Sunday, July 30, 2017

We Go On (2016)

Miles (Clark Freeman) is afraid of everything: cars, people, the outside, you name it, he’s afraid of it. His multitude of phobias is really the expression of one central fear: the fear of death that came upon him with the sudden death of his father.

Miles thinks the only way to lose this fear is to prove that we go on after death in one form or the other, so he puts out a bounty of $30,000 for the person who will prove an afterlife to him. Sifting through a huge number of propositions with the help of his mother Charlotte (Annette O’Toole), Miles finds a lot of obvious fakes, bad jokes, and attempts to sell him stuff, whittling his list down to three proposals actually worth investigating, and a mysterious phone call on his mail box. In the end, Miles will get the positive proof he seeks, but not surprisingly, it’ll not bring him much happiness.

Directing partners Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton made an interesting indie movie named YellowBrickRoad that a lot of people were really impressed by, but that never really won me over thanks to various technical issues I found highly distracting as well as a script that – for my taste – completely broke down for the film’s final third. We Go On is a mighty improvement in all regards, definitely still made on an indie budget but much slicker realized, never looking as cheap as it probably is, featuring performances that are at least decent – usually better – and some effective moments of horror. I was particularly fond of the scene in which Miles follows his last possible informant to a ruined house next to the LA airport and encounters something that may not be totally surprising to the genre-savvy audience but that still works wonderfully because it is so carefully shot and edited. In general, Holland and Mitton show themselves to be highly capable when called to create moments of slight disquiet; I wasn’t always as convinced by the more obvious shocks, but then, when am I ever?

For much of its running time, We Go On is a clearly observed character piece about Miles and the source of his anxieties as they are revealed by the things and people he encounters during his quest. This approach works as well as it does because it is always clear the writer-directors actually know what kind of story they want to tell and are very good at revealing Miles through the people he encounters while also telling us all we need to know about these people in very economic ways. Stand-outs here are certainly the medium Josephina (Giovanna Zacarías), who teeters on the edge of madness thanks to the way she has to live yet also shows surprising amounts of kindness where self-absorption would be absolutely understandable, as well as O’Toole’s tough and dignified portrayal of Charlotte, that feels highly authentic to a certain kind of mother with a damaged grown-up child.

So, the character work is generally very strong here, the mood is evocative, the filmmaking successful, and the film knows what it wants – yet still I can’t say I was wholly happy with the final act. The problem – though make no mistake, this is still a film very much worth watching – is that I never completely managed to buy into the film’s shift from something character-based into something plot-based. There’s an awkwardness to this approach that suggests an attempt to achieve a more conventional dramatic arc with a very pat ending because that’s how genre films are supposed to work, and not really because this particular film actually needed it, leaving me unsatisfied when We Go On suddenly appeared to care most about resolving a plot arc I wasn’t particularly invested in, while just finishing the character arc I was invested in as an afterthought.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Three Films Make A Post: There's a new police force on the streets... and they only come out at night.

I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House (2016): There’s the old chestnut that says not every film is for everyone, and that some films are definitely less for everyone than others. This pretty much describes Oz Perkins’s Netflix arthouse horror movie about a live in nurse (Ruth Wilson) moving into the house of elderly writer Iris Blum (Paula Prentiss) and the haunting she experiences. Which sounds rather easily consumable, but in Perkins’s telling, it is a film of shifting realities and meanings, where there’s never a clear dividing line between the real and the unreal, the psychological or the supernatural, and where that line only ever dissolves further. It’s a very slow and subtle film, with a brilliant lead performance by Wilson, yet it is also a film that needs patience, thought, and viewers absolutely willing to follow where it goes. For me, the film is beautiful and intense, but I can definitely see why someone might watch it and just get bored. Some films just either resonate with you, or they don’t.

