Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Curse of the Crying Woman (1963)

Original title: La maldición de la Llorona

Somewhere in the Mexican countryside in the 19th Century, or thereabouts. The area is plagued by a series of horrible murders. Victims are found in terrible states – mutilated and without a drop of blood in their veins. The local police seems to have their suspicions about Selma Jaramillo (Rita Macedo), a widow apparently living completely alone in a huge, intensely creepy mansion in the middle of nowhere, being involved somehow, but thus far, there’s no actual evidence beyond the woman acting rather off-handedly, perhaps even a bit gleeful, about all the murders in her direct neighbourhood. We the audience know these suspicions about her are indeed well-founded, for the film’s first scene sees Selma – though with disturbing shark eyes in her face – her dogs and her scarred henchman Juan (Carlos López Moctezuma) making brutal work of some travellers.

Tonight is going to be special night in Selma’s house of horrors. After fifteen years during which she has kept the girl away, she has invited her niece Amelia (Rosita Arenas) to visit her in the house; she has a bit of a nasty surprise waiting as the young woman’s present for her 25th birthday. Amelia also brings a surprise of her own – she is freshly married to the cigar-chomping Jaime (Abel Salazar).

Amelia and Jaime quickly understand that something is very wrong with Selma and her house. A single servant the woman says she’s cut from the gallows and who certainly looks the part, mysterious cries in the house and an unpleasant vision in a mirror are the sort of things that’ll get guests into an ominous mood. And that’s before Selma reveals the horrible truth about their family to Amelia – they are the descendants of La Llorona (which in this version of the legend was an evil, powerful, bloodsucking witch), fated to become just like her. Amelia, says Selma, is cursed to bring La Llorona herself back to life by removing the pike she had been staked with when a bell that hasn’t tolled in ages will strike midnight. Worse still for the young woman, she too will become an evil, bloodsucking fiend, while Jaime, like apparently all men marrying into her bloodline, is doomed to madness.

While Amelia is more than just a little disturbed by all this, Selma is all too happy with her project. After all, following in her ancestor’s (or mother’s, the film isn’t terribly clear about it) footsteps has brought her considerable power and agelessness already; she expects nothing less than “omnipotence” once La Llorona lives again.

As most Mexican genre directors of his era, Rafael Baledón made a huge number of films in all kinds of genres, and as normal for everyone whose output is quite as humongous as his was – I speak from practical experience here – not every single film he worked on was a masterpiece; some were indeed rather bad. However, his best films – and I have by now seen more than a couple that deserve this description – could be outright brilliant.

La maldición certainly is brilliant, as great a Gothic horror film as anything the Italians or Corman made around this time, breathing the mood of bad dreams and cruel fates. Where most Mexican Gothic horror on screen seems to have come to the genre mostly by way of the Universal school (with more or less hefty pulpy elements added to the mix), this entry shows some clear influences by Bava, Black Sunday specifically. Particularly the beginning scenes, the shot of Selma, shark-eyed, surrounded by her attack dogs, and the whole look of the set dominated by broken trees they take place in suggest the iconic shot of Barbara Steele surrounded by her dogs, and the coach sequence at the beginning of Bava’s masterpiece. There are some plot parallels too, but Baledón’s film takes these elements in directions too much of its own for the film ever to become a rip-off.

Baledón’s direction may not be quite on the level of Bava at his best here, yet the film is still full of the mood of dreams and nightmare imagery, putting its characters into a place perpetually dominated by fog and nature that looks broken, twisted and corrupted, trapping them in a house whose series of secret passages and elegantly placed giant spider webs, its stairs leading who knows where suggest the subconscious mind much more than an actual house people would inhabit. The performances fit these places, particularly Macedo playing her Selma much larger than life. But then, how else would you portray the character of a potentially immortal, bloodsucking witch trying to push her niece into fulfilling the family curse?

Apart from the sometimes expressionist sets and camera work suggestive of the otherworldly and the strange, Baledón also has some simple, and brilliant ideas that make the film stranger in all the best ways. Take for example, the scene where Amelia – well on her way to turning evil herself – has a crisis of conscience, and the night sky above her suddenly fills with (animated) eyes; or the one where Selma exposits some of the family history to a hypnotized Jaime but all we see of the flashbacks (which look like scenes from other Mexican horror films as far as I could make out) is in negative form, turning what could be hokey cost-cutting peculiarly disquieting.

Thematically, this is a film very much about an obsession of Gothic literature and cinema (and sometimes weird fiction following it, too, see Lovecraft): the fear of inheritance as a form of fated doom, be it biological inheritance, spiritual inheritance, or a philosophical one, very close to the idea of free will being a mere illusion. Interestingly enough for a Mexican horror film - whose solutions to this sort of conundrum, this being a very Catholic country, usually involve religion or masked wrestlers – this particular horror here is averted by the very earthly love between a husband and a wife, the climax finding Jaime – not at all like a proper macho but rather like a real man – pulling Amelia back from the abyss by pleading with her and declaring his love. Well, he does get to punch Juan afterwards too, but that’s really more an epilogue to help the audience cope with Jaime’s general lack of fighting skill, as is the traditional – and impressive - breakdown of the house where everything took place.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Living Death (2009)

aka Possessed

Original title: 불신지옥

One exhausted evening, college student Hee-jin (Nam Sang-mi) gets a call from her mother (Kim Bo-yun) reporting her sister So-jin (Shim Eun-kyung) has disappeared. Hee-jin returns home at once. To her shock, she finds her mother hasn’t called the police about the disappearance yet; dear mother, in the grip of full-on religious mania for what we will later learn quite some time now, really rather wants to pray the kid back.

Of course, once Hee-jin calls the police, she isn’t exactly impressed by the detective she’s speaking with, Tae-hwan (Ryu Seung-ryong). He’s basically shrugging things off by explaining the 14 year-old’s disappearance with her “simply” having run away. Therefore, there’s supposed to be no reason for concern or for the policeman doing his job. However, Tae-hwan will change his tune once a series of strange and disturbing events begin to develop, like a number of suicides in rather quick succession, all taking place in the apartment house Hee-jin’s mother and sister live in. The first woman who kills herself apologizes to So-jin for something in her suicide note, though neither mother nor daughter seem to know what her connection to Hee-jin was apart from having babysat her sometimes. Tae-hwan’s and Hee-jin’s – sometimes independent, sometimes not – investigations turn up increasingly disturbing connections between these people and So-jin.

What these connections in Lee Yong-joo-I’s Living Death exactly are, I’m not going to disclose; I am only going to say that this is one of those horror films where most people getting supernaturally killed off pretty much get what they asked for. Yet, it isn’t the sort of straightforward supernatural tale of vengeance one might expect, for Lee structures the story and its telling very much like a traditional mystery interspersing the investigative sequences with highly effective and often properly disturbing scenes of horror of ever increasing intensity. So this is less a tale of supernatural revenge than that of a young woman and a cop with problems trying to figure out the truth through proper investigations, with interviews and research revealing ever more of the truth of what has been going on around So-jin.

