Tuesday, January 31, 2017

In short: The Ghost Camera (1933)

Returning from a vacation in the more boring parts of the country – though there is a very picturesque ruin around - John Gray (Henry Kendall) finds a camera the audience saw falling into his car among his luggage. Because developing the film in it seems a possible way to find out who it belongs to (and because he’s frankly rather curious but would never admit to it), Gray does so. The first photo he develops seems to show a fight to the death between two men, but before he can examine things more closely, someone organizes the fiendish distraction of a ringing at the door, and it is stolen.

His curiosity now truly peaked, Gray investigates and strolls into a case concerning the mandatory beautiful woman (Ida Lupino), her missing brother, and a stolen diamond.

This little British low budget mystery romance directed by Bernard Vorhaus is surprisingly engaging. There’s not just Ida Lupino before she was a star or the only female director in Hollywood who made up for the “only” by being quite brilliant behind the camera here bursting with energy in front of it, Henry Kendall playing a proto-nerd hero I can only read as a young M.R. James character fighting crime, a plot that moves through the film’s 65 minutes with verve and control, and the time capsule effect low budget films often achieve much better than productions that are allowed to aim higher.

Vorhaus also demonstrates in his first feature film all the visual talents that would stand him in good stead in the future (at least in those of his films I have seen): there’s some fine use of chiaroscuro effects, a real sense for expressive editing that never reaches the tackiness of The Montage (there, I said it), and an understanding of the creation of mood with simple means. Particular highpoints are a proto noir style flashback to the film’s central murder and an interrogation sequence at an inquest that sees the accused bodily shrinking ever further into a corner, while the camera moves closer and closer to the accusing coroner’s face with every shot.

The Ghost Camera is light and a bit fluffy, but also engaging and much better made than it needed to be, which is quite an achievement for an eighty year old low budget film.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Avril et le monde truqué (2015)

aka April and the Extraordinary World

Most of the film takes place in an alternative 1941, where France is still ruled by an emperor Napoleon, and where the disappearance of most scientists some decades ago has added scientific stagnation to the cultural one. While the world is dominated by a lot of rather nifty steam devices, mankind has paid the price for that by exhausting first the Earth’s coal supply and now having nearly destroyed all of the plant life too. Consequently, all that steampunk science is covered with soot and rust, and what’s that “sun” you speak of?

The few scientists who don’t disappear are pressed into developing weapons, so that France can get at North America’s tree reserves. Our heroine, Avril (Marion Cotillard), is the daughter of a family of scientists who escaped the strange abductions as well as getting pressed into slave labour by their government for quite some time, but just when they seem to have achieved their big family goal – creating the Ultimate Serum that’ll make people ageless and invulnerable – the secret police come knocking. The ensuing chase sequence ends with Avril’s parents abducted by mysterious forces, her grandfather fleeing to parts unknown and the little girl just barely escaping a nice stay in an orphanage together with her talking cat Darwin (Philippe Katerine).

Ten years later, in 1941, Avril is living in a secret lair in a statue, still trying to produce the family’s serum, and earning her keep with a bit of pickpocketing. Soon, she’ll go through a series of adventures that’ll reunite her with her grandfather, lead her to discover what happens to the disappearing scientists, let her find love, and perhaps even give her the chance to change her world for the better.

Christian Desmares’s and Franck Ekinci’s film is a particularly fine piece of animated cinema. Inspired by the fantastical part of the works of great comics artist and writer Jacques Tardi – who is also responsible for some of the animated design (the rest keeping very much in the spirit of his work) and the general air of whimsy, intelligence and warmth of the whole affair – the film uses a more hand-drawn look to its animation, achieving a more personal and human feel than you get from the big Hollywood animation studios whose every film stylistically seems very much like the one before. There are some anime who use this approach of making the digitally animated look more hand-drawn, of course, but Avril is very much a thing all its own.

There’s a barrage of crazy ideas, homages (the sharp eyes will even spot a Dalek) and visual worldbuilding running through the film, but instead of feeling incoherent, everything on screen here is very much of one piece, the incidental details, the whimsy and the sometimes (again very much in the spirit of Tardi) very broad yet just as often warmly wry humour coming together to create a strange world that feels believable by its own logic. That it is also a delightfully strange world is only the cherry on top.

Plot and world aren’t only inspired by Tardi but also by the 19th century French scientific romance Tardi himself was inspired by, a field that goes much further than just the novels of Jules Verne. If you’re like me and still haven’t taught yourself French, the wonderful Blackcoat Press have translated and published quite a few books from this era in affordable editions that provide useful context through knowledgeable forewords. However, the filmmakers clearly didn’t set out to make a piece of nostalgia porn, so there are many plot elements and ideas, as well as certain directions of thought, which are very much of our time. This is all for the better, of course.

Apart from being beautiful to look at and bursting with joyful creativity, Avril also has a lot of actual warmth, showing characters that fulfil very traditional roles for this sort of tale (the hero of the piece being a late teenage girl instead of the more traditional boy really doesn’t change this aspect in itself) but giving most of them some added humanity that turns talking plot devices into characters an audience can care about.

All of this adds up to the kind of film that I can’t help but gush about, where enthusiasm, craftsmanship and art unite to become something very special indeed.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

In short: Green Room (2015)

A small series of unfortunate events leads the members of a punk rock group (Anton Yelchin, Joe Cole, Alia Shawkat, Callum Turner and David W. Thompson) onto the stage of a rural Nazi skinhead bar. As if that weren’t bad enough, after the gig, they stumble onto the aftermath of a murder in the backroom. The Nazis, led by club owner Darcy (Patrick Stewart), operate on a clear no witnesses policy, so the band and not-really-a-member-of-the-Nazi-club-anymore Amber (Imogen Poots) soon barricade themselves in a room while a horde of murderous assholes (and their dogs) try to kill them.

Where Jeremy Saulnier’s last film, Blue Ruin, applied lessons learned from US arthouse indie cinema to the vengeance flick, Green Room does something similar to the classic siege movie, though this one is a bit more invested in fulfilling certain genre expectations than the earlier film. That’s not a bad thing, mind you, for Saulnier fulfils these expectations with calm and thought, telling the horrible misadventures of people way in over their heads through no fault of their own with an economy and efficiency one can’t help but imagine the patron saints (say Hawks and Carpenter) of the kind of genre movies this is modelled on would look upon approvingly.

There’s still quite a bit of US indie cinema tradition on display here, particularly in the acting approach, especially the line delivery. Now, I’ve seen a few reviews complaining about the dialogue being difficult to understand, but to my ears, that’s really just people either needing to get their ears checked or not able to cope with a somewhat more naturalistic acting style. The acting is actually pretty great, every Brit on screen (and there are quite a few of them) putting on their best US accents, and projecting appropriate levels of hysteria and fear while doing believably stupid shit, their characters not being action heroes and all. Patrick Stewart does some fine work for once playing a bad guy (and an American), avoiding scenery chewing for a more banal kind of evil, which seems the appropriate way to portray a neo Nazi.

Once Green Room gets going, events evolve quickly into some truly horrible violence, where a badly broken hand looks like a bloody mess, and death by dog seems as frightening and plain horrifying as it would be in reality. Particularly the first few deaths hit pretty hard, not because Saulnier is pulling out all the stops when it comes to gore – he’s certainly not afraid of showing the bloody consequences of violence but he’s not lingering on these things either – but because their staging feels believable, real, and final in a way not many directors even try to achieve. Despite not going in the direction of torture porn and despite following more of a thriller plot structure, Green Room does feel like a horror film for most of its running time, thanks to a lingering sense of dread hanging over much of it.

At the same time, the film is also a really tight, claustrophobic and inventive siege movie; just one that’s perfectly ready to hit characters and audience with an expertly timed low blow from time to time.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Past Misdeeds: Twilight Syndrome: Dead Go Round (2008)

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.

Seven Japanese teen archetypes find themselves in front of a stage in a small, picturesque amusement park. A clown appears on stage and explains to them that they among all gamers who have beat the newest incarnation of the Twilight Syndrome games have been chosen to test out the games' famous designer's newest work.

In fact, the new game has already started, and our young heroes find themselves suddenly alone in the park with only the clown to lead them into a rather silly game of finding game cartridges hidden away in balloons across the area. But why does the clown know as much about their personal backgrounds as he does? And why is he mocking the participants with that knowledge more cruelly than seems appropriate under the circumstances?

Things become clearer when the first of the kids is declared a loser and murdered in a silly yet unpleasant manner. This is going to be a game of life and death, and only one of the players will be allowed to go home. Until then, there's a number of other balloon oriented death games with macabre details to play, the nastier (and giggling like a baby) brother of the floating balloons from The Prisoner to conquer, and the truth about the game to find out. Let's just hope none of the kids gets the idea to help him- or herself to the pole position by Battle Royale means.