Rollercoaster (1977): In comparison, James Goldstone’s thriller with disaster movie elements about an amusement park ride safety inspector (George Segal) finding himself drawn into the hunt for a mentally not terribly healthy blackmailer (Timothy Bottoms) threatening to sabotage rollercoasters around the USA is downright fast. In actuality, it’s a bit of a slow starter, spending too much time dithering before Segal’s Harry Calder is drawn into the plot. Once it gets going, though, this turns into an exciting little film that makes highly atmospheric – and often clever - use of the amusement park surroundings, plays fair with its audience and comes by its best set pieces as organic parts of the plot. There’s a fine cast too, with people like Richard Widmark and Susan Strasberg in various supporting roles.

Goldstone’s – who was mostly a TV guy - direction isn’t spectacular, but he’s effortlessly effective when it comes to the suspense sequences, and by now the style has taken on the enjoyable patina typical of well made but not spectacular 70s films.

The Wackness (2008): Looks like I’m not escaping the coming of age films these days. Jonathan Levine’s genre entry recommends itself through an off-handed but efficient portrayal of mid-90s New York – with hip hop as the logical soundtrack – solid acting by coming of ager Josh Peck, mandatory The Girl Olivia Thirlby, and Famke Janssen as her mother, and one of his showy yet intelligent and typically enjoyable performances by Ben Kingsley as the psychologist of our dope dealing hero – also his best customer, friend, and the stepfather of his love interest. The best parts of the film really concern the relationship between the two male characters, with Kingsley’s Dr. Squires despite the age difference still not having life figured out much better than the kid has. The relationships between the men and their respective women alas don’t really work too well because this is one of these male-centric coming of age films that never does spend any time alone with its female characters, and so never develops much motivation and personality for them not connected to the guys, turning their actions into plot conveniences more than choices made by human beings. Which to me always seems like a rather childish approach for films supposedly all about growing up.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Past Misdeeds: Born to Fight (1989)

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

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

TV reporter Maryline Kane (Mary Stavin) walks into a bar in Vietnam to hire war hero Sam Wood (Brent Huff) to relive his escape from a Vietnamese prison camp for the camera. At first, Brent isn't too happy with the idea, but once Maryline has offered him enough money, he decides to take her up on her offer. After a nice little boat trip, Maryline, her two-men camera crew and Sam just happen to witness the execution of an American prisoner escaping from a camp full of prisoners of war. Turns out Maryline knows all about the war prisoner problem in the area, and actually wants Sam's help in rescuing her father, General Weber (John Van Dreelen), from the prison camp, but thought that whole interview business and going to the place unarmed would make Sam more willing to help. Or dead. Or something.

Anyway, given Sam's unarmed and unwilling status, the couple (and you know they'll be one in this sort of movie, because they never agree about anything and hate each other's guts) has to flee first. There's also some stuff about Romano Puppo playing another guy who is supposed to buy the general's way to freedom, but would prefer Kurt (Werner Pochath), the boss of the prison camp who will also turn out to be Sam's arch enemy, to kill the general so they can share the money. Which makes as much sense as Maryline hiring Sam to free her father without telling Sam about it, I guess. Plus, further complications because Sam doesn't like Weber. Let's just say that shooting and exploding huts - many of the latter without a good reason to explode - will result.

After half an hour or so, I just gave up on trying to make sense of the random stuff that makes up Born to Fight's supposed plot. After all, it is a Bruno Mattei film written by Claudio Fragasso, and where these two walk, no sense ever follows. As expected, the movie becomes a much nicer piece of entertainment once one decides to just giggle about its lack of coherence and fling poo at the screen.

Of course, if you're like me and adore the special charms Mattei and Fragasso so often brought to their films, you will be delighted to hear that Born to Fight is an eminently worthy entry into the gentlemen's respective filmographies, full of the desperate idiocy we have come to love. This is, after all, a film whose hero (and I use that term loosely) is first encountered showing off his ability to smoke a cigarillo and snore at the same time, likes to spice his drink with cobra venom and has a catchphrase that fluctuates between "It CAN be done. It can be done." and "It CAN be done. Can do.", or various combinations thereof, even when nobody ever questions the possibility of things being done. I should also add that Wood's catchphrase is - improbably - still better than his other one-liners. But as Werner Pochath's character explains, Sam was "BORN TO FIGHT", to which I might very well add "and not to talk".

