Tuesday, February 28, 2017

In short: The Girl with All the Gifts (2016)

I didn’t actually expect to encounter a rager/infected style zombie movie (or any zombie apocalypse movie at all, really) I’d find worthwhile any time soon, but Colm McCarthy’s adaptation of Mike Carey’s novel, with a screenplay by the author, is a pretty damn great movie.

This is a genre movie which clearly knows its audience does by now have a clear idea of the what, wherefore and why of a zombie apocalypse, so it keeps exposition to a minimum, explaining the differences between its own zombie infection and the usual ones in short bursts and expecting its audience to understand what its talking about. As a story, the film is mostly interested in its characters, the question of the ethics of species survival, and a bit of zombie business that feels more properly science fictional than is typical of a lot of the genre. And, given the skin colour of our protagonist, it does have some thoughts about “race”, too.

That doesn’t mean The Girl is a slouch when it comes to standard zombie scenes: there are a handful of vicious attack sequences, one of the few “sneak through the zombie masses” scenes that isn’t getting Shaun of the Dead wrong by being unintentionally hilarious (I’m looking at you, The Walking Dead), and some wonderfully eerie shots of what’s left of London. While all this certainly isn’t original, McCarthy approaches these sequences as if they weren’t in every other zombie/infected/whatever movie made in the last twenty years, looking at them with his own eyes and making them interesting again.

There’s also the wonderful script that only falters a little quite at the end when a bit too much plot seems to be packed into too little time but otherwise knows about the power of taking its time. Add to that some fine acting by excellent child actress Sennia Nanu, Gemma Arterton, Glenn Close (whose character most films would play as a villain but this one treats like an actual human being without making her less dangerous) and Paddy Considine, and you’ve got yourself a treat in form of a film that opts to treat the generic, its genre and its audience with respect.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Night of the Running Man (1995)

Las Vegas taxi driver Jerry Logan (Andrew McCarthy) is either very lucky or very unlucky: a particularly nervous fare is murdered, leaving behind a bag with a million bucks. Jerry, ignoring all that silly grown-ups stuff about consequences to actions one might have running around in one’s brain in this sort of situation, grabs the money and runs.

Not surprisingly, the money belongs to a gangster and casino owner (Wayne Newton). Or rather, it was stolen from said gangster by one of his underlings who found himself blackmailed by one of his underlings. The killed fare was the bagman initially hired to deliver the money to the blackmailer. Said bagman had a change of heart about the affair and decided to steal the loot for himself. Got all that? No? Well, then you’ll be happy to hear that little of this business is actually going to be important for the plot for more than a handful of filler scenes that are most probably just in the movie to bring it up to feature length.

What is important is that the gangsters send out crazy killer David Eckhart (Scott Glenn) to get the money back and kill Jerry. David is brutal, unnecessarily cruel and rather good at following Jerry to whichever city the guy flees to. Later developments find Eckhart teaming up with his old partner, a man nearly as sadistic as he is, Derek Mills (John Glover), and Jerry picking up instant love with a nurse (Janet Gunn) who will also be very useful for the obligatory kidnapping and threatening of loved ones scenes. Jerry should be thankful for the unfortunate incident with Mills, a bucket of cooking water and his feet that introduces him to his new favourite woman.

Director Mark L. Lester’s official career high point was probably the (not terribly enjoyable to an Arnold non-admirer like myself) Schwarzenegger vehicle Commando. Before and after, he directed quite a few other action films and thrillers, even some of the better skinemax films, usually pressing a watchable and entertaining film out of dubious material.

It’ll come as no surprise that you could probably hide a truck in Night of the Running Man’s (a film, by the way, mostly taking place by day and during the course of several of them, and not featuring much non-metaphorical running) plot holes, and can most certainly test some viewers’ ability to suspend their disbelief to the breaking point. That’s par for the course for low budget and mid-level action movies (hell, the more costly one’s aren’t always much better at that “logic” lark either), though, and while some developments here can make the less mild among us a bit testy, most of the film is in good fun, with even the filler scenes having some point to them – even if that point is only giving some supporting actor something entertaining to do.

Fortunately, there’s a lot of fun stuff going on: Glenn’s gleefully evil killer – first introduced when he murders his favourite prostitute because she’s starting to get rather fond of him - is a sight to behold; John Glover clearly thought so too, and turns out an evil sidekick of the same type and style. The film’s violence has a sense of the gleeful too, Glenn’s Eckhart blinding a mugger and throwing a waitress off a dam with a certain pleasurable nonchalance. The actual action scenes are tight and well-paced, and while they aren’t especially crazy, they are still working rather well on the old adrenaline glands.

Fun seems to be the film’s watchword. It’s all about delivering unpleasant personal-level violence as a fun and exciting thing to watch. and that, Night of the Running Man manages to do wonderfully.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

In short: Lost in the Pacific (2016)

If this is the way mainstream Chinese cinema wants to break into international markets, nobody in Hollywood needs to lose a second of sleep, unless one is prone to have nightmares from terrible films. Vincent Zhou’s film doubles down on all the problems hounding big budget Chinese mainland cinema – the antiseptic writing, the stiff acting, the technically accomplished but creatively bankrupt look – and makes things worse by adding everything you can do wrong in an international co-production of this sort. So the female lead of a film shot in English goes to the only Chinese actress in the film whose English is truly bad – Zhan Yuqi – because she’s the most popular female cast member in China instead of someone who can actually deliver her lines. The western actors are mostly horrible or miscast to absurdity. Brandon Routh as tough special forces soldier turned cook anyone?

The dialogue – despite one Peter Cameron whom I suspect to be an English native speaker credited as co-writer – often sounds as if it were directly translated from Mandarin, which leads to many a dialogue sequence full of hilarious non-sequiturs and clichés, turning a film that is clearly meant as a serious adventure/SF/disaster movie thing into a comedy of embarrassment for everyone involved.

The plot? Some guff about an airplane Titanic, people acting in the most idiotic ways possible, a bunch of walking clichés, a thousand different plotlines without much of a connection or development, and the horrible threat of a horde of CGI cartoon cats who can be calmed by music, namely a blind guy doing horrible things to the classical canon on his cello. Seriously. It’s the sort of script that makes your typical Michael Bay movie look like Shakespeare in comparison. And no, of course there’s neither suspense nor tension to be found anywhere. There are only pretty people who won’t (even though least some of them could) act, saying the darndest things.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Past Misdeeds: Wardat (1981)

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

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

A mysterious evil scientific genius (in whose hunchbacked, jodhpur-wearing glory the audience will be allowed to bask only much later in the movie) is sending out swarms of locusts to destroy the Indian rice harvest. Then, he uses his favourite henchman Shakti Kapoor (Shakti Kapoor; no, I have no idea why the actor is alright with having the bad guy named after himself, but that's not the first time I have seen this in a Bollywood film) to drown the food market in cheap, low quality rice that has been enriched with a drug that - on first impression - seems to make people just sort of horny (in a Bollywood way, obviously).

When Shakti's not taking care of the rice business, he is killing the people the suspicious Indian government has commissioned to investigate the mysterious case of the atypical acting locusts. And, just because he's a proactive kind of guy, Shakti is also setting up various murder attempts on that greatest of all Indian secret agents - Gopi (Mithun Chakraborty), also known as "Gun-Master G9". As it turns out, Gopi's so secret, his code name is even written on the side of his car. But while you can say less than pleasant things about Gopi's knack for secrecy, you can't fault the man's talent for survival, or his talent for kicking people in the face, and so Shakti's assassination attempts all come to nought.

Now, your typical James Bond-like agent would begin to develop an interest when people are trying to kill him, but Gopi prefers taking part in random musical numbers, accidentally picking up the kinda-sorta tomboyish Kajal (Kajal Kiran) who soon is crazily in love with him, and just lazing about to doing any actual work, until he can't escape the urgent calls of his boss, the man they call Chief (Iftekhar), anymore.

Not surprisingly, Chief wants Gopi to find out what all this business with the rice, the locusts and the dying agents is about. Soon, Gopi, his assistant Kabadi (Jagdeep - hear me sigh) and the quite competent in a fight Kajal have their hands full lazing about some more, ahem, I mean finding out what Shakti's plan is and who he is working for.
Shakti himself has all the while made contact with Anuradha (Kalpana Iyer), the sister of one of the Chief's dead agents, and has convinced her that Gopi is responsible for her brother's death. Knowing the agent's reputation as a lady killer, the evil Kapoor is planning on using the innocent woman as bait for his enemy.

