the mandatory group of film students not surviving their encounter with supernatural evil isn’t half bad, adding a bit of Ringu and witch hunt horror to the usual mix (without directly cribbing from there), and for once not ending on people running screaming through the woods. That’s what a really creepy/cool looking graveyard’s for, apparently. The acting’s a bit ropey from time to time, and one or two characters are somewhat on the annoying side but the whole affair isn’t as derivative as it first looks, is well paced and has some rather effective moments of horror. It’s not a classic but well worth taking a look, I think.

The Raven (2012): It would be much easier to get through the adventures of E.A. Poe, consulting detective, if the film – or its director James McTeigue – had any actual idea of what it thinks Poe or his work were or meant. Alas, it by far prefers hand-waving and the regurgitation of clichés about the man and his works that does little to make the character feel like more than a very special guest star in his own movie (and life). It sure doesn’t help that John Cusack clearly doesn’t have any idea what the character he’s playing is supposed to be all about either, nor that the script is as generically serial killer thriller as you could imagine.

The production design is fine, at least, and there are many shots of fog shrouded streets, as if the whole she-bang were taking place in London and not in Baltimore, but fog-shrouded streets alone do not a good movie make.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Krampus (2015)

Warning: I’m going to spoil the Christmas spirit early in the year (well, and the ending)!

Sarah (Toni Collette) and Tom (Adam Scott) Engel, and their kids Max (Emjay Anthony) and Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) don’t look forward to the best Christmas in memory. Not only do they expect the Christmas family guests from hell, but there are the usual pressures you get in these rich movie families – he’s working too much, and so on and son forth, you know the drill. Particularly Max has the Christmas blues, which does not improve when one of the kids of the Hated Guests steals and reads aloud his heartfelt letter to Santa Claus (that even contains cheer and goodwill towards them).

So he tears his letter and throws it in the wind, unwittingly summoning Krampus who’ll teach him and his family a lesson about the true Christmas spirit of sacrifice and suffering, hooray. So soon, the small town around the Engels’ home is hit by a freak (and wonderfully, darkly picturesque) snowstorm, all communications to the outside world are cut off, and Krampus and his army of helpers are working through neighbourhood and cast while everyone huddles around the fire in fear of the night like in the olden times. Omi (which is German for granny) Engel (Krista Stadler) understands what’s going on quite early because she herself survived a Krampus attack when she was a kid (as we will be told in an awesome animated sequence), but knowing what’s going on and actually winning a fight against it are different things. On the positive side, a Krampus attack like this is the ideal thing to rebuild a family structure, building bridges between working class and white collar folk, and bringing everyone closer together like in the Christmases of yore. Unfortunately, Krampus doesn’t really care about that sort of thing.

I think Michael Dougherty should just go and make all seasonal horror movies from now on, because going by this and house favourite Trick ‘r Treat, making films which turn pagan traditions surrounding holidays into the stuff of horror movies is his forte. I’d like an Easter werewolf film now, please. While he’s changing a lot about them, Dougherty does have a knack to take one or two of the core ideas of the pagan concepts he’s working from and truly sticking with them quite consequently, like in Trick ‘r Treat where many of the characters suffer horrible fates for somewhat minor rules infractions because they happen to do so on the wrong night. The same goes here, where everything seems set for the characters having learned their valuable lessons and therefore earned to survive through an act of contrition by Max, something that would be perfectly fitting if this were a film about an evil Santa Claus. This being Krampus, though, contrition isn’t worth anything, and punishment is meted out to the completely undeserving.

This leads to the curious (and wonderful) situation of a family-friendly horror comedy with an ending – that also doubles as that rarest of thing known as an effective and tonally consistent kicker ending – that isn’t particularly bloody or violent but that is as dark as they get, with a family that has learned its lesson yet is still doomed for their – again – minor infractions against rules that aren’t even their own. The universe as embodied in Krampus is an asshole. How Lovecraftian is that?

Dougherty packages this subtext in a slick, clever horror movie that works quite well without much blood and gore, full of at once funny and creepy special effects monsters (Krampus’s helpers) used in exceedingly clever and fun ways fighting a bunch of actors in a very good mood. It’s the best of (mostly) bloodless carnage you could ask for. Krampus is one of the exalted kind of horror comedy that takes itself and its audience very seriously, integrating the humour so well it doesn’t take away but enhances the scenes of suspense and horror without anything here feeling like a compromise between the two genres.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

In short: Crimson Peak (2015)

Fair warning: this isn’t a horror film but a gothic romance with ghosts so if you can’t cope with films not precisely being horror films please do not watch Crimson Peak and then complain about it not being a horror film or it not containing enough jump scares.

Yes, I’ve seen some pretty damn irritating reviews of this one, how’d you know, imaginary reader?

Anyway, I can absolutely understand why someone might not like house favourite Guillermo del Toro’s gothic romance: it’s highly artificial, its melodrama is turned up to eleven, and it belongs to a sub-genre that generally has a horrible reputation at least among horror fans – if a viewer dislikes Gothic romance on general principle, she certainly won’t be happy with Crimson Peak. I, on the other hand, eat that sort of thing up, at least when it is done as well as here, shot and designed with a sumptuous eye for the gothic detail, the metaphoric value of colours, buildings and ghosts, and a clear idea of the way that metaphoric value and the reality these elements need to take on in a film (or a novel, of course) intersect and speak to one another.

Not surprisingly, the film’s beautiful to look at, drenched in colour in the spirit of Hammer, Bava and Argento (who didn’t do gothic romance, of course, but who built what most of us think of as “gothic” in cinema nonetheless), and blessed with set design that’d be worth the price of admission alone. Lead actors Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain and Tom Hiddleston find just the right tone too (which I can’t imagine to have been particularly easy), all three reaching the sweet spot between high melodrama, artificiality and conscious acting without ever falling in the trap of becoming caricatures.

This being a del Toro joint, there’s also a subtle play with certain gothic romance tropes turning some generic elements around a little, and poking mild fun at others without getting out the club of ironic distance. For distance is what the film – del Toro’s films as a whole, I’d argue – has no interest in. This is cinema seen as a sensual thing, luxuriating in artificiality until it feels so real it hurts, making every emotion, every place so huge it becomes more real than reality. In a sense, that’s of course a classic Hollywood approach, and while I certainly don’t want every movie I watch to be this way, when it is done as well as it is in Crimson Peak I’m happy with the approach.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Some shouting about Trog (1970)

Thrill to the ratty upper half of one of the ape man costumes from Kubrick’s 2001 being worn by a big guy who didn’t fit in the rest of it! Enjoy the thought of the costume department not giving a crap about the way this looks and not doing anything with the rest of his body! Delight in Joan Crawford’s final movie role, given drunk, spouting dialogue that would be bad enough spoken by an actress who actually understands what her lines are supposed to mean instead of just reading from the script (or, I’d not be surprised to learn, from cue cards)!

Cry at the sight of Crawford testing out state of art (of 1970) children’s toys on said guy in the ape costume half! Cry some more when the film has Trog (as is ape guy’s name) project his stone age memories onto a screen! Or rather, cry when it’s exactly the recycled special effects footage you now imagine it is! Wonder at Michael Gough hysterically overacting the most obnoxious prick ever put to screen while somehow managing not to break down laughing and still breaking his own overacting record!

Break down laughing when the film puts on its serious hat with trial scenes that somewhat sabotage the film’s attempts at serious messaging by being utterly ridiculous, and containing particularly embarrassing/sad parts of Crawford’s performance! Really lose it when SCIENCE is done!

And have a little think about what (house favourite) director Freddie Francis (as well as the script writers and producer Herman Cohen) might have been thinking when making this one!

Possibly be annoyed by my writing style, but that’s the only way to talk about Trog I know!

Friday, March 25, 2016

Past Misdeeds: Tales From The Quadead Zone (1987)

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.