Or really, half revealing that truth, for as many a South Korean horror film, Living Death keeps certain things ambiguous, ending on a note that can be easily read in a couple of very different ways. Which is only right and proper for a film whose characters have very different interpretations on the same set of occurrences and facts, depending on their personal connection to things as well as their religious and spiritual outlook.

Thematically, the film is concerned with the love of family and the sometimes disturbing forms it can take, the horrors of religious world views, the willingness of people to egotistically use others, guilt, and the way fact is always filtered through any given person’s view of the world. It’s pretty heady stuff, at least on paper. In Lee’s hands, however, all these ideas and perspectives come together to form a highly coherent, intelligent film that asks questions and expects its audience to come up with their own answers. It’s also a film that happens to be a fascinating tale of mystery as well as a character based piece of horror that finds its most terrible moments not in the supernatural (though it is certainly no slouch in that regard) but in the human reaction to it.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Hack-O-Lantern (1988)

aka Halloween Night

Apart from giving away lots of pumpkins for Halloween, dear old Grandpa (Hy Pyke) is not-so-secretly the big boss of a Satanic cult working in one of those typical US small towns that are always full of satanists, monsters, and the murderously deranged. Grandpa has his favourite grandkid Tommy (Bryson Gerard) pegged as somebody very special for the future service of His Satanic Majesty. Indeed, he’s so special Grandpa does take it upon himself to murder Tommy’s dad, probably to make himself the best bet for a father figure.

Years later – Tommy is now played by Gregory Scott Cummins – Tommy’s indoctrination has gone apace, even though his mother – Grandpa’s very own daughter! – tries to keep her son as well as his siblings Vera (Carla Baron) and Roger (Jeff Brown) as far away from the old man as possible. Which, given that Tommy’s the product of a bit of incest between Gramps and his daughter whom he hypnotized into it on her wedding day, must take quite some doing.

This Halloween, Tommy’s initiation phase is finally going to be over, if, that is, he manages to keep “pure” for it. Satan must secretly be a no sex before marriage to him guy, I assume. Fortunately for Tommy, somebody in an inspired robes and devil mask outfit murders his girlfriend before she can suck out his spiritual energy, or something. This being a slasher film, robes and mask murders will continue throughout the movie. Who is the killer? Crazy Grandpa? Tommy taking time out from body building and fantasizing a whole video clip of a inspired crap hair metal band featuring him on guitar? Somebody else?

Whereas I diagnosed future softcore specialist Jag Mundhra’s previous horror film Open House, as some kind of softcore sex film, just without the sex (and therefore as pointless as anything), Hack-O-Lantern (which is clearly the better because the much more ridiculous title for this epic) is indeed an authentic late 80s direct to video slasher. That’s to say it is nonsensical, ridiculous, from time to time tasteless, mind-boggling, and frequently (inadvertently) very, very funny.

The plot, such as it is, the killer, their motive, the Satanic cult – take whatever you want in this movie, and it’s going to make no sense whatsoever to you, yet do so in a highly absurd and entertaining manner. I am particularly fond of the film’s randomness: there’s nothing that’ll make a film more awesome for less effort than a random video clip for some bad band disguised as a dream sequence including some “sexy” dancing, and really nothing that could have less of a point.

Then there’s Mundhra’s inspired hand for the silly detail. Who wouldn’t love Grandpa’s pumpkin delivering ways, or the fact that everybody seems to know where his cult does its thing, apart from anyone in any position to care about it? And just see how lovely these Satanic rituals are, with the red robed evil doers slowly stepping in a circle around a pentagram while Grandpa babbles nonsense!

Speaking of Grandpa, a huge part of the responsibility for the high entertainment value of Hack-O-Lantern sits on the shoulders of Hy Pyke, his Southern drawl, his various versions of the devil horns and the evil eye sign that emphasise about every third sentence he says, as well as the insane enthusiasm of his scenery chewing that visibly leaves many of the other actors unable to react in any way, shape or form. So most of his appearances consist of him mugging and declaiming outrageously while his so-called co-actors just stare helplessly, unable to come up with any way to relate to whatever the hell it is he is doing; and they surely can’t expect Mundhra to step in and instruct them, he’s busy enough keeping everyone in frame.

It’s quite the thing to witness, and while Hack-O-Lantern is certainly not a Halloween classic, it is very, very, good at being not so classic.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Three Films Make A Post: Secrets kept hidden for 100 years are now revealed.

Incidente aka Incident (2010): On paper, this piece of POV horror by Argentinian director Mariano Cattaneo sounds pretty awful: a couple of documentarians (whose camera wielding half apparently can’t frame a shot decently to save his life) examining the occult connections of a spree killing of years past and some occultist academics awaken a rather possessive evil; lots of running around of people in various states of possession through a dilapidated industrial building ensues. In practice, and despite the much too shaky camera work, Cattaneo somehow turns this thin bit of plot into an entertaining 80 minutes of film, by what I can only imagine to be sheer willpower. The make-up effects are rather impressive for the film’s budget league, but what really makes this work as decently as it does is a proper sense of mood and pacing, I just wish it had been put to use on a more interesting story, though I do give the film some extra bonus points for its use of actual occult concepts in its backstory.

Hell House LLC II: The Abaddon Hotel (2018): While I enjoyed the first film in what is now apparently a franchise more than this sequel, Stephen Cognetti’s attempt at broadening his haunted house tale towards a more concrete mythology of its own still ends up being a perfectly entertaining little movie featuring some actually thoughtful retconning of elements of the first film, and quite a few scenes that are effectively creepy. Like Cattaneo, Cognetti also understands the importance of mood and pacing for this sort of low budget affair, so there’s none of the feet dragging that can mar indie horror, and a clear sense of purpose to everything we see and hear.

Heilstätten (2018): And here’s yet another POV horror film, this time around from my native Germany, directed by Michael David Pate. Bottom feeding Youtube “personalities” break into a former hospital complex with a very bad past (this is Germany after all). The expected mixture of romantic travails and supernatural and/or slasheriffic violence ensues, as does a double plot twist that doesn’t work terribly well but certainly isn’t boring.

And really, while there’s nothing terribly exciting about Heilstätten apart from it being yet another horror movie from Germany that isn’t just amateur gore hour (though it features some pretty well done bits of the icky stuff as well) or an arthouse flick, it works well throughout, keeps its pace up, takes care to make its characters less loathsome than you’d expect, and seems generally made by people who care about entertaining their audience. I certainly felt moved accordingly for most of the film’s 90 minutes.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Past Misdeeds: The Pact (2012)

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 presented with only  basic re-writes and 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 death of her abusive mother brings Nichole (Agnes Bruckner) back to the family home she and her sister Annie (Caity Lotz) thought to have left behind for good. Annie's even less happy with going back than Nichole, and only some fine sisterly pressure convinces her to return at all, and much later than Nichole does.

When Annie arrives "home", Nichole has disappeared into thin air after - as the audience knows - some rather disquieting things happening to her. Annie assumes Nichole, with her history of drug use and disappearing acts, has just fallen back into old habits, leaving her sister alone to deal with a house and a funeral she only thought of going to for her sister's sake, and her cousin Liz (Kathleen Rose Perkins) to take care of her little daughter Eva (Dakota Bright).