In my mind, I have Mithun Chakraborty pegged as the go-to guy for the batshit insane sort of Bollywood films, so I found myself a little disappointed when Wardat's first ninety minutes turned out to be rather normal. Sure, there's the fact that the evil plan the film is about is as sane as the proverbial guy who takes himself for Napoleon, or the abundance of bizarre details surrounding Gopi (for example his idea of daily combat training, consisting as it does of fighting a big guy who breaks down his door and destroys his furniture in the mornings; I suppose the Indian government pays rather well), but in the world of the James Bond inspired super spy film, this sort of thing is rather mundane.

Fortunately, I'm trying very hard not to judge movies on what I expect of them, but on what they are delivering, so the disappointment soon turned into the sort of basic satisfaction that comes from watching terribly cheap yet vaguely competently made films like this that are throwing their all (small as it may be) into the will to entertain.

And if one lets oneself be entertained, one can have quite some fun with Mithun's adventures here. His Mithun Fu is strong and ridiculous/awesome as ever; Kajal wavers between being pretty annoying and pretty charming, and while she's not shown to be equal to Mithun's bizarre achievements, she's at least treated as competent and resourceful; Jagdeep's "comedic" bits are mercifully short (and his character is even allowed to shoot a few people, which explains why anyone would put up with him); the musical numbers are mostly okay, certainly not the best nor the most bizarre even I have heard from Bappi Lahiri, although I quite liked the early one with the pixel and red cross theme.

All that combined would make Wardat a solid yet not especially remarkable movie, but the film's director Ravikant Nagaich decides to put out all the stops for the final three quarters of an hour of his film. Suddenly everything that was alright before turns into the sort of brilliant, ridiculous fun I had hoped for from the beginning.

Mithun does SCIENCE! in front of multi-coloured, blinking lights. Suddenly, we are in Africa, at once in a jungle, a desert and on a mountain. Mithun and Kajal are drugged for a cheaply psychedelic romp of tumble-dancing. Then, we enter the lair of our true main bad guy which is probably situated in a ruin in Egypt - at least that's what the statues in it look like, though his dancing troupe (yes, of course our heroes will pretend to be part of it directly before the big finale) is dressed in a mix of Peruvian, Aztec and Hollywood Africana and his guards are wearing what looks like white kendo masks - and are suddenly confronted with some of the most eye-popping uses of red lighting that have ever touched human eyes, a baby farm, torture by shaking, a duel to the death with added sharpshooting archers, mind-control, Mithun wrestling a tiger and various explosions large and small. In other words, all the extreme, silly excitement on could wish for turns up, shouts gleefully at your face, dances a little jig, fights and leaves this always hopeful, yet oh so often disappointed watcher of dubious movies with a warm afterglow and a sudden and frightening love for Mithun Chakraborty.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Three Films Make A Post: Fear takes a road trip.

Broadcast News (1987): They sure don’t make romantic comedies like James L. Brooks’s film anymore, though I’m not sure they ever did make many romantic comedies with endings this sober-minded yet un-cynical that also worked just as well as media satires (in this case like Network if it were an actual film with characters instead of a very long self-satisfied rant). Add to that sharp and deep acting performances by Holly Hunter, William Hurt and Albert Brooks, dialogue that’s cutting and funny and wise and absurd all at the same time, direction that does a lot of thematic and emotional work without ever pointing to its own class, and you’ll be as confused as I am that this thing was actually once nominated for seven Oscars (but didn’t win any, don’t you worry).

Cave (2016): Another point to add to my list of “things movies taught me”: going on an illegal cave diving expedition isn’t such a swell idea if you are the members of a love triangle. Apart from bringing me that helpful insight, Henrik Martin Dahlsbakken’s cave-bound thriller looks slick and contains one and a half truly creepy scenes but lacks the psychological depth in its characters to be a proper character-based thriller, as well as the tight control a film like this needs to be truly suspenseful. It’s competent and not particularly clever, yet still would be a film I’d recommend for a bored afternoon or so, but the rest of my goodwill for the whole affair got eaten up by its ending. For after not even eighty minutes of plot, the narrative just stops on a cliffhanger (not a proper open ending, mind you) with titles informing us the sequel is going to be in cinemas soon, adding insult to injury and making quite sure I’m not going to waste my time on said sequel.

The Axe Murders of Villisca (2016): Taking place in the house where a bunch of historical axe murders happened, this indie production directed by Tony E. Valenzuela turned out to be rather better than the teenagers versus ghosts flick I expected it to be. The characters are somewhat more interesting than usual in this sort of thing (and well acted to boot), the script knows where it wants to be and how to get there, and the photography is often effectively moody. The film doesn’t quite manage to hold the tension it has built up throughout its final act but I enjoyed my time with it quite a bit. And unlike Cave, it has an actual ending.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Harry in Your Pocket (1973)

Sandy (Trish Van Devere) and Ray (Michael Sarrazin) meet cute at a train station when he awkwardly steals her watch, and her bags are stolen by somebody else when she’s politely going after him to get it back. Ray’s got a bit of bad conscience about the whole thing, and they hit it off as well, so he offers to give Sandy a couple hundred dollars once he’s sold off his other ill gotten gains.

They don’t only land in bed but sort of team up, following the small time crime grapevine to a job opportunity. Harry (James Coburn) the suave yet cold boss of a wire gang (a small team of dedicated pickpockets) is looking for new partners, seeing as he’s only working with aged pickpocket – and his sole friend - Casey (Walter Pidgeon) right now. Thanks to Sandy – who’d be convincing even if Harry didn’t take a shine to her – Harry takes them on despite Ray’s dubious talent and lack of a knack for his chosen criminal enterprise. It’s going to be a learning experience.

Various factors – among them a developing love triangle, Ray’s overambition and Casey’s love for cocaine – just might end up ruining a good thing.

Harry in Your Pocket’s director Bruce Geller is best known as creator/writer/producer of TV shows like Mission Impossible and Mannix and less for his only cinematic film as a director (he’s also responsible for TV movie The Savage Bees but nobody’s perfect). It is an unfairly overlooked little film, though I’m not exactly surprised by how comparatively little seen Harry is, for the film’s copious charms aren’t exactly on the obvious side.

This is a film, after all, you’ll compliment with adjectives like “quiet”, “unassuming”, or “consciously small-scale and dramatically inconspicuous” which is not an approach to filmmaking that will help many people notice a film. It certainly doesn’t help the film either that Geller’s direction is not at all on the flashy side – in fact, two or three scenes show his TV roots rather clearly. There is, in particular, a pretty damn tacky scene of slow motion seagull feeding to ignore, but if you do ignore these few moments of tosh, you realize Geller is usually just stepping back to make room for his actors and their characters, doing exactly as much as he needs to help them while otherwise getting out of their way.

Which is obviously the right decision for a film this disinterested in heightened drama or rather, one this interested in the small drama of human interactions and the musical qualities of pickpocketing. The quartet of main characters (the film not really features anyone else as more than objects for the characters to work on) earns Geller’s trust well: Coburn is letting go of a lot of his typical acting tics (I’ve never seen the man acting less with his teeth), while Van Devere manages to effortlessly sell Sandy as an independent woman despite her part in the love triangle (where the film to my surprise and approval still doesn’t treat her as an object for the men to fight over but as an active participant) so much that she dominates the audience’s sympathy for much of the film. Sarrazin’s believably inexperienced, and Pigeon shows all the dignities and indignities of age in a profession not made for old people (I mean pickpocketing, not acting).

While the film slowly meanders through not much of a plot in which only a handful of small scale dramatic things happen, it does so in the full knowledge that actual people like you and me live and die on this small scale. The film clearly wants its audience to let go of the crutches of melodrama without going all arthouse on it. It works beautifully too for most of the time. I, at least, found myself quietly enraptured by the proceedings, in sympathy with the characters and actually touched by a quietly sad ending that even shows one of the characters committing a quietly heroic act – on a human scale.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

In short: Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama (1998)

A sadistic, bottom-paddling sorority chieftainess (Robin Still) sends her stupid little club’s newest pledges (Brinke Stevens and Michelle Bauer) out to steal a bowling trophy from the local Bowl-O-Rama. Three local nerds (Andras Jones, Hal Havins and John Stuart Wildman) have to accompany them as punishment for peeping on the girls.

