Friday, July 21, 2017

Past Misdeeds: The Abominable Snowman (1957)

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.

Botanist Dr. John Rollason (Peter Cushing), his wife and colleague Helen Rollason (Maureen Connell), and his friend and colleague Peter Fox (Richard Wattis) are spending time in a monastery in the Himalayas to catalogue the local plant life. That the whole botanical business isn't the only reason for Rollason's stay becomes clear when another small expedition, led by the very American Tom Friend (Forrest Tucker), arrives.

John has been hiding from his wife he's been in contact with Friend to help the American in an expedition to the least explored parts of the mountain to find one of John's hobby horses there - the Yeti. Helen is less than amused by her husband keeping this dangerous climbing trip a secret from her until there's no way to keep it secret anymore, especially because the last large scale climbing John took part in nearly killed him and caused him to swear off mountaineering completely. It doesn't help John's case that Helen doesn't believe in the Yeti at all.

Neither Helen nor the monastery's head lama (Arnold Marlé) - who seems particularly interested in people not looking for Yetis - are able to convince John to stay.

So off with Friend, a guide named Kusang (Wolfe Morris), the even more American Ed Shelley (Robert Brown), and a Yeti-haunted greenhorn named McNee (Michael Brill) he goes. The tension between the members of the small expedition mounts once John has copped to the fact that Friend isn't just out to photograph and observe the Yeti, but is in fact on a hunting expedition for a living (or dead) specimen to make a big, international show of P.T. Barnum style. The differences between the men alone would be problem enough, but - this being a SF/horror movie after all - the Yetis themselves are not too keen on letting their existence be known, nor are they dreaming of a freak show career.

The Abominable Snowman was made at a point in the output of Hammer Studios very shortly before the success of their first Frankenstein and Dracula movies would really push their production emphasis in the direction of their own new brand of Gothic horror - though the studio did of course still make films in other genres.

Given that the film is, like The Quatermass Experiment, based on a Nigel Kneale-penned TV film (or mini-series, depending on the source), it will probably not come as much of a surprise to anyone that it's pretty different from the coming wave of Hammer's Gothic horror. Quite like with the Quatermass films, Kneale applies a more cerebral and science-fictional style (and yeah, I know, Kneale said he didn't write SF, but that only proves he was feeling unpleasantly superior to the genre, not that he didn't work in it, see also "squids in space") to typical monster movie tropes.

I don't think Kneale's script is quite as successful as his Quatermass work. It gets a bit draggy in the final third, but it's still thoughtful and intelligent while at the same time putting efforts into holding up the genre-appropriate tension. As is often the case with Kneale, his intelligence is one that puts trust in his viewers to be intelligent themselves, too, so there's nary a hint of unnecessary exposition or of the film telling its audience what to think, yet the script is never vague. Much of the film's qualities lie in Kneale's clever use of telling details, be it his letting the Americans be more racist to what they call "the natives" than Rollason is (though the film's treatment of its Tibetan characters or its lone female character, aren't unproblematic by today’s standards; it's just much better than you can expect from a film made in 1957) without explicitly pointing it out, or just his bothering to think through and explain things like the smallness of Friend's expedition that are dramatically necessary but not exactly realistic.

I also appreciate how Kneale - though it is pretty clear where his sympathies lie - still treats the Americans as actual human beings and not just as symbols for greed and ignorance. They are still shorthand characters, but shorthand characters with the small bit of complexity that makes them more than just parts of Kneale's argument.

Obviously, the most complex script won't take a movie far if the people before or behind the camera aren't up to its standards, but here, too, The Abominable Snowman is in luck.
I hardly need to mention that Cushing (who had played the same role in the TV version) is great, and gives his character just the right mix of a humane softness that makes him believable as the "green", truth-seeking scientist with a physical intensity and energy that makes him believable as a man of action, too. I found it more surprising how well Forrest Tucker - whom I've never pegged as an especially good actor - is able to keep up with Cushing here, but there you have it. The film is of course all the better for having the representatives of its fighting groups of core values both be equally impressively acted.

Director Val Guest always showed his best qualities when it came to adapting Kneale's scripts, too. Guest's direction is far from showy, but if you're actually looking at some of his compositions, or the highly effective way he films the movie's sets, you might realize how effortlessly he emphasizes the script's strengths, deepens the mood and keeps a thought-heavy film moving, while making all this look easy, or rather letting a viewer forget that there's even a need for effort in this sort of filmmaking. Many people writing about movies (I'm definitely not innocent myself here) have a tendency to reserve their greatest praise for the more showy, or just more obviously stylish directors, but there's a real art to a style of direction that makes the director invisible and just lets the film speak for itself.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Dark Half (1993)

“Literary” writer Thad Beaumont (Timothy Hutton) has a little secret: under the pseudonym of George Stark he is writing a series of pretty nasty bestselling thrillers that sound a lot like what have happened if the Parker novels had been written by Mickey Spillane (one shudders to think). Thing is, Beaumont treats Stark very much like an independent personality, his own behaviour changing for the worse whenever he is writing one of the Stark novels, as his long-suffering wife Liz (a rather underused Amy Madigan) knows all too well. So it looks like an opportunity for improving Thad’s mental health when a shady guy (Robert Joy), who apparently found out the truth about Stark screwing someone working for the writer’s publisher, attempts to blackmail Thad with his knowledge about Stark’s true identity. Thad’s not happy, but he’s certainly not going to pay, and decides to go public with his being Stark and bury his pseudonym for good.

Alas, somebody starts killing off people involved in Stark’s “death” and the ensuing publicity stunts surrounding it. The killer is someone with Thad’s fingerprints who will turn out to look a lot like Thad badly costumed as a Southern tough guy. Sheriff Alan Pangborn (Michael Rooker) and his colleagues in New York at first seem to look at a rather clear-cut case of a writer losing it in murderous fashion (happens every day, right?), but some of Thad’s alibis work out much too well, and there are some aspects to the case that rather suggest the supernatural explanation of an imagined Stark having become very real and very angry about his own death.

George A. Romero’s adaptation of one of Stephen King’s more middling novels probably isn’t the film I should write about to say goodbye to one of the Great American Horror Directors (capitalization fully deserved). But we all know how brilliant Martin and the original Dead trilogy are (and I harbour a heretical love for Diary of the Dead, as well), and there really isn’t much to add to the acres of things written about these films, whereas The Dark Half is generally so ignored even talking a bit about what’s wrong and right with the film seems like a better use of time, and certainly something that makes me less sad than a look at Romero’s career as a whole, at all the films he never got to make, thinking about the opportunities of not being the zombie movie guy that didn’t come his way anymore much after this film - his next finished – and last not “Dead” – film came out seven years later.

Qualitywise, The Dark Half is not the sort of film that should have put anyone in director’s jail. It’s an at times effective, at times a little awkward outing that is never less than entertaining. Its worst aspects are certainly some dubious digital special effects and a bad guy that doesn’t work as well as he should. The problem with Stark as a character is that – particularly in the phases of the film when he’s still killing his way towards Thad – he’s just not that terrifying a guy, even with all the death and mutilation he causes. As a horror movie monster, he misses a hook beyond having a Southern accent and a love for Elvis and annoying with some particularly bad one-liners. He’s basically doing what a normal movie killer in a thriller would do, but in a sillier way, which is certainly not ideal if you want to freak me out. I also can’t help but feel that Hutton doesn’t have much of a grip on Stark (the Method certainly wasn’t invented to create a memorable pseudonym gone rogue), leaving the work of making the character threatening mostly to the stylists. Once Stark gets closer to Thad, these problems dissolve more or less, the increasing emphasis on Stark as a personified part of Thad (that twin business making no difference, really) leading to a handful of moments I found actually disquieting, Stark not so much representing Thad’s dark half than a potential (worse) direction his life could have taken. At that point, the film turns into a very American tale of a guy who can’t quite escape the place he came from, however much he pretends it doesn’t exist, the shadows of his working poor upbringing following him into suburbia and academia.

Which sounds very much like the sort of thing Romero as a writer and director was always interested in, using his monsters as a tool to talk about class, guilt and the way public happenings shape private lives in one way or the other (among many other things of course). If that meant having to turn a rather autobiographical Stephen King novel into a mild 90s style supernatural slasher or churning out another Dead movie, than that’s what Romero would do.

This doesn’t mean the guy didn’t clearly keep his gleeful enjoyment of the more typically brutal parts of his films throughout his career: the murders here certainly demonstrate Romero’s love (shared with King) for EC style violence, and he never falls into the trap of treating the supernatural exclusively as a metaphor, of not treating his horror serious as horror. Romero was just interested in also talking about other things.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989)

Original title: Gojira vs. Biorante

Some time after Godzilla fell into a volcano in the dreadful Return of Godzilla (a film that is the honorary first film of the Heisei Godzilla cycle even though it was made during the Showa Era – go figure), an action scene of dubious quality ends with cell samples of the big lug falling in the hands of an imaginary Middle Eastern state, probably situated next to Qrak. There, mad scientist Dr. Shiragami (Koji Takahashi) wants to use Godzilla’s genetic structure to make super corn (or vegetables or what have you) that’ll grow in the desert. Alas, a bomb blows up his lab while he’s not in, killing his daughter as well as his mad science plans.