But when Annie meets Liz (Kathleen Rose Perkins) and her niece at her mother's funeral, she isn't quite as convinced of Nichole's disappearance having a comparatively harmless explanation anymore. Liz argues Nichole would never have left her daughter alone this way; after all she has turned her life around for her.
Because Annie is more than a bit freaked out about staying at her mother's place alone for another night, she invites Liz and Eva to stay the night with her. After dark, everyone is woken by strange noises, and now it is Liz's turn to disappear while Annie has an encounter with an invisible force that can only be explained by supernatural agency. She barely manages to get out of the house with Eva before whatever happened to Nichole and Liz can happen to her too.

When Annie goes to the police with her story, the part about poltergeist phenomena does not exactly improve her chances for being taken seriously about anything else she says. Only Bill Creek (Casper Van Dien), a cop who knew Nichole - and one suspects also knows something about the family history - is willing to actually listen to her. Creek isn't willing to believe in any of that spooky stuff, but at least, he's still taking Annie seriously enough to help her in the few ways actually in his power. However, if Annie wants to find out where her sister and her cousin went, and what is haunting her mother's house, she will have to do most of the investigating alone, with a messed-up sensitive named Stevie (Haley Hudson) she knows from her high school pointing the way. Annie might just find some terrible family secret hidden nearly in plain sight.

Say what you will about (or against) the last decade in horror movies, but it has - probably via the successes of Japanese cinema in this regard - brought about a minor renaissance in movies about hauntings and ghosts, some of which, like Nicholas McCarthy's The Pact, can stand their ground next to any movie in that particular sub-genre you'd care to mention.

The Pact is a brilliant example of a movie closely concentrated on creating a mood of dread and fear very close to the kind of fears I remember too well from my own childhood. The movie manages to create a feeling of tension even though it isn't a permanent barrage of Completely Shocking Things™. There are some truly shocking and some truly creepy things happening throughout the movie, but there's never the feeling any of them are in the movie because it needs to include a shock every ten minutes. Rather, everything here happens for a reason closely related to the film's plot and the film's mood, two elements as organically entwined as possible.

McCarthy's direction is very stylish (the Internet tells me of Argento but also Val Lewton productions as an influence, and I believe her in this case), yet he never gets too flashy. McCarthy instead opts to put his stylistic abilities exclusively into the service of creating the film's particular brand of tension. For most of the time, the camera glides through the cramped and claustrophobic spaces of Annie's mother's house, looking over Annie's shoulder, lingering on blackness and the place's quotidian and bleak interior until they become threatening in their near normality.

I also love how willing McCarthy (also responsible for the script) is to not outright state a lot of what is going on with his characters and their lives but to subtly show it through details of the interiors they move through and Caity Lotz's body language (insert gushing praise about Lotz's performance here). It's not that the film is vague about anything, The Pact is just not the kind of film feeling the need to spell everything out an attentive audience will understand in other ways.

It's all part of the film's overall spirit of tightness and concentration, virtues it doesn't even leave behind when its plot later on takes a turn towards a somewhat different type of horror film than it initially seemed to be, fortunately without doing the boring "look at this surprising twist!" routine. What could have been flabby and digressive in less capable hands feels organic and logical here.

Finally, it's also worth mentioning - seeing as this is a horror movie - how creepy the film is throughout, how successful The Pact is at combining Annie's struggle with her past (her own childhood fears), the idea that however horrible one's past was, there might always have been something more horrible lurking unseen just a (literally and metaphorically) thin wall apart, and the more general images of childhood fears it conjures up in pictures that seem archetypally effective - and willing to be strange if it suits the film - to me.

That, dear reader, means I was freaked out more than once during the course of The Pact, which is the sort of compliment I can't give many horror films.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

The Barn (2016)

It’s Halloween in small town USA, 1989. Best friends Sam (Mitchell Musolino) and Josh (Will Stout) are just about to graduate high school. But before they let go of supposedly childish things like Sam’s absolute obsession with the best of all holidays – he’s even got his own interpretation of the Rules of Halloween – they are going to have a real proper Halloween with their other friends by riding out of town for the big concert of their favourite band, Death Inferno. Perhaps Josh can push Sam into finally romancing long time crush Michelle (Lexi Dripps), too?

Alas, the kids will never actually arrive at their concert a couple towns over, for on their way, they accidentally end up in front of the barn all local Halloween legends talk about. Apparently, if you knock on the barn door three times and shout “Trick or Treat!”, you’ll awaken a trio of murderous monsters that’s a bit like the Halloween version of the village people – a miner, a scarecrow, and a guy with a pumpkin head with flaming eyes. Because they are kids in a horror movie, and because Josh clearly thinks it’ll get Sam over some of his personal hang-ups, our group of protagonists does exactly that, and will end up paying rather dearly in the ensuing triple slasher rampage. However, it’ll turn out that Sam’s and Josh’s experience in gardening will be extremely useful in a monster fight.

Justin M. Seaman’s The Barn is a piece of throwback horror from beginning to end, so if the idea of a film quite this consciously using the style of late 80s US low budget horror, even going so far as to use filters to make the thing look more like the films it adores, sends you into some kind of anti-retro panic, this is not the film for you. I’m generally a bit on the fence about retroism taken quite this far, but I quickly found myself charmed and entertained by the film, and once the scene that can only be called “The Halloween Hoedown Massacre” came around, there was no thought about complaining about the film being retro anymore, for it is delightfully so.

What I particularly enjoyed about the whole affair is how much The Barn embraces the silly and goofy sides of the films it so clearly has been inspired by, showing as little shame as its role models when it comes to seek reasons to show off wonderfully gloopy gore effects, and as much moody red and blue lighting as anyone could ever have wished for. This is the sort of film that late in the game decides that three supernatural killers alone just aren’t quite enough, so it adds a Satanic cult to the fold. And because Seaman and cohorts apparently know what’s fun about Satanic cults in the sort of film they are making, it indeed ends up as a nice addition to the rest of the wonderfully weird crap going on here.

All of this would be enough to result in a perfectly good time for me, but The Barn also works rather well in its more down to earth moments, particularly in its first third. While the film certainly works with clichés when it comes to its characters, particularly Sam and Josh’s friendship still rings true to what I know of a certain type of close friendship between boys in a small town, and actually feels quite a bit better developed than comparable relationships would have been in many late 80s horror films. Michelle’s and Sam’s relationship, while also a movie cliché, works on a comparative level, too. These more naturalistic elements do of course wonders when it comes to selling all the crazy and outrageous bits of the film, and really hold together what otherwise could have been a fun series of gory episodes more than an actual movie, while still leaving the filmmakers enough space to just make up crazy entertaining shit.