Awkwardness, a bit of demonic possession, violence, and “ironic” wish fulfilment ensue when our protagonists accidentally free a demonic imp (the voice of Michael Sonye working under the nom de plume of “Dukey Flyswatter”) who was trapped in the trophy (don’t ask). One of the nerds manages to team up with roving punkette Spider (Linnea Quigley keeping her shirt on for a whole film, believe it or not) – only there to rob the bowling alley – improving his chances of survival to no end.

Once you’ve called your film Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama you have made yourself practically critic proof, for whatever criticism anyone could throw at your film you can easily answer by crying “Look at the title! What the hell did you expect!?”. Ironically enough, this core text of the Scream Queen horror comedy subgenre that mixes Porky’s style “sex comedy” (not to be confused with comedies actually about sex, the quotation mark version is about showing tits) is not quite as bad as all that.

Now, don’t get me wrong, the film’s jokes fall flat at least half of the time even when you try to approach them with the mind-set of a fifteen year old heterosexual boy, the script is barely there, as is the gore, and the nudity is of that “naughty” style which seems so embarrassed by itself you want to pat the people involved on the head and tell them it’s okay. However, the other half of the jokes is sometimes somewhat funny, the actresses seem to approach whatever goofy crap they are supposed to be doing in any given scene with a wink, a smile, and the sort of bad acting that comes over as likeable rather than bad. Plus, for something directed by David DeCoteau, this is surprisingly fast-paced and decently shot, with sets that are somewhat larger than the tiny wardrobes most of the guy’s later films seem to be shot in.

What Sorority Babes completely lacks is a cynical side. The nudity – at least from here and now – is used so harmlessly the word “innocent” comes to mind to describe it, and while this is in theory a sleazy movie exploiting a bunch of young actresses’ willingness to undress in front of the camera, it’s all so clearly harmless and in good fun, criticizing it seems mean spirited at best. And, after all, I’m watching a film called Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama, so I have nobody to blame but myself, right?

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016)

Tommy Tilden (Brian Cox) owns a morgue in some small county in the USA. He’s also the local coroner, clearly a diligent and experienced one, working together with his son Austin (Emile Hirsch), who is staying on as his dad’s assistant more because he can’t bring himself to leave his old man, who is still not really coping with the death of his wife two years ago, than because he loves the work.

This night, the local sheriff (Michael McElhatton) brings trouble to their door in form of a female unidentified corpse (Olwen Kelly). The titular Jane Doe was found half buried in the cellar of a family home whose other inhabitants have died under mysterious circumstances. How the young woman came to be there nobody knows, nor is the cause of her death at all apparent – she looks as well-preserved as any corpse you’ll encounter (he said, expertly).

On the outside she does at least. As the Tildens will discover during the autopsy, on the inside, Jane Doe is suffering from all manner of horrible injuries. Impossible injuries for that matter, for there’s no way her inside could look like it does and her outside not showing any of it. While the coroner duo puzzle over the corpse and what they find in it, strange and increasingly threatening things start happening around them. It’s as if their Jane Doe is much more then just a creepy corpse.

The Autopsy of Jane Doe is not exactly the film you’d expect André Øvredal to direct after the brilliant POV horror/fantasy comedy Troll Hunters. It is a very different film both tonally and formally, yet it shares with the previous one its director’s calm control over his material and a precise focus on what’s important for the film at hand.

Formally, The Autopsy is nearly classicist horror, taking the autopsy gone wrong scenes we know as set pieces from quite a few other films and turning them into a full movie that decides not to follow a lot of horror rules established in the 80s. So there’s barely a body count – making the deaths that do happen all the more emotionally important – and while this isn’t a film that’s showing nothing of its supernatural threat (there’s a bit of the red stuff for sure, some might argue even a bit too much in the finale scenes), Øvredal prefers to use things that are heard but not seen, shadows in the corner, and the audience’s minds.

He’s rather brilliant at this, too, using the small cast and the few rooms the film takes place in to create a palpable affair of dread, isolating his characters and turning their normal surroundings into a place of horror for them (while still keeping the irony in mind that the characters’ normal surroundings would certainly strike parts of the audience as anything but). The escalation of the situation is nearly perfectly timed as well, developing slowly but not so slowly anyone should get impatient.

One of the film’s greatest strengths is how cleverly it uses Tommy’s and Austin’s relationship and their character background not only to make them relatable to an audience (which is always well-meant but a very basic thing to do) but really makes what makes them tick important to the way they relate to the supernatural goings-on. Even though there’s a thematic and metaphorical relation between Jane Doe and the Tildens, and more importantly to the way they react to her, The Autopsy never falls into the habit of only seeing its supernatural threat as the metaphor. So this is very much a film about pain, what it does to people for worse yet also for better, and how we attempt to take on other peoples’ pain, but it is also a film about two guys fighting a supernatural threat that deserves quite a bit of compassion. Which is just the way I like a horror film to handle this sort of thing.

I’m not terribly fond of the film’s final act, though, for in the last few minutes, the plot stumbles into a needless array of horror film conventions that doesn’t really feel of a piece with what came before. I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if that most terrible of monsters, the focus group, had struck there again.

Still, a bad minute or fifteen are by far not enough to drag down a film this accomplished and clever, so The Autopsy of Jane Doe is still one of the best horror films I’ve seen last year (and 2016 had quite a few good to brilliant ones).

Saturday, February 18, 2017

In short: Witches’ Night (2007)

Jim (Gil McKinney) has been left standing alone at the altar by his prospective wife, so his brother and his two best friends decide to take him out on a spontaneous drinking and camping trip that’ll even devolve into canoeing if opportunity arises because canoeing has never been the kiss of death in all horror films ever made.

Unfortunately, it turns out the night before Halloween is not a good time to be traipsing around these particular patches of wood. Witches are looking for a sacrifice to Satan, and our quartet of idiots are just the kind of people they can use for that.

I’ve seen many films that were objectively much worse than Paul Traynor’s indie horror Witches’ Night. At least, the acting here is basically decent, and while the film certainly won’t charm anyone with visual style and grace, it is shot well enough, it’s edited somewhat competently, and so on and so forth.

Yet still I enjoyed watching many a worse film much more than this one, for while Witches’ Night isn’t terrible in any way, shape or form, it is so pedestrian being terrible would at least make it somewhat more interesting. There’s little of interest happening, and the potentially interesting moments of violence and sex (I’m not even hoping for anything deeper from a film like this) are so tame, they might just as well not be in there at all for all the difference in excitement levels that would make.

However, at least the film taught me one thing: the touch of a witch leaves a nasty rash. Insert your favourite 40s mildly misogynist anti-STD slogan here, sailor.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Past Misdeeds: Ogroff (1983)

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

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

A leather mask and wool cap wearing killer who might or might not respond to the name of Ogroff (the film's director/writer/nearly-everything-else-er N.G. Mount) haunts a patch of woods in the French countryside, doing what masked killers do, namely killing people with his favourite axe, eating parts of their corpses raw (although he appreciates a good blood soup, too), and having sex with said axe in his bone-adorned shed. From time to time, Ogroff has more interesting things to do, like having a longish duel with a chainsaw-wielding gentleman or demolishing a very French car with his axe in real-time.

While Ogroff goes about his day(s) - time tends to be somewhat malleable in these woods - a female relative of one of his victims - let's call her Girl - arrives to find out what happened to her sister/brother/little nephew. While she's at it, she also decapitates a zombie with the help of her trusty car and a rope. When Girl and Ogroff meet, our hero (yep, that's what he is, sorry) hauls her over his shoulder and drags her to his shed where the two soon proceed to have consensual sex. Afterwards, Girl starts with improving Ogroff's home by burying various body parts and tidying up the shed.