Five years later, various factions – an evil Japanese corporation, the Japanese government, an evil US corp whose agents are - as is traditional - played by the first Western guys the producers could grab randomly from the streets, and the Middle Eastern state are in play – are still battling over these samples, though most of them don’t want to stop the coming food crisis but use them to somehow destroy radioactivity which would of course destroy the Cold War balance of power and lead to dreadful things, and so on and so forth. This subplot full of horrible acting, bad English and shoddily filmed action scenes will haunt the viewer for the rest of the movie, even though there are much more interesting things going on.

For the kid psychics of a government institute that’ll change its name in the subtitles of every Heisei film are - in a scene that does have a friendly hint of Lovecraft’s “Call of Cthulhu” - all dreaming of one thing: Godzilla. This can only mean that Godzilla is on the cusp of climbing out of the volcano and rampaging through Japan again. Various half-assed plans are invented, half-used and sort of used; teen psychic Miki Saegusa (Megumi Okada) who will be the only character recurring in every film of the Heisei series (sometimes even for a reason) has a staring contest with Godzilla in a pretty great scene; and Shiragami gets the opportunity to get his hands on some of the Godzilla cells.

That last bit leads to Shiragami crossing these cells with a rose bush that apparently holds some of the genetic material and the soul of his dead daughter. Obviously, this being a kaiju film, said rose bush grows into a giant monster thingie called Biollante, and just as obviously, Biollante and Godzilla will slug it out.

And if this description of Kazuki Ohmori’s first real Heisei Godzilla film sounds confused and confusing, full of plot threads that don’t pay off, I have to add I have already cut out a lot of other pretty pointless stuff, so the actual film is even less coherent. Biollante’s main problem as a narrative is that it really doesn’t have a good grip on how to fill the time between the monster fights, and so just throws basically everything at its audience anyone involved in the production might have come up with, in a valiant attempt not to bore. That, it certainly succeeds at, for while the industrial espionage action bit lacks in sense, and the action in these scenes isn’t terribly well directed, it is at least pleasantly garish and pulpy and is certainly never boring. In fact, these parts of the film have a feverish aspect which is of course only right and proper for a film that features a kaiju that is a giant rose bush (later with a reptile head) with the soul of a woman.

On the negative side, these parts of the movie do overwhelm the more thoughtful bits of the film. A tighter and more thematically conscious and coherent film could probably have found the actual tragedy and sadness in the story of Dr Shiragami’s inability to work through the loss of his daughter and express it through the monster action. As it stands, Shusuke Kaneko would use this and other elements of the Heisei era Godzilla films for his brilliant Gamera trilogy a decade later and make good on their inherent promises.

Speaking of the film’s negative sides, I really have to mention composer Koichi Sugiyama’s horrible treatment of Ifukube’s themes for the Godzilla films. There’s some horrible orchestration of wonderful music, some plain crap additions of his own, and worst of all, an electric guitar treatment of the Godzilla theme mostly used for the action scenes between humans (why?) that is so badly arranged I found myself having very rude thoughts towards the composer. Fortunately, the next film would see the triumphant return of Ifukube.

But what, I imagine the Godzilla-fond reader will ask exasperatedly, of the kaiju fights? Well, the Godzilla suit is a bit too cute for the evil bastard version of our favourite monster the film is going for, and Biollante suffers from being pretty immobile, what with it being a giant rosebush. However, there’s much more good than not so good city smashing and a general air of excitement surrounding the monsters that convinces the kaiju loving viewer to forgive Godzilla vs. Biollante’s flaws immediately. Non-boring human nonsense plus good kaiju fighting equals an excellent time.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

House of 1,000 Dolls (1967)

Original title: La casa de las mil muñecas/Das Haus der tausend Freuden

Tangiers, Spain, I mean Morocco. After a friend of him is murdered while looking for his kidnapped girlfriend, who he suspects has fallen into the hands of white slavers and brought to Tangiers, US criminal pathologist Stephen Armstrong (George Nader) takes it on himself to solve the case. Stephen doesn’t think much of the efforts of the local police under Inspector Emil (Wolfgang Kieling), though he will eventually learn that the good Inspector is rather more clever than he gives him credit for.

Of course, the fiendish plan the white slaver operation and their mysterious unseen mastermind, the King of Hearts, use to grab unwilling young women for Tangiers’ House of 1,0000 Dolls (winner of the price for the creepiest brothel name three times in a row), is so absurd no sensible policeman would expect it. For the syndicate has acquired the services of stage magician Felix Manderville (Vincent Price) and his assistant Rebecca (Martha Hyer). Manderville finishes his shows by letting a (young, pretty, and female) audience member disappear; and sometimes they really disappear, getting knocked out and shipped off in coffins to Tangiers. It’s so stupid a plan, it is understandable it can only be uncovered by an American tourist like Stephen.

House of 1,000 Dolls, directed by Jeremy Summers (apparently a hard-working TV director with a handful of low budget genre movies to his credit) and Hans Billian (mostly involved with German softcore porn and assorted genres) is a Spanish-German co-production managed by the German Constantin Film, apparently with some involvement by AIP as well as Harry Alan Towers. It was mostly shot in Spain, which provides a lot of rather attractive locations shots that don’t look terribly like Morocco but also don’t terribly not look like Morocco.

It’s a bit of a mess of a film, working from a script that borrows elements of the Eurospy film, and the German Krimi in its Edgar Wallace adaptation guise and adds some very mild titillation of the bikini girls in peril getting whipped type. To make things more commercially viable, the film throws in the typically boring George Nader – who was semi-big in Germany thanks to playing FBI agent Jerry Cotten in a series of adaptations of German Heftromane starring the character (rather neutered pulps, more or less) – and a not terribly excited looking Vincent Price for star power. On paper, the film should be rather awesome, but its pacing is sluggish, and many of the scenes seem completely random, as if the writers had just added bits of the different genres they were plundering without any care for connectivity.

Which wouldn’t be all that bad – and even par for the course for Eurospy films - if these random bits were all as awesome as the incredibly stupid plan of the bad guys, the neat little intro scene concerning Pricean shenanigans in a funeral parlour, or the straight-facedly bizarre sequence where two of the girls make a break for it (in high heels and underwear, obviously), but there’s rather a lot of filler, investigation scenes that go nowhere fast, and a script that assumes an audience cares for the identity of a criminal mastermind it never sees doing anything (a mistake the German krimis whose criminal masterminds were visibly active even when they were not visible never made).

It’s not a terrible film, mind you. Price is obviously a joy even when he’s only picking up a pay check, and at least the whole thing looks and sounds good.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Free Fire (2016)

It’s the late 70s. An arms deal between a group of IRA members (Cillian Murphy, Michael Smiley and others) and a South African arms dealer (Sharlto Copley, playing the part of the most horrifyingly annoying man alive) and his entourage, finagled by an American middle woman (Brie Larson) who really doesn’t have much fun with being a woman in late 70s macho land, goes very wrong indeed. Some, let’s call them “personal issues”, between some of the foot soldiers on both sides escalate into a drawn-out shoot-out and stand-off in a warehouse, and soon, very many characters are bleeding, shooting and cursing. Not always in this order, and quite a bit of dying is involved too..

Free Fire is the film that really decides it for me: Ben Wheatley (and his regular writing and editing partner Amy Jump) is a director that’ll stay with me for the next few decades, making one film that isn’t like the one he made before or the ones before that yet still retains a personal handwriting every year and keeping me happy with it, sometimes making a perfect movie like Kill List, sometimes an interesting effort, sometimes more, sometimes less.

For my tastes (and the Internet informs me not everyone shares my enthusiasm), Free Fire is nearly as good as Kill List, and is certainly the crowning achievement in the warehouse action comedy genre. Of course, if you’ve read that Free Fire is supposed to consist exclusively out of one long shoot-out, you might be disappointed by a film whose characters only start shooting at each other 25 minutes or so in, and which isn’t at all interested in the sort of non-stop, slow-motion gun fu you might expect on first hearing about it. Technically, there’s a one-hour gun battle here, but in practice, most of the characters are wounded more or less heavily early on, so instead of the expected extreme spectacle, this is actually a character piece that delights in having a fantastic cast (there are also Sam Riley, Armie Hammer, Enzo Cilenti, Babou Ceesay and other fine thespians involved) of actual actors playing around with their characters, bickering, cursing, making jokes, and bleeding.

There is still quite a bit of action going around here, though, it’s just that Wheatley makes his job purposefully difficult by staging action scenes between characters who are mostly only able to crawl, slither and sometime hop around for much of the film. That doesn’t just add a sense of the absurd (there’s always a bit of Beckett in a Wheatley film) to the film but also provides the director with the opportunity to come up with action set pieces that aren’t quite like the ones you’ll find in a John Wick movie, and which turn out pretty damn great to my eyes.

As does the temporal and local colour (warning to the overly sensitive: there’s a degree of racism and sexism involved but it is one of the characters and not of the film), the acting (obviously), the photography, the texture of the language and the structure of the editing. Given these standards, that the film we get isn’t quite the film most of us probably expect going in isn’t a bad thing to me. Free Fire, like all of Wheatley’s movies until now, is very much doing its own thing, not too interested in being the film an audience expects rather than the one it should and wants to be.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Three Films Make A Post: Your ally could become your enemy

The Precipice Game (2016) aka 魔輪: A bunch of arseholes – alas not interesting arseholes – takes part in a dumb game for the prize of a million dollars that takes place on a mostly empty cruise ship. Boredom ensues, for this is a mix of the old, cheap corridor runner genre, the sort of Saw-ish murderous game show and a whole lot of nothing. The characters have the inhuman and antiseptic quality all too frequent in Chinese mainland cinema of the last decade or so (and without any inherent star qualities that might make up for that little problem) and the plot makes little sense. Actual suspense or thrills just aren’t happening because neither the script nor Wang Zao’s direction seems to put even the tiniest amount of effort in.