This - and my inability to make sense of the plot - should make quite clear that Fragasso was in top form in the twenty minutes it took him to write the script; seldom has a scriptwriter's complete divorce from reality been more adorable.

It looks like Bruno Mattei didn't want to be left out when his friend and partner was having so much fun showing off his talents (or "talents"), and so decided that what Fragasso's script really needed to shine was the extensive application of slow motion to each and every scene. People not familiar with Mattei's genius might think the heavy use of slow motion in an action movie like this to be nothing special, or even stylistically justified and possibly cool. Well, some uses of slow motion are; Mattei however always knows how to use a perfectly normal part of the filmic language like it and twist and turn and overuse it in the most improbable ways until it becomes quite hilarious and grotesque.

The high point of Mattei's very special use of slow motion is surely the film's "emotional" finale, when Sam kills Kurt, who was responsible for the death of all of his prison camp buddies years ago. It begins with some hot slow-motion reloading action. Pochath blubbers (in slow motion, oh yes) "Nooooo!". Sam shoots in slow motion, once. Pochath overacts being shot in slow motion and does some excellent slow-motion whimpering. Then - because what could be more heart-wrenching? - Sam shouts the name of one of his dead friends, still in slow motion, sounding like an elk during rutting season (or so I imagine them to sound). Sam shoots again - still shaking muscles and gun in slow motion, then shouts the next name in elk. This is repeated a few more times - yes yes, in slow motion, still - while Sam walks to the still slow-motion-groaning Pochath, until finally, even Mattei must have thought enough is enough, Sam shouts "Aaaaaaaandddddd aaaaalllll thhhhhheeee ooootthhheeeeerrrssss!", and Werner Pochath is finally allowed to overact dying (die overacting?). I have heard rumours of people rupturing one or the other of their inner organs from laughter while watching this scene, and for once, I do believe a rumour.

The great thing about Born to Fight is that this single (and quite singular) scene is only one of many scenes nearly equal in their power of unbelievable stupidity, all coming to the delighted audience live from the brains of two of greatest purveyors of intensely entertaining crap ever to have come out of Italy. It's enough to make one tear up out of pure joy, really.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

In short: Body Puzzle (1992)

Rich widow Tracy (Joanna Pacula) is having a bit of a hard time. Someone is sneaking around leaving her rather disturbing presents, things like a  human ear, a hand, or a “finger” (“it’s not a finger”), like a kitten gone bad. These body parts belong to the victims of a series of murders shaking the town. Apart from his habit concerning Tracy, the killer (François Montagut) likes to put a bit of Mussorgsky on his walkman while he’s working, so expect to hear the same bit of “Night on Bare Mountain” again and again and again.

Cop Michele (Tomas Arana) is on the case, yet despite the killer’s fixation on Tracy, he has a lot of trouble catching his man, or finding the bizarre secret behind the murders.

As a rule of thumb (there are of course obvious exceptions to this rule), the more time a giallo spends following a cop on a police procedural (but with everyone involved being pretty darn dumb) style investigation, the less enjoyable it becomes. Lamberto Bava’s Body Puzzle certainly is a pretty great example for this rule. But it goes even further to demonstrate it: while the scenes of the killer slashing his victims are generally entertaining enough (and sometimes even a little bloody), and those of Tracy being stalked by him are even downright suspenseful, whenever our hero Michele starts investigating – usually slowly and badly – the film turns into a void of utter boredom that suffers from the blandness of Michele, the general – there is one terrible gay stereotype which isn’t enjoyable but at least memorable – lack of distinction of the characters he interviews, and what looks like an inability by Bava to film these investigations in any interesting, stylish or even just economical manner.

Unfortunately, at least half of the film is taken up by Michele’s non-adventures, always slowing things down in the worst possible moment. This state of affairs is made even less interesting by the perfunctory romance between Tracy and our man Michele in scenes that feel so pointless and disinterested, I can’t help but ask myself if the producers strong-armed Bava into including them.