It looks like the start of a perfect relationship, if not for the sad fact that Girl doesn't want Ogroff to continue killing. Of course, Ogroff sneaks off to follow his calling anyway. While he's out, Girl finds a trapdoor in the shed, and unwittingly frees the zombies living under Ogroff's and her home. Soon, Girl has quite enough of her new boyfriend's very alternative lifestyle, but will that help her against the zombies? And will Ogroff be able to axe all the flesheaters before he himself is all gnawed up?

During the course of its unlife, Ogroff has developed quite a reputation with friends of the seediest and most obscure regions of horror film culture for being astonishingly bizarre even compared to other weekend movie projects by amateur enthusiasts. And a very deserving reputation that is.

At first, Mount's film lives from creating the feeling that the life of a backwoods slasher is much more quotidian than one would expect. The killing, the gore, the head-adorned cross in Ogroff's yard are all filmed with a sense of shrugging matter-of-factness, as if there were nothing strange or disturbing about these things, as if running around killing people were really nothing more than another day at the office, not just for Ogroff, but also for Mount's camera and the audience sharing its gaze. Creating this mood of the boringly normal out of the outrageous is already an achievement, but Mount seems to realize that more than thirty minutes of it would get a bit boring for a viewer, and so begins to spice things up by adding increasing amounts of weird shit to the proceedings - possibly just to keep the viewer on his feet.

Things like the axe masturbation sequence in which Ogroff seems to touch his axe instead of his penis, and not so much his penis with his axe handle are still handled with the same laconic (possibly apathetic) flair as the rest, they do however feel even weirder by being given this treatment. Even at the very end, coming with the surprise appearance of Howard Vernon as [spoiler redacted], when the film turns completely into a comic book as written and drawn by a French gore loving Fletcher Hanks, Mount keeps the friction between the utter normalcy with which he treats his subject and the batshit insane nature of it up. I mean, everyone sleeps with the killer of one's beloved sister/brother/whatever, right? And it's not at all unusual to have zombies in one's cellar?

On a more technical level, Ogroff is not always as bad as you'd expect from its nature as an amateur film. Sure, light changes happen rapidly and randomly, and sometimes it's too dark to see much even in scenes that are probably supposed to take place in daylight (although the latter problem, as some random blurriness, might be the fault of the print I saw and not of the film itself). The film features nearly no dialogue, and the minute or two of it which are there are as asynchronously dubbed and boredly spoken as anything I've ever heard. Naturally, the film's acting is done in the pantomime style of really bad silent movie acting (personal favourite: when female victim number one finds her dead husband/boyfriend/whatever and holds her bloody hand into the camera while mugging). Obviously, the gore is at times embarrassingly fake, with a special love for what looks like unpainted styrofoam heads.

However, while all these flaws (and more) are present and accounted for, Ogroff also features more than a few well composed - even moody - shots, an awesome minimalistic non-score of synthesizer warbling and overloud sound effects, and acting which is perfectly adorable if one pretends that this is in fact a silent movie gone insane.

There's also the disturbing fact that Ogroff, the big cannibalistic oaf, is quite endearing. If one takes on the minor effort to shut off one's moralizing inner Roger Ebert, one can begin to adore the little gestures of Mount's performance, the slight sagging of the auteur's shoulders when he realizes that Girl has left him, the enthusiastic post-axe-pleasuring drooling. Plus, how many movie axers apart from Ogroff do you know who are frequently seen pushing a bike through the woods, and who wear a helmet over their mask and wool cap while riding their motorcycle, axe in hand?

And, you know, even if all of that doesn't float your boat, Ogroff still has so much more to offer for someone who likes her movies as batshit insane as possible.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

In short: Black Christmas (2006)

Sometimes, it helps not being such a big fan of a film that’s being remade. Now, I like Bob Clarke’s original Black Christmas just fine, even though I think it is a bit blandly directed, a problem I have with all of Clark’s films. However it’s a movie whose supporters often tend to come over as rather overexcited about this particular proto slasher, probably because he was so unfairly overlooked for quite some time. Once the “It’s better than Halloween” card is played, though, and the Halloween in question isn’t the Rob Zombie abomination, I tend to back away very slowly and very carefully.

Anyway, given my position, I can enjoy Glen Morgan’s in name and very basic set-up only remake for what it is: someone’s platonic ideal of video nasty, my second-favourite Christmas slasher (number one is of course Christmas Evil/You Better Watch Out), and an all-around joyfully messed up bundle of horror as a fun ride. This being a Morgan joint (his long-time partner James Wong relegated to a producer credit in what is a sign of one of the saddest divorces I know), the film is packed to the gills with – often hilariously – macabre detail, a very bloody sense of whimsy, male characters that are either totally useless or the killer, a love of the grotesque and the all-around weird jumping – sometimes literally - from every corner, sardonic use of musical standards, and Kristen Cloke.

It’s not a terribly logical film - but then it really doesn’t attempt or pretend to be – instead it is a sometimes sleazy, always bloody series of fun set pieces, paced with panache, crisply photographed in often pleasantly popping colours. Add to that a very special cookie recipe, an absurd yet awesome killer backstory told in flashbacks, some interesting thoughts about the proper use of Christmas trees and their ideal ornamentation, and you’ve got yourself a Santa Clause sized bag of Christmas fun.

If I’m perfectly honest, I prefer this to the original Black Christmas by a country mile, but then, there’s not accounting for taste, particularly not mine.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Child’s Play 3 (1991)

It’s been a few years since Child’s Play 2. Andy (now played by Justin Whalin) is sixteen, and he’s had a hard time of it. His mother has never been released from the psychiatric institution she had been dumped in between films number one and two (which is the one plot point of the first three Chucky films I find genuinely horrifying), and Andy’s been going from one foster home to the next, stamped “a troublemaker” by the System. Now, in a move one can only interpret as an attempt to ruin all of his hopes for some sort of normal life forever, Andy’s being interred in a military school where we will never see any actual education going on but a lot of sadistic bullying by older kids being put in charge by the guys supposedly running the school.

As if that weren’t bad enough, the company producing Chucky and his Good Guy Doll non-brethren reintroduces the doll line to the market. In a style rather normal for the company with the least safe production plant not producing crap for Apple/outside of The Mangler, they melt up their old dolls including the dissolved corpse of Chucky to make the new ones. Wouldn’t you know it, Chucky’s serial killer soul (still and always voiced by Brad Dourif, praised be the Gods) revives in one of the MKII Good Guy dolls. His first order of business – after murdering the Good Guy corporation’s CEO for reasons – is to mail himself to the military school to steal Andy’s sweet, sweet body. Don’t ask how he managed to package himself, please.

Anyway, once he’s arrived and has been stolen and unpacked by Tyler (Jeremy Sylvers), a much younger cadet, Chucky very suddenly and conveniently decides that he has got a new doll body, so he doesn’t actually need to possess Andy, but can groom himself a newer, more amiable, and more stupid body. And Tyler is indeed little, and he’s dumb as a rock, so…

However, after one accidentally thwarted attempt at soul transferral into Tyler, Chucky decides to kill people he doesn’t need to kill and makes himself known to the only guy who actually believes in him. He’s a voodoo serial killer in the body of a doll, not a mastermind, after all.

So yeah, the third Child’s Play - this time directed by Jack Bender (of future J.J. Abrams TV show fame) yet still written by Don Mancini - does again, like part two, take place in horror movie land, often letting go of sense (and most probably sensibility) for a joke or plot convenience, leaving the poor audience to ignore these failings as good as possible.

Again like with the second film, and despite my predilection for becoming quite easily annoyed by these needless weaknesses so typical of horror films of this particular era, I actually managed to ignore these parts of the film while watching. For while it is even sillier and more comedic than the last film, Child’s Play 3 also keeps the unpretentious air of its predecessor. So the film features jokes that aren’t meant to demonstrate neither the misanthropy of its makers nor their superiority over their material but are indeed meant to make one chuckle while staying pleasantly macabre. It helps here that Dourif and the new special effects doll are most of the time genuinely funny in a creepy crazy clown way that can still produce a certain feeling of menace in its audience without having to lose itself in contradictions.