A woman (Shirley L. Jones) has a nice chat with an invisible presence that manifests itself as a floating coffee cup, moving handles, a slight indenture in an armchair and long lingering shots of nothing. It seems to be the ghost of the woman's son Bobby. Bobby, who makes a little wind and a "shashashahsha" noise when he talks to his mother, would very much like to hear a story, so a book with a obviously hand-crafted cover titled "Tales From The Quadead Zone" appears and the woman reads him two dead person appropriate tales.

The first one, called "Food For ?", concerns a poor family that can't bring enough food for everyone on the table. To decide who is allowed to eat on a given day, they play a strange game of wait and grab. Until one shirtless male loses one time too often and uses a shotgun to solve their mathematical problem for good.

The second story, "The Brothers", tells of a man who hires two other guys to steal the body of his brother from the mortuary. He had hated his brother so much that he had planned to poison him, but couldn't realize his plan before the brother died of natural causes. Therefore it is absolutely necessary for his future psychic wellbeing to shout and exposit at his brother's corpse, dress him up in a clown costume and threaten to bury him in the cellar instead of the shrine he had built for himself.

When the greenish ghost of the dead brother returns into his body, he's kinda pissed.

After she has read these charming tales to her invisible dead child, the husband of the framing story's woman comes home. He is not very happy about this habit of her of acting as if their child were still alive and present. The couple's discussion turns violent and soon the woman knifes her husband while shouting "Dance with me!".

Tales from the Quadead Zone is one of those films some people have heard the most unbelievable things about, yet most haven't actually seen. Let me make one thing clear right at the beginning: everything you might have heard about this film is true.

The movie was directed by Chester Novell Turner, the same man who was responsible (that's the correct word for sure) for the original Black Devil Doll. It was filmed with Turner's trusty camcorder and has the sort of look that makes today's shot on digital backyard films look like high budget fare.

The colours of the few (only?) available prints are muted and faded, the sound seems to consist more of noise than of the things the viewer is supposed to hear. Parts of the dialogue are completely unparseable - sometimes people must have been too far away from the microphone, at other times what they say is being drowned out by the soundtrack. Post-dubbing of dialog must have been out of the question for Turner, I'd say on principle. But oh, what music the film makes! A handful of dilettante Casio keyboard tunes play, letting me think of music played by Suicide's Alan Vega's idiot brother. These tunes are insistent in their repetition and always seem to run into exactly the opposite direction of the emotions which would be appropriate to the scene you are just witnessing. 
Although, to be honest, it is quite difficult to decide what Turner was thinking or what he wanted a viewer to feel about any given scene or the film as a whole.

On paper, Tales From The Quadead Zone is just an especially bad example of the late 80s shot on video boom, with even less coherence or technical ability on display than usual in films of its type. But that is not at all what the film feels like. I tend to use descriptions of strange films like "as if it comes from another dimension" with wild abandon, and I'm not saying I have been wrong when using phrases like this before, Tales From The Quadead Zone however is like a film from another dimension but more so.

The combination of these weird, barely structured, obsessive stories that barely are stories at all with the unpleasantly insistent soundtrack, the obviously home-made overdubbed sound effects that still start to sound like the voices in your head after a time, the lingering of the camera on nothing in particular, the nearly-not special effects and the bad yet peculiarly intense acting (especially as done by the living brother, who somehow even integrates his own giggling fit into his performance, and by Shirley Jones) pushes the viewer into a feeling of total wrongness.

At first, I thought the best description for the feeling I got while watching the movie would be to compare it to witnessing someone having a psychotic breakdown, but that  still wouldn't be strong enough to truly give an impression of the film's emotional effect on me. In fact, watching Tales From The Quadead Zone is much more like meeting someone who is trying to talk you into sharing his own psychosis - and succeeding. If that sounds like an exaggeration to you, then, well, it should be one, but I found the experience of watching as intensely disturbing as anything I care to remember. In other words: for once, a film really freaked me out.

Now, in case this sounds like the kind of experience you'd rather not have, you can rest easy in the knowledge that this is not a film you'll be able to find without actively looking for it. Tales From The Quadead Zone seems to be much like its literary brother the Necronomicon, only to be found by those people who are are ready for it (or have a connection to Miskatonic University). Which I suppose is for the better, although the collector in me can't help but crave a DVD edition full of extras of this one.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Killer Fish (1979)

If you’re gonna steal a bunch of diamonds from your former employers, go big, thinks Paul Diller (James Franciscus), so while he’s having a nice game of backgammon as an alibi, a power plant and other stuff explodes as a distraction while his nurse-turned-lover Kate (Karen Black putting way more effort in than anyone else on screen) and a group of professional criminals lead by professional criminal and semi-professional ladies man Lasky (Lee Majors playing that character he’s always playing lest horrible things will happen on screen, one supposes) do the actual stealing.

Things go well enough, and the successful criminals sink their loot in a lake to let it wait there for sixty days until the heat dies down. Alas, not everyone – namely some of Lasky’s buddies - is too happy with the idea of waiting two whole months in a tourist town in Brazil (there’s obviously no accounting for taste). They learn all too soon that Diller has taken some precautions for this case, for he has infested the nicely dammed off lake with piranhas who proceed to eat the untrustworthy criminals. Despite this not hanging well with Lasky, he still finds time and space to romance visiting model Gabrielle (Margaux Hemingway, not able to act as usual) and say stuff like: “Historically, bisexuality is a lot older than any of my blocks” (seriously). Obviously, everyone involved is still trying to pull one over (though it’s clear Lasky and Kate would both have preferred to play fair) on each other, an activity that gets decidedly more dangerous once a storm destroys the dam and the surviving cast find themselves on a sinking boat on a piranha-infested lake.

As long-time readers among my imaginary audience might remember, I’m predisposed to like any old crap Italian director in every genre known to Man and some known only to Italian cinema Antonio Margheriti did, so it’ll come as little surprise to these chosen few that I did indeed like, as well as deeply enjoy, this somewhat misbegotten mixture of heist film, post-Jaws something-in-the-water horror, men’s adventure, and disaster movie that mixes so many genres it’s no wonder it can’t do any single one of them terribly well. Instead, the movie is a series of barely connected events, cool ideas, horrible ideas and the mandatory in about half of its sub-genres boring modelling scenes. Somehow, this film-like entity still manages to have something like a discernible plot – mostly because it is entirely made out of clichés, one might suspect.

On the other hand, the film’s cool ideas lead to some fine library footage explosions, later on some of that patented Margheriti model work for the dam destruction sequences, and many a scene of actors getting eaten by fish. That’s rather enough to keep me entertained at least, and while I’d never pretend Killer Fish is anything like a brilliant movie (or even among the best third of Margheriti’s films), its mix of absolutely archetypal genre clichés, but from a bunch of different genres just thrown together, is rather irresistible to someone like me fascinated by the way the content of 70s men’s adventure books made it into the movies (without said movies ever actually adapting them). There’s a somewhat grimy charm to the resulting film that’s certainly enhanced – the charm part, this is - by it being actually shot in Brazil, the generally lovely cast, and the curiously likeable quality most of Margheriti’s movies (even those in the sleazier genres) have for me.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Spirits (1990)

Parapsychologist Dr. Richard Wicks (an understandably embarrassed looking Robert Quarry) assembles a crack team of supposed experts to examine a haunted house before it has its meeting with the wrecking ball. Wicks’s team consists of professional sceptic Beth (Kathrin Lautner), “guy from the historical society” Harry (Oliver Darrow) and psychic Amy Goldwyn (Brinke Stevens).

Turns out the house is indeed haunted, and there’s a supernatural reason for the two consecutive murder sprees that happened in it, so our experts soon are confronted with a sexy succubus (Kaitlin Hopkins), possession, and other hilarious events.