Of course, there are a couple of weaknesses: the acting is not always as strong as it could be (a problem The Barn obviously shares with it spiritual predecessors), and the second act could probably have been tightened a bit. However, when it comes to fun throw back horror like this, these aren’t exactly insurmountable obstacles to enjoyment, and indeed, if you want to see a very specifically old-fashioned fun horror movie instead of the bleak and slow stuff I so often champion in contemporary horror, The Barn should hit the spot very nicely indeed.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Trench 11 (2017)

It’s the ending stretch of World War I. A British desk jockey trying to get his piece of glory before it’s too late manages to convince his superiors to send him and a small group of soldiers to investigate a hidden underground complex the Germans just fled. He suspects it to be the secret lab of German mad scientist Reiner (Robert Stadlober), also known as “The Prophet”.

He’s all too right about that, and soon the mixed group of Brits, Americans and PTSD-struck Canadian tunnel expert Berton (Rossif Sutherland) has to survive the products of Reiner’s experiments, which look and sound like rather icky worm-induced rage zombies. To make a bad situation worse, the German high command has sent the surprisingly sane Hauptmann (whom the IMDB lists as a “Kapitän”, which would be a sea captain) Müller (Shaun Benson) with a team of men as well as Reiner himself back to the laboratory to purge the place. Still worse for everyone’s potential survival is the little fact that Reiner really is a bit of a prophet in that he’s very much foreseeing the spirit of Hitler and would really rather let the world be destroyed by his worm zombies, Germany potentially rising from the flames “purged of all weakness”, and so on and so forth.

German zombie-style infected in a bunker, you say? I believe I’ve seen a couple of films in this particular sub-genre of the Nazi zombie film before. In theory, the setting of Leo Scherman’s Trench 11 during World War I could differentiate it a bit from other films it does rather remind one of, but in practice, it doesn’t make much of a difference if a German zombie soldier in a low budget film is a Nazi or not, particularly since zombie creator Reiner is very much written to embody the spirit of Nazism, while Benson’s Müller is that well-worn trope of the basically decent German soldier (who just happens to guard a KZ, but didn’t notice anything untoward, no sir, but I digress into directions this film really isn’t responsible for). So, the big difference between this and other bunker zombie films really only is the choice of uniforms. Originality, you gotta seek elsewhere.

However, Scherman’s film has more than enough going on in it to recommend itself for a day when one is in the mood for the unsurprising. For one, the script is pretty tight, with simply yet effectively drawn characters acting in ways that make sense for them while still hitting all the mandated plot beats of the sub-genre they are moving in. The cast is doing a good job with them, too, Sutherland and Benson making an effective duo of heroes, and Stadlober putting in a very fun bit of Nazi scientist scenery chewing containing just the right mix of foaming at the mouth and companionably crazy calm right before he does something really nasty.

As a native German speaker, I was rather impressed – that “Kapitän” excepted – by the general idiomatic correctness of the German here (though I’m not completely convinced it’s actually idiomatic for the time this is taking place in too). The German dialogue consists of sentences actual Germans would say, not something you’ll get in many movies, not even German ones. The delivery of the German parts of the dialogue (Stadlober obviously excepted), in somewhat ironic contrast, is much less convincing, not only suggesting actors who are rather more Canadian than your typical German language speaker but who also learned their dialogue phonetically.

While neither sets nor direction are exactly exciting, there’s solid, dependable craftsmanship visible throughout the film, as well as a decent sense of place. It’s never a deep movie, exactly, but it’s also not goofy or playful, treating its plot straight and working well enough with it.

The worm zombies and other effects are rather successful and certainly unappetizing creations, the creatures basically bloated to bursting with their parasites, which provides a handful of neat frissons of body horror.

As a whole, this might not be a remarkable or deep film, but it is solid and dependable entertainment that’ll not leave you feeling more stupid going out than you did when you came in.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Cheerleader Camp (1988)

A group of cheerleaders (as played by Betsy Russell, Lucinda Dickey, Lorie Griffin, Teri Weigel and Rebecca Ferratti) and their two male companions (Leif Garrett and Travis McKenna) take part in a prestigious cheerleading camp – I leave it to everyone’s imagination if such a thing existed in the real world of the real 80s – to improve their act for some sort of upcoming competition and to take part in the camp’s very own competition as well. However, something’s very wrong at the camp, and it’s not just some of the girls’ horrifying competitive streak when it comes to, well, everything, from cheerleading to boys, nor their just as horrifying lack of empathy and solidarity.

Things start very early on with the supposed suicide (which is of course in truth murder) of one of the girls, the sort of thing that should stop the summer fun completely, if not for the fact that camp owner and eternal cheerleader Miss Tipton (Vickie Benson) fulfils the local Sheriff’s (Jeff Prettyman) cheerleader kink. More girls disappear, or rather, as the audience knows, are murdered in horrible ways. Curiously enough, all of the murdered have some reason to be in the bad books of Dickey’s character who increasingly starts to fray at the edges during the course of the film.

I didn’t expect the slasher comedy Cheerleader Camp to actually be anything but a dispenser for tits and gore, particularly since it was directed by future softcore director John Quinn. So I am particularly happy to note the film is indeed a bit more, actually much more, interesting than that. Sure, there’s the mandatory amount of female nudity – though fans of the male form will get something to look at too – and a series of increasingly cool, icky and physically absurd killings. But they are realized in a competent and effective manner,and even the nudity mostly fulfils a sensible function in the film’s actual plot; a plot that does indeed exist. And while I thought it rather obvious who is actually responsible for the killings, Cheerleader Camp is taking its murder mystery angle mostly seriously, timing red herrings and reveals well. Why, the film even bothers to provide its cheerleading protagonists with somewhat complex inner lives, caring for them rather more than most slashers do with their respective victims, which obviously makes watching it rather more involving than just gawking at the murders would be. The actresses – and Leif Garrett – seem to appreciate that effort too, and consequently do a bit more work than just shoving pretty faces and breasts and George ‘Buck’ Flower into the audience’s faces.

I also found myself laughing about at least half of the film’s jokes, which is as good as any camp based teen comedy – horror or not - can hope to get out of me.

Adding an additional frisson of pleasant surprise to the film’s other considerable charms is the amount of subversive elements in the script by David Lee Fine and R.L. O’Keefe. At times, Cheerleader Camp really digs into portraying the immense pressure to be pretty, and good, and perfect, and available, yet still virginal, these young women are put under, as well as the way they internalize these pressures to then put them on their peers in turn. Why, even the killer is really only doing a somewhat more extreme version of what a young woman’s supposed to. As long as she comes out on top and looks good doing it, it’s alright, right?

Sunday, October 21, 2018

The Enfield Haunting (2015)

1977. When the Hodgsons, a family living in a council home in Enfield, is terrorized by all kinds of poltergeist phenomena, Society for Psychical Research member Maurice Grosse (Timothy Spall) is called in to investigate. He quickly realizes that much of the activity seems to be centred around the youngest daughter, Janet (Eleanor Worthington-Cox), who, we will later learn, happens to share the first name of his own dead daughter.

After the publicity blitz about the affair starts, the SPR sends the delightfully named Guy Playfair (Matthew Macfadyen) in to help Maurice. Well, they actually send him to debunk what is going on, for Maurice’s public belief in the things he experiences in the Hodgsom home seems like rather bad publicity to the organization. It doesn’t take terribly long, though, until Playfair also realizes the phenomena are very real indeed. In fact Maurice’s and his duty may very well be not to debunk what is happening but to help the family experiencing it.