Of course, as this was made in the early 90s, long after the genre had faded away, it was certainly not easy for Bava to get a giallo made at all; going by the results, I’m just not sure it was worth his effort.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Life (2017)

Warning: while I’m not going to go into too much detail, I’ll have to include some structural spoilers; also, this one made me rather cross!

Apparently, there is life on Mars, and an international probe is hurtling towards Earth, carrying some promising samples in its belly (or wherever probes are carrying samples). The scriptwriters were probably afraid to lose the audience right at the start if not something “exciting” happens to begin with, so the probe is a bit out of control and instead of some sane manoeuvre, the crew – as played by the overqualified and desperately underused cast of Rebecca Ferguson, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sanada, Olga Dihovichnaya and Ariyon Bakare - of the international space station tasked to evaluate the samples has to catch the thing with a robot arm, which improbably works too.

The samples are worth the effort, though, for among them is an actual living alien cell. A cell that quickly grows into many cells, and then into an organism that becomes increasingly big. If you think you know where the rest of the movie is going to go, you are exactly right.

For if there is something that is inarguably true about Daniel Espinosa’s alien on a rampage movie, then it is that is has no original bone in its cinematic body. The plot goes where you expect it to go, the characters are the blandest bunch of nonentities with vague motivations you could get from these actors, the production design certainly suggests the 58 million dollars the movie supposedly cost didn’t go into creativity, and Espinosa’s direction is sort of there, but certainly not reaching any – even small – heights of suspense and excitement.

There are two elements about the script that truly stand out: firstly, it is chock full implausibilities: the crew of a small space station who will potentially work on alien biological material does not know what the final stage in a complete breach of quarantine is; a space station manned for this project has only one person actually qualified to work on the samples in its crew; on the other hand, said space station has a potent hand flame thrower; the so-called quarantine measures make no sense at all, the characters might as well just leave all doors open and invite their alien guest in; nobody ever follows procedures. And it goes on and on that way.

Which are of course all problems I’m not unaccustomed to from my SF horror movies, and willing to overlook (though a film at least trying to sell me on its world usually helps my tolerance here) but then comes in script standout problem number two. Writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick use the valuable brain space freed by not taking care of details to demonstrate cleverness without being actually all that clever (a tendency that already annoyed me quite a bit in their scripts for Deadpool and Zombieland). First, they pull a Psycho through killing off one of the “name” actors first (so that they can keep exactly the other two you’d expect them to keep for as long as possible), but telegraph it so much it does not feel surprising so much as expected. It certainly doesn’t help that it isn’t 1960 anymore.

Next, the film tries something so clever with a moment involving a leg you won’t have to look long on the Internet to find people who think it is a plot hole, when in actuality, it’s a character helping the creature because he’s lost it. The characterisation is so bland (probably aiming for subtle, and badly missing) the character never reads like actually losing it until he holds a speech about it. The film is much too coy about actually showing how leg met alien and why for the scene to work at all, and it’s no wonder people do misread what’s going on. It probably sounded like a clever little flourish to add, but again, the script doesn’t put the work in for this part of the plot to feel plausible at all and expects the audience to imagine stuff it doesn’t bother to show them.

The last and most annoying example of the film thinking it is clever for cleverness’s sake is, of course, the ending, when Life attempts to pull what it clearly thinks is a very bright little trick on its audience by lying about what its climax is actually about. That sort of thing can work, but a film really needs to have worked for the audience’s trust and patience up until that point, which this one certainly has not, and really only should use this sort of trick if the realization of what is actually going on in the ending will put everything that came before into a different light for the audience. To my great annoyance, Life opts for using this technique to finagle the usual horror movie bullshit ending. Most horror films save that sort of thing for a single shot pseudo-twist because that’s much less annoying than wasting the potential emotional effect of your whole climax, but then most horror films don’t think they are quite this clever when pulling this sort of crap, unlike Life.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

In short: Nighcrawler (2014)

When it comes to films about horrifyingly empty people, Dan Gilroy’s sort of crime movie, kinda thriller, satire and portray of an actual sociopath would probably make a good double feature with Mike Hodges’s Croupier, even though Jake Gyllenhaal’s Louis Bloom in this film is a somewhat different proposition to Clive Owen’s croupier. Where Owen’s character in Croupier loses his tenuous grip on something amounting to humanity, Gyllenhaal plays his character as an alien who genuinely does not understand human ethics or empathy and most certainly never possessed them – quite unlike the characters surrounding him who do understand these things but decide not to act on them for various reasons, enabling the evils Bloom perpetrates for their own expediency and success, and because the void is just so damn seductive.