So as to not overwhelm us with all this excitement, the film pops on over to the church of Father Anthony Vicci (Erik Estrada acting like a real trooper and pretending he’s in a real movie and acting as earnestly as his abilities allow) from time to time. Father Anthony still hasn’t gotten over that time when he lapsed and had sex one time ten years ago. In fact, his feelings of guilt have grown in the last few weeks or so, and he now has dreams about a sexy nun (Carol Lynley) seducing him and turning into a demon and other bouts of supernatural evil. There’s a reason (well, sort of) for that too, for the woman the good Father had his one time sexual encounter with was living in the house from our other plot line, and involved in the last murder spree. Will the dear Father Jesus up and save our heroes when they can’t help themselves anymore?

So, why exactly did I watch a Fred Olen Ray movie, seeing as I should by now know that all it’ll have to offer me is pain, suffering, and the destruction of another billion brain cells? Can’t have been the promise of softcore dry humping scenes in my horror, for while Ray’s sleaze is generally sleazy, his sex scenes always suggest to me he might have met sexy once but didn’t recognize it, and all he’s now left with is reproducing the shittiest softcore smut sex scenes he’s seen in other films. In that sense, Spirits is quite the success, for the sex scenes here are quite off-putting even before the poor actresses get into their demon make-up, and they are shot with a lack of verve and creativity that makes Playboy’s softcore movie output look like art.

The film’s horror part doesn’t fare much better, mostly because Ray’s direction lacks everything you need to make a haunted house movie: atmosphere, the ability to not have the shadow of the microphone absurdly close to the centre of at least half of the shots, a haunted house that looks and feels even the slightest bit spooky, dialogue that isn’t so clunky it doesn’t hurt ears and brain of a viewer and can’t help but make a bunch of bad actors even worse, a plot that doesn’t drag and drag and drag on. Then there’s the problem that Ray in general is as bland and boring a director as they come.

Sure, in its final third or so, the film does get mildly better – or rather funnier – because we get crappy versions of the usual demon shenanigans, are allowed to witness Erik Estrada exorcise a walking corpse, get a good look at the possessed (because the sceptic told her to let the ghosts in) medium nailing herself to a chair for no good reason, while the dialogue upgrades from boring-bad to kinda-funny-bad. However, ten minutes of fun aren’t really worth the pain that is the rest of the film.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

In short: Lily Grace: A Witch Story (2015)

When his estranged father dies, lawyer Ronald (Scott Seegmiller) inherits his 70s-style futurist house in the Louisiana woods. The things he finds there suggest that either his father suffered from rather hefty mental problems or was inconvenienced by a witch called Lily Grace (Sonya Cooke). Ronald quickly tends to the latter explanation, seeing as said witch – looking rather dead, one must say – comes around for a spooky visit or two.

Somehow, Ronald does or does not grab a purse out in the woods. He’s visited by Jake (James Palmer), a petty criminal desperately looking for said purse. Because Jake’s not the brightest bulb in the candelabra, Ronald manages to convince him he doesn’t have the purse, and somehow starts talking him into helping him out with the witch. You see, Ronald’s father had drawn up a plan for a witch trap, but building it is a two man job. During the course of meandering around and preparing the trap, Ronald and Jake even kinda-sorta become friends.

Things become more complicated when some other criminals on the trail of Jake and the magic purse of wealth arrive too.

Wes Miller’s Lily Grace is a bit of an ambiguous experience, not only because it tends to be vague about all kinds of things on what seems like general principle instead of narrative needs, but also thanks to a plot that wavers and meanders with the best of them. It’s as if there’s a price to win for not saying or doing anything in a direct or straightforward manner, and Lily Grace really needs to win it.

So the film generally takes its time with providing information helpful to understand what’s going on in it, or what story it is actually telling; and when it delivers it, it tends to do so in the most needlessly confusing and imprecise manner possible. Even simple questions like “what makes the purse so valuable?” are beyond the film’s powers to answer (because it’s a metaphor and stuff, one supposes), and let’s not even get started on the witch, what she does, doesn’t do, and means or doesn’t mean.

On the positive side, Miller does make some fine, moody use of the Louisiana landscape, a haunted house that doesn’t look all that haunted but can feel like that, and acting performances that make the best of the script’s lack of definition and the generally meandering pace. Even though I don’t think the film’s pay-off is actually worth the all-around vagueness, I can’t say I was ever bored by the things Lily Grace got up too, even if they don’t amount to anything much narratively, or emotionally; and while the meandering here never got me into the trance state of a Jess Franco film, it’s at least on the more interesting side of that quality.

In short: Prom Night IV: Deliver Us from Evil (1992)

Mary Lou who? Never heard of her. For in this film’s 1957, Prom Night was ruined by some crazy, possibly possessed priest named Father Jonas (James Carver) ranting about “sluts”. Holy misogyny, Batman! Not that he’s against killing men too, mind you.

Anyway, after his deeds, the Church keeps Jonas drugged into a coma, imprisoning him somewhere down in the cellar of some church or other, where he doesn’t seem to age but grows a fierce beard. All is comparatively well until he gets new a minder. This new guy is that most frightening of things – a priest with a conscience. Conscientious priest (Brock Simpson) decides to cut it out with the whole drugging business, and soon finds himself garrotted for his efforts.

Jonas then goes on a very timid killing spree, concentrating on four teens (Nicole de Boer, Joy Tanner, J.H. Wyman and Alle Ghadban) who have skipped their prom night to shack up in a luxury hut in the boons. So yes, the final Prom Night film doesn’t even feature a prom night.

Other things Clay Borris’s slasher movie doesn’t feature are excitement or a way to get the time back I spent with it. I don’t have any problems with the fourth prom night film featuring yet another different killer, and in fact, a misogynist, probably demon possessed killer priest was (and still is, really) quite the big gap in the slasher pantheon, but in practice, he’s a guy who breathes really hard, makes anonymous threatening phone calls of the most generic kind, and needs a whole film to kill off four teenagers and a couple of bonus victims.

Now, a low number of victims does not need to be bad for a slasher, but to avoid boring the audience, a low body count slasher needs something to fill the time: interesting characters (nope, though they are not totally hateful), huge wallops of sleaze (nope, because the sleaze here is so prudishly polite one can hardly stop oneself from making Canada jokes, eh), spectacular gore (see sleaze), or just a director who is really, really good at facilitating suspense (ha, nope). Not featuring any of these things, Prom Night IV ends of quite the bore.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Past Misdeeds: Mardi Gras Massacre (1978)

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.

An overdressed man (Bill Metzo) comes into a bar in New Orleans. He asks the resident helpful prostitute Sherry (Gwen Arment) who among her colleagues there is the most evil. After being pointed in the direction of the evil gal of evilness, he introduces himself with the words "Hello....I understand....that you are the most...evil". Having thusly won her trust (and delivered his big line of the movie), he takes her home, straps her to a massage table in the evil temple to the Aztec goddess of Evil part of his apartment and cuts her heart out.

He'll do that intermittently for the rest of the movie with women of whose evilness he has made sure of by the mystical power of asking about it, because they are evil, the goddess is evil, and they'll be happily evil together everafter. His final goal seems to be to kill three prostitutes at once on Fat Tuesday to bring the evil Aztec goddess of Evil back to (presumably evil) life.

When we are not watching him and his evil designs (of evil, etc), we have the dubious pleasure of witnessing the investigational efforts of the two cops (Curt Dawson & another guy) who are supposedly working on the case. In practice, they are sitting around in bars and drinking a lot and Dawson is romancing Shelly in a way that makes the romance plots of Don Dohler films look positively riveting. And that's it for the plot.

I can recommend Mardi Gras Massacre only to the true scholars of horrible independent local filmmaking from the US. Less inquisitive/depraved minds will probably, nay certainly, be bored out of their minds with this one even before the cops make their first snail-like appearance.

And yet the movie looks so good on paper: a Blood Feast rip-off taking place in New Orleans on the eve of Mardi Gras! Whatever could go wrong? So it is too bad that MGM's director Jack Weis makes Herschell Gordon Lewis look like a genius filmmaker. There's no shot too static for Weis, no actor too slow and boring, no interior too drab and brown. It is difficult to truly comprehend how little creativity a director can bring to the plate and still be called one, really. Speaking of a lack of enthusiasm for his work would be sounding much too positive here. I suppose "zombie-like" is a fair description of Weis' directorial style.