All the time, the phenomena are getting worse, going from the usual moving objects and smashed up furniture to what very much seems like possession of Janet, and even to physical harm.

I’m really not sure if calling a story told in three forty-five minute episodes a mini-series instead of a movie hacked in three parts as the British Sky did with The Enfield Haunting as directed by Kristoffer Nyholm and written by Joshua St Johnston is a terribly sensible idea, but then, I’m not working in TV, so what do I know?

As even someone only very superficially interested in the history of psychical phenomena will realize, the series is based on what may very well be the UK’s most famous poltergeist case, specifically, it calls itself an adaptation of a book about it by the real Guy Playfair. How much the book or this film have to do with any actual reality, only the people involved will ever truly know, but then I’m not writing up a documentary but a pretty neat little horror series, so this question is probably neither here nor there.

There is a very typical mistake quite a few – particularly TV – adaptations of true (or “true”, depending on one’s philosophy and mood) tales of the paranormal tend to make. All too many of them, while going hog-wild with the characterisation of their protagonists and taking all kinds of shortcuts, eschew being satisfying narratives by seemingly going out of their way to not have thematic through lines and certainly no satisfying endings. It’s understandable, of course, for non-fictional tales of the supernatural are not really supposed to have a theme – life sure as hell does not – and usually just peter out somehow, somewhere.

When it comes to this decision of either making a “realistic” story or a satisfying tale of the supernatural, The Enfield Haunting goes straight for the latter, providing not only a dramatic, emotional ending but also building its story rather nicely on Maurice’s emotional involvement with the Hodgson family who clearly could use a non-horrible male in their lives. As they occur, the supernatural events invite him to treat them as a mirror for some of his own ghosts, suggesting a connection between the two girls named Janet that may or may not only exist because he cares for them both. It’s an important, and rather well written, part of the story that also involves the marital troubles between Maurice and his wife Betty (Juliet Stevenson) caused by the death of their daughter. It would be very easy to use this element of the narrative only to jerk out a few tears from the audience – and the series certainly doesn’t shy away from a bit of tear-jerking – but it is also part of the series’ complex idea of human motivation and connection. The inner lives of people, the series understands, are not single-lane streets, so it accepts complexity and ambiguity in them. So where you’d expect it to have Maurice and Playfair go through the usual believer/sceptic rigmarole, it actually portrays both men as believers and sceptics, depending on the situation, something that practically never happens in this sort of story, and which made me really rather happy.

It also uses this approach in its treatment of the supernatural as something that can be threatening and horrifying, and certainly very cruel, but also quiet and kind. Accepting ambiguities seems to be the modus operandi here, and I’m certainly all for it.

Mind you, there’s no ambiguity to the existence of the actual supernatural in the series’ world, but then, there are really only a handful of cases where keeping the supernatural absolutely ambiguous in a tale of horror is anything but frustrating and even a bit cowardly, and I’m pretty sure it would be pointless for The Enfield Haunting. At the very least, the film’s acceptance of the supernatural as a given does provide us with some very good set-pieces. Some of the scenes of Janet – and others – speaking with the voices of the dead are really rather chilling, and the sequence with the medium in the second part manages to start out as a bit of a joke yet becomes increasingly uncomfortable and tense, even more so because it starts as anything but. Series director Nyholm generally manages to keep even the more typical bits of poltergeist business interesting, often concentrating on giving them a physical impact that makes them feel real. These scenes are not, as such, original if your know your horror, but they are so well staged and scripted originality doesn’t come into it.

Nyholm and the script are very ably assisted by a fine cast. I was particularly enamoured with Timothy Spall’s performance that at first seems to be all facial hair and a very late 70s embodiment of growing old badly but that reveals a complex and humane soul. And when have you last seen a movie or TV show this interested in a guy who looks like Spall here that uses him as its actual hero? Eleanor Worthington-Cox is also particularly good, selling all elements of the role - the intelligent teenager, the literally haunted kid, the various characters that will speak through her, and the near brokenness of the final part – without ever laying it on too thick.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Three Films Make A Post: Great things come in bears.

Mon Mon Mon Monsters aka 報告老師!怪怪怪怪物!(2017): I like grimdark, “Man is the greatest monster of them all”, everything is horrible, everyone is horrible, and so and so forth movies as much as the next guy, but boy, does Taiwanese director/writer Giddens Ko go overboard with that stuff here. The problem when you fill your film with characters with not a single character trait that isn’t horrible, doing horrible things to horrible monsters while being horrible, until things end horribly, is that there really rather seems to be no point at all to proceedings, for when everything and everyone is horrible all of the time, there’s really not much of a conclusion to reach anymore. It’s also rather monotonous and becomes a bit boring quickly. Hell, even serial killers, unlike everyone on screen here, aren’t monsters 24/7. I’ve seen this praised as incisive criticism on the state of The Youth, but this interpretation suggests that every kid is a sociopath or a psychopath, which just isn’t true.

The Witch Files (2018): This – if not officially – POV semi-remake of 90s classic/”classic” (your choice) witchcraft movie The Craft as directed by Kyle Rankin, on the other hand, a film clearly made for a YA audience, is clearly of the opinion that there are indeed problems with The Youth, but most of them are caused by an evil witch, and can be solved with a bit of hocus pocus and teenage girls learning some valuable lessons. Like a lot of contemporary YA cinema, this suffers from a rather lukewarm script; where Mon Mon etc is much too cynical, this one’s just a little too nice to its characters. Otherwise, there’s little here that’s terribly interesting or insightful, the plot developing competently but without any actual surprises.

It’s an okay enough film to while away 90 minutes of your time, mind you, there’s just little substance and only a degree of excitement to be had. The cast is pretty good, though, and I’m looking forward to seeing them in movies that give them a bit more to do.

Don’t Leave Home (2018): I was neither terribly surprised by the plot of this tale of an artist working in diorama form getting invited to the estate of a former Irish priest (Lalor Roddy) and painter who was involved in some possibly supernatural disappearances decades ago. You’ll never guess what the man’s dominating housekeeper (Helena Bereen) and he are actually going to sell. However, director Michael Tully sets up such a fine mood of the strange and the ineffable through landscape shots, creatively staged dream sequences and often ambiguous dialogue, complete originality is not really necessary at all for the film to work. The acting for the three central characters is fine too, and there’s a lot to be said for the intelligent way Tully interweaves his soft horror with elements of the folk tale. I also do appreciate a film that knows how to do something of a happy end that fits well into this particular genre space.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Past Misdeeds: Devil Story (1985)

Original title: Il était une fois le diable - Devil Story

aka Devil's Story

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 presented with only  basic re-writes and 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.

Somewhere in what I think is supposed to be Florida but sure looks like a picturesque part of France to me, a guy (probably Pascal Simon) in a Halloween gnome mask that is supposed to be his face wearing a uniform jacket with SS insignia - so I think we can call him Adolf Gnome - randomly kills various people in rubber-gory ways.