Don’t Knock Twice (2016): Compared to that mess, Caradog James’s horror film with more than decent lead performances by Katee Sackhoff and Lucy Boynton is a shining example of good writing and direction. Realistically, it rather rests in my most unloved category – movies of boring competence. Apart from the surprise twist that will surprise no one (and that doesn’t make too much sense), there’s little here to annoy or outright bore. The horror sequences are utterly generic 2010s style horror sequences, unfortunately, so about as exciting as watching grass grow, but browner, the visuals are of the usual desaturated type with little to look at that might excite or frighten, and the script has an interesting plot line about a woman trying to regain the trust of the daughter she left Sackhoff and Boynton could get their teeth in but never gets around to meaningfully connect that with the horror parts of the plot (not to speak of the twist ending). It’s really not a bad film at all, but it is terribly bland. I can’t help but ask myself why anyone should spend time on this when there are quite a few films out there that are actually good instead of not being bad.

47 Meters Down aka In the Deep (2017): Johannes Roberts’s film about two sisters (as played by Mandy Moore and Claire Holt) trapped 47 meters under water in a shark cage threatened by (you guessed it) sharks is certainly the cream of the crop of these three. Sure, it’s not terribly original in the way it follows the thriller rules for films concerning people trapped somewhere unpleasant quite strictly, the characters aren’t wildly complex, and it’s not as riveting as the comparable The Shallows. However, Roberts does build tension carefully, escalates things with a sure hand and not always in the most expected manner. The director also manages to make a film that mostly takes place underwater (and which isn’t going for pretty nature documentary shots) not look boring. In fact, I found myself excited enough during the proceedings I cared not a bit about things like probable shark behaviour, the correct application of the laws of physics or if or if not wet suite diving works this way but cared quite a bit about what happened to the main characters. More, I could not ask of a film.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Past Misdeeds: Paganini Horror (1989)

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

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

The career of 80s synth rock monstrosity/siren Kate (Jasmine Maimone) seems to come to its natural end. At least if you ask her producer Lavinia (Maria Cristina Mastrangeli), who has turned into quite a bitch from suffering through hours and hours of Kate's "music" during the years, and so really doesn't mind telling her charge how much she sucks. To make a long story short - Kate really needs a hit, and she needs it soon. Fortunately, her drummer Daniel (Pascal Persiano) knows a simple solution to his friend's complicated problem, and buys a lost, never published and never publically performed song of possible devil dealer Paganini from a certain Mister Pickett (Donald Pleasance). The song, obviously being called "Paganini Horror", just happens to be a really crappy 80s synth rock of the sort Lavinia deems a surefire hit.

Now Kate and her partners in crime just need to make a video ("just like Michael Jackson's fantastic Thriller"). For that, they hire famous horror director Mark Singer (Pietro Genuardi), who works alone, just like Wolverine. But where to shoot? Oh, right, in a derelict house in Venice that once belonged to Paganini where he supposedly made his pact with the devil and made violin strings from his girlfriend's guts. It's going to be quite a cost-efficient shoot - apart from Singer, Kate and her three co-musicians and Lavinia, there's only the house's owner, Sylvia Hackett (Daria Nicolodi), on set. Soon enough, the mandatory horrible things (and I don't just mean Kate's music) start happening.

The house is caged in by a cartoon lightning forcefield, and Paganini (he of the golden mask and the golden violin with the in-built blade) does a bit of killing and time-and-space-bending. Lots of running around in the dark, splitting up, and screaming ensues. Who will survive until the twist ending?

After experiencing the major ecstasy of his The Black Cat/Demoni 6/etc., I couldn't help but pounce on this other late-period horror film directed by Luigi Cozzi as soon as possible. Now, I'm even more convinced that I underestimated Cozzi quite heavily. When the man was on, he was quite capable of making a film of the sort of nonsensical beauty and intense, lovingly presented stupidity more typically found in the works of Bruno Mattei and Claudio Fragasso. Paganini Horror isn't quite the mind-blowing experience that other movie (which may or may not have been produced in the same year) turned out to be, but it is still chockfull of the sort of insane delights I always hope for in Italian horror movies.

Apart from the obvious (and pretty wonderful, of course) dumbness of the film's set-up - and the charming idiocy of its twist ending (note to directors: nobody will complain your twist ending ruins your whole film when your plot never made any sense anyway) - there's at least one excellently stupid thing a minute on screen, starting with Paganini's (whose violin quite expectedly sounds like a synthesizer and not like a violin) hobo-Phantom of the Opera outfit, and the violin knife and most certainly not ending with one of the best deaths in crappy horror cinema - death by "special fungus". Connoisseurs of this sort of thing can also look forward to some drunkenly rotating camera to visualize moments of disorientation and a very funny blood fountain when Lavinia is pressing her face against a piece of glass, um, is squashed to death by an invisible Paganini, I mean. Not to mention Kate's "music" (or the fact that the song that is supposed to be Paganini's when they shoot the video sounds nothing like the song Daniel played to them), the "dancing" and the eye-destroying costumes.

Visually, the film's all blue, green and red lights and rather shaky camera, with Cozzi doing everything in his budget to let the audience forget most of the film is taking place in the same five or so rooms (to be fair, there are also a handful of scenes taking place in Venice). I most certainly didn't forget, but I was much too occupied with giggling about the director's shrugging disregard of the nature of time and space (that's even a plot point), characters (that's not really a plot point), or plot (naturally, there isn't much of one).

I don't think I was the only one giggling about the whole affair, either. At least the always wonderful Donald Pleasence (in his "one day of shooting only and a trip to Venice, please" phase) looks for most of his sparse screen time as if he could barely hold his amusement in, making his devil (oops, spoiler) intensely endearing, like one's favourite uncle. Amusement is of course the natural reaction when one's biggest scene in a movie sees one throwing down money from a high balcony in Venice, shouting "Fly, my little demons!".

The rest of the actors don't seem of one mind about how to take on their roles. Daria Nicolodi goes for a quiet dignity that is completely at odds with the merrily deranged tone of the film - which is a bit ironic given that she's also billed as the screenplay's co-writer - while Maimone and Mastrangeli seem to be caught in a competition concerning who is better when it comes to hysterical overacting; Maimone's probably slightly more consistent there - her facial contortions when she talks about Michael Jackson and Thriller alone would be worth the price of admission. As you can imagine, these quite divergent acting approaches in combination with the incredibly loopy dialogue only add to film's very special (quite like the fungus, yes) charms.

As a whole, Cozzi's movie feels like one of the last great "hey, I have a thousand dollars, a script written by a semi-cult actress, an old house, and one day of shooting time with Donald Pleasence, so let's make a horror movie and get rich!"-films the Italian exploitation film industry popped out. As such, Paganini Horror not only produces tears of laughter and delight, but also leaves one with the melancholic feeling of witnessing the end of an era of the right kind of shoddy, somewhat desperate, yet weirdly enthusiastic filmmaking.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

In short: Kong: Skull Island (2017)

Apparently, Legendary is one of the major Hollywood studios who have their heads on screwed straight when it comes to creating the now mandatory blockbuster universe. At least in so far as the studio seems to realize that one of these shared universe films really needs to be a satisfying film all of its own, with the universe building a secondary element (see also the way Marvel operates). Narrative pay-offs of shared universes, if a company even cares, should really come in later films, and not be the aim of all of them.

As big damn effects cinema, Skull Island stands directly in the shoes of the original 1933 King Kong, which to my eyes always played as an effects extravaganza first and foremost. So this Kong delights with as many moments of various CGI giants slugging it out as can sensibly be packed into a two hour running time – yes, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts even manages to keep the runtime creep in check while also finding the time for some moments of awe and wonder. Given the budget, these scenes are expectedly sexy to look at, but they are also dynamically and excitingly directed. Why, even the action scenes including human beings just work.

Speaking of human beings, while the film clearly comes down on the side of the – in about ninety percent of all cases perfectly accurate - opinion that the audience of a film about giant monsters wants to see said giant monsters first and foremost, the classic pulp adventure business happening with the human beings is actually rather enjoyable too, and while characters and plot are broad and a bit silly (as is perfectly logical and appropriate for the tradition the film stands in), it’s the right kind of broadness, with larger than life characters doing larger than life things.

Samuel L. Jackson is obviously perfect for being Kong’s Captain Ahab, seeing how expert he has become at the right kind of scenery chewing for this sort of big budget monster movie, but there’s also some highly enjoyable work by John Goodman (who even gets a few monologues that suggest Legendary’s giant monster movie Earth is a rather Lovecraftian place) and John C. Reilly, as well as by Brie Larson (who gets more to do than I expected/feared and to whose outing as Captain Marvel I now look rather forward) and Tom Hiddleston. Of course, I am not one of those movie buffs who love to whine about how the blockbuster universes “cost us” incredible movie actors, because it’s not as if playing in this sort of film were easy (just look at how embarrassing otherwise good actors like Morgan Freeman can be in them) or would make it impossible to appear in smaller movies; it’s not as if there weren’t other actors around either. Instead, I’m happy about how even in the most technocratic of surroundings, a good cast still makes a difference.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Tales from the Darkside: The Movie (1990)

Every horror anthology TV show should have its place in the silver screen sun, so the movie gods gifted us with this one, directed by John Harrison. In the framing story, a witch (Debbie Harry with line delivery that makes me cringe) is just about to bake a little boy (Matthew Lawrence, whose line delivery is not much better than Harry’s, but what the heck, he’s a kid). To distract her, little Timmy tells her stories from her favourite book – obviously called “Tales from the Darkside”.