Even though the plot is certainly pretty dumb it does set up a handful of fine suspense set pieces realized by Bender with old-fashioned craftsmanship. Sure, nothing happening here will set the world on fire, but there’s more than enough going on to fend off boredom and provide the jaded viewer with a dose of fun. I could imagine a Child’s Play franchise that is much darker, and more interested in the horrible things the original trilogy does to Andy’s mental health, but the one we’ve got is so decent in all the ways that count I find myself liking it more than most other horror franchises by the sheer virtue of every film actually playing as if the filmmakers involved did care about their audience. Plus, the next two films in the series are that most rare beasts, ironic, self-referential 90s horror films I actually like.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

In short: Manhunter (1986)

Before Anthony Hopkins chewed the scenery as Hannibal Lector, there was this Michael Mann adaptation of Robert Harris’s first novel featuring everyone’s favourite cannibalistic psychiatrist/psychiatric cannibal (in a minor role). Brian Cox gives a rather more laidback Hannibal (in this case named Lecktor), because on the psycho side, Manhunter is mostly the show of Tom Noonan as Francis Dollarhyde. Noonan goes for a performance that finds the wounded in the grotesque and the horrible, making Dollarhyde relatable as a terrible human being because we can still see his humanity in his monstrosity. In a way, Dollarhyde reflects William Petersen’s Will Graham who has wounded himself by having to become the grotesque and the horrible to understand it.

Plotwise, after about three million post Silence of the Lambs films, Manhunter does look rather quotidian, with Graham basically having all the problems all movie profilers have (whereas real life profilers, going by the books they write when they retire, mostly seem to suffer from badly inflated egos and a concept of their own importance you don’t need to be a cosmicist to find ridiculous), Dollarhyde’s peculiar obsessions looking downright sensible compared to the nonsense many of his later colleagues will get up to, and a lot of dialogue sounding very much like the psycho procedural movie version of “yada yada”. However, there’s not just Noonan’s strong performance to carry the film but also Michael Mann’s peculiar sensibilities as a director. Never has the plot been written that Mann will not turn strange through an emphasis on atypical plot beats, and the staging of scenes in highly stylized and individual manners.

In this case, Mann has decided to bury his characters in horrifying modernist architecture and the colour white, suggesting that a lot of what’s wrong with these people is caused by an overabundance of white light.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Run All Night (2015)

For a decade or some, Jimmy Conlon (Liam Neeson) worked as best friend and private hitman for New York gangster boss Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris), earning himself the charming nickname of “The Gravedigger”. Now, Jimmy’s old, frequently drunk and wracked with guilt for all the people he murdered. His job, and what he thinks his particular set of abilities says about him as a man and as a human being, also cost him the relationship with his son, Michael (Joel Kinnaman), and anyone else he ever loved apart from Shawn.

Michael – a failed boxer turned limousine driver – wants nothing whatsoever to do with his father. This state of affairs has to change when he witnesses Shawn’s son Danny (Boyd Holbrook) – just as violent as his father but clearly lacking all control and finesse – murdering an Albanian drug dealer. Despite Danny’s worst efforts of getting rid of the witness, Michael escapes with his life. When Shawn calls Jimmy to talk things out, things seem set to die down without any further corpses, but Danny goes over his father’s head to kill Michael anyway. Jimmy has no choice but to shoot him to protect his own son.

Shawn is very displeased, at once putting all his men on finding and murdering Michael and his family (preferably in front of Jimmy), and Jimmy himself. Things are particularly hairy because “among his men” also means quite a few cops. Shawn also manipulates the evidence for the dead dealers to point towards Michael, which takes care of the honest cops too. He’s his father’s son, after all, right? Well, there is the somewhat more thoughtful – and certainly absolutely honest as proven by his hounding Jimmy for years – Detective John Harding (Vincent D’Onofrio) who just might believe Michael’s story, but a policeman has to go where the evidence points him.

In the following hours, Jimmy will do anything to protect his son, perhaps finding a kind of redemption even though he has to fall back into his worst self.

The even mildly genre-savvy reader will obviously have noticed that Jaume Collet-Serra’s crime action thriller lacks any original bones, starting from a well-known set-up, with well-known character types, going through a well-known kind of plot without any developments that’ll surprise anyone. Even the lead characters seem rather obviously cast for their roles.

However – and this is a rather big “however” in my book – Collet-Serra hits all the expected plot beats with such good timing and trusts in his actors’ abilities to sell the clichés as true so effectively, that I found myself absolutely engrossed in the film, not caring the slightest that I’d seen this all before but in fact enjoying everything as if it were new; or at least new-ish.

It does surely help that Collet-Serra, despite being not much of a name director, is a fine all-rounder (if you ignore Non-Stop, his previous Neeson action movie), in this case demonstrating himself to be fully at home in cracking action sequences, the quick evocation of mood via wet city streets, and making space for old school presence actors like Neeson and Harris to show off their talents without things ever becoming showy.

Run All Night is probably not the sort of film anyone who doesn’t love genre movies as a whole as much as I do will find quite this entrancing but if you’ve a heart for tales of aging violent men and their emotional baggage (surprisingly enough in this case also including some clever mirroring of characters and their respective baggages in the script) you owe it to yourself to watch this. In keeping with most of Collet-Serra’s body of work, it’s a much better film than it strictly needs to be.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

In short: Valley of the Sasquatch (2015)

aka Hunting Grounds

After the death of his mother and his father Roger’s (Jason Vail) descent into alcoholism and bad luck, college age Michael (Miles Joris-Peyrafitte) has to move into an old cabin in the woods with his him. When Roger’s drinking buddy Sergio (David Saucedo) and Michael’s uncle Will (D’Angelo Midili, looking at least five years too young for the role) visit for an inaugural weekend, a hunting trip leads everyone into a lethal encounter with a local bigfoot population that has been disturbed by logging, and – not having any bigfoot psychiatrists – has a tendency to cope rather violently.

John Portanova’s bigfoot movie (whose characters never actually use the Sasquatch term because the filmmakers didn’t plan on using the S word in the title either) goes through all the standards of this particular horror sub-genre, clearly telling its tale with a degree of knowledge of not only other bigfoot movies but also of bigfoot lore. Because this is the post-Syfy Original-age, there is a family reconciliation subplot and some decently thought out family drama to lighten the load of the monster attacks and to get the audience to care about the future bigfoot victims. The writing isn’t quite sharp enough to not make one wish for the introductions to be over quickly, nor is the acting quite good enough for what the film attempts there, but I appreciate it at least trying to elevate the characters to something more than mere bigfoot fodder.

Once the monster attack business starts, the film uses its obviously very limited budget quite well: Portanova’s direction is matter of fact but quite assured, the bigfoot suits are decent, there’s even an accomplished arm ripping (an act that is to bigfoot flicks like gut-munching is to zombie films), and the action is budget-conscious but flows nicely enough in a conservative monster movie way. All in all, Valley of the Sasquatch is a perfectly fine little monster movie that recommends itself for those times in one’s movie watching life when one just wants to see a pleasantly competent bigfoot movie and some ripped off limbs.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Past Misdeeds: Warlock Moon (1975)

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.

College student Jenny (Laurie Walters) lets herself be talked into a nice little picnic out in the country surrounding her native San Francisco by a guy she has just met on campus. It seems that a combination of bad jokes, a Groucho Marx nose and beard and a painful Inspector Clouseau imitation are the direct way into this girl's heart. I think I'm gonna put that into my book of sure ways to charm the ladies.

When he's not joking, John (Joe Spano) introduces himself as a junior reporter for a local newspaper.

After their picnic, Jenny and John end up at an old, abandoned looking health resort (where the audience has already witnessed a woman being axed by a very backwoodsy looking gentleman in the teaser sequence). Some walking through perfectly moody abandoned buildings ensues, until the young people meet an old woman (Edny MacAfee) who lives in the place. At first, this Mrs Abercrombie is a little grumpy, but it doesn't take long until she falls into the typical nice old lady routine, tea and everything you'd expect included. Jenny very suddenly begins to feel woozy, and so decides to stay behind while Mrs Abercrombie gives John an official tour of the place. The young woman uses this opportunity to get a little nosy, and at once finds a nice set of drugs and syringes in a drawer. Jenny doesn't seem to think much about it, though, and so just decides to take another little stroll through the spa herself. The young woman sees and hears quite peculiar and disturbing things on her way around, but - surprisingly - nothing truly terrible happens to her. She's just left with a less than pleasant impression of the ruined spa, and probably promises herself never to return there.