Dead Go Round (or "Deadly-Go-Round", as the fansubs I watched it with call the film much more sensibly) is one of two unrelated direct-to-DVD movies produced to cross-market the new game in the venerable Twilight Syndrome series of videogames - of which unfortunately no part has ever made it onto Western markets - by pretending that game is actually pretty dangerous and by shaking a Nintendo DS into the audience's faces as often as possible. Given this (probably sad) state of affairs, the only fact-like things I know about the games is that beloved design-eccentric Suda-51 made some of his earliest experiences as a game designer with them, and that they seem to concern the encounters of Japanese teenagers with real life urban myths. Which sounds rather like games I'd very much like to play.

My lack of knowledge regarding the games makes it impossible for me to say if there's any continuity of characters or plot between them and the film, but I rather suspect not.

Dead Go Round was directed and probably written by Mari Asato, who has been operating in the world of ultra-cheap DVD horror for a few years now (her film after this was one of the new direct-to-DVD Ju-On films), and who does a very commendable job here.

I didn't find anything commendable in the film's first fifteen minutes, though. The first encounter with the movie hurls the viewer into the world of incredibly clichéd characters and dubious acting, and confronts her with the sort of silly high-concept plot set-up that is at once much too familiar and just pretty damn annoying, with the expected character types acting as expected. After the introductory part is done, and the first blood has flown, the film becomes increasingly interesting. The situations the characters find themselves in turn gleefully strange, and the characters stop acting like horror movie fodder; the "wrong" teenagers die first, and - while I wouldn't exactly call it unconventional - the character development in the survivors is not as predictable as the movie's beginning (that now seems consciously designed to blindside the viewer) made one expect.

The film also turns out to be less cynical as most other movies of the "handful of characters in dangerous situation" genre. Although she acknowledges and understands its existence, Asato treats egotism not as the natural state of human beings in danger. In its place steps a (never cloying, because it's done matter-of-factly and without sweeping melodramatic gestures) solidarity between exactly those geeky characters who would only be allowed to sacrifice themselves for the "normal" ones in other movie. There's a subtle emphasis on the concept of female friendship to find here, too, that reminds me a lot of X-Cross, Kenta Fukasaku's only good film, as does Dead Go Round's gleeful embrace of the absurdity of its own concept.

Embracing gleeful absurdity is a must for a film like this, which has to live with some obvious, budget-caused flaws. The actors are never again as bad as they were in the beginning, but they're not exactly brilliant, either, so Asato needs to keep her movie's speed up to distract her viewers from the flaws in their performances. The special effects - what there is of them - are frankly ridiculous, but Asato doesn't go the way of shamefully hiding them away from view and instead tries to get her (and our) money's worth out of them by using her ridiculously cheap effects to show things that are absurd enough in their basic conception to just eclipse their intensely fake looks by virtue of being just plain weird.

Even better, the film's wallowing in its own absurdity (let me quote its best piece of dialogue - "The clowns. They can smell my blood." - as an example) never descends into the nether realm of the barely ironic, wink-wink, nudge-nudge, aren't I funny. Asato seems much more interested in using the absurd with the sort of knowing delight that doesn't need irony to distance herself from her own film. "Look", the director seems to say, "isn't this awesome?". And it surely is.

Of course, if you're only going to love serious movies about serious grown-up people going through serious divorces or seriously falling in love with other people half their age, and just can't abide films that are serious about their silliness, you won't have much fun with Dead Go Round. This is, after all, a cheaply made little horror movie based on a videogame, and it won't deny what it is. Yet it is also a film in the tradition of those cult movies that don't take their low position in the cinematic food chain as an excuse for laziness. There's a place for cleverness and fun down here at the bottom, and Dead Go Round has built its amusement park right there.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

In short: Muska (2014)

Celal (Sezgin Erdemir), a sexist would-be womanizer who’ll one day grow up to be misogynist, is thrown out of her flat after his girlfriend walks in on him cheating on her.

Not having been paid for his work as a journalist for months now, and with no friends willing to put him up (nor to put up with him, one can’t help but think), Celal needs a cheap place to live right quick. Fortunately, his possibly only friend Engin (Taylan Güner) helps Celal find a place he just might be able to afford. It’s a small room in a run-down private house owned by an elderly woman called Aliye (Tanju Tuncel), who lives there with her grandchild Mehmet (Efe Karaman). Celal isn’t happy with the place at all, but a glance at Aliye other tenant, Yasemin (Asli Sahin) changes his mind right quick. Ah, the wonders of hormones.

Still, it turns out moving into this particular house is a very bad idea. Celal is plagued by mysterious shadows, dreams about a burned man and other sure-fire signs of the movie-supernatural. Things deteriorate from there.

In the last few years, there has been a good handful of horror films coming from Turkey, suggesting a minor renaissance of a genre that hasn’t been close to the country’s heart for political and social reasons. Ozkan Celik’s Muska isn’t exactly the sort of film that’ll make you ecstatic about this renaissance, but rather an embodiment of middling low budget kind of horror that’s not bad enough to be amused by or to hate and not good enough to love.

The plot is rather on the obvious side, just barely filling the barely 80 minutes of runtime, the acting’s okay, the camera work decent. From time to time, the film even achieves a truly atmospheric scene but Celik keeps everything so basic, excitement lives elsewhere.

That’s too bad too, for there are quite a few exciting and interesting directions the film could have moved in from its basic ideas, like commenting on the nature of identity, the sexist’s fear of women, and so on, but the film never digs any deeper than the surface, consequently never achieving any deeper involvement from its audience.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Death Car on the Freeway (1979)

Los Angeles. A mysterious driver kills young, pretty women by crashing into their cars with his van while playing some mean fiddle music via outside speakers. The police, as represented by one Lieutenant Haller (Peter Graves), has no clue how to stop what’s going on, seeing as they are stumped by incredibly fiendish tricks from the perp – like the killer repainting his van and using new licence plates. Victim blaming seems the best solution to Haller.

Fortunately, up and coming TV reporter – and at this time the “reporter” part of TV reporter was actually still relevant  – Jan (Shelley Hack) gets in on the case even before the police does. While she doesn’t have the resources of the authorities, she actually owns a functioning brain. Alas, Jan also has to cope with The Patriarchy as well as The Man. Not only is Haller an idiot, her bosses don’t really appreciate her public criticism of car culture, and last but not least, she herself still has doubts if anything she has achieved until now is only because her separated husband Ray (George Hamilton) once gave her her first break. Then there are Ray’s 70s macho attempts at getting her back…

I came to Death Car on the Freeway for Hal Needham directed death car on the freeway action on a TV movie budget but I stayed for some rather good mainstream late 70s feminism (as written by a guy). Which is to say, if you’re expecting this to be much of an action film, or a thriller, you might end up disappointed, for while the killer’s modus operandi is pleasantly silly, and what there is of the car action and suspense scenes is directed by Needham with the vigour and competence you’d expect of the guy who directed Smokey and the Bandit, about eighty percent of the film really concern Jan’s personal struggles against crusted society structures trying to hold her down.

To my surprise – I’m not much of a guy for films mostly interested in talking through issues even when I agree with their politics - I found myself rather engrossed in the proceedings. It certainly helps that William Wood’s script is as pointed as a US 70s TV movie script needs to be but still presents its case without too much melodrama. It’s not exactly kitchen sink realism (praise be to the Old Gods), but outside its sometime thriller plot, this is not a film of grand melodrama but one sympathetically portraying the sort of crap a young, talented and engaged woman has to fight through for no good reason whatsoever. Obviously, there’s also a rape metaphor sitting practically in the open, which again the film treats with dignity. Needham is a much keener director of this sort of thing than I had him pegged as, too, keeping things moving even when there are no cars on screen and visually centring on Jan in quite a few subtle ways.

All the while the film also provides a very nice feel of its time and place, subtly hinting at the weirdness of living in LA (at least people living in LA tell me it’s weird) and doing one of the things popular culture can do so well: explaining the world or a place at a specific moment in time through slight (or large) exaggeration. There’s a feeling of veracity to much going on in the film that again surprised me.

On the acting side Hack presents herself as sympathetic, never overplaying or underplaying Jan’s frustrations and keeping us rooting for her in the drama as well as the thriller parts. Hamilton’s performance as that most unmanly kind of guy, a man who can’t cope with his supposedly beloved wife being a muck-raking truth-seeking reporter who cares, is hilariously on point, going from the smug, to the sleazy, though mostly ending up with a facial expression of vacant arrogance whenever Jan tells him what she wants and feels in opposition to what he tells her she should want so perfect it’s as funny as it is infuriating. Whoever cast these two actors is at least half responsible for Death Car’s success as a film.

So Death Car on the Freeway ends up not just being a rather different film from the one I expected but also better in ways I’d never expected of it.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

In short: The Monster (2016)

Kathy (Zoe Kazan), a young alcoholic who is fucking up in her role as mother pretty badly, is taking her young daughter Lizzy (Ella Ballentine) to her ex-husband (or possibly ex-boyfriend). She’s pretty sure Lizzy’s going to stay there too, their relationship having hit the point where something clearly has to give. Kathy is deeply unhappy with the situation while also unable to go about changing it in any productive way but she clearly loves her daughter and wants something better for her.