The first of the stories turns Arthur Conan Doyle’s seminal mummy tale “Lot 249” into an EC revenge story. It’s an effective one at that, seeing as it is paced very sprightly (nothing kills EC style horror easier than dragging), does feature a cool looking mummy murdering its victims by bad imitations of the mummification process, and confuses the viewer with what to today’s eyes looks like a preposterous cast for the sort of thing it is – Christian Slater (!), Steve Buscemi (!!), and Julianne Moore (!!!).

The second tale is a (George Romero-penned) adaptation of Steven King’s “Cat from Hell”. An old rich man (William Hickey) hires a professional killer (David Johansen, because someone involved here apparently did like his New York New Wave and Punk scene) to get rid of the cat that killed all of his relatives. At first, the segment mostly recommends itself through the cool and stylish way its (blueish) flashbacks to the cat’s killing spree and the old man relating it flow into each other, but soon, we not just start off on the duel between the killer and a rather small and cute black cat but can also enjoy a hilarious scenes of an obviously fake cat imitating the face hugger from Alien to smother someone before the segment finishes on a special effects bit that is as gruesome as it is absurd – and it’s very, very absurd.

Last but not least, the film comes to “Lover’s Vow”, a segment that doesn’t directly adapt a literary source but places a variation of the traditional tale wherein a man encounters a supernatural creature, is spared his life in exchange for never telling of his encounter to anyone, and then unwittingly marries the supernatural creature in female form in contemporary New York. Usually, they’ll have children, but in the end, the man will tell his wife of the supernatural encounter in the end, most often losing her and only getting away with his life because the wife doesn’t want to rob their children of their father. Because this is Tales from the Darkside, there’s rather more blood involved in the tale, and the ending is pretty gruesome, but otherwise, this effectively puts its old tale into a still grubby New York, using a gargoyle (turning into Rae Dawn Chong) as its monster (and given that it introduces itself with a decapitation, it is a monster), and James Remar as the poor stupid bastard who marries her.

So, even though there certainly are more artfully made horror anthologies (as well as a bunch of very inferior ones), Tales from the Darkside: The Movie is a good time for the discerning horror fan. If nothing else, it is surprisingly well directed given that Harrison is mostly a TV guy from an era when TV directors really weren’t allowed to do much, and that rare case of an anthology film without a weak segment. Unlike your usual bro horror anthology of today that generally has only one segment that isn’t weak.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

In short: Summer Camp (2015)

Warning: I’m going to spoil a mid-movie plot twist, because it’s really impossible to explain what’s good about the film without it!

Three Americans – Will (Diego Boneta), Christy (Jocelin Donahue) and Michelle (Maiara Walsh) – have signed up as counsellors for a Spanish summer camp for kids in the beginning stages of learning English. Right now, there aren’t any children in the camp – a place that actually is an old mansion in the woods – to leave time for the three Americans and Spanish lead counsellor Antonio (Andrés Velencoso) to get acquainted before the actual work starts.

Alas, there’s something very bad in the water or the air or the saliva of a rather angry dog. Whoever gets infected by it turns pretty much into your classic rage zombie, black eyes, angry screeching, black fluids and all. In a twist on the usual state of affairs, the characters will eventually figure out that the infected don’t actually stay that way and turn back into normal human beings after twenty minutes of carnage during which they may very well have killed or been killed.

Summer Camp – a US/Spanish co-production apparently shot in Spain and directed by Italian Alberto Marini - is a sometimes clever, sometimes effective little neo-zombie movie that uses its central difference from the usual zombie biology to keep things on a smaller scale than I’ve become used to from today’s generally very apocalyptically minded zombie movies, with only a handful of characters and locations. It’s really a clever twist on the standards to enable this, though I would have wished the film had spent more time on the psychological impact probably having done horrible things while being a zombie might have on the characters. But then, Summer Camp really isn’t much for psychological depth.

The characters, despite as decent a cast as a low budget movie made in the 2010s could ask for, are not very distinctively drawn, the few bits of characterisation feeling rather perfunctory and not really important for what’s going to happen at all. This isn’t strictly a weakness, though. The film clearly just doesn’t want to spend much time without any zombie action, and once the violent part of the movie starts at a quick twenty minutes in, there’s a relentless series of violence, suspense and some set pieces that are just right for the film’s scale. There’s nary a moment where the film tries to bite off something bigger than it can chew, and generally little that doesn’t work to provide an exciting time. The characters get hysterical and make stupid decisions throughout, but they do so on the believable scale of people trapped in a horrifying situation they could never have been prepared for.

On the visual side, there’s little to complain nor to be excited about. Marini gets the job in a straightforward and effective manner that fits the film’s merrily grim tone nicely. For my taste, the director tends to overuse shaky cam during action sequences but your mileage may vary there.

Summer Camp also ends on quite the high, with a climactic little siege sequence that feels claustrophobic and properly panicky, and which is resolved in exactly the right way for the film that came before, followed by a very memorable nasty horror movie ending. It’s all very satisfying, really.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Liebestraum (1991)

Writer about architecture Nick Kaminsky (Kevin Anderson) comes to a small-ish town to see his dying mother Lillian (Kim Novak). Nick didn’t grow up with his parents. His father died before he was born and his mother spent most of her life in psychiatric hospitals (and Nick apparently never bothered to visit), so Nick really doesn’t know her at all.

While he’s wandering the town, Nick encounters an old university friend of his. Architect Paul Kessler (Bill Pullman) is there to tear down an old steel-framed hotel and put up a shopping mall (which in a Mike Figgis film usually seems to be something meant to make a character automatically suspect and unsympathetic). They apparently weren’t very close back when, but when Nick pushes Paul out of the way of a falling bit of the hotel, Paul is appropriately thankful. Why, he even invites Nick to the birthday party of his wife Jane (Pamela Gidley). Nick and Jane very obviously fall in (at the very least) instant lust when they meet, though lust is perhaps a harmless word for something that is rather obviously obsessive on both sides and will turn out to be completely out of control of the two.

Nick and Jane both feel drawn to the old hotel, too, and might just be fated to repeat something terrible that happened there when their parent generation was about their age.

Liebestraum (named after the Liszt composition whose title translates as “Lovedream”) is something like an erotic thriller that may or may not be about literal ghosts, but its ideas of eroticism as well as of love and lust have little to do with Cinemax style erotic thrillers. The film sits smack dab in the middle of the most interesting part of its director Mike Figgis’s career, before his films became a bit too precious for me to appreciate. This one very much works with the same motives from Hitchcock movies Brian De Palma is also most fascinated by, but gives them a rather more artsy treatment. Kim Novak’s role here is certainly meant to remind the audience of Vertigo, even though Figgis’s view of women and the concept of obsession really isn’t too close to Hitchcock. I believe the man, at least at this point in his career, was a bit of a Romantic (in the literary sense of the word, therefore the capital letter), and less of a creep than Hitch. In any case, Liebestraum’s treatment of the intersection(s) of love, lust, obsession and fate through the shadows of the past (the pasts we know created us and the one’s we don’t know but that still made us too) is very much one all Figgis’s own.

At its best, the film’s deliberate slowness, the nearly affectless performances by Anderson and Gidley that might be a bit too distanced and stylized for some tastes but that actually make sense if you watch closely, and its ambiguous story about the ghosts of the past very literally taking control of the present leads to a dreamy state in a viewer that mirrors the way its protagonists find themselves in the grip of feelings they can neither understand nor control and which may very well lead them into a fated doom.

Of course, if one is in the wrong mood for this sort of thing, words like “pretentious” might come to mind too. I don’t think that’s a failing of the film, though, but rather an inescapable outcome when we as an audience are confronted with something that has very specific sensibilities that just might not fit into those of a given viewer or just a given viewer in this specific moment. But then, the idea a film could or should be for everyone and for every single day in everyone’s life has always been rather preposterous.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Three Films Make A Post: One Man's Quest is Another Man's Destiny

Innerspace (1987): Remember when they were still giving Joe Dante quite a lot of money to make his films? In theory, this one’s a pretty mainstream SF comedy starring the always excellent Dennis Quaid and the surprisingly un-annoying Martin Short and a pretty wasted in the role Meg Ryan, showing off a lot of neat effects. In practice, Dante lets things increasingly drift from mild wackiness into outright insanity (with slapstick) until an incredible scene of Kevin McCarthy and Wendy Schaal being shrunk to half size and trying to operate a coin phone becomes rather par for the course. It’s also so well timed most of Dante’s flights of craziness (of course all swathed in a big yet never intrusive dollop of movie quotes and film love because this is Dante, after all) are outrageously funny, and I say that as someone who has only a marginal tolerance for slapstick.

And by the by, hidden under what looks like a film that’s about an effeminate guy finding his inner macho, this is rather a movie about a guy breaking out of a grey life to find what he loves. Among other things.