Her aversion to the place notwithstanding, John manages to talk Jenny into visiting it a second time a few weeks later. This decision turns out to be a mistake that will put Jenny into an ideal position to learn things about the local black magic cannibal cult and the unpleasant history of the spa she never dared to ask.

Warlock Moon is another one of these strange and beautiful independent, regional US horror productions of the 70s and 80s I love so much. As is so often the case with films like this, Warlock Moon's director, writer, editor and producer Bill Herbert only made this single film and then never was heard from again (yeah, I know, the commentary track on the DVD would probably enlighten me regarding Herbert's further career, but where's the mystery in that?). But really, what need for making more movies could there have been after Herbert had made a perfect specimen like this one?

Herbert's movie isn't one of those local productions that look like they were made by blind and deaf men barely knowing in which direction to point their cameras, not to speak of things like properly lighting a scene. Although Herbert's direction shows a certain lack of experience and the rawness that comes from making a film on the very cheap, a lot of the film works quite beautifully. The director has an especially good eye for the long scenes of Jenny walking through the impressive abandoned buildings most of the film takes place in, using what is one of the perfect locations for a film like this with relish. The ruin's of the health resort are possibly the film's main attraction, and certainly its star, imbuing Warlock Moon with the striking instant eeriness of actual places that can be found so often in the independent US horror films of its era.

Warlock Moon is also a true film of its era. Seen from a distance, its plot doesn't make much sense, and the plan of its occult cannibal conspiracy does even less so. However, the plot is of course just an excuse to show scenes of Spano, MacAfee and her assistants being creepy and of Jenny losing herself (quite like this viewer) in the atmosphere of the abandoned houses. In its 70s stubbornness (or perhaps just the confusion that seems to have infected much of the pop culture of its time), Warlock Moon does not seem to believe in clear explanations for anything that happens in it. The audience is allowed to learn that evil is afoot here, and understand that Jenny's role is going to be very unpleasant, but the film prefers to leave many of the questions a viewer will ask unanswered. We never learn what makes Jenny a special case affording special rituals, for example. Why is she a stand-in for the bride whose killing seems to have been the original sin of the cannibal cult? The connection between the spa's sordid history and the things happening there now is also kept ambiguous (is it the same cult as decades ago, or a new one making use of a place already filled with occult meaning?), as are Jenny's meetings with what might be a ghost or just a hallucination caused by drugged tea and frightful stories. While I'm talking about the ghost - why does the ghost at first seem to want to help Jenny, yet later drives her into the direction of her doom? Like Jenny, we are only allowed hints, portents, and suggestions. The truth stays occluded even for the people bound to die for it.

Of course, the film's wallowing in mood, sense of place and ambiguity has drawbacks other than the unclearness (and problematic believability, but what horror film is believable on its surface?) of its plot. For much of the film, there might be just too little happening on screen for many people's tastes, and what is happening is surely not happening fast. There are also scenes of John acting incredibly peculiar, in fact quite exactly like the sort of guy any woman with a brain would avoid instead of date, yet in their skewed way, even these moments just add to Warlock Moon's attraction (again mirroring Jenny's experience, which might of course be pure chance).

As I said, much of the film is given to scenes of Jenny walking through empty, half-ruined buildings with a puzzled look on her face, and while I can't help but love the movie for these scenes, I can imagine others feeling kind of bored by them. It's a little sad that I can imagine such empty lives, but I can.

If there is a sub-genre of the horror movie about people walking through deserted and desolate places (and I'd argue there is), Warlock Moon is one of its prime examples.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

In short: The Magnificent Seven (2016)

While Antoine Fuqua’s remake of John Sturges’s brilliant remake of Kurosawa’s awesome – in the old sense of the word – film is a perfectly entertaining big budget mainstream western kind of thing (a sentence I’m getting used to having opportunity to write again), it is also a bit of a mess.

Fuqua never seems to be able to decide what kind of film he is actually making: is it a fun action adventure? A film all about the exciting but unpleasant violence? A revisionist western that gives people who aren’t white (and if you squint, even those that aren’t male) their due? A film about what violence does to the men habitually committing it? A would-be Tarantino western? The script has perfectly fine scenes belonging to each of these concepts but it doesn’t even make much of an effort to tie them together into a satisfying whole, so the film is always lesser than the sum of its parts.

Apart from this main flaw, the filmmaking is another example of Antoine Fuqua’s position as a director without any visible personality whose movies look and feel as if they might have been directed by anyone technically competent, which is increasingly sad when a guy has directed movies since the early 90s and should have developed something of a style of his own by now. I’m also rather unhappy with the yellowish colour lying over everything here, a colour obsession I thought movies had finally gotten over again; for the Western genre, this is a particularly bad fit, particularly in a film full of shots of grass that’s supposed to be green (or so I've heard).

I’m also confused why the production went with a mostly utterly indifferent score by James Horner and Simon Franglen that only comes alive when it’s directly quoting Elmer Bernstein’s score for the Sturges film? Also about who thought Vincent D’Onofrio’s (who usually can’t do wrong with me) accent was a good idea, and last but not least why, when you go with a Tarantino style talkative neurotic main villain you then don’t take the extra step and give him decent dialogue (well, monologues, really) nor cast someone who is actually good at playing this sort of role?

All this does make The Magnificent Seven sound like a worse film than it actually is. It really is a watchable film, if in a very frustrating manner.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Trollenberg Terror (1958)

aka The Crawling Eye

Mind reading act sister duo Sarah (Jennifer Jayne) and Anne (Janet Munro) Pilgrim are on a holiday trip through Switzerland, when Anne – the actual, authentic mind reader of the two - quite suddenly feels an immense compulsion (complete with fainting fit and staring into the distance) for them to get out in a Swiss Alp town at the foot of a mountain known as the Trollenberg. It’s as if something is calling to her.

This is not a terrible good time and place to change one’s travel plans, though. For some time now, the Trollenberg’s peak has been surrounded by a curious, dare I say “unnatural”, fog. At least one mountaineer climbing it has somehow literally lost his head. As it happens, sharing a train compartment with the sisters is mysterious American Alan Brooks (Forrest Tucker, in his phase as mandatory American lead in British movies, and certainly not the worst one in that particular bunch), nominally just visiting the local observatory for vague scientific reasons but as a matter of fact investigating what’s going on at the Trollenberg and its surroundings. For it isn’t the first mountain beset by mysterious circumstances and strange beheadings, caused by…aliens you might describe as crawling eyes if you want, though really, they are giant crawling eyes with a couple of thin tentacles – even better than the title promises.

Like Hammer’s Quatermass films, The Trollenberg Terror (which is the more fitting and somewhat more subtle if less awesome British title) is based on a successful TV mini series – in an era before home video obviously a lucrative way for a film to acquire an in-built audience. The script is written by Jimmy Sangster of Hammer fame, too, and the film’s tone and style – at least in the slightly longer UK cut – put it very much in the same science fiction horror sub-genre as Nigel Kneale's Quatermass scripts. I don’t think the film at hand is quite as thoughtful and artistically successful as Quatermass, but it certainly shares its spirit and demonstrates a seriousness throughout that rather puts it above the kind of 50s US monster movies it will probably have shared double bills with once it hit the US.

Sangster’s script is concise, avoiding filler (probably one of the automatic virtues when you have to adapt a four part TV mini series into an eighty minute film) and bad comic relief throughout, instead pushing things forward nicely, while creating a fine mood of mild paranoia. There are some clever ideas realized well, the film generally coping very well with its limitations and hitting just the right notes: who in the appropriate audience wouldn’t after all be fond of eye-mind-controlled dead people walking around sweating because their controller dislike warmth and having all the hand eye-coordination of something not used to stereoscopic vision, or the film’s plain weird giant eye monster things?

I also love the film’s monsters, mixing as they do the fear of eye trauma, and classic mind control “they are among us” tropes with a pure strangeness of conception. Of course, they are realized with the special effects capabilities of their time and place but given the wonderful creepiness of their concept, I can’t say I care when I see obvious back projection and imperfect miniature work. At the very least, it’s imperfection standing in the service of the wonderful.