These problems will have to take a bit of a backseat belonging to occasional flashbacks, though, for somewhere on a road in a patch of woods right in the middle of nowhere, the car crashes into a wolf. Worse, it won’t start up again. Now, our protagonists manage to contact help but its arrival will take some time. They are, after all, not exactly on Broadway, there’s a heavy rain storm going on, and they are not the only people in trouble right now.

Unfortunately, the wolf didn’t cross the road to protest chicken jokes – it was hounded by a monster. Said monster might just be all too interested in taking a bite or ten out of Lizzy and Kathy.

Director Bryan Bertino’s earlier films – The Strangers and Mockingbird – never did much for me, so I found myself pleasantly surprised with The Monster. It’s a film that tells a small-scale story in a highly focused, and very atmospheric way, avoiding side-tracks and byways, and ending up wonderfully concise.

The titular monster isn’t a terribly interesting design, to be sure, and does look rather fake in some of the later sequences once we are getting a better look at it, but Bertino presents it very effectively as an unrelenting and uncaring threat (which you can of course read as an externalisation of what’s going wrong between mother and daughter, though really, it’s a monster), the sort of thing that won’t care if you deserve the horrible things it’ll do to you, or not.

It’s the ideal monster for a film that thrives on using very archetypal fears – darkness and the things in it, the loss of a loved one – to create a feeling of suspense and disquiet.

A large part of The Monster’s emotional effect – and it packs quite a wallop – is the authentic way it presents Kathy’s numerous failings and the things they do to Lizzy without becoming moralizing. Probably because it understands that being a bad parent, and an alcoholic, and a partaker in the worst boyfriends possible doesn’t mean you don’t love your daughter, nor that you ever set out to fuck up your own life. As it also understands that love isn’t necessarily enough, yet still has its dignity.

Which of course leads to a film that actually works for its emotional beats, hitting the audience (or at least me) not through emotional manipulation but through a kind of emotional truthfulness. All the while, The Monster also stays just a damn good film about a monster.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Sadako vs. Kayako (2016)

Original title: 貞子 vs. 伽椰子

College students Yuri (Mizuki Yamamoto) and Natsumi (Aimi Satsukawa) stumble upon one of those good old cursed video tapes containing the curse of Sadako of Ringu fame. Obviously, things do not develop into a pleasant direction for them from there, and soon they have to seek help from their urban myths teacher (Masahiro Komoto), who, it turns out, is totally okay with dying if it proves his favourite urban legend actually exists. At least he knows an exorcist.

While the girls have a bad time of it, the film from time to time pops in with high schooler Suzuka (Tina Tamashiro), whose family has just moved in next to the Ju-On ghost house. Obviously, the girl gets in trouble with the ghost population there.

Fortunately, rogue exorcist Keizo (Masanobu Ando) gets on the case – for a lot of money – bringing with him a bad attitude, a blind little girl medium, and a genius plan to get rid of both ghostly menaces that surely won’t have any chance of backfiring rather badly, as well as a back-up plan that’s even worse. Spoilers, I guess?

As you’ll probably have realized by now, the monster mashing first crossover between the ailing (at least quality-wise) Ringu and Ju-On franchises is pretty damn cartoony (anime-esque?) in tone. But then, this is the hundredth film in two franchises that never were terribly ideal for the franchise game in any case (Ringu giving us three and Ju-On four worthwhile movies and a lot of crap afterwards), and if you have to do a monster mash, you really can’t go for a subtle and deep horror style.

Fortunately, the film is directed and written by Koji Shiraishi, one of the truly underrated horror filmmakers in Japan, a guy who on a good day can make a decent film out of idols screeching into a cellphone camera, so he has experience in getting decent performances out of his lead idols (which he does). Shiraishi apparently enjoys the higher than usual budget he’s working on here, using the opportunity to smuggle in an exorcist/shaman character who is very much like the one in his own Cult, and even a formless tentacle thing as featured in at least half of his films.

As an old pro with this sort of thing, Shiraishi realizes that, if you have a set-up quite this silly, and one that has to climax in something as absurd as a beat down between two pissed-off female ghosts to boot, you have only two choices: either turn it into a meta comedy or treat everything with the straightest of faces, using all the powers of moody camera work and classic shock techniques, as well as Hideo Nakata’s favourite camera angles, to pretend all this is terribly serious and scary.

Thankfully (not being American), Shiraishi goes with the second approach, presenting even the most absurd scene with so deep an earnestness it’s quite easy for the willing viewer (non-willing viewers having no business whatsoever in the monster mash movie watching business) to buy into the whole affair as threatening and scary. It does help that the camera work is generally calmly threatening, that Shiraishi knows other types of scares than jump scares and isn’t afraid to use them so that things get pleasantly tense after a while, that some of the more grotesque moments are as awesome as they are silly, and that the plot flows rather well. Why, even the hilariously bad plan for getting rid of the ghosts sounds like something appropriate to the film’s world, and while it is silly and dumb, it is absolutely the sort of silly and dumb that fits what else is going on in the movie.

So, while the endless franchisation (that’s a word, right?) of everything is of course deplorable, and so on and so forth, I had quite a bit of fun with Sadako vs. Kayko, which is much more than I expected from it.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

In short: The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

I think I can lose any explanation of the plot this time around. Though it has to be said that this second – after a lost German film apparently – film adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s novel directed by Rupert Julian (or by Julian with various scenes taken over by Lon Chaney or even producer Carl Laemmle if you believe parts of the literature, though the sources for this sort of thing are, as it is so often in film history, dubious, unclear and generally not to be trusted) might surprise a viewer more knowledgeable about later versions. It did at least surprise me quite a bit when I realized how little of the tragic romantic figure of later versions this phantom is: he’s an escaped criminally insane guy who taught himself music and “the Black Art” in the pulp supervillain mode, a guy who is as ugly inside as he is on the outside and whose handful of tragic intertitles generally come over as a thin self-pitying veneer to make all the evil shit he does sound better to the poor stupid woman he’s obsessing over.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, mind you, particularly since Lon Chaney is – obviously – the perfect man to let this particular murderous madman come to life, using his today still very fine looking and conceptionally immensely creepy make-up and melodramatic body language to full effect, creating his Phantom as a villain so memorable, even if the film had only Chaney going for it, it would still be worthy of your time.

Fortunately, there is also a lot else to cherish here: be it Julian’s (or whomever’s) often immensely creative direction that lends a sheen of morbid romanticism to the film’s first two thirds, and then elegantly shifts paces to end up on a final act of energetic pulp-style craziness as befit this kind of potboiler that needs heating to the point of hysteria. Particular highpoints are the first time Mary Philbin’s Christine Daaé, at this point still half in thrall to the Phantom (or “Master” as she calls him in a move that has no subtextual resonance at all, no sir), ends ups in the Phantom’s lair, an unmasking scene that lets the camera shift out of focus either on purpose or, as legend has it, because the camera operator got the fright of his life from Chaney (a story that sounds less improbable than it should because Chaney is just that great), the bal masque sequence that sees the film shifting to two-tone Technicolor for a few minutes so the audience can get the full impact of the Phantom’s appearance as Poe’s Red Death, and the full on gothic pulp insanity of a third act that features everything you’d care to ask for, be it death traps, evil gesticulating, or a torch wielding mob of stage hands.

The highly melodramatic tone, the general strangeness of silent movies to the modern eye, the sheer beauty of the sets and the high-strung acting come together to form a kind of fever dream, very much in the spirit of Poe in his more excitable moments and not so much in that of poor melodramatic old bore Leroux, a thing that on paper might sound tawdry and silly but is in fact one of beauty and awe.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Past Misdeeds: Yoga (2009)

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

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

Hyo-jeong (Yoo Jin) works as a host for a home shopping show. Unfortunately, her producer thinks she's starting to show her age and replaces her with a younger beauty pageant winner, the fact that Hyo-jeong is not even nearing middle age notwithstanding.

Understandably Hyo-jeong is completely broken up about this career low that also fits in well with the copious amounts of self-doubt and dissatisfaction with her life she is carrying around. Fortunately (or so she thinks) there's hope for her on the horizon. On a meeting of former class mates she had met her former friend Seon-hwa (Lee Yeong-jin). "Former" friend because Hyo-jeong one school day decided that Seon-hwa wasn't pretty enough to associate with. But now Seon-hwa suddenly looks like the ghost of a supermodel.

After Hyo-jeong is fired, she meets Seon-hwa again and manages to convince her to tell her how she managed to change her appearance this much. Turns out Seon-hwa took part in a very special yoga retreat run by a former acting star and well-known beauty that completely changed her life.

Hyo-jeong talks herself into a place in that special yoga class too. Together with four other women feeling in need of "physical perfection" and a weird yoga trainer, she is locked into a rather rundown building full of greenish mold. There, the women are supposed to follow a rigorous yoga regimen and have to follow some rather peculiar rules (no eating! no mirrors! no showering until one hour after the training has ended! no cell phones!) that are supposed to isolate them from problematic influences and purify their energies. Still, only one of the women will be able to reach the goal of (and I quote) "perfect beauty" through this.