Fright Night Part 2 (1988): At the time, Tommy Lee Wallace’s sequel to the rightfully beloved horror comedy didn’t get too much love as far as I can remember, but from my chair in 2017, it does look rather good. I like how much it works as an actual sequel that often cleverly plays with elements of the first film instead of just repeating them; I also love the cast with William Ragsdale and Roddy McDowell returning to their roles with relish, guys like Brian Thompson and Jon Gries getting space to do their respective things; how Traci Lind’s girlfriend character actually turns into the heroine of the piece for half an hour or so; how bizarre – and probably totally normal for the late 80s Julie Carmen’s outfits and hair are; how many silly and fun ideas are packed into the film. And last but not least, how good the film is at being funny (and damn, is it ever funny) while still keeping the horror parts of the film exciting.

Mind over Murder (1979): This is a very neat little thriller/horror film made for US TV in the prime era for this sort of thing. It starts like an Eyes of Laura Mars style clairvoyant versus killer movie, with vision sequences that make creative and pretty trippy use of slow motion and frozen images but turns into something that feels as close to a 70s exploitation horror movie as you probably could get away with on TV in this era, with secret horror hero Andrew Prine making great, creepy use of his experience playing crazy people in some of said exploitation films, suggestions of a nice bit of depravity (with charming moments like Prine asking the heroine if she wants him to “make love” to her or kill her first while shirtlessly preening in front of her). It’s tight, features the obligatory asshole boyfriend for our heroine Deborah Raffin, and shows its director Ivan Nagy as doing really inventive work in the aesthetic framework of a 70s TV movie.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Past Misdeeds: 357 Magnum (1979)

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.

(Don't be like an IMDB reviewer and confuse this with any of the other movies of this or a slightly different name!)

The members of the improbably named "Brigade 357 Magnum" of the police are disturbing the work of a syndicate of weapons and drug dealers only known as The Organization with a half successful raid on an arms deal with a Communist revolutionary group from a Central American country (whose boss, as we'll later see, goes for classic Castro chic). The Organization is not pleased at all, so the whole gang - boss, favourite moll and all - stuff themselves into two cars and shoot Tony Murillo, the leading cop of the operation, his wife and his little daughter.

The Brigade's boss Heller decides to invite Tony's brothers (Mario & Fernando Almada), who were once working for him, to resume their duties as cops and hunt down their brother's killers. The Murillo's agree and begin - quite to the surprise and dismay of the obviously not very bright Heller - to torture and kill their way through the lower echelons of the Organization.

Unfortunately, dead men don't tell you who exactly murdered your brother, so the Murillos decide they need to do some actual investigating for once. Nope, sorry, I was only joking - brother Danny Murillo convinces his girlfriend Barbara (Ursula Prats) to charm the Organization’s boss and go undercover for him. Barbara makes for quite a successful spy, as it turns out. The first thing she does once she's won the bad guy's heart by talking about golf balls with him is to deliver a list with the names of all of Tony's killers to the brothers as a vigilante to-do list. This is not the last good tip Barbara has for our cold-blooded murderers, I mean "heroes", but the action movie genre of course demands that her spying luck will run out sooner or later and the Murillos will have to rescue her between their killing sprees.

As far as cheap and stupid late 70s action movies from Mexico go, Ruben Galindo's 357 Magnum is a winner. Quite unlike the general tone and style of bored disinterest in themselves or the people putting down money to see them Mexican genre movies usually took on at this point in time, this one seems out to actually entertain its audience instead of emptying a production company's library of random filler material. There's not a single musical number nor a dancing sequence - with or without importance for the plot - in sight, and the film goes along at a somewhat sprightly pace. Galindo's direction might be a bit stiff (pretty much like the Almadas are), but at least he realizes that people go into a film called 357 Magnum looking for people shooting each other, and provides what his audience wants. Plus an Almada brother spitting in a goon's eyes and then hitting the blinded man (I imagine an Almada spits acid) in the stomach. That's all I could ever ask of a movie in this genre. Well, that and the inclusion of awesome library prog jazz funk on the soundtrack. Again, Galindo's film provides, unless in those scenes dominated by random, decidedly less awesome easy listening (that's what's playing in the villain's lair, ironically) or the library orchestra.

I'm really quite impressed by 357 Magnum's sporting spirit: where other ultra-cheap action movies are proud to show off the helicopter they can afford for a scene or three, this one only gets as far as featuring a very short guest appearance of an excavator and renting a golf cart for a day when it comes to the inclusion of vehicles more exciting than beat-up looking cars and boats. But by Gawd, a golf cart is a wonderful vehicle, and it's going to be used to full effect, and then used again! I'm only a little disappointed there's not a golf cart chase in the film. Now that I think about it, Galindo seems to have a bit of a thing for golf; that's at least my explanation for a film that includes hot golf cart action and sexual innuendo circling around golf balls. And believe me, sexy golf ball talk is still more erotic than the scenes of a track-suited Almada having the Hot Sexy Times with his decidedly younger, bikini-clad, hip-grinding girlfriend.

For the uninitiated (aka people who have seen less low budget movies from Mexico than I have, and therefore don't know the preferred hero type of the country at this point in time), the Almada Brothers are the most unlikely of action heroes: two short, physically unassuming, moustachioed guys at the end of their respective middle age; usually stuffed into grey partner-look suits here, they remind me of nothing so much as of a couple of used car dealers who have seen better days and on whose success in a fight I wouldn't want to bet. Thankfully, movie magic (just look at those punches never hitting anyone yet still knocking people out!), .357 magnums and dramatic staring into the camera are the big equalizers of action cinema.

Usually, this would be the point where I bitch and moan about the film's love of vigilantism and hatred of civil rights, but to do that I'd have to take it a lot more seriously than I'm able to. This is after all a film in which the Almada Brothers are unconquerable action heroes not unlike a combination of Stallone and Schwarzenegger, but in suits and way too cool to sweat and grunt like the Americans do. The film's so deep in the realm of ridiculous fantasy that it's quite impossible for me to want to analyse or criticize its politics. It's not as if Galindo seems interested in that aspect of his movie anyway; like the melodramatic scenes, the "boo-boo we poor cops have to respect the law" screeds are short and perfunctory and probably only in there at all because the genre demands it and there was no money for more than one golf cart in the budget.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

In short: Jason Bourne (2016)

Well, this is certainly an improvement over the fourth, Bourne-less, Bourne movie. However, it doesn’t reach the heights of the original trilogy of films (particularly not of the last two films). In part, this is certainly because this one is coasting on established virtues where the original films were a shot in the arm of an ailing film genre; others in blockbuster land have taken the best the original Bourne films have to offer and expanded on it, where this doesn’t really take anything much further.

Paul Greengrass’s film is still a more than decent big budget spy thriller, with dependable performances by Matt Damon, Tommy Lee Wallace and particularly Alicia Vikander, with more than a few fine action sequences and expertly created forward momentum.

I’m not particularly happy with the film’s somewhat limp ending – you don’t leave a plot element like “the biggest social networking platform is spying for the CIA” unresolved in the way the film does. This particular part might have to do with Jason Bourne’s general dithering about the rights and wrongs of the surveillance state that leaves the impression of a film that is too cowardly to tread on anyone’s toes politically, rather than of a film that’s actually trying to think through the ethics of something and not quite coming to a conclusion. It’s a very mainstream big budget film, after all, and political courage is something this part of the movie business generally lacks. I should probably be thankful it doesn’t go the all out flag waving route, but we do live in a world where films featuring a guy actually dressing up in said flag aren’t doing that either (perfectly keeping with what said character is actually about) – and are arguably more complex.

Anyway, while this wasn’t exactly the Bourne film I have dreamed of, and most certainly isn’t one the world strictly needed, it’s an entertaining enough film.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

A Dark Song (2016)

Warning: this isn’t a film all about THE TWIST or anything unsubtle like that, but the line between talking about the plot basics and providing plot spoilers blurs given how intricate a film it is.

Sophia (Catherine Walker) hires the somewhat shady (are there any other ones in movies where the stuff actually works?) occultist Joseph Solomon (Steve Oram) to guide her through a long and horrid ritual meant to bring her in contact with her guardian angel (please don’t imagine fluffy postcard pictures here) that is supposed to fulfil a wish each for her and for him. Her wish is to get in contact with her dead son, though it becomes clear rather quickly that there must be more going on here than “just” a desperately bereaved mother grasping towards something that might overwhelm her completely. Solomon’s wish we’ll only learn at a much later point in the movie, so it need not concern us now. In any case, the man is not Sophia’s first choice for the ritual, and certainly not the kind of guy you’d want to be locked in with in an isolated house out in the least populated parts of Wales.

Which is exactly where the ritual will happen, over the course of (at least) several weeks. Solomon guides Sophia through a series of ceremonial acts, from sleep deprivation through chanting to fasting to having cold water splashed all over her, repeatedly. Well, and blood rituals. During the course of the ritual, the characters’ grip on themselves and reality starts to slip, but they also find themselves under psychic and psychological attack by powers beyond.

Liam Gavin’s low budget occult horror film (it is probably too early to declare the birth of a ritual magick subgenre?) is quite the thing. Using only a couple of actors, and mostly taking place in a handful of rooms – with some meaningfully placed nature shots and some more locations during the introduction – it is a film of fierce focus that demands a sort of attentive watching from its viewers that feels very much related to the ritual the characters go through. It is rather a slow burn, but that’s because A Dark Song is a film highly concerned with the process of the ritual itself, charting its details and the slow changes caused in its protagonists until things bend and then break in increasingly disturbing ways, and nastier things slip through – even nastier than the secrets the characters carry, though perhaps an expression of those secrets as well.