Quentin Lawrence’s (also the director of the TV version) direction doesn’t always quite use Sangster’s set-ups to the fullest, yet while he isn’t a particularly subtle or elegant director, he is also never sloppy or ever letting things get bogged down.

All of this adds up to a film that is much more enjoyable than one might expect going in and provides The Trollenberg Terror with a well deserved place at the table of good UK SF horror from the 50s.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Three Films Make A Post: Prey. Slay. Display.

The Girl on the Train (2016): Tate Taylor’s thriller cleverly plays with the – often somewhat problematic – expectations his audience will have concerning female characters in thrillers, not only subverting these expectations and clichés but also making it a functionally important part of the plot.

Apart from this, the film is also recommended for the general flow of Erin Cressida Wilson’s script – that finds time and place to put a human face on characters who usually don’t get that honour, well, apart from the main villain, that is, but there’s just no way to do that for him without destroying the plot – as well as its brilliant leads in Emily Blunt, Haley Bennett and Rebecca Ferguson and for Taylor’s elegant direction.

Belladonna of Sadness (1973): Eiichi Yamamoto’s non-generic anime (if you take anime to mean all types of Japanese animations) is not just a trippy and heady mix of exploitation, enlightenment and pure weirdness but also a perfect way to recognize the po-faced traditional critic who just can’t recognize art when it’s not presented to him (and it’s invariably a him) in three hour slabs of equally po-faced movie directed by a director permanently in tears about the state of the world or by Fellini, and who always feel the need to reassure themselves they are following a deeply dignified path, where no jokes are allowed, and everything is horrible, and grey. Particularly grey. Why, yes, I looked at some of the reviews this type of reviewer gave this one with the new restoration, how do you know?

In other words, this is a film awesome, and beautiful, and bizarre, inappropriate, and bonkers, stupid, and clever, and exploitative, and sad all in equal measures, taking its art style seemingly from a pop art/LSD-inspired idea of Beardsley and running with that while supposedly adapting Michelet. One really rather watches this one than writes about it.

Ludo (2015): This Bengali horror movie directed by two guys going by the definitely not search engine optimized monikers of Q and Nikon is a curious mixture of the crude, the creepy, the highly generic and the original, as probably behoves a movie concerning the adventures four teens encounter with a cursed ludo variant in a closed for the night shopping mall. Visually, there’s quite a bit to like here, while the storytelling is more than just slightly awkward yet does get into my good books by combining the deeply generic and the locally specific to arrive at its horrors.

Tonally, there seems to be a heavy influence of 70s grindhouse cinema in play, mixed with some kicking against Indian cinematic taboos, and interesting monsters. This doesn’t add up to a particularly tense movie, but it is one that clearly goes its own way for its own reasons after a point, something I can’t help but respect.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

In short: The Parallax View (1974)

Small-time, ambitious and pretty lost journalist Joe Frady (Warren Beatty) stumbles onto a murderous conspiracy when his ex-girlfriend (Paula Prentiss) tells him she thinks somebody is out to kill her. According to her, witnesses to the assassination of a liberal politician three years ago are dying in astonishing numbers, supposedly accidentally. Since she is one of these witnesses, she fears for her life. Joe doesn’t believe her but one cut later, she’s lying dead in a mortuary, supposedly killed by an overdose of barbiturates.

While this kind of suicide would fit her character to a degree, Joe doesn’t believe the official story at all, so he begins digging around and is soon on the trail of the Parallax Company who seem to be in the business of political assassination by supposed single gunmen.

This is generally the least appreciated film in Alan J. Pakula’s thematically linked Paranoia trilogy, and it’s not difficult to see why: it doesn’t have a central performance as strong as Jane Fonda’s in Klute nor does its plot rip a trauma quite as directly from the headlines as All President’s Men, a film that also beats it, Woodward and Bernstein be thanks, by featuring a happy end. This one’s more the film that turns the personal disintegrations of the former film and the political turmoil of the latter into a stark – if not lacking in irony – nightmare tale about the USA as a land built on lies that will crush anyone not on board with that particular program. Probably not the sort of thing even a 70s audience was asking for when going into a nominal thriller.

And a nominal thriller this is, given how inevitable everything in the film seems to be, Warren Beatty’s Joseph Frady the only one involved who doesn’t see the ending coming. Pakula’s approach to action and suspense here is abstract, cold and clinical, with a dollop of the plain weird coming into play when he basically stops and smells the talking roses of sort of experimental film to present a brainwashing video Beatty and the audience have to suffer through. All of which is bad for your run of the mill thriller but a perfect fit as well as a logical approach for The Parallax View, a film that feels practically cosmicist in its approach to political assassination and the society that breeds it.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

In short: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016)

I’ve never shared the growing annoyance of certain parts of the critical classes with the way Tim Burton’s personal obsessions took over his films, despite some moments in his later films where even I wanted to grab the guy by his shoulders and tell him to just calm the fuck down for scene or two.

But if you’ve suffered from that particular illness worse than I did, it might just be worth it to return to Burton for this one. Turns out replacing Johnny Depp with house favourites Eva Green and/or Samuel L. Jackson has calmed Burton down enough to put a bit more effort into shaping the film into an actual narrative instead of a series of moments of whacky strangeness. The book this is based on and Jane Goldman’s script might have helped there, too.

There are of course still a lot of Burton’s visual trademarks on display, his patented eye for the lightly macabre, and so on and so forth. But even here, the director seems to attempt to get out of his standard approach, using actual locations beside the still excellently artificial sets, and managing to fuse the expected Tim Burton-ness with the demands of the family adventure world he is operating in.

All this adds up to a film I’d have a hard time finding reasons to dislike: the cast – including young (but not as young as their characters) leads Asa Butterfield and Ella Purnell and a horde of well-loved faces – is in fine form, the plot is fun for the whole family (unless one’s family is really boring, obviously), the film’s very nice to look at, and there’s nary a scene that doesn’t contain at least one charming, imaginative detail.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Past Misdeeds: La Mansion de las 7 Momias (1977)

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.

Sophia de la Garza (Maria Cardinal) is having a bad week. Not only has her father just died, but she has inherited quite a bizarre problem. Sophia's father, you see, was the reincarnation of an earlier de la Garza, who was governor of the town of Antigua Guatemala. 17th century de la Garza had made a pact with the devil that not only gave the horned one possession of his own soul but also those of the people he governed (which does not sound like non-heretic Catholic theology to me). Fortunately for them, the governor later repented, and managed to find some sort of loophole in his contract with Satan that leads to him being reincarnated in his male descendants and somehow being able to protect the souls in his care from his former master.

Unfortunately, de la Garza cannot be reincarnated as a woman and has no children beside Sophia. Sophia's only way to keep her father's soul and those of everyone else safe is to take possession of the treasure of the conquistadores that is another part of her inheritance and giving it to the descendants of the former slaves of the town. But before she can actually take possession of the treasure, Sophia has to survive three increasingly strange tests (the best one of which is about catching a rotating and biting skull), somehow fight the seven mummies guarding the treasure, see through the intrigues of three immortal servants of Satan and find out that her boyfriend is a jerk.

Fortunately, Blue Demon (hooray!) and his friend Superzan (boo!) have been invited by said boyfriend jerk to beautiful (at least that's what the film tells us repeatedly) Antigua Guatemala for a vacation, and are in their function as luchadores only too willing and able to help a damsel in distress out by wrestling a few mummies and evil boyfriends. Sophia's case is further helped by a mysterious mute hunchback and the painful comic relief stylings of a creature named Manolino.

As it goes with lucha movies from the late 70s that carry the frightening name of "Agrasanchez" in their credits, I went into La Mansion without expecting much worth seeing. To my delight, the film turned out to be rather more fun than I had expected.

Sure, Superzan is his usual charismaless void, and Manolino an abomination even compared to other cases of odious comic relief characters, about on a level with Bollywood's Johnny Lever, but that's the worst I can say about the film.

Apart from Manolino, there's all plot and no filler - and you could argue that Manolino isn't as much "filler" as part of a conspiracy to drive the viewer insane. Not even the usually unavoidable twenty minutes of ring fighting take place, a truly wondrous thing in a sub-genre in which the same four scenes have lengthened the running time of about ten movies. And really, why would I want to watch Blue wrestle anonymous wrestler number one when I can watch him and Superzan using an evil boyfriend to ram down a bunch of mummies, or a scene in which these heroes very matter-of-factly discuss the business of selling their souls with that most evil servant of the devil - a lawyer?