Not even the gore effects are worthy of consideration, mostly because it is one single, improbable heart-cutting effect repeated ad nauseam.

And don't go around thinking Weis will show you much more of New Orleans than darkened bar interiors (although I doubt that it is in truth more than one place filmed from slightly different angles) and a handful of naked women, the latter often dancing unenthusiastically. True, there are two musical montages (yes, one of them a love montage) and a "chase" (if you like to call it that) through a Mardi Gras procession, but the former are painfully disinterestedly filmed and the latter comes much too late in the course of the movie to matter anymore.

There's a complete and utter apathy about anyone we see in front of the camera, too, except for Bill Metzo's nameless killer. He isn't exactly sprightly, mind you, yet I appreciate his brilliant failure to sound or act like a human being, his...awkward...pauses...after...every...single...word....he.......says and his near-permanent bug-eyeing. At least someone is putting a little effort in.

Then there's the music, a never-ending, throbbing mass of bad disco funk with only short breaks for pointless, wavering synthie throbbing. The music never fits anything we see on screen, and if I were a cynic, I'd say that Weis just dubbed a "Worst of Disco Funk" compilation onto the film's soundtrack to keep himself awake while editing and forgot to replace it with something more appropriate later on.

But that's not the worst of it. The worst, the terrible, unspeakable truth is that I somehow enjoyed watching this.

Mardi Gras Massacre has the warm and cosy rhythm only the truly great cinematic abominations have, combined with the curious thrill of watching a film in which every camera movement or an honest to god close-up are sensational moments of visual creativity that suddenly jolt the viewer awake.

There is something about a film that is structured like this one is - boring scene, utterly boring scene, boring scene, sudden idiotic line of dialogue, another boring scene, an even more boring scene, sudden excitement as a victim shows her dancing skills before she is sacrificed, another boring scene, more boring scenes, Shelly demonstrates her imaginary disco dancing prowess to the viewer's shattering mind, more boring scenes, the end - that makes it hard for me to look away while it is running. When one's taste has gone so far down the drain that one begins to think that Herschell Gordon Lewis wasn't actually so bad in comparison to the director of the film one is watching out of one's own free will, something like Mardi Gras Massacre develops a kind of hypnotic power much too perverse to be explained by a concept like "so bad that it's good".

Mardi Gras Massacre is so far beyond trivialities like this that I can't help but think of poor, overused Nietzsche and one of his most overused little ditties. Enjoying its presence is what happens to you when you have stared into the abyss, the abyss has stared into you, and you have learned that, gee, you kinda like this abyss. At least nothing ever happens in it.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Another (2014)

aka Mark of the Witch

Starting with her 18th birthday, the life of Jordyn (Paulie Rojas) becomes a walking nightmare. Her aunt Ruth (Nancy Wolfe) – who raised the young woman after the death of her mother at the age of eighteen – rambling about something starting and ramming a knife into her own chest (something the good woman survives rather well) is just the beginning of a truly terrible time. Before she knows it, Jordyn is followed and watched by a decidedly creepy woman (Maria Olsen), suffers from weird distortions of her quotidian reality, and begins having blackouts.

Jordyn seems to be losing herself, thinking thoughts that aren’t her own, and doing things she doesn’t actually want to do, the power threatening her destroying the relationships that ground her and eroding her personality. And that’s not even going to be the worst, or the weirdest, of it all.

A little warning before I start raving about director/writer/director of photography/producer/editor Jason Bognacki’s fantastic Another: if you need your movies to be narrative-driven, dislike the European greats of individual weirdo horror like Jess Franco or even Dario Argento (particularly the latter’s Inferno), and can’t cope with non-naturalistic acting approaches, this is not going to be the film for you; and I won’t have it said about me that I cruelly try to push my imaginary readers into watching stuff that’ll make their (imaginary) toes fall off.

Having gotten that out of the way, I of course can’t help but love a film that has Franco and Argento (and to my eyes Rollin, too, making this pretty much the perfect movie) as so obvious influences, or rather, a film that uses techniques of the digital world that make this sort of thing affordable for very low budget projects to effects very much in the spirit of Franco and Argento without falling into the trap of mere imitation. This is very much a film inspired by visual and narrative ideas and tics of continental European horror to become its own thing, instead of just “inspired by”.

Its own thing in this case means a film that I find highly difficult to not describe as “trippy”, something that more often than not follows the logic and the feel of dreams much closer than real life; which is of course quite an appropriate style for a film about a girl first getting pulled away from mainstream reality and then starting to lose her personality, too. As a consequence Another’s approach to character psychology is decidedly non-naturalistic, not so much showing its audience what happens to Jordyn but pushing it into sharing her experience and state of mind. Even the distancing acting approaches of Rojas – who often seems to be all beautiful, frightened eyes - and Wolfe and Olsen take make absolute sense in this regard, emphasising the wrongness of the proceedings even more. And please, don’t let anyone tell you this film features “bad acting”; it just features acting that’s purposefully different, because it is aiming to depict psychological states that don’t actually exist in reality (unless your reality features body-stealing witches, of course). This approach does of course also echo the basic weirdness of the English dubs for European art horror of the 70s, keeping very much with the movie’s inspirations while also making absolute sense in the new context. 

Because that’s still not enough to make me quite this excited about a film, Bognacki also throws in some inventive mythology all his own, some simple yet extremely memorable cultist outfits, and the best use of western classical music I’ve heard in a genre movie in a long time. Chopin, it turns out, can become rather unnerving when used in the right manner. All this taken together, you end up with a film that’s completely of one piece, or as much of one piece as dreams and nightmares ever are, a film I found myself hypnotized and appropriately bewitched by.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Three Films Make A Post: See the real poor white trash!

Dead of Night (1945): This Ealing studios production is of course a much-lauded classic of the horror anthology movie format; particular since this choice of decidedly supernatural tales was made at a point in film history when horror films actually aiming to creep their audiences out where rather thin on the ground. Being an Ealing production of its time, the anthology is rather on the classy side production-wise, too, with a well-rounded cast of characters and four rather excellent directors.

On the other hand, and looking at the film from today, it starts out a bit too harmless (even though this harmlessness does provide a nice escalation to proceedings), with the short “Hearse Driver” and “Christmas Party” segments feeling rather too harmless and obvious for a post-M.R. James world, and the comedic “Golfing Story” seeming completely misplaced. Fortunately, before the golfing bit, there’s Robert Hamer’s quietly creepy tale of a haunted mirror and after it, well, there’s Alberto Cavalcanti’s perfect and still immensely effective “Ventriloquist Dummy”, a tale to give Thomas Ligotti nightmares (or ideas, one suspects), and the clever wrap-up of the films linking story. So, I don’t think the film’s perfect, but once it gets going, it becomes so good I’d still use that (always dubious) masterpiece term to describe it.

Spooky Town aka Phantom Town (1999): As far as direct-to-DVD kids horror goes, Jeff Burr’s film is actually rather entertaining. Sure, it won’t scare anyone but the little ones (and I’m not sure in their case) but it’s got a bunch of surprisingly effective monsters, buckets of red goo, and a heart for rather weird turns more often than not. In fact, the plot is a lot like a classic Weird Tales story with added family values, so if you can cope with the latter, the former will probably entertain you quite decently.

Deathgasm (2015): Given my personal tendency to absurd earnestness and my distaste for pure gore movies (thanks, my fellow Germans, for the latter), I did not go into Jason Lei Howden’s film expecting much, even though the film adds “New Zealand”  and “Metal” to the gore comedy (which is generally a better sign). So, as I so often am (you really need to try the whole “low expectations” thing, it can work out oh so delightfully) I was very positively surprised by the film, found myself guffawing at a lot of its jokes, appreciating the gore, and the metal, but most of all I found myself delighted at encountering that really uncommon kind of gore comedy that does stuff like actually build (some of its) characters, have a plot, and know about basic narrative techniques like escalation, making the jokes about possessed eyeless people killed with dildos all the funnier.