While Hyo-jeong and the other women have increasingly strange and dangerous experiences, that might have to do with the fasting regimen or just your usual supernatural shenanigans, Hyo-jeong's boyfriend stumbles over a dying director and finds some expository information about the actress who owns the school for us, the audience. The actress' story of being ousted by her director and (at least the latter is suggested) lover when live sound recordings for movies finally arrive in South Korea at the end of the 70s has some parallels to Hyo-jeong's life, and very possibly of a lot of women working in showbiz.

Obviously, whatever evil there is afoot in yoga class must have to do with this past unpleasantness.

At first, I was less than convinced by (female and feminist, at least in my reading of the film) director Yoon Jae-yeon's Yoga. 29-year old Yoo Jin is really a bit hard too swallow as woman fired from her TV job for having one wrinkle too many, especially since there aren't even any fake signs of aging plastered into her face. Now, I'm actually convinced that this is part of the film's point: that the societal demands on the appearance of women are so absurd that you can look like Yoo Jin and will still be looked at as flawed. It also helps that the feeling of beatenness Yoo Jin manages to convey is terribly convincing, as if her Hyo-jeong was carrying the problems of a much older woman around with herself. It only goes to show again that having been the member of a girl group does not necessarily mean one does not have talent for acting.

It all fits quite nicely into the film's basic message which seems to be: society's demands on women to be "perfect" (whatever that may mean) are so high that the only way to fulfil them is by becoming a soulless husk to be filled by the expectations of others and your own ability to be cruel to other women to perpetuate the problem. Yoon puts so much emphasis on the latter part that one could be tempted to interpret it as misogynist, but I think her point is more to show a system that - once it has been set in place - perpetuates himself without the need for much input by men. Once the impetus is given, people are all too good at building their own cages.

I was pretty impressed by Yoon Jae-yeon's other directorial effort, Wishing Stairs (a part of the consistently good to excellent Whispering Corridors series), and found that film to be highly influenced by the Italian giallo, especially the films of Dario Argento. Yoga again shows an Argento influence in the framing of sequences, production design and lighting (I hope you like green), not so much in movement and editing, but this time the parallels seem to be more to the Argento of Suspiria. Which, I think, is a perfect film to be influenced by when you're making a horror piece that's more based on dream-logic and metaphorical logic than on straight plotting and realism. Don't misunderstand me, though. Yoon as a director may show the influence of Argento, but she is much more than a mere copyist, taking certain stylistic elements of Argento and others typical of slick South Korean filmmaking of the last decade and making them completely her own.

Although I admire Yoon's directorial style, and appreciate her imbuing her film with meaning beyond "Oh, that's a nice gore effect!", I have one larger problem with Yoga. While watching it, I found the film intellectually and aesthetically stimulating, but emotionally very distant. Basically, I was thinking about the film and appreciating it, but not feeling it, especially not as a creepy or scary movie. I'm not sure if that's part of me being a guy and not understanding the incredible pressure on women on an emotional level, or a flaw of the film, though, so I hope that won't keep anybody reading this away from Yoga.

After all, even if the film "only" engages on an intellectual level, that is more than can be said about a lot of movies.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Zoltan, Hound of Dracula (1977)

aka Dracula’s Dog

While excavating whatever in Romania, some Soviet soldiers stumble upon the crypt of the family Dracula, all family members apparently properly staked in their coffins. Alas, during the night watch, a sleepy guard without basic folkloristic knowledge frees one of the staked undead. It’s…Zoltan, Dracula’s rather large (vampire) doggy! Well, actually, Zoltan is more the dog of old Drac’s Renfield (or in the film’s parlance, “fractional lamia”) Veidt Schmidt (Reggie Nalder). After dispatching the soldier, Zoltan awakens Schmidt, and off they trot to find themselves a new master.

For this, they need to find the last of the Dracula family, who had been secreted out of the country when he was still a small boy. He’s all grown up now, going by the name of Michael Drake (Michael Pataki) and living the life of the working rich (or as the Americans say, “upper middleclass”) together with his wife Marla (Jan Shutan), their kids Linda (Libby Chase) and Steve (John Levin), as well as a dog couple and their new pups. Michael is obviously no vampire (please insert joke about bloodsucking upper classes here), but that doesn’t mean Zoltan and Schmidt – well, mostly Zoltan – aren’t going to try to turn him into one.

It certainly offers a nice opportunity for this sort of shenanigans that the Drakes are just going off on a camping trip in their RV somewhere a bit isolated from other campers. It’s all set for our bad guys to create a tiny vampire dog army to bite Michael, instead of just grabbing him and be done with it.

Fortunately, Romanian fearless vampire hunter Inspector Branko (José Ferrer) is on the case, and might just come to provide rescue and exposition before Zoltan is finished sniffing Michael’s butt.

As you probably realized already when reading its title, Albert Band’s Zoltan, Hound of Dracula is a pretty daft movie. Or rather, it is about half of the time, for some of its ideas are actually rather interesting, if one can only get away from the basic silliness of the vampire dog, the unfortunate glowy eyes effect the dog vampires have, the unnecessarily complicated plan to vampirize Michael the bad guys have, and so on and so forth.

About half of these screwy ideas are at least rather funny, like the vampire dog army part of the villains’ master plan, or the film’s final “shock” scene that is based on that most horrifying of creatures, an adorable vampire puppy. The other half, alas, is just a bit dumb without going off either into the stratosphere of the really bizarre or managing to reach the point where you just accept the stupid bits as a normal parts of the film’s world.

On the other hand, Zoltan’s isn’t trying to be funny at all. The film shows total conviction of being Very Serious Shit, and in some scenes, this approach does pay off. Despite everything around them, most of the dog attacks are pretty well done and suspenseful, with the short siege sequence the film’s obvious high point much preferable to its actual climax. In general, Band does manage some rather moody scenes that make effective use of the outdoors locations; unfortunately, in other scenes, things bog down to mediocre TV movie levels with basically nailed on camera, adding another somewhat schizophrenic element to the film.

Reggie Nalder certainly has the right presence for his role but I find it rather difficult to take a villain all that seriously who more often than not doesn’t actually do anything but lets his dog do all the work. Dracula apparently wasn’t a man of good henchmen choices. The rest of the acting is pleasantly competent, even when the actors have to fight through dialogue that probably aims for naturalistic but lands on mildly improbable and generally bland.

Which really is Zoltan’s problem in a nutshell: it’s neither strange or plain bad enough to be enjoyed in this way, not consciously funny enough to work as a comedy, nor so consistently effective I’m ever able to completely forget how silly it is. It’s still a film worth watching at least once in one’s life, mind you, if only to compare it with Devil Dog and Monster Dog.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

In short: Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau (John Malkovich) is filming Nosferatu, his great, unofficial adaptation of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”. Unbeknownst to anyone but Murnau, the man playing the vampire Orloff, Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe), is in fact an actual vampire playing an actor playing a vampire. Murnau has bought his cooperation by promising him his lead actress Greta Schröder (Catherine McCormack) once the shoot is over, perhaps with the thought to betray him.

Though once the vampire starts to become impatient and sets teeth to some of the crew, it becomes quickly clear that the director is willing to – quite literally - sacrifice anyone on the altar of his art, apart from himself, of course.

That latter bit is one of the things E. Elias Merhige’s strange (in all the good ways) horror film, drama, dark comedy Shadow of the Vampire understands much better than most films concerned with questions of art and sacrifice: how it’s very often others who pay his price, while the artist takes on the pose of suffering. Consequently, Merhige’s view on artistic production seems cynical bordering on the outright bitter, Dafoe’s Schreck embodying all kinds of emotional horrors, among them the worst sides of certain artist types that, like the film’s Murnau, would commit every atrocity as long as they can excuse it with their art, in classic horror film style externalizing internal horrors.

At the same time as Shadow of the Vampire is an appropriately horrific look at the dark aspects of the artistic impulse with a vampire as a metaphor, it is also a horror movie whose vampire is quite real, an often visually darkly poetic film, and also a comedy with a wickedly dark sense of humour.

All three of these aspects are embodied in Dafoe’s fantastic portrayal of a thing so ancient it has forgotten what it means to be human, a monster grotesque, pathetic, and dangerous all at the same time.

How Merhige manages to keep all these different aspects of his film in check without them tearing apart Shadow of the Vampire while dragging it in all directions, I’m honestly not sure. A pact with the devil, perhaps? In any case, he does, and leaves us with a film so rich I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed trying to make sense about it.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Blair Witch (2016)

A video supposedly found in the haunted woods around Burkittsville (now only nominally located in Maryland but actually shot in the well-worn woods of British Columbia every horror fan knows so well by now they’ll never look strange or frightening again) appears on the Net. James (James Allen McCune), the brother of Heather of “vanished in Blair Witch Project” fame, believes he recognizes his sister in a reflection and decides to rope in his best friend Peter (Brandon Scott), Peter’s girlfriend Ashley (Corbin Reid), and film student Lisa (Callie Hernandez) to look for any trace of Heather.