In truth, A Dark Song is a master class in escalation, just one that is little interested in escalation’s standard formulas. Rather, the build-up of tension feels like an organic part of the ritual we witness itself, turning the viewer into something of an active participant. For large swathes of the film, there’s a feeling of mounting dread, of the characters getting closer to something that is more dangerous and more alien than they actually imagine, but also of the characters themselves slowly breaking down until something raw is left that teeters on the edge between destruction and enlightenment.

On a more concrete level, this is a brilliant film, directed and written by Gavin with a great sense for mood, despite its slow pace never shuffling its feet doing nothing, and always utterly focused on what’s important for the tale it tells. Despite quite a bit of ambiguity, it is a sharp and clear film whose mysteries are just meant to be mysteries. The acting by Walker and Oram is always solid, often downright impressive, carrying the audience through what could feel too heady or just a bit silly in lesser hands.

To my eyes, this is a flawless example of the cinema of the darkly fantastic; why, it’s even a film that can not just get away with a somewhat unconventional ending but also will convince you it is the only ending that makes sense with what came before it.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

In short: Caboblanco (1980)

1948. A bunch of characters of dubious morals and shifting allegiances – as played by Charles Bronson, Jason Robards and his ever disappearing and reappearing bad German accent, Dominique Sanda, Fernando Ray and Simon MacCorkindale – are after a ship full of Nazi gold that was sunk somewhere close to the deeply corrupt Peruvian town of Cabo Blanco. Shenanigans, melodramatic outbreaks, and random stuff happens.

This is one of the many Charles Bronson films directed by J. Lee Thompson, but it certainly isn’t one of their best team-ups. The film’s main problem is the screenplay. The script doesn’t really seem to know what it wants, and throws in all kinds of adventure and spy movie tropes without ever bothering to do much with them for longer than one scene or so. Which is too bad, for some of these scenes taken for themselves are rather effective or entertaining; they just don’t add up to a whole.

Parts of the film play as an attempt at an homage to classic Hollywood adventure and romance movies, but Bronson, as much as I love him, sure ain’t no Bogart (or Cary Grant, for that matter), and worse, the script never quite grasps what actually makes something like Casablanca work, so it includes a lot of cargo cult style writing that copies the surface but clearly doesn’t get what the surface elements are actually good for. The actors all seem to be in different films, stylistically: Robards – as is his wont – wildly swings between scenery chewing and moments where he is chilling and pathetic, Bronson is Bronson and therefore completely fails to convince as a romantic lead, something that certainly isn’t helped by the obvious trouble Sanda has acting in English which leaves her in turns wooden and overly melodramatic. MacCorkindale’s just plain bad and looks like he’s not even trying, while Fernando Rey obviously knows he’s Claude Rains’s character from Casablanca and acts appropriately.

On the positive side for the lover of strange films like me, this lends the whole affair a disjointed non-sequitur quality that threatens to reach a dream-like quality more often than not, and sometimes actually does. The best bit of the film when it comes to this sort of thing is certainly the climactic confrontation between the four main characters (fortunately without MacCorkindale) in the bar of Bronson’s hotel that involves full-on Italian-style lighting, a potentially explosive jukebox and a parrot, among rather more normal accoutrements like guns. It’s the sort of scene that would have made wading through a much more boring film worthwhile; in the context of Caboblanco’s general strangeness, it’s the cherry on the cake.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Bones (2001)

A group of friends and relations more or less led by one Patrick (Khalil Kain) – and counting a character played by Katherine Isabelle among their numbers - has bought up a rather frightening looking old house deep in the worst part of their city to turn it into a club that is supposed to get their DJ careers rolling. From Patrick’s side, there also seems to be a tiny hope that this operation just might revive the neighbourhood a little.

Well, a revival is going to take place, but it’s not the neighbourhood that’s rising from the grave. In the 70s, the building where the kids are planning to start their club in was the home of Jimmy Bones (Snoop Dogg) the sort of socially responsible black gangster the neighbourhood is clearly missing now. As we will learn in a series of flashbacks, Jimmy Bones was killed right in the building too when he didn’t go along with plans to supply his turf with hard drugs. Yes, Snoop Dogg’s against drugs in this one. To make matters worse, the kids are the children of one of the people responsible for Bones’s death.

There are various attempts by locals – among them Jimmy Bones’s former girlfriend turned professional clairvoyant Pearl (the great Pam Grier) – to warn the kids off, but it is of course only a question of time and deaths until Jimmy Bones returns to take his vengeance. At least Patrick has time to romance Pearl’s daughter Cynthia (Bianca Lawson) in the meantime.

This is the somewhat infamous attempt by New Line Cinema and Snoop Dogg to turn the rapper into a new Freddy Krueger – one assumes with one eye on the underserved market of black horror viewers and the other on fans of Snoop. The film has a pretty horrible reputation among a lot of horror fans, and I certainly didn’t remember it with fondness going in. However, this is by far not as bad a film as I thought it was. As a matter of fact, the first hour of it or so is definitely one of the better examples of late 90s/early 00s effects-based horror. It is certainly better than most Nightmare on Elm Street films, as dubious as that particular compliment is once you’ve started in on film number four and what follows there.

The film’s not so secret main weapon is director Ernest Dickerson, a man who really deserves better than Hollywood does him. In the film’s earlier stages, he manages to achieve something this kind of horror film very seldom even shows interest in: turn the disposable meat characters it laughingly calls its protagonists likeable enough you don’t exactly want to see them die. Sure, these guys and girls are not portrayed with much psychological depth, but they are more than just walking, talking slasher tropes – and not just because your generic slasher hardly ever contains more than one black character. Which makes them much more interesting to watch than usual in this sort of film, but also becomes a bit of a problem once Bones is actually revived, because then they turn into disposable victims of the usual quipping supernatural slasher of this era, something the film can’t milk for emotional resonance as it is meant as a franchise starter for its killer more than as an actual story.

For the first hour or so, Bones actually tries to be a more interesting horror film than it turns out to be, using elements of urban myth that feel like actual folklore (the black dog that needs to eat to feed Bones’s revival is a particularly fine choice), featuring some visually very imaginative scenes that build up the supernatural threat and tell the backstory. The flashbacks are well realized too, Dickerson using audience knowledge of blaxploitation films and how they looked and feel to position them not in the real 70s but an idealized version that contrasts the grim now. On paper, they’ll also give Jimmy Bones an excellent motivation to take vengeance on the people who caused this destruction but once he’s starting to let maggots rain on people who have fuck all to do with any of this, motivation is going right out of the window.

That hints at the true problem of the film’s final thirty minutes or so. While they do contain a handful of decent kills and a visually very nice stint in the spirit world, they also see Jimmy Bones the spirit of vengeance turn into Jimmy Bones the franchiseable killer of whomever, complete with the random un-thematic supernatural powers that didn’t work for the later Nightmare on Elm Street films either. The finale just seems random, containing scenes that could have come from every other horror film of its style and time; a particular shame in a film that up to that point really did make the most out of specificity. That part of the film also suffers from Snoop’s limited range, to be frank. While he’s certainly effective as the soft-spoken and kind-hearted gangster of the flashbacks, he never convinces as an evil (or even just angry) supernatural force. He’s just to damn chill for an exciting villain.

All that is a bit of a shame, too, for the film’s first hour would have deserved a much more interesting finale as well as a much more interesting supernatural killer.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Three Films Make A Post: Bullets. Blood. Bingo.

Antibirth (2016): This may very well be the platonic ideal of the pointlessly weird pseudo-art house movie. It’s ninety minutes of time, energy, and lysergic colours wasted on telling us that weird stuff is weird, and look how weird this film is, weird huh? Which, obviously, is the least weird any film can get. Consequently, this features all the hallmarks of a film that isn’t genuinely weird because it is its nature, or the best way it knows to speak about its reality, or because the people making it are actually strange, but because it believes posing as the local cinematic weirdo will give it hipster points.

It’s a tiresome approach to filmmaking, replacing the spark of strange creativity with the mere imitation of it.

Cool Air (2006): On the other hand, things can always be worse. How about, for example, this abominable Albert Pyun “adaptation” of Lovecraft’s “Cool Air” that makes Chill another, pretty damn bad version of the same story look like a product of genius. Apart from the typical horrors of digital era Pyun that add bad sound, ugly colours and the unthinkable fact he can make movies on his own dime now to Pyun’s multitude of other failings as a director, this one also pisses all over Lovecraft by having lead “actor” Morgan Weisser badly read some sentences from the original story aloud as part of his off-screen monologue. Worse, Lovecraft’s words incredibly amateurishly segue into crap written by whoever credited writer Cynthia Curnan is that tonally fits about as well as the traditional lipstick on a pick (no offense to cross-dressing pigs). To bring the nine page or so story this is supposed to be based on to feature length, Pyun adds much of his patented tedium (the opening credits alone steal five minutes of your life!). I think I’m gonna faint now.

Manhole aka 맨홀 (2013): Compared to the mess I’ve watched before it, Shin Jae-young’s South Korean thriller is downright brilliant. Looked at in a more realistic light, the film is a stylish, suspenseful and generally effective serial abductor/killer thriller that suffers a bit from laying things on too thick in the melodrama stakes, as is not exactly atypical for South Korean movies. It’s also a rather implausible film full of dubious motivations and South Korean Keystone Kops, but for most of the time – at least while watching – I found myself perfectly willing to buy into things thanks to the pleasantly glossy (even when everything looks grubby) filmmaking.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Past Misdeeds: Evil Face (1974)

aka The Hand That Feeds The Dead

Original title: La mano che nutre la morte

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.