After fifteen minutes of these shenanigans, the film cuts to a married couple driving through what might be the same area. They stop, and the woman (most probably Véronique Renaud) has a nasty encounter with a black cat that might at least in part be hallucinatory. Anyhow, it's enough to drive her into the first of many bouts of hysteric screeching (therefore I dub her "Screechie").

That very same night (I suppose), the couple is still driving around the countryside, having lost their way terribly. Fortunately, they come upon a gothic palace inhabited by two weird yet friendly members of the elderly demographic who invite them to stay the night. For some reason, Elderly Guy wears a camouflage outfit, but this sort of thing doesn't invite comment here. The rather strange hosts ramble on about the terrible things that happen in the area "before, during and after the equinox" (which I translate into "always") and then proceed to tell the young couple a pointless story (historical flashback the film can't afford time!) about five brothers who lured a ship to its doom but somehow drowned during the proceedings, plus some stuff about their descendants supposedly having made a deal with the devil.

Remember Adolf Gnome? He is one of said descendants, living alone with his equally crazy elderly mum. The female half of our husband and wife protagonist team will eventually meet those two, for during the night, she is awakened by a black horse that makes one hell of a racket outside and will proceed to do so in the most annoying fashion throughout the rest of the movie. Obviously, Screechie decides to go out in her nightie and investigate. That decision is the beginning of an epic journey during whose course Screechie makes the acquaintance of Adolf Gnome and Mum (they think she looks like Gnome's newly dead sister, so they decide to bury her alive), a mummy with a bulging crotch that randomly kills people and digs out said dead sister (she's a zombie now, I think) to walk around holding hands with said dead sister, and has random shit happen to her.

Also featured are Adolf Gnome bringing fists to a hoof fight, the usefulness of powder kegs and petrol when confronted with the backside of a mummy, Elderly Guy's epic (he's shown to shoot at it for hours out of what I assume to be his starting gun - that does at least explain the infinite ammo) obsession with the black horse he declares to be "the Devil Beast", the ship from the story, and a random (or rather, even more random) gotcha ending featuring the black cat from the beginning and a very hungry patch of ground.

It looks as if France during the 80s had its own little tribe of people making the really awesome kind of backyards horror films, the sort full of rubbery gore, random nonsense, and a narrative that makes most dreams look coherent. As my attempts at giving you the feel for the absurd randomness of its plot should have made clear, Bernard Launois's Devil Story is a proud and unapologetic part of that group of films, leaving no brain undamaged, and no narrative rule unbroken. It's not as mind-expanding as N.G. Mount's improbably awesome Ogroff, but it sure is a film doing its damndest to overwhelm its audience with pure weirdness.

If you want to be all serious about it, Devil Story's randomness is obviously influenced by European folklore and fairy tales. The black horse and black cat as creatures of the devil are important parts of that tradition, and stories about smugglers luring ships to their doom and paying for it later on are parts of many local folklores too. However, where fairy tales and folklore usually have quite clear thematic connotations and an understandable subtext, the film at hand just grabs some outward signifiers from the folk tales, adds impenetrable rambling, screeching, some rubbery gore, a mummy and a serial killer and calls it a story in a way that suggests the writer (not surprisingly also Bernard Launois) to be either twelve years old or under the influence of mind-expanding substances like wine or strong coffee. The whole project is awe-inspiring in its stubborn insistence on making no sense at all beyond "bad magical things that may have something to do with the devil - or not - happen to people in this area - or not".

On the technical front, Devil Story is a curious beast. It's well photographed in so far as Launois knows how to frame and block scenes and everything he - well DP Guy Maria - shoots looks rather picturesque, but everything else about the film is a (hot) mess. As already mentioned (and obvious), the narrative structure is more or less non-existent, with no really discernible plot, no characters (let's not speak of the acting beyond giving Elderly Guy the day's price for most excited line delivery), and no feeling of progression or dramatic escalation.

This problem is further emphasised by the most curious, a-rhythmic editing decisions where every possible moment of suspense is sabotaged by recurring, random cuts to the devil horse being an obnoxious - and very loud - animal, the Elderly Guy shooting and shooting and shooting and shooting, the horse, the shooting, etc, until the little structure there is just turns to goo, very much like the mummy's lower lip once Screechie has ripped off a few of its bandages. And even if Launois could keep away from Elderly Guy's horse adventures, all action scenes are so awkwardly staged, and so overly long, they become befuddling instead of exciting, with cause and effect obviously divorced from each other, actors and the things they are acting on visibly not at the same place at the same time, and the same little thing going on and on and on for seeming hours, turning moments that could have been semi-exciting highlights like the scene when Screechie is playing tug-of-war with a gravestone against Adolf Gnome's Mum who is trying to bury her alive into improbable slogs through the swamps of time and space.

So, clearly and obviously, Devil Story is a horrible movie. And yet it's also a fascinating and quite riveting artefact of filmmaking that cares so little about - or misunderstands - the way films are supposed to be made, to look and to feel it nearly invents its own filmic language, entering the space so beloved by a certain type of film fan (that is, me) where the objective badness of a movie turns into something quite loveable and beautiful. I know, I do like to go on about films feeling as if they came from another world/dimension, or were made by aliens who once watched a movie and are now trying to make their own, but that is still the best way I've found to describe films like Devil Story in all their glorious, unapologetic oddness.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

In short: Fury of the Demon (2016)

Original title: La rage du Démon

This is another entry into the fake documentary arm of the POV horror subgenre. Fabien Delage’s film follows the traces of a curious incident: a couple of years ago, an American movie collector with a rather Poe-affine name showed a mysterious old silent movie called “La rage du Démon” to a select group of movie biz people. Somehow, the screening caused a minor riot, with several of its viewers still suffering from psychological aftereffects today. Rumours and suppositions suggest the very same film has caused comparable troubles at least two times before; other rumours and suppositions say it was directed by the father of at least the fantastic arm of cinema, the great Georges Méliès.

The documentary follows the film’s tracks through interviews with actual – mostly French – film critics, enthusiasts and directors. It turns out it may not have been made by Méliès at all, but by an occultist he shortly associated with, but what the film does, where it is now, and how it affects its viewers the way it does stays unclear.

If there’s an easier way to get me to like your film than by making it a documentary about a film that never actually existed, I don’t know what it is. Fury is a particularly great example of the fake documentary form in any case, always feeling as if it were shot about a real subject. The only thing – apart from the truth – standing between the film and complete authenticity is that not everyone Delage has roped into the project is a terribly great actor. But then, not everyone talking to the camera in real documentaries is a hundred percent convincing either.

Apart from the lovely idea, the film particularly recommends itself by the sure-handed way its history of the mystery film is constructed and talked about. Most of the tales about its subject the film digs out are very well integrated into actual film history – and into how much of the early history of the art is lost to us – so not little of what we hear in the interviews on screen would actually be the sort of thing we’d encounter in a documentary about a real lost film, adding a pleasant degree of plausibility to the fun, outré parts of the story.