At first, James’s project seems rather more organized than the outing of Heather and her friends but once they are in the woods – taking on Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry) the people who found the video that incited the whole thing too – GPS, a cute little drone, and the superior technology of 2014 don’t help them any better than the slightly lower tech did the people they’ve come looking for.

Adam Wingard’s (as always written by Simon Barrett) new sequel to one of my favourite horror films of all time is one of those films I wish I liked more than I actually do. This is not a cynical, unlikeable cash-in, I believe, at least not from Wingard’s and Barrett’s position (Lionsgate, on the other hand…).

The filmmakers harbour obvious love and respect for the original Blair Witch - though I’m pretty sure they and I would disagree in many points about what makes it special - yet also are clearly going in with the intent of not just repeating the film’s beats and ideas. It’s not an attempt at deconstructing the original as it is one of giving its ideas slight twists while never outright contradicting any established lore, which isn’t that difficult when working from a film amongst whose strengths was the mythical vagueness to much what was going in it and around it.

These new twists are generally clever, and usually well executed, alas they are to a large degree also going in exactly the direction you’d expect a modern horror movie to go. The inherent weirdness and semi-professionalism of the original is replaced by a slick competence that only rarely leaves space to treat the supernatural as something that feels wrong. Even with one truly weird turn in its final act, this is a genre film in all the least interesting ways. So its Blair Witch is a a large monster that’ll only kill you when you look directly at it, a thing of high concepts easily described to a Hollywood producer, instead of the thing of folklore and legend that doesn’t have a clearly definable shape and only vague rules because folklore and legend are always shifting around cores that are ideas not monsters you can make an action figure out of.

If you’d rather see Blair Witch Project dragged down into the realms of the conventional, well-made horror film, this should make you very happy. If, on the other hand, you’re me, you’ll enjoy the film well enough for the kind of thing it is but can’t help and ask yourself what exactly the point of the whole sequel is when it doesn’t do anything with the material its working off that’s new and exciting, or actually all that frightening.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Beyond the Gates (2016)

Gordon (Graham Skipper) returns to his hometown because his father has disappeared. It’s not the first time the alcoholic has gone AWOL, but this time, it seems to have stuck.

So Gordon has to reunite with his brother John (Chase Williamson), who stayed behind when Gordon left town and their father for good, to pack up their father’s house and the obsolete video store he owned. Both brothers have obviously suffered from abuse by their dear dad. As a consequence John as a young-ish man has turned into the sort of charming fuck-up who might soon replace the “charming” with criminal, dead, or drunk, and Gordon has difficulties to not turn into his father, fighting alcoholism and a tendency to violent outbursts. His girlfriend Margot (Brea Grant) is coming to help sort through dad’s baggage too – after all, that’s what she’s been doing for Gordon for some time now, it seems.

Going through their father’s old office, John and Gordon find that most 80s of things – a VCR board game. There’s something strange going on with the game, though: the somewhat sinister woman (Barbara Crampton) on the game’s video tape tells the brothers the game is the only way to save their father’s soul, and might react to what’s going on around it, which is disquieting enough, but soon, board game and reality start to mix in sometimes bloody ways, turning the lives of the brothers and Margot into a fight for their life, limb and perhaps their very souls.

Jackson Stewart’s Beyond the Door is a lovely bit of indie horror cinema, paying homage to the aesthetics of certain parts of 80s horror like a lot of films do these days, yet without falling into the trap of becoming too much of a copy of the style. Well, I’m not sure the film could actually afford to become one – this is after all a film where stepping into a different dimension happens via the movie magic of blue and purple lighting and some dry ice fog – but it is clear that Stewart knows what he’s doing in looks and tone.

I imagine some viewers will be frustrated by the film’s slow beginning and the rather budget conscious way it builds up to its climax, but I found myself charmed by the character interactions between the leads, appreciated how lacking in melodrama the treatment of the brothers’ backstories was, and generally found myself interested in these characters as people to observe for a movie’s length. Stewart is a pleasantly economic director of these character interactions, never letting things become too concise but also not falling into the trap of confusing the creation of believable people with long, rambling and pointless dialogue scenes. The film’s central metaphor on the other hand is as on the nose as they get, but that works out fine in a film taking its time for its characters as this one does.

Stewart treats the supernatural elements (Jumanji light – but with gore?) equally well, obviously putting all of his tiny budget on screen in a way that mostly works fine, demonstrates imagination and never descends into smugness. There’s fan enthusiasm even for the hokier parts of the horror genre that still doesn’t get in the way of the film’s own story, some pleasant macabre details, a smidgen of wonderfully gloopy gore, and Barbara Crampton glorying in her new role as queen of indie horror character actresses with some classy, controlled scenery chewing. Everything going on is rather small scale, of course, yet Stewart works so well with what he’s got, I enjoyed Beyond the Gates thoroughly, with a pleased grin pasted on my cynical old mug for much of its running time.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

In short: Shark Lake (2015)

Clint Gray (Dolph Lundgren) is smuggling rare, dangerous and endangered animals for some gangster boss (Don Barnes). On the night when the local sheriff’s department finally catches up to him, he and his truck take a nosedive into a lake, freeing a pregnant shark. Nobody will notice that little problem until five years later, though.

Right about the time when Clint gets out of prison, a series of killings begins which most of the local police at first ascribe to bears. Most, that is, but Meredith Hernandez (Sara Malakul Lane), not only the only competent copper in town, but also the officer who arrested Clint, and the woman who took in his daughter Carly (Lily Brooks O’Briant).

She’ll soon be proven right, too, for it’s not bears, it’s (spoiler!) sharks. Because sharks alone supposedly don’t make a movie, there’s of course also a sub-plot about Meredith’s unwillingness to let Clint see his daughter again as well as another completely pointless one – taking up ninety percent of the meagre screen time Lundgren gets hired for these days even if he is supposedly a movie’s star – concerning the gangster boss pressing Clint into his service again to catch his damn shark. Also appearing are an oceanographer and would-be love interest for Meredith, a big shot BBC shark hunter (of course coming to a sticky end), and a lot of other people who couldn’t act their way out of a paper bag.

In fact, the only people on screen who have their act together as thespians are Lundgren (don’t laugh, he’s a pro at this semi-cameo business by now), the actual lead Lane (putting in a ridiculous amount of effort the script neither asks for nor deserves, winning hearts and minds – well, mine at least – in the process), and Lily Brooks O’Briant (even though we all know by now how much I dislike child acting as a whole). The rest of the cast is all sorts of embarrassing: some painfully so, some in a funny way.

Otherwise, this is the most SyFy Original movie ever made that isn’t actually a SyFy Original, though the melodramatic sub-plot is so treacly I don’t think the SyFy Channel would actually go with it for reasons of artistic standards. Lundgren is as always first listed in the credits but actually just popping in for two or three days of shooting at best, while the rest of this thing plays out nearly exactly as you’ll think it will.

Jerry Dugan’s direction for its part makes no impression whatsoever, so this one’s mainly for the Dolph completists (poor souls that we are), the habitual watcher of shark movies (again, poor souls we), and people who like to hope for better gigs for clearly overqualified lead actresses.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Past Misdeeds: Resurrecting The Street Walker (2009)

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

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

James Parker (James Powell) is an aspiring filmmaker working as an unpaid serf aka "runner" for a shady little movie production company to get his foot in the door of professional film work by letting himself being exploited. This job and the fact that his dreams of becoming a filmmaker don't seem to lead anywhere  put quite a strain on him and the relationship with his family, who are the ones paying for his livelihood after all.

James' friend, the film student Marcus (Tom Shaw), films him in his attempts at making it, and what Marcus is shooting is the basis of the documentary Resurrecting The Street Walker purports to be. Intercut with Marcus' footage are interviews with Marcus himself and the other people in James' life hinting on something dreadful James seems to have done.

The bad times begin when James finds the reels of an unfinished black and white horror movie from the mid-80s called "The Street Walker". It's a film in the Maniac tradition, following a serial killer (Gwilym Lloyd) who pretends to be a director looking for actresses uncomfortably closely. The film stock the movie we are watching uses doesn't resemble that of a film of that decade too much, but the griminess and the vibe of seediness that is running through the material is exactly right for what Resurrecting is going for. The staging of the film inside the film - from camera placement to the disquieting feeling of authenticity that dominates horror films in the Maniac tradition - is done believably enough to make at least me squirm in my seat. The film's (actual) director Ozgur Uyanik is making good use of an experienced horror movie watcher's expectations here to build tension.

Not surprisingly given his personal obsessiveness when it comes to filmmaking, James grows even more obsessed with this particular film and tries his damndest to talk his boss at the production company into agreeing to a rather dubious plan to complete it. First it's only a question of editing, but after some time, James is convinced he needs to shoot a few scenes to give the film an actual ending.