But seriously, this one’s a true keeper, spirited, dumb in a clever way, and as slickly made as these things go.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

In short: Virgin Nightmares (2004)

Thanks to past shenanigans concerning adultery, human sacrifice, the unclear ambitions of an occult secret society and eye mutilation, a rentable home in Meiji era Tokyo is cursed. The father of any family moving in is bound to murder his wife and optionally his kid(s), driven mad by a very angry spirit.

Despite dire warnings about the curse from his prospective landlords, stupid young family father Yokichi decides the price of the house is too low to miss out on the deal, and a real Tokyo boy doesn’t believe in curses in any case. So off he, his wife and his little daughter move to their dooms, for the curse is rather real.

Despite the promises of enhanced sleaziness the English title of Masanori Inoue’s film makes, this isn’t really a pinku horror movie, but rather an ultra-cheap (shot on video for the DVD market, as it looks) horror movie featuring slightly more nudity. It’s short, it’s clichéd, but I found the film not completely negligible. Inoue certainly is trying his best to at least add a bit of visual flavour to his obvious tale, using every cheap trick that comes to mind to suggest the strange and the woolly.

There’s some Evil Dead inspired camera work, a camera that likes to shoot things upside down or from other somewhat improbable angles, lots of red light (of course), and surprisingly effective use of actors wearing black body stockings with a bit of added digital fog around them as the film’s apparitions. Thanks to these efforts, the film doesn’t exactly become creepy (or as crazy as the better Japanese direct-to-DVD stuff can get) but there’s at the very least always something interesting to look at.

Sometimes, the horror scenes are scored with needle dropped western classical music, which certainly is not the obvious choice, and the film does get some mileage out of combining this with curiously effective moments like the one where Yokichi’s lover is pulled through a crack in the wall during sex while his daughter watches through a crack in the door. These moments when the cheap, somewhat tawdry and badly acted (at least by the younger actors, the older ones are very obviously old pros) film you’re watching nearly turns into something much more resonant for a minute or five are, of course, why anyone, at least me, would even watch a film called Virgin Nightmares, so I chalk this one up as a win.

Music Monday: You Say Edition

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Crazy Joe (1974)

Brothers Joe (Peter Boyle) – Richard Widmark admirer and playing the crazy one more than actually being it - and Richie (Rip Torn) – the calm one - and their little gang of cronies (among those a Henry Winkler who will grow awesome facial hair during the course of the movie) are low-level mob operators who don’t feel they get the respect or the money they deserve for their services. When they’re basically patted on the back for a hit they commit, they think enough is enough, attack the villa of their capo, kidnap his number two (because the capo they planned to kill escapes) and some poor unluckies, and pretend that was their plan all along.

Cue a mafia group hearing under the lead of the scheming Don Vittorio (Eli Wallach) that concludes with the decision to let the two parties sort out their crap between themselves, two different betrayals, and a tiny mafia war, and Joe ends up in jail for a bit while Richie dies as a broken man. Joe’s reading up on his existentialist philosophy in jail - resulting in an inspired scene between him and his new buddy played by Fred Williamson discussing Camus among other things - so he’s not exactly out for revenge when he gets out, but he’s also not going to let bygones be bygones.

In this short synopsis, I make Crazy Joe’s plot sound much simpler than it actually is, for while it doesn’t aim for the sort of epic grandeur Coppola went for in a certain mafia movie and its sequel, its very own more shabby type grandeur does lead to a surprisingly complicated plot that takes place over the course of ten years or so, with the film spending its time not only on mob intrigue but also taking detours in directions you don’t exactly connect with the gangster film, and that surprised me rather pleasantly when the film wasn’t just effectively stimulating my genre glands.

For, despite being as genre conscious and imitative as a film mostly made by Italians behind the camera gets, Crazy Joe is not just interested in looking and feeling like other movies of its genre but also talks a bit of existential philosophy, changing times and the people who stand against them, US race relations, and trades in ambiguity. The last two bits pay off especially well for the movie, providing Fred Williamson the opportunity to put his typical swagger to use in ways that feel more than just his usual (and liked by me, don’t get me wrong) pose, giving that part of the plot particular resonance.

The film’s ambiguity does help its characterisations out too, portraying Joe as the kind of guy who has no compunctions killing for money (as long as it is enough money) but will also risk his life saving kids from a burning house (hey, I never said the film is subtle). As portrayed by Boyle, Joe starts as a character trying to style himself after Richard Widmark’s career-making crazy man spiel in Kiss of Death and somewhat learns to change and take control of parts of his life yet still fails. Joe fails in part because he can’t really let go of the past as much as he pretends to, and in part because the structures he is enmeshed in are the kind of conservative they are foes to all change that isn’t mandated from above. So the film certainly does the bit where you can read “mafia” as “society” too.

The whole she-bang is presented by Lizzani – your typical Italian all-genre movie hired hand for most of his career – in a not unexpected direct, semi-documentary style, with many a grubby looking shot of grubby New York streets and a nice eye for the interesting background detail. While the film isn’t particularly stylish, the comparative dryness of Lizzani’s direction works well with a film that really needs to have the feel of slightly enhanced authenticity. Consequently, what there is of violence does look messy and chaotic, not as if it were done by a bad choreographer, but in a way you’d imagine real violence of this kind does look in reality, people just stumbling about trying not to die and hurt the other guy as badly as possible at the same time. The director clearly knew when he had a good thing in his actors, so there are good performances by good actors all around, with nobody even close to phoning it in, Boyle being rather brilliant and Williamson in one of his career bests (probably because the film doesn’t need him to try so hard).

Not bad for a film whose main reason for existence probably was that Dino de Laurentiis wanted his own The Godfather (and didn’t get it).

In short: The Forbidden Quest (1993)

Ireland, 1941. A filmmaker (the voice of Roy Ward) stumbles upon elderly, melancholic ship’s carpenter J.C. Sullivan (Joseph O’Conor). Sullivan tells the tale of a strange and doomed secretive Antarctic expedition he took part in, an attempt to find a passage leading from the South Pole to the North Pole. Sullivan has the battered up films shot on the expedition to prove his story too, so The Forbidden Quest intersperses Sullivan’s curious narrative of the expedition with the silent footage of it.

Said footage Peter Delpeut, the film’s actual director, took from actual films shot on polar expeditions, lending his film’s tale a degree of authenticity, yet also a dream-like quality that comes with the territory of footage shot in the silent era. The colorization of the films, their speed, and the unreal aura silent movies can so easily take on even when they are – as is the case with the material here – as authentic as cinema can be put what we see as close to a filmed dream state as the movies can get. Which may just say something about the whole concept of authenticity.

Be that as it may, Sullivan’s narrative and the footage Delpeut chose come together beautifully to create a tale very much in the spirit and tradition of that part of the genre of the Weird Tale that uses the polar areas of the globe (still our best bet when we want to think about a place unknown and unknowable to humans, though we’re doing our best to destroy them) in its search for the numinous. A search which, I believe, the actual arctic and antarctic explorers were on in their own ways. It’s an idea that still has some pull and watching a film like this can still draw one’s mind into these directions, particularly when it is a film so consciously in dialogue with these traditions, and so focused on its own quest for the numinous and the horrors and beauties connected to that quest.

The resulting film is really rather wonderful, feels unpretentious yet takes on a certain glow I connect to the traditions of the weird, as much as to the silent movie era.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Past Misdeeds: Prime Evil (1988)

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

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

At some time in the Middle Ages (the film will give us more than one date in a typical display of the amount of care and thought that went into it) a group of monks decides to change the object of their devotion to Satan.

Today - well, in the 80s - that very same cult is still active with some of the original members still running the show (of EVIL). You see, when a member is nice to the big S and sacrifices a blood relative to him all thirteen years, immortality and power are granted to him or her. There are "bonus points" (authentic Satanist terminology) if the victim is a virgin and female, but Satan doesn't seem too particular about it.