(Not to be confused with Le Amanti Del Monstro aka Lover of the Monster made in the same year, by the same director, with mostly the same cast, shared footage and even shared character names; don't ask, it's the Italian exploitation industry at the absurd height of its power, so everything's possible).

Ye Olden Days. Mad scientist Professor Nijinski (Klaus Kinski) has quite an interesting household. His wife Tanja (Katia Christine) is the daughter of his former mentor Ivan Rassimov (yes, exactly like the actor), and has been disfigured in a fire that killed her dad. Normal medicine can't help Tanja get her old skin back, but fortunately, daddy was a pioneer in skin transplantation, alas a rather primitive kind that for some inexplicable reason not only takes skin but also all of a donor's blood to work. Fortunately for Tanja, her husband does not have too many scruples, and his assistant, a lame, slightly hunchbacked mute named Vanja (the great Turkish bad guy actor Erol Tas) does have even fewer. Vanja's enthusiasm for the work might have something to do with him and Tanja having an affair behind Nijinski's back - that is, when Tanja isn't just torturing Vanja's ears with a tuning fork. Anyway, with two strong mad men on her side, there are always enough young women to go around to build a new skin for her.

In a fit of cleverness, Nijinski has even paid off sexual adventuress Sonia (Stella Calderoni) to stay at their mansion, quite possibly so that there's a skin donor around should he need one on very short notice. Apart from Sonia, there's also the writer Katja Olenov (Marzia Damon) staying at the house. Officially, she's there to research a book about Rassimov, but in truth the young woman suspects Nijinski of being responsible for the disappearance of her sister and is trying to find concrete evidence for her theory. Somehow, she manages not to notice all the murders going on around her.

To make matters more complicated, newlyweds Alex (Ayhan Isik) and Masha (Katia Christine) have a coach accident nearly in front of the Nijinskis' mansion. The Professor is only too happy to take the couple in and help get the hurt Masha on her feet again once he's taken a look at the young bride's face and realizes that she looks exactly like his wife did before her accident. And as luck will have it, Nijinski has left the necessary skin transplants on his wife's face for last. Will anyone notice that something is very wrong in his house before it's too late?

Sergio Garrone's gothic exploitation movie Evil Face is a bit of a difficult film to enjoy. The movie's first half consists of way too many bland scenes setting things up, and way too few scenes in which interesting things happen in interesting ways. For every minute of Erol Tas stumbling through the mansion's garden to reach his mistress before her tuning fork will drive him completely insane, and for every second of Nijinski's fantastic lab (Look at all that brass! And the red, bubbling liquid! The blinking lights! Truly, this is a place where scientific work is being done!), for every moodily framed shot, there are ten minutes of bored, stagey dialogue sequences that just go on and on and on. For some reason, nearly all of the film's big exploitational values - action, breasts, lesbian sex, blood, a premature burial, a deeply unpleasant rape scene, stolen faces etc. - are pushed into the film's last third, a point when it's still possible to appreciate the movie's sudden ruthlessness and interest in keeping its viewers awake, but quite impossible to care too much.

Weirdly enough, even Evil Face's if not action-packed, so at least occurrence-packed final third, has a strange feeling of slowness about it. On paper, there's a whole lot of stuff happening at once, but the pacing still feels leaden and unsure, even for the not exactly sprightly genre that is the Italian gothic horror film.

It's also a bit of a disappointment how little use the film makes of Kinski. It's obvious that the great madman wasn't paid for as many shooting days as his co-stars, so there are quite a few scenes where Nijinski's character disappears nearly completely, or where the back of a stand-in takes Kinski's place. However, even when Kinski is on screen, he isn't completely there. Seldom have I seen the actor this disinterested and bored for the duration of a whole film, with nary a blip of his usual charisma and intensity. Perhaps Garrone should have given him a scene or two with a naked lady not on an operating table?

Because Kinski's never there, most of the physical acts of evil are left to Erol "Dr. Satan" Tas, and the Turkish actor does take the opportunity to show off his special brand of physical overacting, so full of grunting, limping, jumping and eye-rolling that every scene with him is pretty much a winner (or, in the case of the short rape sequence, pretty much as horrible as it should be).

The rest of the actors are decent, attractive, and quite believable as a bunch of characters totally incompetent in everything they do. Actually, I'd suggest that Garrone might be trying to make a point on the ineffectualness and painful blandness of the usual heroes and (sometimes) villains of gothic horror - especially the male ones - here, by leaving two women this sort of film would usually side-line as the involuntary instigator of a villain's deeds and victim number two - the utterly heartless Tanja, and the frequently traumatized yet still courageous and intelligent lesbian Katja - as the characters among the film's cast actually doing more than just going through the motions, making them the film's real villain and hero, respectively. Given the state of the rest of the film, I somehow doubt Garrone did this on purpose, though.

But, purpose or not, I'm happy for every hint of actual thought going into a movie. It's not enough to recommend the film to anyone not as deeply into this sort of thing as I am, but since "this sort of thing" in this particular case includes gothic horror, Klaus Kinski, Erol Tas, and possible genre-bending, quite a few of you might still want to take a look at Evil Face.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

In short: Pumpkinhead II: Blood Wings (1993)

Sean Braddock (a badly miscast Andrew Robinson) has just moved with his family to the little hamlet of Generic Horror Movie Small Town, to take on the job as Sheriff there. A a main reason for the move was to drag daughter Jenny (Ami Dolenz) away from the “bad influences” she had encountered in the Big City, and for Sean to get away from the traditional Big City malaise. The new sheriff will quickly learn that small towns are just as nasty as the big ones, and Ami falls in with the local teens of bad renown faster than you can say “obviously”.

The kids’ first big night out together turns very bad indeed when they harass the local witch (Lilyan Chauvin in the worst age make-up imaginable), knock down said witch, dig out a corpse, cast a magic spell on said corpse(!), and half-way accidentally set the old woman’s house - still with her in it - on fire before finally fleeing without trying to help her. Obviously, the corpse turns into Pumpkinhead and will soon go on a teen-killing rampage, but only after he has taken care of the men responsible for his own tragic backstory.

Because, yes, among one of many, many sins committed by Jeff Burr’s direct-to-video sequel to Stan Winston’s much, much superior Pumpkinhead is that it provides the thing with a backstory replacing its feeling of legendry, a backstory it then proceeds to use as a particularly dumb crutch to end the film on a note of bad melodrama to replace the ending of the original that felt perfectly in tune with characters and theme of the film.

Of course, characters or theme are not elements prominent or even just existing in Blood Wings. It’s just an exercise in putting one cliché after the other without even a single thought into actually making sense of them. Even the underwritten teens from the first film feel deep in comparison to the zeroes the sequel presents. But one shouldn’t expect a sequel to improve on the less successful elements of its predecessor when it can’t even cash in on the successful ones.

So Pumpkinhead has now turned from a creature of legend and tale, an unstoppable force of evil into a guy in a crappy rubber suit with a kitschy backstory who attacks his copious victims always in full-frontal view of the camera, all the better to show off how bad the monster suit is I assume, going by its killing by the numbers business like every shitty horror creature ever; fake-yet-real-Appalachia is replaced by a boring generic small town full of boring generic people with some added yokel clichés. Basically, everything that was great about the first film, Blood Wings turns into typical horror movie crap in a way that’s offensive to the first film, and boring to boot.

Worse, it’s not even a good or entertaining generic horror movie, with the usually dependable Jeff Burr directing without focus, style or taste, a bunch of actors who clearly can’t be arsed, bad effects, an uninventive plot, and a whole load of pitiable monster attack scenes. It’s enough to make one bitter, at least until one watches something better.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Pumpkinhead (1988)

Ed Harley (Lance Henriksen) owns the local store somewhere in the Appalachians. As he’s widowed, he’s taking care of his little son Billy (Matthew Hurley in that rare thing – a child performance that is neither annoying nor showy) too. And, seeing as Billy and Ed seem to be about the only people in the area who are washing regularly, he’s doing a bang-up job.

Unfortunately, this being a horror film and not a quiet little drama about the struggles of a single parent in a difficult environment, tragedy soon strikes when a group of teenagers – friends and siblings whose characters and actors never impressed me enough to be worth mentioning their names here – arrives at the store for some sort of weekend outing and some dirt bike riding. While Ed’s out getting some feed from home, first Billy’s dog runs dangerously into the path of the dirt bikes, then Billy runs after him. Despite at least some of the kids going after the boy one of the bikes hits him, leaving him hurt, perhaps dead. Then ensues a mixture of panic, desperation, cowardice and stupidity: the party actually responsible for the dead races off, most of the others take off in search of a phone to call an ambulance (which I’m sure would arrive in some hours), leaving one pitiable guy behind with the boy without anyone even having made much of an attempt at first aid.

When Ed returns, finding his son badly hurt – it’s really questionable if anything could have been done for him even if our protagonists hadn’t acted quite this dumb – and the only kid left there stammering something about an accident, he is as enraged as he is crushed. After carrying his son off and realizing he’s dead, Ed comes to the decision that the people responsible for the death of his son need to pay. There’s a legend about something that could avenge Ed’s son, though at the price of Ed’s soul. That something is more than just a legend to Ed. He knows it really exists because he saw it when he was a child (I hope the ghost in my grandma’s bedroom wasn’t real too).