I found Gyllenhaal’s performance, the way his character parrots phrases he’s learned on the Internet or in how to business books genuinely disturbing, even more so since he clearly sees himself as an all-American success story, an afterschool TV special hero. Gilroy’s film suggests various rather frightening things (that’ll not surprise quite a few of us): that you best be a monster to make it in late capitalist society or transform yourself into one; that the systemic pressures inherent in media and society push people incessantly to give up on very basic elements of their humanity while pretending they don’t; that in this society, being a monster is simply easier than being human; and that pretending to be be an actual human being is much more important than acting like one.

All this is packaged in an elegant, very Los Angeles film, that is so strongly structured and so well made Gyllenhaal’s incredible performance seems a natural part of his filmic surroundings.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Unholy (1988)

After young Catholic priest Father Michael (Ben Cross) against all reason survives being thrown out of a window by a supposed suicide without even the slightest injury, New Orleans’s archbishop Mosely (Hal Holbrook) and a blind, mysterious and hysterically overacted elderly priest we will later learn to be called Father Silva (Trevor Howard) look upon him with rather different eyes. Why, he might just be “the Chosen One”, which, as you know, is a very important part of Catholic doctrine that just happens to not be written down anywhere, certainly not in that book, whatsitcalled? Right, the Bible!

Anyway, his potential Chosen One status earns Michael his own parish, a church somewhere in what looks like one of the poorer, predominantly black, parts of New Orleans, yet which still harbours that whitest of things – a Satanist themed nightclub. The nightclub and its boss, one Luke (William Russ), aren’t too troubling for the rather modern Father Michael at first. He’s got worse problems to cope with: turns out his two predecessors in his church were both murdered right in front of the altar. The police were so helpless to solve the crimes they even asked the Church to close the place down; which they did before sending Father Michael. As the audience knows – and Michael will take quite a while to accept because he doesn’t believe in the devil or demons – the priests were murdered by a demon appearing as a pretty nude sexy (though curiously grown-up and female) woman (Nicole Fortier).

So clearly, some temptation of the flesh in form of one of Luke’s baristas is on the menu for Father Michael, as well as some theology lessons and other random nonsense.

Camilo Vila’s The Unholy is a deeply flawed film that I nonetheless love quite passionately. Its worst flaw is obviously the pacing: it starts, stops, starts, comes to a halt again, repeats plot points for no good reason to then get going again, and has about as much flow as a German rapper (don’t ask). I also can’t deny that it is much more talky than it needs to be, again tending to repeat ideas and plot beats for no good reason whatsoever. Then there’s the Ben Cross factor. While I don’t have anything against the man as an actor, the film’s slower parts could have used some enlivening by a leading men who is a bit more outwardly charismatic and whose acting style isn’t quite as dry as Cross’s.

Having said all that, here’s why The Unholy is awesome: living as we do in a time where all religiously themed horror (at least the Christian kind) seems to be inevitably about exorcisms, it is such a wonderful change of pace to see a film that just makes up some wacky bit of mythology it adds to Catholicism and then proceeds to tie things up with the sorts of things demons in the Christian interpretation are rather more interested in than possession. Temptation, particularly of priests (and saints) is rather a big thing in this mythology, and there aren’t too many films directly about it, even though this approach potentially adds fine opportunities for actually talking about morals, the complexities of the human heart and getting some nudity into your film.