When the Satanists are not squabbling among each other or sacrificing relatives, they don't seem to do all that much (although I suppose they should spend a lot of time producing new offspring, what with the high mortality their children have).

Fortunately for viewers with a lust for excitement, the especially ambitious old fart Satanist George Parkman's (Max Jacobs) second sacrificial ceremony is bound to come soon. George's preferred victim is his granddaughter Alexandra (Christine Moore, who also had a very similar part in Roberta Findlay's other 1988 Satanist romp Lurkers). She's quite ideal for the job, for she is still virginal thanks to the damage her father's paedophilic tendencies did to her psyche when she was a child. While George was angry enough about his son abusing her to change him to the preferred victim the last time around, he doesn't have any problems with killing Alexandra now, it seems. It's a b-movie psychology thing, you wouldn't understand.

At the same time, the Satanists' handyman/serial killer (George Krause, I think) goes around kidnapping young women, for some never explained reason all coming from Alexandra's surroundings, so that they can be indoctrinated into the cult for no discernible reason whatsoever.

The Satanist leader, evil priest and scenery-chewer Thomas Seaton (William Beckwith) probably just likes to put his hypnotic mind control whammy on them, as he does with Alexandra, much to the chagrin of her hissy fit prone boyfriend Bill (Tim Gail).
What the Satanists don't know is that a courageous undercover nun named Angela (Mavis Harris) has infiltrated their ranks and is just waiting for the right moment to stab their favourite Satan doll in the heart, or something like that.

If all this sounds rather muddled, then it does so because it is. Of course, one shouldn't expect less (or more, depending on one's perspective) of a Roberta Findlay directed horror film from the 80s. The muddledness is still highly impressive even going by the special Findlay standard. The film casually jumps around between plot threads that seem to exists in a perpetual state of stasis, lets important things just happen off-camera and never bothers to at least explain them on camera, just as if parts of the script had been eaten by a dog, although my experience with Findlay's body of work tells me that she just didn't care enough about a film in the hated horror genre to bother to make it coherent. This might not be a praiseworthy way to go about making a film for most people - I certainly wouldn't recommend it - yet I found myself strangely transfixed while watching it. It is after all not every day that you find a film that incoherently jumps about from place to place but in which at the same time nothing ever seems to be happening, or if something has happened, you are often not allowed to see it.

For those who like it in their films, there is also some impressive 80s cheese to witness here. Especially the scenes taking place in a health spa are quite priceless, with fascinating discussions of multi-coloured condoms and the philosophy of "poking" which let me imagine Hamlet's great monologue beginning with "To poke or not to poke", though it's probably better for everyone's sanity if you don't mind me too much.

Other moments in great dialogue can be found in the seemingly endless scenes in which George and his hypnotically yellow teeth discuss his future world domination plans with a female Satanist friend who just doesn't want to be poked by him. The latter can't have anything to do with George being a raving lunatic with the enthusiasm for smack talk usually only encountered in white middle-aged rappers.

Which brings us to the acting, or what is called acting in the part of New York the film takes place in. Well, everyone's line delivery is...peculiar, to say the least, and while Jacobs and Beckwith are keeping their performances well inside the boundaries of traditional scenery chewing, most of the other actors have probably been imported from a strange and alien planet where English is spoken in quite a different way with many...awkward...pauses.

But I'm mostly alright with that, really, something I won't say about Tim Gail's laid back interpretations of hissy fits, which reminded me of nothing so much as of an hysterical beagle.
Christine Moore, on the other hand, is nearly alright, at least compared to most of the others.

I have to admit I was a little disappointed by the film's photography. Usually, the best thing about Findlay's late period movies are guerrilla-style filmed location shots of a slowly decaying New York, scenes that grant something like Lurkers more power of persuasion than it should have. There is a little of that to be found in Prime Evil, too, and these are the scenes when the whole film nearly starts to develop a mood and become an actual horror film, but too much of what is happening plays out in claustrophobic sets, or possibly Findlay's living room. Even the best director of photography wouldn't have been able to make much of that.

Still, there is something about Prime Evil that makes it a satisfying watch for me. It is not so much the film's cheesiness (although the special effect standing in for the devil is quite priceless), or the pure cheek of declaring this patchwork a narrative that makes it worth seeing, it is something a little weirder and a little deeper. I wouldn't blame anyone who'd just declare this film "crap", but for me it possesses a hard to grasp quality that sometimes transforms the boring and incompetent into the plain strange. And how ever you want to call this quality, Prime Evil has it - at least for me.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Last Witch Hunter (2015)

For killing the evil Witch Queen (Julie Engelbrecht) responsible for the Black Death, medieval flaming-sword wielding badass Kaulder (Vin Diesel) has been cursed with immortality.

He’s spent the seven hundred years or so since his Witch Queen killing days working as the Witch Police for a secret order of the Vatican tasked with the human side of operations responsible for protecting humanity from evil witches so that the rest of witch-dom and humanity can live in secret, yet peaceful co-existence. The script tells us that Kaulder is by now tired and lonely of his existence, though that sort of thing is unfortunately beyond Diesel’s thespian powers, him being Groot notwithstanding.

Anyway, things become more exciting for Kaulder when his handler, the 36th priest called Dolan (Michael Caine, who’s a Catholic priest guv’nor, right-o) is dying. What is supposedly a natural death turns out to have been murder. It’s all part of a dastardly plan to resurrect the Witch Queen, of course. Kaulder’s only help are Dolan #37 (Elijah Wood) and witch Chloe (Rose Leslie), and the cryptic hint of #36 to “remember your death”.
Breck Eisner’s urban fantasy film that starts promising to be an awesome bit of sword and sorcery got quite a drubbing from mainstream critics, who just love to kick perfectly fine popcorn cinema for the sin of being popcorn cinema. And this isn’t like one of the Michael Bay Transformers movies who deserve all the kicks they get for being just so damn badly made; this is a perfectly entertaining bit of silly nonsense, made for and succeeding in providing its audience with a bit over ninety minutes of dumb fun.

Sure, the film’s flaws are obvious: Vin Diesel is a wonderful physical presence, owns a really deep voice, and looks good in action scenes, but he’s as inexpressive an actor as they come whenever he’s supposed to express more than very basic emotions, so the whole “curse of immortality” angle falls flat, as does him convincing anyone to be several centuries old. The plot is rather on the silly side, with the film spending about half of its running time on Kaulder’s and Chloe’s adventures finding herbs for a memory potion, and the film’s big bads aren’t all that exciting either (I’d have hired British stage actresses and actors who’d go all Royal Shakespeare Company on being evil, instead of a hairy guy and a special effect).

However, these flaws aren’t terribly important for what The Last Witch Hunter is actually trying to do. Diesel is way more involved in kicking various supernatural behinds than being tragic, the film’s silliness is of an imaginative and fun kind that gets a lot of mileage out of throwing a bunch of urban fantasy clichés together, giving them a goth-y gloss, and calling it a movie, and the plot’s only an excuse to get Kaulder and Chloe to visit places like the witch model hive (all in truth disfigured in some form of course and just glamoured up the wazoo), the warlock who makes maggot cookies, and so on and so forth. I hate to go the old “if that sort of thing sounds enjoyable to you, you’ll certainly enjoy this” route, but honestly, if it does, you probably will.

You’ll also see some really cool moving fantasy airbrush art (because that’s what the production design goes for), watch a bunch of decent action sequences, see Michael Caine play a Catholic priest, and suffer through an ending that screams “we are trying to build a franchise here” as loudly as possible.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

In short: Prom Night III: The Last Kiss (1990)

Extremely average high school student Alex Grey (Tim Conlon) has just about enough being quite this average – and doesn’t ask himself how it’s possible his girlfriend is Sarah (Cynthia/Cyndy Preston) who’s rather bright, rather pretty and rather nice if he’s such a zero.