It’s also quite a joy to watch how much some of the film people in front of the camera get into the whole thing – the late Jean-Jacques Bernard is particularly wonderful – going off into the somewhat starry eyed art talk that seems so typical of French film critics once they get going. There’s a joy of invention as well as a palpable love of film running through all of what Delage presents, so I can’t at all imagine anyone who loves movies as much as the people who made this not getting a bit of a kick out of Fury of the Demon.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Hero and the Terror (1988)

Three years ago, cop Danny O’Brien (Chuck Norris) got his ass kicked by frightening – and decidedly uncultured, you Hannibal fans will be disappointed to hear – serial killer Simon Moon (Jack O’Halloran). Moon more or less knocked himself out while pursuing the fleeing Danny. Danny, despite being honest about what happened, earned himself the un-ironic – and hated by him – nickname of “Hero” for it nonetheless, as well as a nice case of PTSD.

Danny certainly managed to live up to the hero moniker afterwards, though. Now, his pregnant girlfriend, his former therapist Kay (Brynn Thayer), is moving in with him, so things are definitely looking up for him. Curiously, though, his nightmares about Moon are returning. This will turn out to be prophetic when the killer manages to break out of psychiatric care and continues right where he began.

This, one among a handful of films in the Cannon canon that tries to have one of the studio’s action heroes work through a horror film plot, is certainly one of the more interesting outings of Chuck Norris. One of the film’s more remarkable aspects is that it is about what its title promises metaphorically as well as literally; it is a film about a Chuck Norris style male macho hero fighting his fears, in a genre where most protagonists aren’t even allowed to admit they have such a thing as emotions. And it doesn’t seem only to be the fear of getting one’s ass kicked by the mute animalistic serial killer Norris is fighting here – having Norris playing a character suffering under a form of post-traumatic stress after his first encounter with the big bad, is certainly a thing to behold  – but also a doubt of being a good enough person to be allowed to have the peaceful, traditional family life he clearly craves.

In a curious twist, it’s not Norris’s Danny O’Brien who is suffering from an actual fear of commitment here but rather his pregnant girlfriend Kay. Danny’s doubts are not about not wanting to commit, but rather about perhaps not deserving to commit. Now, there seems to be a simple macho logic at work here where Danny once lost his fight against his greatest enemy and is therefor not deserving of claiming his female prize until after reclaiming his manly accolades in a rematch, but this reading is complicated by several facts. Firstly, there’s the simple fact that Kay’s never played by the film as an object, and it is indeed one of its surprising pleasures that the many scenes between her and Danny are played for warmth and hint at the complicated feelings between two people who know and love one another well, suggesting the film knows that kicking serial killer ass or not does not a man make. The film, in another choice that pleasantly surprised me, also never uses the old cliché of Moon threatening Kay as part of the plot; there’s Danny fearing this, but it’s not actually happening, suggesting that this one enemy and event that defines Danny in his own eyes might not be quite as objectively central to his life as he assumes. Nor he to the life of his arch enemy, for that matter.

It is, however, certainly central to his self definition. It seems to have been Danny actually losing against and fleeing Moon, and getting dubbed “hero” nonetheless when his enemy simply goes down in an accident that’s pushed O’Brien to become an actual hero, the fear he now fights what pushed him into becoming a better person. One also shouldn’t forget that Kay was his therapist when his PTSD was at its worst (obviously one of somewhat dubious ethics), so meeting the woman he wants to marry is also a product of his losing this fight. I really can’t help looking at all of this and thinking that Hero and the Terror doesn’t buy into a part of the (often intensely entertaining, don’t get me wrong) macho bullshit that is part and parcel of its genre at all, and really rather suggests that being Chuck Norris, decent human being, is a much greater achievement than being Chuck Norris, ass-kicking machine.

Speaking of Norris, as a great detractor of the man’s acting abilities and particularly his line delivery, I am rather dumbfounded by his performance here. Dialogue flows from his mouth as if he were an actual human being that talks to other human beings on a regular basis. Even better, he actually gives a good show of himself on the important job of portraying Danny’s more fragile side. Following what Norris does here, I can actually imagine a parallel world where he became a decent actor specializing in the more complicated macho characters instead of the walking, talking cartoon he actually ended up as.

As a Cannon action movie, this is a rather slow one, as befits its more thoughtful approach to the action genre, apparently finding it at least just as important to spend time on Danny’s inner life and his relationship to Kay than on the all out shooting, shouting and explosions fest you’d expect coming in. That doesn’t mean William Tannen’s film is boring, mind you – for one, the quiet scenes are actually effective and involving, and secondly, the film does generally put in a bit of action or another slasher-style murder by Moon when things threaten to slow down too much. Generally, the action and horror scenes are staged efficiently and competently, with a couple of scenes concerning Moon and his hide-out even becoming atmospheric and tight.

Plus, there is always at least a bit of Cannon insanity coming through, my particular favourite in this regard being the death of Steve James’s character. It takes place in the empty Wiltern cinema, while James, nominally on guard duty, starts off his work out routine by jogging through the empty seats of the place to the heady beats of Mozart, until he is fatefully interrupted by Moon. It’s an absolutely absurd scene, obviously, yet it’s also imaginative and really rather beautiful.

The film makes fantastic use of its Los Angeles locations in more than just this one scene. The Wiltern clearly is the star of this aspect of the film – whoever had the idea to shoot there and enable the very mild echoes of Phantom of the Opera that come with its use here deserves much praise – but there’s quite a bit of personality to many of the film’s other locations too, providing the film with a sense of place not terribly typical of Cannon’s action output.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

In short: A Song for the Living (2018)

When the mother of Brandon (Grayson Low) dies, he is heartbroken. He and her were particularly close and were even still living together – the script pleasingly not reading this as creepy for once in a movie. He doesn’t understand why she didn’t even leave him a suicide note. However, Brandon’s mother did indeed leave one, though it has only been found by the town’s funeral director Fiona (Nicole Elizabeth Olson), who reads the note, keeps it, and starts a strange kind of seduction on Brandon. When the film leaves us alone with her sister Caterina (Kate Linder) and Caterina’s half-crazy and rather mistreated husband Lassiter (Bob Buckley), their conversations suggest Fiona has more or less decided to fall in love with Brandon for some reason everyone does not quite make precise. It’s only clear it’s not a completely healthy reason, and that there are very sinister undertones to Fiona’s understanding of love.

Colin Floom’s and Greg Nemer’s dark fantasy tale is an interesting little film, at times poetic, at times a smidgen disturbing, and at times a bit peculiar. It mixes folkloric elements – the importance of a song for what is going on here is a particularly fine example in that regard – with a view of love that seems informed by the Romantics in their darker hours and a tone and style that’s close to the more indie side of slow horror, and certainly more interested in people and ideas than in having a spring-loaded cat jump out of a cupboard every five minutes.

Despite some frayed edges that usually come with a low budget, the film’s visual side is strong, making much out of some fine locations to create a mood that wavers between the naturalistic and the dreamlike.The acting is fine as well, Olson giving off just the right mixture of attractiveness, strangeness as well as a darker and crueller undercurrent, while Low seems perpetually lost and puzzled, which seems to be absolutely appropriate to the situation he finds himself in.