The Unholy doesn’t stop there, though: in its final twenty minutes, it climaxes in (some might say devolves into) a very 80s horror concoction with multiple crucifixions, a thematically pertinent demonic parody of the Catholic mass, a ridiculous yet inspired demon (who also still looks like said sexy redhead in actually rather disquieting intercuts), his adorable assistant demon dwarfs, a short descent into hell with quick snippets of DEBAUCHERY! CANNIBALISM! LESBIANISM! ICKY STUFF!, and a sudden awakening of Cross’s inner scenery chewer. And while there’s certainly too much feet-dragging before, even earlier in the film there’s still space for fun stuff like Trevor Howard’s channelling of the spirit of Vincent Price in a really outrageous week, or the ten minutes in which Luke (who is only a fake Satanist for publicity reasons, by the way) turns into our short-term protagonist and visits a dramatic yet less than helpful medium who basically explains to the man afraid of the bad shit that’s going down that bad shit is going down and she’s utterly useless.

All of that is directed by Vila in spurts of somewhat stylish 80s colour, some dry ice fog, shot in some cool and some not so cool locations. What’s not to like (except for all that stuff I already mentioned)?

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Three Films Make A Post: You are what they eat.

The Visit (2015): What fresh hell is this? As a rule I’m not generally getting terribly worked up over really shoddy films or undeservedly famous directors anymore (and if I do, I usually hold my peace), but after having suffered through this piece of deeply reactionary, plain stupid and generally not even funny (particularly not when it is trying to be) tripe that was clearly written by an extraterrestrial who has never met an actual human being (and certainly not a mentally ill one) in its life, I cannot help but ask myself the question: how is it possible that this thing’s “writer”/director M. Night Shyamalan is still getting regular work while guys like John Carpenter can’t scratch together enough money to make films, and many women and men with actual talent have to jump through all the worst hoops Hollywood has to offer?

Last Embrace (1979): But now to something completely different, namely Jonathan Demme’s big Hitchcock homage made in the phase of his career before Silence of the Lambs made him a big mainstream director; or as I call it “the brilliant phase”. Roy Scheider plays a spy who has just been released from a psychiatric hospital where he tried to recover from a complete breakdown he suffered through the death of his wife. But something’s not at all right with his world: is he getting paranoid or are his own people trying to get rid of him? And what about the series of murders he stumbles upon? Scheider was always particularly good at portraying a specific kind of 70s macho maleness with cracks, so he’s ideal casting for the role. Demme being Demme, every single character here is cast perfectly, of course. And this being a Hitchcock homage, Demme twists his general ability to suggest that every side character in his films has a full storyline of her or his own outside of the film to suggest that everyone has a dirty secret and nobody is who he says he is; otherwise, the film goes through the handbook of Hitchcock themes and techniques with verve, a degree of irony and wit.

Tracks (2013): I am rather fond of films about relatively solitary characters moving through a landscape while not terribly much plot or action happens, so I am rather predisposed to like John Curran’s film about Robyn Davidson’s (here portrayed by the typically brilliant Mia Wasikowska) trek through the West Australian outback and desert with some camels and her dog. But then, Curran’s film doesn’t make appreciating it terribly difficult. There’s not just Wasikowska’s ability to carry the movie, but also the beauty of the landscape (brilliantly photographed by Mandy Walker) and an idea of nature that never devolves into kitsch, as well as Curran’s way to anchor the film in its time and place. Now, you might argue that the film’s psychological side – adding the usual stuff about dead fathers to the book - is a bit too simple and on the nose but watching Tracks, I found myself thinking of it rather more as stripped down to the basics in a way that befits this trek through the desert.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Past Misdeeds: The Abominable Snowman (1957)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Dark Half (1993)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989)

Original title: Gojira vs. Biorante

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

House of 1,000 Dolls (1967)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Free Fire (2016)

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 15, 2017

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 14, 2017

Past Misdeeds: Paganini Horror (1989)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 13, 2017

In short: Kong: Skull Island (2017)

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Tales from the Darkside: The Movie (1990)

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

In short: Summer Camp (2015)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Liebestraum (1991)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 8, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 7, 2017

Past Misdeeds: 357 Magnum (1979)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 6, 2017

In short: Jason Bourne (2016)

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

A Dark Song (2016)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

In short: Caboblanco (1980)

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Bones (2001)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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