Alex’s life will definitely become less average, though, for supernatural serial killer 50s prom queen Mary Lou Maloney (Courtney Taylor) has made her escape from hell and starts on a little killing spree. When she encounters Alex, she’s found the perfect man for her: a bit dim-witted, about as decisive as the least decisive thing you can imagine and easily seduced into burying dead bodies in the football field for her. So she becomes his dead girlfriend on the side, murdering his way to popularity and nominal academic success, with very regular intercourse sessions.

It’ll take Alex a bit of time to come around to the fact Mary Lou just might not be the best girlfriend material for non-homicidal maniacs; once he does, he learns Mary Lou isn’t a girl who likes to take “no” for an answer either.

Ron Oliver’s and Peter R. Simpson’s Prom Night III more or less returns to the second film’s murderous ghost Mary Lou Maloney, but where the second one was trying to win the price for most generic late-80s/early-90s supernatural slasher, this sequel is all over the place. Imagine a mix between supernatural slashers like from the bad years of Freddie Krueger – the style where every murder only ever is the set-up for a horrible one-liner that isn’t funny and/or effects that are probably more amusing when you’re twelve – and bad high school comedy – the style where “joke” and “pain” are indistinguishable. Then be bored by the lame stereotyped characters, annoyed by the oh-so-ironic “sexiness”, and not exactly riveted by the murders for forty minutes or so, only to be suddenly pulled awake by the film quite suddenly developing ambitions at telling a deeply dumb metaphorical story about growing up with the realization one will probably never amount to much for the world at large.

After that, when the viewer is still reeling from Prom Night III at least turning into something worth spending some time on, the film makes the next left-turn, and suddenly the fake bizarre of its murders becomes actual strangeness, and things escalate to a point where the film ends up in hell – which of course is a high school full of zombies – where Sarah suddenly turns heroine for fifteen minutes and kills undead high school students with a self-made flame thrower.

Which, obviously, is just as pointless and silly as the film’s first half but does certainly tickle my weirdness bone rather effectively. Then it’s off to a final stinger that makes no sense of all, and I can go to bed somewhat satisfied instead of bored.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Cthulhu Mansion (1992)

Original title: La mansión de los Cthulhu

The gang of young hoodlums around one Hawk (Brad Fisher) has bitten off more than they can chew, and find themselves having to cope with the fallout from one dead security guard, as well as one dead drug dealer (and a bunch of stolen cocaine) that sets the police as well as some Very Bad People on their trail. One of their own (Luis Fernando Alvés) is hurt with one of those movie gunshot wounds of permanently fluctuating seriousness. Because the series of minor catastrophes happened at a carnival, they manage to “persuade” stage magician Chandu (Frank Finlay) – not that Chandu, we very much hope – to help them escape to his house, where they proceed to keep him, his daughter Lisa (Marcia Layton) and his mute servant hostage until they’ll get a better idea, which, given the lack of brain power in play here, might just take forever.

Alas, Chandu’s mansion is not the best place for this sort of thing, and soon the Evil Chandu keeps locked behind a door in the cellar becomes rather excited by the new company. Poltergeist phenomena, demonic possession and all sorts of shenanigans ensue.

If you’re going into Cthulhu Mansion by perhaps not Spain’s best director Juan Piquer Simón expecting either things Lovecraftian or a Chandu the Magician movie, you’ll be sorely disappointed. You see, Chandu’s mansion is actually called Cthulhu, because the mucky brochure (no compliments to the prop department for that one) that taught him true magic and cost his wife her life was simply entitled “Cthulhu”. Yup, the film didn’t even go for the Necronomicon there. Which is somewhat fitting, because the film’s idea of Evil is clearly one of the Christian demonic kind (what with it showing an allergy against crosses), and there’s nothing else having to do with Lovecraft (or even Derleth, for that matter) going on here at all.

Instead the film’s mostly concerned with being a very late attempt at ripping off the horror sub-genre of films – mostly from Italy and the USA - from the 70s where a bunch of more or less bad guys takes a group of (generally rich) people hostage in their own homes and does decidedly unfriendly things with them and crossing it with the cheesiest haunted house movie you could imagine. The former genre isn’t done much justice by a film that doesn’t seem to realize it is very belatedly trying to cash in on a sub-genre that thrives on nastiness and brutal social commentary and instead opts for keeping its hoodlums (you wouldn’t want to use a more modern word for these guys and gals) just mildly mean and very slightly brutal.

Simón does better by the cheesy haunted house movie, if your interpretation of better is “has a lot of furniture fly around, has some plants mumble, shows a woman drawn into a refrigerator by ridiculously awesome large claw hands, and includes more poltergeist nonsense than you can shake a stick at”. Add an idea of demonic possession that’s mostly about really icky looking skin, and adorably stupid death scenes, and you most certainly don’t have a decent, spooky, or whatever horror film. Instead, you get exactly the cheesy, stupid yet fun and pretty nonsensical kind of film you just might expect from Juan Piquer Simón. Despite missing my Lovecraft, I did find myself decently entertained by the brainless shenanigans.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Three Films Make A Post: SURGING SPECTACLE! ...of Savagery and Sex!

Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (1987): On one hand, I’m perfectly fine with Bruce Pittman’s sequel to okay Canadian slasher Prom Night having nothing whatsoever to do with the first one – where the hell should it have gone from there, after all – on the other hand, the resulting mix of possession horror and Freddy Krueger style (at times barely one step ahead of ripping off whole scenes completely) supernatural slasher never gels into an actual movie. Instead, we get a bunch of unfulfilled promises (you could make a perfectly great film about guilt and punishment as spiced up by religion out of the material), some good scenery-chewing by Michael Ironside and Wendy Lyon once she’s possessed, and the usual bunch of murder scenes that have not much of a thematic connection (would it really kill this sort of film to have a killer with a theme and then go through with it instead of having people randomly explode through their computer and other random crap?), and barely cohere into something like an actual plot.

Starship Troopers 3: Marauders (2008): The second Star Ship Troopers sequel, this time around directed by series screenwriter Edward Neumeier, is a pretty tedious way for the series to go out. It clearly wants to connect the satirical aspirations of the first film with the B-movie thrills of the second one, but it’s even less successful with the former than the original film and sabotages the latter ambition by insisting on the former. It’s also godawfully paced, spending an astounding amount of time on things with no bearing on its actual narrative whatsoever. The whole first hour is paced and feels very much like the prologue to the actual film; the rest isn’t nearly exciting enough to make up for that failing.

Dance of the Damned (1989): Katt Shea’s late eighties neon indie vampire movie is a bit of a frustrating experience. There’s a lot of interesting stuff in this attempt to use an awkward date night (at least he seems to think it’s a date despite his early announcement to kill her at exactly 6am) between a vampire (Cyril O’Reilly) and a stripper (Starr Andreeff) to talk about broken lives but for every moment that’s emotionally resonant, for every good idea, there are two moments of 80s vampire movie pompousness, lines of dialogue that are trying oh so very hard but never achieving, and some horribly ill-advised contact lenses. Worse, what for large parts of its running time amounts to a two person play only has one good performance in Andreeff’s (who going by what she’s doing here would have deserved to go on to much better things than she actually did), with O’Reilly mostly letting his luscious 80s locks, those contact lenses and not a lot more doing his work, which just isn’t enough.

This is still a very interesting film, mind you, just not one that actually succeeds at what

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966)

Despite the dire warnings of the rather not superstitious and pretty worldly abbot Father Sandor (Andrew Keir) to keep away from the place, a quartet of British travellers – Helen (Barbara Shelley as the stick in the mud one who just might be right this time around), her husband Alan (Charles Tingwell), his brother Charles (Francis Matthews) and his wife Diana (Suzan Farmer) - on an educational jaunt through the Continent decide to make their way towards the village of Karlsbad.

Curiously enough, their hired local coach driver leaves them by the side of the road quite a bit away from the village as well as from the castle dominating the area. The good man seems to rather prefer not to stay in the area after dark. Things become even more peculiar from there on out: a driver-less horse carriage appears, but when the travellers attempt to drive it to the village, it races them straight to the castle. Let’s call it “Castle Dracula”, why don’t we? There, the strangeness still doesn’t end – having delivered our protagonists, the carriage races away again, with the traveller’s luggage still on board. At least the front door of the castle is open.