Of course, everything (and everyone around him) seems to conspire to not let the young would-be director finish what he so desperately wants to. Of course, James slowly begins to unravel. At first, it's only minor things like a somewhat unhealthy fixation based on spurious hints on the idea that "The Street Walker" might be a snuff film, or at least that one of the victims might have accidentally died during the filming, but the more problems get into James' way, the more he begins to unravel, until he commits that final act Resurrecting The Street Walker doesn't show as gorily and directly as one would have expected.

This reserve at a point where other films would go all out on the violence points at how clever this film actually is, and how little it is satisfied with just doing the typical horror movie thing, even if the film's ending is obvious from very early on, which is of course part of its point.

Showing James' slow psychological break-down is more important to Uyanik than going the probably more marketable, yet also very boring, slasher route, and he's helped by an excellent and sympathetic performance by James Powell and a script that shows James as a likeable - if overly obsessive - guy slowly breaking through outside pressure and his own inability to admit defeat in an ambition of becoming a filmmaker that is the only thing his life has ever been about. In fact, one of the few gripes I have with the movie is that James is perhaps a bit too likeable, especially compared with the victim of his final act of violence whose only sympathetic character trait seems to be "being pregnant". Don't worry, the film does not directly argue that what James is doing is right or reasonable, or that his victim "deserved it", but I still would have wished for a victim that's as developed as the killer.

This is the sort of problem that only comes into play in a film with as high a standard as Resurrecting The Street Walker sets in the rest of the character department, so it's a sort of luxury problem caused by the film being really pretty fantastic at doing characterisation inside the fake documentary frame, a frame that all too often pushes filmmakers into not developing their characters too well, or even at all.

I especially liked how believable the "mockumentary" aspect of the film played out, deftly avoiding the "why are these people still filming?" problem that seems to annoy certain audiences (not me) about POV horror and fake documentaries so much. Resurrecting is believably structured like a real documentary, achieving a lot of its effect by building the feeling of authenticity (especially by using its directors own experiences as a runner for good effect) that this type of horror movie should live on. Although the film keeps quite a few things ambiguous, as they should be in any film that doesn't go for the gross-out, Uyanik makes great efforts to keep everything around those ambiguous elements believable and understandable, putting the lie to my beloved "naturalism is a dead end" mantra. Well, how about "naturalism is a dead end outside of fake documentary footage"?

Anyway, Resurrecting The Street Walker is another feather in the cap of (very, I suspect) low budget movies from the UK that are still interested in making horror films that go beyond fan service and succeed quite brilliantly.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Three Films Make A Post: You were right to be afraid of the dark.

Daemonium: Soldier of the Underworld (2015): This Argentinean SF/action/horror film directed by Pablo Parés and apparently written by half a dozen people consequently features a nearly unintelligible and wildly overambitious plot that includes everything you might think of - from battle androids to rebellious arch angels –, characters whose design looks cheap yet awesome in all the right ways but who mostly lack any visible reason to do the things they do, and a running time of nearly two hours where eighty minutes would have sufficed.

Yet this is also clearly a labour of love that looks and feels like the adaptation of an especially bonkers European science fiction comic. It throws visual clichés and inventiveness at its audience with great vigour and enthusiasm, features some wonderfully chosen and framed locations (Argentina apparently looks like a weird far future post-apocalyptic wasteland), and has action scenes that are bloody, clever and much better staged than you’d expect. So, despite its flaws, I find this one impossible to dislike. This was clearly made by my people.

The Frontier (2015): Oren Shai’s deeply 70s cinema and noir inspired and 70s set crime movie is a bit of a mixed bag. Jocelin Donahue’s main performance is excellent, and Kelly Lynch and Jim Beaver lend equally good support, but the rest of the acting is very hit or miss, which is no surprise seeing as the film demands from its actors to approach 70s-style naturalism with a conscious distance. This also follows from a script which at times can feel stilted and too interested in demonstrating its knowledge of gestures taken from other movies than in making its own. The result is a film that often feels artificial for no good reason beyond demonstrating the filmmakers’ ability to make it so. Which, ironically enough, is the polar opposite to the kind of 70s cinema it can’t stop telling us it is inspired by; while the noir way of stylisation (the film’s other hallmark) never was interested in stylisation as an end in itself.

Legend of the Phantom Rider (2002): In theory, Alex Erkiletian’s western/horror mix about two ancient spirits – one good, one evil, of course – doomed to be reincarnated again and again to murder one another this time around having their little spat in the Old West, sounds like a sure enough bit of entertainment. At least if you like your westerns and your horror films and like them even better when they get together (that is, if you are me).

Unfortunately, practice finds this direct-to-video film to be rather tedious, giving us scene after scene after scene supposed to prove to the audience how evil the bad guy is but which mostly demonstrate that watching a bald guy who can’t act for shit (Robert McRay) being a bit off a sadist gets boring pretty damn quick. I have no idea how his henchmen cope with the boredom.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Renegades (1989)

Buster McHenry (Kiefer Sutherland), 80s action movie cop by trade, spends his vacation on a private undercover mission, trying to puzzle out the identity of the crooked cop helping violent dirt bag Marino (Robert Knepper when he was still Rob in an excellently lizard-like outing) do his violent deeds. Unfortunately, Buster’s plan to achieve this goal consists of planning the robbery of a jewellery store with Marino, in the hopes off convincing Marino to let him meet the bad cop in person before the robbery can actually take place. However, idiotic plans like this can go wrong rather easily, and soon Buster finds himself indeed committing the robbery with Marino and his gang, and still without the information he seeks. Dead civilians and quite a bit of property damage result.

On the flight, the gang and the idiot cop stumble into an exhibition where Marino finds the time and inclination to grab the holy lance of the Lakota, and shoot one of the Lakota men watching over it. That man’s brother, Hank Storm (Lou Diamond Phillips), promises to get back the lance and take revenge for his brother. A fine opportunity to start on this work opens up to Hank when his mystical Indian tracking powers (seriously, that’s how the film plays it and will continue to play it) lead him to Buster, who is in rather bad shape after Moreno ended their short-lived partnership by shooting him.

Luckily for Buster, Hank’s dad (Floyd “Red Crow” Westerman himself) is a capable shaman and takes time out of his busy schedule to pray his gunshot wound a bit better. Who needs a physician, right? Once that’s over, Hank and Buster will have to team up, at first (of course) very reluctantly but increasingly (of course) with full 80s buddy movie man love.

I am not the greatest fan of 80s buddy movies but it’s pretty difficult not to like a film whose future buddies are young Kiefer Sutherland (in his pre-“torture is awesome” phase) and Lou Diamond Phillips (in his pre-“Sheriff roles only” phase). Together, in good 80s action movies tradition, they fight slightly more crime than they commit themselves, crash cars, smash a large amount of things, and hurt or kill a lot of people in hilarious and improbable ways.

Director Jack Sholder’s just the right kind of guy at the right kind of place here, shooting the insipid, the hilarious and the exciting all in the straightforward and unpretentious manner this kind of thing demands, until nothing made of glass isn’t broken. It’s such a bunch of merry carnage (not terribly brutal as these films go) broken up by semi-embarrassing Indian (that’s the word the film prefers to use, even though it has the perfectly good word “Lakota” right there in the script; Buster of course is racist dickhead enough to always call Hank “chief”) mysticism, and general nonsense that it’s easy to miss that the script actually has some perfectly neat ideas beside the nonsense.

For once, the captain character in this sort of film (given by cop specialist Bill Smitrovich) does have an actual role to play in the plot apart from reaming out the insane, violent cop working for him, and even Buster’s absurd crusade against crooked cops has a reason to it. It’s nothing original, mind you, but I do think including some bits and pieces that actually make a degree of sense and hint at the real world in a plot only helps to make the general outrageousness of your typical action movies that decisive bit more interesting. Characters for their part are seldom not improved by adding some motivation for their actions either.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

In short: Blood Trap (2015)

aka Bite

Freshly pensioned prison guard Roman (Costas Mandylor) assembles a bunch of pea-brained violent idiots (among them Gianni Capaldi and featuring a pleasantly short appearance of Vinnie Jones) for a brilliant plan: kidnap Nika (Elena Mirela), the daughter of one of the richest gangsters alive, from the stately mansion she resides in and press her Dad into paying a ransom of forty million dollars. Whatever could go wrong?

Well, for starters, while casing out said stately mansion, our protagonists somehow managed to overlook that with every sunrise, the mansion is automatically sealed off from the outside by practically indestructible blackout shutters. As it happens, that’s exactly the time of day when the kidnapping is going down, so the idiots find themselves locked in with their supposed victim. Of course, who exactly is going to be whose victim here might just become a pressing question when trapped in a mansion among whose other features include a freezer room full of human body parts, another room with 28 babies, and crazy naked people crawling through sewer tunnels.

I don’t write this sort of thing lightly or often anymore, but I have no idea what I just watched. What starts out as one of these generally insufferable would-be Tarantino movies, just with really abysmal dialogue, quickly turns into the weirdest horror comedy I’ve seen in quite some time. Director and writer Alberto Sciamma’s sense of humour is deeply peculiar, and if you’re like me, it might not make you laugh, but it sure as hell will get your eyebrows up into the stratosphere. I most certainly won’t forget that moment when Mandylor starts walking around in a golden full plate armour any time soon. Then there’s the Viagra torture scene, and…well, most everything that’s going on in the film’s second half is pure weirdness gold.