The film's background story is rather complex and involved - even more than my plot synopsis lets on - piling on so many weird incidental details that it's difficult not to feel charmed by them. There's also an undercurrent of guilt for the genocidal tendencies (which are only explainable by having them working with Satan himself, it seems) of the conquistadores and their descendants that's very atypical for Mexican pulp cinema as I have experienced it.

The plot does of course only work because neither Sophia nor the wrestlers nor Satan himself are all that clever, but I've never confused Blue Demon with Sherlock Holmes, so that's not much of a problem.

Another positive surprise is Rafael Lanuza's direction. Lanuza is also responsible for Superzan y el nino del espacio, one of the worst movies I have ever seen, so I didn't expect him to do any actual directing here. Turns out I was wrong, and while Lanuza provides some of his trademark shoddiness ("high" points: a frigging hand on the camera during parts of a fight scene, and the total confusion between day scenes, night scenes and day-for-night scenes, as if the sun and the moon were randomly teleporting around the sky), he also provides a lot of very comic book looking shots that suggest he did actually think about what he was filming instead of just vaguely pointing the camera into the direction of the actors.

Lanuza also makes good use of the locations in (beautiful, I tell you, beautiful) Antigua Guatemala. Picturesque ruins, a very pretty graveyard and a neat little swamp are much preferable to that field (you probably know which one I mean) half of the Campeones Justicieros films seem to take place in. From time to time, the ruins and some judicious red lighting even manage to look a little creepy, which combined with the usual alright mummy make-up and cute little Satan with his cute little horns turns the film into something close to a comics code approved horror comic on celluloid, with all the good and bad that description entails.

This is also one of those films with Blue - or Senor Demon, as most people in the film call him - in which he is the wise, older luchador to whom young and stupid Superzan looks up to instead of El Santo's sorely tried, and frequently brainwashed or evil-betwinned, side kick. In La Mansion de las 7 Momias, Blue is as much the hero as in his solo films, with pesky Superzan deservedly listed behind the Cardinal, who manages to look rather awesome in some dubious outfits, in the credits. As it should always be.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

In short: Race with the Devil (1975)

Frank (Warren Oates) and Roger (Peter Fonda) and their wives Alice (Loretta Swit) and Kelly (Lara Parker) set off for a tour through the USA to Aspen in Frank’s and Alice’s hypermodern RV. Alas, quite early on in their travels, somewhere out in the sticks, our protagonists witness a satanic ritual including human sacrifice and a bit of mild nudity. Thanks to some ill-advised shouting, the satanists witness them right back. After some excitement the vacationers escape to the nearby sheriff’s department, but as it quickly turns out, spilling the beans to these officials just gives the bad guys more information and probably convinces them that it would be much better to get rid of this meddlesome quartet.

This starts the protagonists off on an RV chase through much US backcountry, where our heroes encounter many a broken phone line (there was a strong wind up north, you know) and a huge amount of satanists. Seriously, turns out there’s basically none but satanists out and about in the country.

Despite the satanist angle, Jack Starrett’s Race with the Devil is a horror movie in name only. Mostly, this is a fine low budget action movie in a style that could only have been used in the 70s, with some excellent car stunts, a handful of crude but highly effective suspense scenes and a huge dollop of very 70s style paranoia. Even though the writing suggests something of an upmarket TV movie, Starrett’s direction is highly energetic, the stunt work is quite wonderful, and the pacing spot on. Add to that Fonda and Oates being Fonda and Oates in their respective primes, and I can’t imagine anyone not dead not enjoying the ride at least a little.

The film moonlights as an incredible time capsule, a living embodiment of the mid-70s, every moment and every detail in it soaked through with the taste and smell of the time it was made in, be it in the portrayal of the satanists (who by the way have Aztec roots as a helpful library book our heroines steal explains), that darn RV and the beatings it takes, the fashion (oh, the fashion!), and even the particular kind of horror movie bullshit ending it features. Unfortunately, 70s machismo does rear its ugly head too, with the female characters mostly relegated to screeching, whimpering, book stealing and in Parker’s case to making frightened eyes at the camera while the menfolk fight around them. There’s a reason I introduced the characters the way that I did.

However, I’m not going to blame a time capsule for being one – you gotta take the awesome with the annoying with this sort of thing.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Night of the Seagulls (1975)

Original title: La noche de las gaviotas

Dr. Henry Stein (Victor Petit) and his wife Joan (María Kosty) are sent to an out of the way coastal village where Henry is to replace the last village doctor. Finding their new place of residence isn’t terribly easy, though, for every villager they ask about the way the doctor’s house answers with stony silence.

Once there, the couple encounters their predecessor, an old man so afraid of something he won’t stay another night. He does give some of the traditional vague, doom-laden hints, and mentions the villagers don’t want them there, but, as is traditional in these cases, he’s not the most helpful informant you could wish for.

Consequently, Joan and Henry will have to find out what’s going on with the villagers and what they might be up to on their own. For one, the locals hold nightly ceremonies at the beach in which they leave young women tied up against a rock for the undead Knights Templar - as known from the first three Blind Dead movies - so the Templars in turn can sacrifice the women to the golden idol of some sort of hideous water creature (shall we call the thing Dagon?). To the Steins, the villagers are mostly stone-faced, rude and vaguely threatening, but Joan’s tendency to take in strays in form of the mentally handicapped Tedd (José Antonio Calvo) – literal village punching bag – and slightly more sociable village girl Lucy (Sandra Mozarowsky) combined with Henry taking the whole “saving lives” part of being a doctor very seriously indeed rather quickly makes relations even more strained. In the end, the new doctor’s couple will spell catastrophe for the village, which really deserves one.

Now, given that the whole plot is about a supernaturally oppressed village that is so brutalized by its fate it becomes actively complicit in the actions of its oppressor and just loves to turn on anyone who is different, and that it was filmed at the tail end of Franco’s dictatorship in Spain, I find it impossible not to read Night of the Seagulls as an acerbic comment of director Amando de Ossorio on the country around him, featuring Franco as a golden idol, the blind dead as his true believers and the villagers as the general Spanish population. It’s not a terribly subtle metaphor but then, “subtle” isn’t a word to describe military dictatorships either.

This very visible subtext doesn’t mean the fourth (and alas final) Blind Dead film isn’t a horror film first and foremost. It does however mean a change of pace for the series after the classically exploitational first two films and the total shit show of the third. This time around, de Ossorio puts heavy emphasis on an eerie mood of decay, attempting something different from most of his other horror films. There’s still a bit of blood, close-ups of cut-out hearts and such things, yet this version of the Blind Dead (whose myth changed a bit in every single one of the movies) isn’t as much into blood drinking and pointless slaughter as before but performs an unpleasant religious service to their strange sea god. Even the gratuitous nudity is nearly non-existent.

Instead, much of the film’s considerable power comes from lingering shots of the fantastically creepy village location, the crude yet effective portrayal of the casual brutality as well as quiet desperation of the villagers, the sounds of bells and seagulls, and the always creepy presence of our undead Templar villains. Building a film on elements like these does of course mean it won’t be full of exciting action sequences, so Night of the Seagulls is a bit of a slow mover that really takes its time to build up to its climactic scenes. Coming from me, this isn’t a complaint, of course, particularly not since there’s a point to the slowness in a film that seems much more interested in a slowly mounting dread than in its handful of shocks.

For once, a de Ossorio movie even features likeable leads, with Joan acting as often with kindness and compassion as she is near hysterics and Henry – despite a bit of rather mild 70s macho posturing – turning out to care about other people more than about himself too. Why,a viewer might even find themselves caring about what happens to these two.

Last but not least, it is pretty much impossible for me to dislike a film that uses Lovecraftian elements in such a fine, unobtrusive way as this one does, featuring as it does a decaying seaside village sacrificing to a fishy looking godhood, without ever needing to list mythos books or creatures. The film’s seagulls (eerily active at night) whose voices in shades of The Dunwich Horror are the souls of the murdered women and girls of many generations are rather on the Lovecraftian side too, but used in the best way, as building blocks for de Ossorio’s own mythology.