Despite Helen’s protests, the party enters, only to find a place that seems empty, yet also set for four visitors. Even more disturbing, the travellers’ luggage has somehow made its way into bedrooms in the castle.
After a bit, a decidedly creepy man named Klove (Philip Latham) appears and explains he’s keeping the place always ready for guests to continue the tradition of hospitality established by his late master, the always welcoming Count Dracula (Christopher Lee). That doesn’t explain even half of the weirdness going on, of course, but what’s a weary traveller to do?

Not surprisingly, Klove’s idea of hospitality is to murder the travellers to revive his late master with their blood, so, “running” would have been a good answer to that one, I believe. As it goes, only half of our protagonists will survive the night to flee to Father Sandor’s abbey, only to learn that the revived Dracula is not the kind of guy who keeps away from holy places once he’s set his fangs on a female neck.

The things I find most impressive about Hammer’s third Dracula film in ten years (marking the beginning of the films as a regular series, for better or worse, and given the quality of the films up to Scars, really for better), and only the second one to feature Christopher Lee’s count is how little happens in the first half of the movie, and how small the scale of its plot actually is. Or rather, how much trust Jimmy Sangster’s script has in director Terence Fisher’s ability to get by on sheer atmosphere alone, and how good the script itself is at making the small scale feel huge and eventful.

Both men are on top of their respective game here. Sangster manages to use strong brush strokes to create surprisingly multi-dimensional characters whose fates feel actually horrifying because they are so undeserved, fates they could have done little to avoid. For these characters act plausible enough to a weird situation. Even the romantic couple of the film doesn’t so much feel bland and a bit stupid but like people confronted with a situation they couldn’t have been prepared for without the knowledge they are in a horror movie; and that kind of meta lies far in the future. The script escalates wonderfully too, the slow first half making room for a second one that’s basically a thrill a minute, Lee’s this time around wildly animalistic Dracula (whose lack of dialogue may or may not have been caused by Lee hating Sangster’s dialogue, or by Sangster not writing any dialogue for Lee because he was sick of Lee’s complaining about is writing, or just by Sangster knowing his job quite well, depending on which story you prefer to believe) staying a believably horrific threat throughout.

Fisher for his part indeed does get by on an ability to build an atmosphere of fine, gothically inclined dread for the first half of the movie, turning out many a moment that still has a certain nightmarish quality all these decades later. I’m particularly fond of Dracula’s resurrection scene, a scene I couldn’t imagine being done any better by anyone, my beloved Italians included. And once it’s time for the more outwardly exciting second half of the film, the director rises to that occasion too. Judged by the number of memorable scenes alone, it’s difficult to call Prince of Darkness anything other than one of Hammer’s masterpieces.

Add to that Sangster’s script, a generally good cast (with Shelley and Keir the not surprising stand-outs to me), Christopher Lee doing his snarling best where he too often seemed to phone his performances in once he decided a film was under his dignity (but not enough under his dignity to not take the money), a Van Helsing replacement in Sandor who works particularly well because he isn’t like Van Helsing at all, and the film’s certainly not becoming worse.

On ExB: Choke Canyon (1986)

If you’re one of those people sceptical about the value of international understanding and cultural intermingling, this film will change your mind. Americans, Greeks and Italians came together to create whatever the hell Choke Canyon is supposed to be. It’s bold, it’s (kinda) beautiful, and I have no idea what anyone involved in it was thinking.

Read further praise in my column on the glorious Exploder Button, currently hanging from a helicopter near you.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Three Films Make A Post: Her clothes torn away, screaming in terror!

Ant-Man (2015): Peyton Reed’s film is the clever little caper comedy superhero movie with bouts of perfectly appropriate sentimentality the Marvel film universe was looking for, and I, for one, am quite happy with and about it, and am now waiting with bated breathe on DC and Warner making the appropriate move. Ha, who am I kidding?

Anyway, I found this one a rather joyful experience that on one hand keeps with the Marvel idea of heroism, and on the other hand knows how to vary the formula, while making a lot of jokes I actually found funny.

Chopping Mall aka Killbots (1986): Keeping in mind the awful, boring tit-fests most of director Jim Wynorski’s movies are, this one’s a little oasis of quality. Things being relative and all, that doesn’t actually mean this slasher/survivalist killer robot epic is all that great, it just means its generally watchable, doesn’t break down under a cornucopia of unfunny jokes, and does entertain in its cheap and stupid way without anyone having to work to get through watching it. That’s faint praise indeed, but being perfectly watchable and generally entertaining, if not spectacularly exciting, makes this one of Wynorski’s best.

The Diabolical (2015): At first, Alistair Legrand’s film pretends to be another piece of Insidious-style mainstream horror, but it quickly turns into something more interesting, and not just through its much more controlled approach to jump scares. No, this is a film whose last act plot reveals actually make sense in the context of what came before and are in fact actual parts of the film’s narrative, and that does try to mix up various things we’ve seen before in ways we don’t necessarily have. Having said that – and also giving a friendly nod to some more than decent acting performances by people like Ali Larter and Arjun Gupta – I never truly warmed the film.

I think that has a lot to do with the overload approach it takes to its plot and characters, where nobody can’t just have a single problem, and no probably supernatural manifestation ever comes alone, which might give the film variety but also robs it of the focus it would need to actually make me care about its characters or its plot. Still, at least its interesting and trying to be more than just dross.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

In short: Werewolf: The Beast Among Us (2012)

Some time in the 19th (I think) Century in backlot Europe (quite fittingly embodied by Romania, still the Mecca of direct to video films) with the typical mix of confusing accents and dubious historicity, with the Universal logo at the beginning of the film sort of making it a canonical of Universal Horror Backlot Europe (or the UHBE, as we call it). It’s a place where people can say sentences like “this is no common werewolf” and make sense, because werewolves and wurdulaks are real there.

As real as, fortunately, a merry band of monster hunting mercenaries - among them Ed Quinn, Ana Ularu and Florin Piersic Jr., or the cowboy, the woman with the crossbow and a flame thrower for burning monster corpses, and the guy who puts in silver fangs to fight werewolves, respectively.

A small village needs their help quite particularly, for an especially nasty example of werewolf kind is eating its way through the population. Why, it doesn’t even need the full moon to kill! The local doctor (Stephen Rea) and his young assistant - and our viewpoint character - Daniel (Guy Wilson) can’t do more than get rid of the corpses and shoot everybody in the head who was bitten, so more professional help is badly needed. However, things will get much more complicated.

For a Louis Morneau film, Werewolf is nearly glacially paced, with about forty minutes going by before the plot starts to get interesting. That’s the nature of the beast with the 2010s’ type of direct to video fodder, of course, but it’s a bit of a shame when the problems of the form infect directors who can do much better.

This isn’t to say this is not at least a somewhat worthwhile movie: its worldbuilding of backlot Europe is actually pretty great (or at least, the effort put into thinking about it as a place with its own rules the script makes is), as is the cornucopia of silly details like the flame thrower, the fact the world contains monster hunting mercenaries, as well as the increasingly baroque additions to that world the film continues to make (some of which are too spoilerish to mention here). Plus, once the film does get going, its plot becomes actually interesting, the film adding stray bits of gothic romance, mystery, and some not half-bad ideas of its own, making the film more complicated, more interesting and even a bit original. At least I haven’t seen its elements together in this form before, and that counts for much in my eyes.

Once the sudden acceleration starts, it becomes more of a Morneau film too, with the by now expected (and in this case rather sudden) fast pacing, the sure hand in directing action and suspense, and a sense of concentration that still works in a film like this that likes to just pile on the silly details and let god – or the audience – sort things out. It’s entertaining enough, and while I’m sure Morneau could have done more with a mildly (that guy’s never been a blockbuster director) higher budget, what he did with this one is entertaining enough.