Much of the film, and not just its sense of humour, is utterly inexplicable, not because the elements it consists of are terribly original but because the way Sciamma uses them is so off. The film is clearly following a very individual vision, fuelled by old exploitation movies, and an unironic weirdness that may not be funny (though it might very well be) but that sure as hell did interesting things to my brain while I watched it. Apart from that, Blood Trap is also really nice to look at and stylishly directed, which of course makes the grotesqueness of its contents all the more potent.

So, I certainly do not have any idea what it is all about, but I highly approve of Blood Trap.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Child’s Play 2 (1990)

It’s some months after the end of Child’s Play. Nobody believes the crazy story little Andy Barclay (Alex Vincent) and his mother tell about the murders around them having been committed by a doll possessed by a serial killer out to steal Andy’s body, so Mum has been locked up in a psychiatric facility, and Andy is temporarily given into the joyous hands of the foster system. The film never tells us who the police think killed all these people, though they don’t seem to suspect Andy or his mother.

Be that as it may, out to prove that there was nothing at all wrong with their doll Chucky, the company who made him refurbishes the thing, finding nothing (which seems rather curious, what with the thing bleeding in film number one and all), but providing Chucky with the opportunity to live again (and of course to still be voiced by Brad Dourif). Of course, Chucky quickly sneaks and murders his way out.

While that’s going on, Andy is being given to his first foster family. As these things go, Joanne (Jenny Agutter) and Phil Simpson (Gerrit Graham) aren’t bad fosters at all. Well, Joanne’s pretty fantastic at least, while Phil – sceptic of Andy right from the start – will soon show that he’s not the kind of guy you want to have take care of a child with any deeper psychological problems. Andy quickly bonds with Joanne and even more so with the Simpson’s other foster kid, late teen Kyle (Christine Elise) but things take a rather dark turn once Chucky arrives and infiltrates the house as an undercover doll (damn you, mass marketed toys!). Chucky is still attempting to steal Andy’s body, but can’t help killing more people than can be good for his plans.

To enjoy John Lafia’s lesser sequel to that likeable (and sometimes cleverer than people – including myself – give it credit for) semi-classic Child’s Play, one really needs to keep in mind that it doesn’t take place in the real world, not even in the kind of real world where doll-possessing voodoo serial killers are to be found, but in Horror Movie Land.

It’s a place where kids who have gone through a deep trauma are quickly released from an institution to be given in laymen’s hands never to see a psychologist afterwards, where a possessed doll can just phone Foster Central, say it’s a little boy’s uncle, and get all the information about him it needs, where teachers lock unruly little boys up in their classroom (or is that an American thing, like voting insane crypto-fascist billionaires into the highest office?), where factories are built by M.C. Escher and contain absurd health hazards, and where protagonists only ever flee in the most idiotic direction. It is in fact a world where dolls possessed by serial killers are among the more probable things you’ll encounter.

If you’re like me, you can swallow this bizarre nonsense without even having to flinch, and may very well enjoy Child’s Play 2 for its virtues, like the way Don Mancini’s script may contain double the late 80s horror movie stupidity of its predecessor but also features many a clever little flourish to make the main characters a bit more believably human than you’d expect in their surroundings. There’s a sense of respect for the characters (well, most of them) many a horror film of the era lacks to its detriment which helps some of the kills become slightly more than just another murder on the check list. It’s also remarkable how Alex Vincent’s acting has improved in leaps and bounds in comparatively short time.

When that isn’t enough, it is generally a lot of fun to watch Mancini and Lafia (standing before a future of middling TV work) apply all the tricks of the thriller director’s trade to even the most ridiculous of set-ups.

To my own surprise, I even found myself rather pleased with the film’s sense of humour. Late 80s horror movie goofiness abounds, yet Child’s Play 2 never steps over the fine line between silly fun and annoying idiocy (unlike, say, the Nightmare on Elm Street films very quickly did), always realizing when to stop kidding around.

All this doesn’t come together to turn Child’s Play 2 into a masterpiece but it’s an unpretentious and well crafted bit of a good time (with people dying in horrible ways).

Saturday, January 7, 2017

In short: The Saint in New York (1938)

New York is held in the death grip of organized crime! The police can’t do anything, because – unlike today’s police in that very same city (and look how that’s working out) – they’re actually holding themselves to the laws, and consequently see guilty men go free in the seemingly eternal way of vigilante movies.

A group of concerned citizens – and the police commissioner – decide that the city would become peaceful again if only someone would murder, I mean bring to justice, six particular members of organized crime. They send out one among their number (Frederick Burton) to find gentleman criminal against criminals, inciter of revolutions, adventurer and part-time vigilante Simon Templar aka “The Saint” (Louis Hayward) and ask for his help.

Templar is all too happy to become involved, and soon the gangsters are dropping left and right. But Templar finds out something very interesting: the people he murders all work for a mysterious, shadowy figure only known under the less than sinister moniker “The Big Fella”. Looks as if his list of people to kill needs an addition.

Ben Holmes’s lone Simon Templar movie is also the only time Louis Hayward was playing the character, and I can’t say I’m all that surprised. It’s not that Hayward is a bad Templar – he certainly plays a memorable version of the character - but his Saint tends to read as creepily smug rather than suavely charming, keeping more to the tastes of the 2010s when it comes to the way heroic polite sociopaths are played than to those of 1938. I’d argue Hayward’s portrayal fits the vigilante version of the character as seen here well, perhaps better than a nicer, softer version would do, but I can’t see this guy getting into the more heroic or light-hearted troubles some of the coming Saint films demand.

Apart from its interpretation of the hero, The Saint in New York is your typically entertaining programmer of its era, filling out its slot in day at the movies nicely thanks to its zippy pacing, straightforwardly effective direction by Holmes – with some moments that become downright moody or clever in your patented late 30s style – and blunt yet competent acting by everyone involved. I suspect The Saint in New York’s audience at the time felt themselves pleasantly entertained, and I still found myself having a good time nearly eighty years later when sitting down to watch it.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Past Misdeeds: A Cold Night's Death (1973)

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.

Dr. Vogel, at the behest of "the space program" the lone scientist manning a behavioural science station on top of a mountain somewhere in the arctic parts of the US (I suppose), hasn't been heard from for four weeks. One would think his employers would be a little faster reacting to loss of contact with him, especially when one keeps in mind that his last radio messages were hinting at a psychological breakdown, but I digress. Anyway, said employers haven't seen the pre-credit sequence that makes it quite clear that something is absolutely not right up there.

Finally, two new scientists, Robert Jones (Robert Culp) and Frank Enari (Eli Wallach) are flown to the station to find out what happened to Vogel and to replace him in his exciting work torturing helpless monkeys for science. They find the station in a state of disorder (but not disrepair), and Vogel dead, sitting frozen before a tape recorder in front of an open window. Vogel's corpse gets loaded into the helicopter our protagonists arrived in, and they begin to settle in.

It's too bad they don't listen to the last tape Vogel recorded at once, or they would have a fine explanation for what happened to Vogel made by himself. But very conveniently, they don't, and so someone or something has the opportunity to erase the tapes, although our not very bright scientists will at first think Vogel just didn't record anything. Which doesn't make any sense, but hey.

The corpse and the empty tapes are just the first mysterious things that begin to disturb the (of course methodically and characterwise diametrically opposite) scientists. Windows are opened at night, someone turns off the station's generator - one might begin to think there's someone else in the station, or a supernatural agency at work.

It doesn't take long at all until Jones and Enari begin to distrust one another and the question arises who is experimenting on whom here, and to what end?

I'm not as enamoured of US TV movies of the 70s as most of my American peers seem to be. For my tastes as someone who hasn't seen a single one of these movies when he was a child, many of them - certainly among them 1973's much-lauded Don't Be Afraid of the Dark - suffer from Boring Competence Syndrome and so don't really manage to excite me to reactions more emotional than a shrug. Of course, I'm also not very interested in the rich white people problems those films often love to deal with, so take that with as many grains of salt as you think applicable.

There are of course exceptions like Gargoyles or Killdozer which do manage to excite me, and A Cold Night's Death can now stand proudly among them. I'm sure ABC will be proud.

It's not that the film's script is anything near flawless. As more moments than just those I joked about in the plot synopsis or the very silly explanation for the mysterious happenings at the station demonstrate, the film's basic plot doesn't withstand close scrutiny very well. These plot holes, however, just don't seem to be all that important while on is watching a movie that isn't as much about showing off its clever plot as it is about evoking a mood of isolation and growing tension and letting its actors do the rest.

And the actors are putting a lot of effort in. I'm not always a fan of Robert Culp's performances. Too often he doesn't seem to know how and where to apply his decided talent for scenery-chewing and (oh, the pun, it hurts!) bites off more than he can or should chew. In this particular case, possibly held in check by the controlled yet intense performance by his acting partner Eli Wallach of whom I don't expect anything less, Culp is doing very fine work indeed with his intuitive genius scientist.