He’ll just have to find the local witch, the awkwardly – and not terribly appetizingly – named Haggis (Florence Schauffler in a bad case of age make-up), go through a horrifying folkloric ritual that somehow connects Ed to a corpse he first has to dig out of a pumpkin-adorned grave and turns the corpse into something particularly terrible, the local bogeyman known as Pumpkinhead.

While Ed is out, driven to make a bad business even worse, the kids are having some troubles with each other – most of them want to act as grown-ups, call the authorities and/or an ambulance but our main culprit is too afraid of the consequences. So he bullies, cajoles, threatens and finally even locks in some of the others. All of which won’t help even the tiniest bit once Pumpkinhead comes a-knockin’; even worse, the thing really isn’t interested in individual culpability and will kill guilty and comparatively innocent alike. The film hammers that fact home very early on in the process by making the least culpable of them all the creature’s second victim.

Ironically, the only thing that might save any of the kids is Ed Harley, for Ed’s mental connection to Pumpkinhead shows him everything the creature does in cruel detail. And Ed, a good and kind man at heart, quickly realizes that what he has unleashed, and what is a part of him isn’t justice, and not even vengeance, but actual evil.

Pumpkinhead is the only feature film directed by effects guru Stan Winston, probably because the film wasn’t too well-loved at the time and not terribly successful commercially. It is certainly not a perfect film, but there’s a lot of ambition here to turn out more than just a by the numbers kill revue, and quite a bit of that ambition works out fine for the film. There is one particularly obvious problems here, of course: the scenes where the movie-teenaged characters go at each others’ throats aren’t terribly well written, in part certainly because we really don’t know all that much about them – the film needs and does take its time to acquaint us with Ed and Billy and can’t put the same effort into these guys too or it would be a two and a half hour epic that would never get going at all – but in part because writers Mark Patrick Carducci and Gary Gerani don’t to pull off the difficult feat of using broad strokes characterisation to make the kids much more than functions of the plot. Once Pumpkinhead cuts loose, this becomes less of a problem, because most audiences will root for the people running from an indestructible force and not the force.

The film’s attempts at evoking the Appalachians as a place are a mixed bag (at least as seen from Germany). It’s a curious mixture of backwoods horror clichés and moments of greater authenticity (that is, moments that feel genuinely human). At the very least, it provides an actual sense of place beyond the generic “Backwoods, USA”, even if it is of a place that doesn’t exist outside of the movie in quite this way. From time to time, Pumpkinhead even does something really cool with a character, like letting members of the more yokel-like family clan we encounter act like actual human beings, which is not a thing that happens in a lot of horror films.

What works unquestioningly is the part of the film that uses made-up folkloric aspects. Pumpkinhead uses bits and pieces of actual folk magic in combination with stuff it has made up in an elegant and clever fashion, turning a central creature that could be desperately silly into something that feels like an actual legend, complete with its own nursery rhyme (well, poem that inspired the film, really) and details that have just the right feel. All of which, come to think of it, should surely nominate Pumpkinhead as folk horror.

Speaking of Pumpkinhead the creature, Winston isn’t the kind of special effects man turned director who makes a film that’s just special effects and lets this part of his efforts get in the way of the movie as a whole. In fact, for a lot of the creature’s attacks, we mostly see blue light, a raging autumn storm, and its hands or other single body parts, in a way sharing the experience of the characters it generally kills from above and from behind. This again emphasises the creatures identity as a thing of tale and song and not your usual mindless thing slaughtering teenagers (even if it does exactly that).

Winston’s direction is generally a fine achievement, basking the early scenes in sunlight that increasingly makes way for some very 80s blue hues, deeper woods, and places dominated by decay, as a whole emphasising mood over the killings. That doesn’t mean these aren’t there too – the film is just as bloody as it needs to be, no more, no less, avoiding the gratuitous throughout.

And of course, there’s also a particularly good performance by Henriksen, who first gives us a really likeable guy who loves his son and does his best for him, and then portrays various phases of sadness, anger, and desperate understanding, climaxing in desperate attempts to take back his curse. Thematically, his arc is mirrored by other characters here, too, who all do stupid things with terrible consequences they couldn’t or wouldn’t acknowledge but in the end try to do better: the kid who actually killed Billy eventually tries to turn things around not out of fear for his life but because he’s actually trying to take the responsibility for his actions, and the local teen – generally portrayed as stand-offish - who showed Ed the way to Haggis tries to help the last survivors of the teens because he understands that his enabling of Ed also makes him partially guilty for what is happening to them.

I find Pumpkinhead’s concept of external evil interesting too, or rather, I find it very interesting that it is one of the few (non-religious, for the movie goes out of its way to show that religious symbols have no power about Pumpkinhead at all) horror films that have a clear concept of what their external evil is actually about: perverting the most human feelings of love and sorrow so that they become tainted, tainting the people feeling them too.

Which is rather heady stuff for a film that’s supposedly mostly about pumpkinheaded thing murdering teens, and really makes this one more special than one might assume going in.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

In short: I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore (2017)

This is the directorial debut – for Netflix - of Macon Blair whom you’ll probably know better as an actor, particularly from Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin and Green Room. I think Saulnier is a good comparison for what Blair does here as a director. At least, this one does take place in the same kind of world of sad American people existing somewhere on the edges of their society without being quite outside of it as Saulnier’s films, and to my eyes, their films belong to the same calmly yet effectively directed type of newish US indie film that might take place in comparable spaces to mumblecore but uses actual filmmaking techniques and realizes that movie dialogue that sounds exactly “like actual people talk” is boring and ineffective and goes for something that feels like actual people should talk but also wants it to actually have a point.

The film is a very dark comedy, in which nurse Ruth (Melanie Lynskey) finds herself the victim of a break-in that adds to her general feelings of disconnectedness and loneliness such a deep – and very concrete - feeling of violation that she ropes in a strange neighbour (Elijah Wood) to find the perpetrators and get her stuff back. Things quickly devolve into violence of increasing severity, though, until the climax is right out of a pretty grotesque (yet still darkly comical) revenge thriller.

This could be drab, or cynical, or simply unpleasantly making fun of unhappy people, but as Blair directs it, and Lynskey (who doesn’t settle for the likeable neurotic many actors would leave the role at but tends to add complexities when you least expect it) and the rest of the cast play it, the film is as sad as it is funny, observing a quiet kind of alienation and imagining the potential violent consequences while keeping empathy and compassion alive. Blair turns out to be particularly good at mixing standard tropes from different genres with more serious-minded observations until they turn into something more alive.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)

The killerest of all killers, John Wick (Keanu Reeves) murders a whole bunch of Russian gangster led by Peter Stormare using the same crappy Russian accent (note to producers: people in Sweden have a language of their own you might know as Swedish; it’s not Russian, perhaps on account of Sweden not being Russia) he puts on in American Gods because they stole Wick’s car and the picture of his dead wife in it.

Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), apparently the guy in the giant crime conspiracy that seems to control everything in these movies who allowed Wick to retire from the killing biz with said wife, sees this as a signal that Wick has come out of retirement. Seeing as Wick has a ritual debt to him these murder clowns call a Marker, Santino presses our “hero” to murder the gangster’s sister (Claudia Gerini) for him because she has inherited the family seat at the high table of the giant criminal conspiracy he’d rather have for himself.

Wick declines, so Santino blows up his house (and apparently all photos of his wife, because Wick seems not to know about the digital world). Afterwards, Wick changes his mind, pretty obviously planning to kill the sister and pay his debt and then give Santino his mind (in form of a bullet or a hundred) about blowing up his house and his photos. I probably don’t have to explain the rest of what happens in the film.

I love big dumb action movies as much as the next guy (the cheap ones probably much more than the next guy) but I didn’t really warm to the first John Wick. Mostly, if I remember right, I found the film’s all-out action attack rather exhausting with too many moments of the film showing off instead of letting the action flow naturally. I’m also pretty sure that film’s idea of what’s cool and mine are very different ones. So it comes as a pleasant surprise to me that I rather liked the second film in the series, despite it being directed by the same guy in Chad Stahelski and written by Derek Kolstad again.

Well, I thought the prologue with Wick murdering the Russians was just as annoying as the first John Wick, but afterwards, I very quickly found myself warming to a film that clearly has fun adding somewhat bizarre flourishes to the gangster secret conspiracy bits of the first movie. It’s obviously all very comic book-y, but in a way that works well as a backdrop for a film whose hero is deadly with a pencil (not to speak of guns) and that features exalted characters like Laurence Fishburne’s Bowery King, a variation on the old beggar king concept, or scenes like a shoot-out in an art exhibition/cabinet of mirrors.

Unlike in the first film, this John Wick doesn’t seem to feel the need to try so hard to demonstrate how cool and loud and so on it is, so there’s even time for several ten minute blocks where nobody gets shot (or stabbed, or exploded – you get the drift) which the film uses for some fun additions to its over the top world. The characterisation and dialogue is still over the top too, of course, but that fits the context here well, too. The action itself I like much better this time around. Things haven’t become any less spectacular and physically dubious, but Stahelski’s direction seems much more clear and focused, without ever losing a sense of excitement and unironic silliness. The videogame influences on the action are much less shoved into the viewer’s face, too. As a matter of fact, Chapter 2 suggests that you can indeed use elements of third person shooters in an action movie in interesting ways.

So what’s not to like? It’s fun, it’s violent, it’s over the top without being annoying and even Keanu seems to be awake most of the time.