Being as effective as A Cold Night's Death at evoking mood is not what I'd have expected from a film made by a TV workhorse like director Jerrold Freedman, but he effortlessly and often elegantly transforms some very basic sets into a very cold haunted house through lighting and the sometimes gliding, sometimes lingering, always inventive photography of Leonard J. South.

One can't talk about the film, or rather the oppressiveness and tension of its mood, without also mentioning the movie's sound design. You can give David Lynch's much later Twin Peaks the main credit for bringing a consciousness of the importance of proper sound design into the US TV landscape, Twin Peaks however wasn't the first TV production to put thought and emphasis into this surprisingly often ignored aspect of the art of filmmaking. Case in point are this film's simple, yet excellent sound effects, especially the eerie howling of the wind and the unnerving screaming of the monkeys. It doesn't sound like much when you just read about it; hearing it is quite a different thing, especially accompanied by Gil Melle's bizarre yet appropriate (and so avantgarde sounding it wouldn't be out of place as a product of the BBC's Radiophonic Workshop) synthesizer score that further emphasizes the irreality of the situation.

Add to all these things A Cold Night's Death does right that it pushes a lot of buttons belonging to my personal narrative kinks, as films and books taking place in cold, isolated places where people are plagued by mysterious forces usually do, even when they not hold the promise of the Blackwoodian supernatural in the end, and you will probably be able to imagine how much I liked this one.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

In short: Amsterdamned (1988)

A rather creative serial killer is terrorizing Amsterdam. Thanks to the city’s abundance of canals, he gets around town by diving through said canals wearing SCUBA gear, from time to time pulling people in and slaughtering them in various unpleasant ways. The head of the investigation, Eric Visser (Huub Stapel), doesn’t have much to go on, and since the only investigating he’s ever going to do is going through a list of citizens with diving licenses, he has ample time to romance museum guide Laura (Monique van de Ven).That subplot is going to be important for the finale because writer director Dick Maas clearly couldn’t be arsed to come up with a way of unmasking the killer that doesn’t result in a yawning viewer.

But then, the script to Amsterdamned really isn’t any great shakes anyway: the killer is exactly who you think it is once the character has been introduced thanks to the film not providing any alternatives, yet still Maas pretends the whole thing to be a big surprise; the characters have zero defining traits among them (Visser is hairy and drinks a lot, I guess?); and the first hour of the film’s too ample nearly two hours of running time is mostly spent on little of interest apart from the murders.

The murders are admittedly pretty great. There’s not just the silly yet fresh SCUBA killer angle, but Maas has also put some thought into keeping the murders diverse - which is one hundred percent more thought than went into the rest of the script. An additional feather in Amsterdamned’s cap is Maas’s lovingly scuzzy outlook on Amsterdam, turning the place into the only thing on screen whose characterization isn’t taken from everyone’s favourite film school course “cliché characters without personality 101”. Add to that the actually brilliant and insane motorboat chase late in the film, and you have a rather frustrating experience.

Amsterdamned is a film that could have been brilliant, and does in fact feature quite a few incredible scenes when it comes to murder and chases, but that also gets into its own way with deeply boring characters, and plodding plotting that often goes nowhere to follow red herrings and detours for way too long. For my tastes, all this overwhelms the delicious slasher/action movie hybrid Amsterdamned’s good bits try their best to deliver.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

In short: The Neighbor (2016)

Not to be confused with other films about problematic neighbourhoods; also, there will be spoilers.

John (Josh Stewart) and his wife Rosie (Alex Essoe) work for John’s uncle Neil (Skipp Sudduth) as drug trafficking middlemen. They’ve put enough money aside to retire from their life of crime and move somewhere nicer far, far, away, hoping Neil won’t hunt them down and murder them. They didn’t steal from the man, mind you.

Unfortunately, the couple will have rather more trouble at their hands than an easily ticked-off Midwestern country drug lord. While John is making his final delivery to Neil, Rosie witnesses their neighbour Troy (Bill Engvall) murdering a young man. When John returns, Rosie is gone, supposedly run off, as Troy suggests to him. Only, if Rosie had wanted to leave John the day when they were splitting anyway, she probably would have taken the bag full of money in their house too, or at least some of it. So John knows Troy is lying, particularly since their last encounter the night before had already suggested something to be very wrong with the guy. Yes, wrong even from the perspective of someone in the drug trade.

Consequently John stealthily breaks into the house of Troy and his two sons (Ronnie Gene Blevins and Luke Edwards) to find Rosie, learning quite a bit more about their family business than he wanted to in the process, starting a night from hell for everyone involved.

I didn’t quite expect director Marcus Dunstan to follow up his silly yet wonderful The Collection with a clever little thriller making some caustic subtextual remarks about the American Dream™ like The Neighbor but I’m certainly not complaining.

This is the sort of relatively small-scale production that does basically everything right: the acting is fine throughout, the script effective and the direction is tight and focused, quickly introducing us to what’s what with the characters and then never stopping escalating their situation from there. There’s a sharpness (plus a whole lot of Kurtzman-created blood) to the proceedings even though The Neighbor does have something of an happy end, however ironic the film presents it. But then, one of the main points of the film is to show America (or at least the part of America it concerns itself with) as a place where it’s impossible not have blood on one’s hands.

Which doesn’t mean we’re not supposed to like John and Rosie; they are, after all, the only characters on screen who actually do something for others beyond taking care of their own survival, while their guilt for other people’s suffering through drugs and what comes with them is twice removed, them being middlemen (middlepersons?), after all.

If you’re really looking for something to complain here, it’s probably the basic set-up that’ll make you (un)happy there. It is a bit difficult to swallow that these particular people should end up to be neighbours but starting off from an improbable place as The Neighbor does is certainly a typical thriller move – Hitchcock certainly did it more often than not. And if I can suspend my disbelief for ghosts and zombies, I certainly can do the same when it comes to difficult neighbours.

Otherwise, The Neighbor is as fine a contemporary low budget thriller as you’re likely to find.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Night Feeder (1988)

A series of murders hits one of the parts of San Francisco populated by New Wavers, prostitutes and the kind of people who’ll eventually find a reason to become a mob (torches not mandatory). These are very strange killings, too, for the killer sucks the victims’ brains out through one of their eyes. Investigating Inspector Alonzo Bernardo (Jonathan Zeichner) has no idea what’s going on, and I don’t believe his general range of attitudes between very grumpy and painfully rude when talking to witnesses is helping him very much with getting a clue, or clues.

But don’t worry, San Francisco, writer Jean (Kate Alexander) is on the case as part of her rebound attempts following the separation from her insufferable husband. Well, when she’s not distracted by her new boy toy Bryan (Caleb Dreneaux), member of gothy new wave band Disease (gothy new wave band The Nuns), she is.

Quickly, people close to Jean are dying. Might it all have something to do with Bryan’s band and their shady past feeding groupies experimental drugs? Or is Jean right in suspecting a horribly disfigured homeless man to be the killer because she thinks he’s ugly? Or is something much more screwy going on?

Night Feeder is a surprisingly neat little shot on video (and direct to video, of course) gem made by people involved in San Francisco’s punk and new wave scene of the time, directed by Jim Whiteaker. The film mostly features highly enthusiastic amateur actors whose general demeanour oozes the sort of off-beat fun that can result when members and hangers-on of a scene get the opportunity to basically play themselves while possessing enough self-consciousness to laugh about what they see in the fun house mirror of the camera. So, despite - and perhaps thanks to - the low budget, the dubious production values and a lack of professionalism before the camera, there’s a delightfully authentic air about the world surrounding our heroine.

The dialogue wavers between what sounds like people having fun improvising, and stiff and peculiar yet often rather funny lines – Alonzo is the particular gift that keeps on giving, calling everyone he’s talking to at least once by a really stupid name. And don’t get me started on the tear-jerker (of laughter) that is the “romance” between him and Jean, a thing one needs to see to believe, only to doubt it again when one remembers it later.

This doesn’t mean Night Feeder is a stupid film. Whiteaker does his best to get around the typically bland look of shot on video projects of this time with all kinds of imaginative set-ups of coloured lights and peculiar camera angles, and the characters – let’s ignore the romance - are much better written than is typical of SOV affairs. Even Bryan turns out to be a bit more complicated than you’d expect, and Jean is downright like a person!

While the film clearly can’t afford too much monster action and gore, what is there is rather wonderful. Particularly the final reveal of the monster and the ensuing handful of minutes of wondrous madness are as good as SOV horror gets, taking something not completely original and yet making it messed up in the best horror movie way. If you like that sort of thing, there’s also a really icky scene in a morgue with a medical examiner who clearly loves his job way too much.

And even though calling Night Feeder “suspenseful” would be a bit of a lie, all the film’s digressions lead into at times curious and always interesting places in a world that’s just as lost as Ancient Egypt (if Ancient Egyptians had made shot on video movies about themselves), and offering an experience as close to time travel as we’ll get.