It’s not a film everyone will enjoy as much as I did, I think: there will certainly be too much ambiguity about the characters, the ending, and even what the film actually thinks about any of what it is showing for some, and the film’s particular strain of Romanticism will strike others as a bit too much. Today, I find myself much fonder of this approach than having to go through yet another film where everything’s clear but also completely conventional.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Epitaph (1987)

aka Mommy’s Epitaph

The Forrest family has had to move house repeatedly, their semi-nomadic lifestyle pissing off teenage daughter Amy (Natasha Pavlova) in particular. But then, this is the sort of thing you have to cope with when you’re the daughter of Martha (Delores Nascar), serial killer of men when she doesn’t manage to seduce. The whole family knows about mommy’s little problem but they all agree they do not want to see dear mother locked up somewhere, so Dad Forrest (Jimmy Williams) gets rid of the bodies while the rest pretends everything is okay. This way, Martha’s at least having sex with Forrest once in a while, as the married couple’s way of saying thank you.

However, something has to give eventually. When Martha’s already killing some poor painter before they have even properly moved into their newest home, Daddy decides to go to a psychiatrist who is supposed to take a look at his murderous lunatic of a wife. Of course, Martha would never go to a shrink herself, so he manages to convince the woman to come to the house undercover as a neighbour and try to win Martha’s trust.

As bad as this plan is, things become even more awkward when the painter turns out to be buried with quite a few knife wounds but most certainly not dead. Instead of going to the police, he instead tries to kill Amy (no idea why) and then murders Forrest with the trusty family pickaxe before Martha can kill him a second time, leaving her the only grown-up in the house. Add to this little problem that Amy is getting her first boyfriend, something the perhaps mildly misandrist Martha of course mightily disapproves of, and further violence is guaranteed.

Usually, when the tired cult film viewer sees the name of Joseph Merhi (here, as ever, paired with his eternal partner Richard Pepin who this time around co-produces, edits and shoots), he can expect to encounter a sometimes shoddy, but usually highly entertaining action film shot on the cheap. Epitaph, one of the man’s earliest films, is obviously a horror movie, but it is ridiculously entertaining, at least for viewers who can cope with cheap looking films that barely have a plot and feature highly dubious acting.

Or really, viewers like me for whom many of the film’s flaws are the actual fun. For example, nobody would ever confuse Delores Nascar’s performance with any portrayal of an actual human being, mentally ill or not, but as a combination of shrillness and grimacing buried under a ton of make-up frightening even for the 80s, she is an absolute winner, stealing hearts and carving up grandmas with the best of them.

I draw particular joy out of the lack of self-consciousness the film shows. As is so often the case, the film takes clearly place on a different planet Earth than the one we know. It’s a place where nobody ever asks after the professional painter who goes missing, where psychiatrists go undercover as fake neighbours and also aren’t missed after they encounter the deadly combination of a metal bucket, a rat, and a blow torch (insert absurd little gore effect here), where a family is bitching about their mother’s murderous way but never tries to get help going beyond a secret agent psychiatrist. It’s Direct to Video Earth at its finest, but Merhi and co treat this nonsense with conviction, as if what they are portraying weren’t goofy nonsense but serious, dark, horrifying drama. You also gotta love this thing’s enthusiasm for little dumb details, like the bloody handprints on the wall of the never finished room the painter had started on nobody ever bothers to paint over, or the fact that Amy’s school in most outside shots clearly is no such thing as a school but at least features what looks like the same cat sneaking through the background of more than one scene.

There is, not surprisingly, a grubby quality to the filmmaking. Merhi and Pepin have clearly started to develop a sense of what they are doing when shooting on the cheap, but there are still moments when the frame becomes awkwardly cramped or when locations are very obviously not what they are supposed to be. If one is of the kind of mind for this sort of thing, one can read the whole affair and the style it was made in as an attack on the idea of squeaky clean suburban living, though I’d be very surprised if anyone involved in the making of this movie did it for more than making some bucks off a cheap little horror movie. I’m not complaining, mind you, for I enjoyed my time with Epitaph quite a bit.

If you’re like me, you are now hoping for a Lifetime Channel remake of the film. It would absolutely fit into the tone of contemporary Lifetime, given the absurdity of its plot and its focus on the domestic. At least if you crank up the winking and cast Martha with Eric Roberts.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Three Films Make A Post: Mary thinks there is something alive under her bed. Mary is right.

The Gate II: Trespassers (1990): Where the first The Gate was a prime example of the early inspired phase of straightforwardly good to great films in the directing life of Tibor Takács, this sequel pretty much marks the man’s career turn to the more goofy nonsense side of the street. Unfortunately, unlike many a later of Takács’s films of this kind, Gate II doesn’t turn its silly ideas and plot full of goofy supernatural bullshit into anything of much entertainment value. It feels less like an attempt to go all out with fun – if not intelligence – like much of later period Takács, but instead like a failed attempt at making a proper teen horror movie, situating the film in that awkward place where it’s not just not a good movie, but also a damnably uninteresting one. There are a couple of okay scenes in here, but if you go into this for something even approaching the level of the first film or of I, Madman, or the pure fun of Mansquito, you will be sorely disappointed.

Redline (2009): Whereas this SF anime (apparently seven years in the making) about a far future rogue racing event as directed by Takeshi Koike is pure, goofy, fun insanity. While the plot of the thing is pretty damn minimal, every single frame of the film is stuffed full of ideas, framed by parodies and mutations of visual elements of Japanese, European and US graphical art, and set to a pounding techno beat (finally a reason for me to use that cliché!). This visual mix is surprisingly beautiful to look at, a Japanese style lens distorting and transforming ideas of other artistic streams into a beautifully grotesque, majestically goofy thing all of its own. It hardly needs mentioning that the film is breathlessly paced, full of characters shouting – often pretty funny – declarations while around them stuff explodes, nor need I say that it moves very fast or looks utterly bizarre (or, in the movie’s favourite move, all of this together). Surprisingly enough, the film finds time and space for a romance that’s actually sweet and likeable, even suggesting something like (gasp) partnership between a gal and a guy.

Waltz with Bashir (2008): And now to something completely different, yet still animated. An animated narrative documentary made by a filmmaker who has never worked in animation before, which sounds like a hard sell, particularly when said filmmaker, Ari Folman, uses the animated form to speak about his – and others - past as a soldier during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and his attempt to reconstruct a war he has lost most of his memory of. However, the result is actually a brilliant movie, speaking about memory, guilt, and the way they converge in our dreams as loudly as about the experience of war. The animated form turns out to be the only right fit for the film, providing Folman with an opportunity to turn his dreams into moving pictures without a hundred million dollar budget. At times, this is as heart-wrenching a film as I’ve seen, driven by an honest willingness to confront the repressed – be it personal or political.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Past Misdeeds: Black Zoo (1963)

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 presented with only  basic re-writes and 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.

Superficially, Michael Conrad (Michael Gough) leads a charmed life. He is the owner of a small, yet successful private zoo in Los Angeles, where he can live out his love for animals by holding a lot of big cats in way too small cages and feeding a guy in a gorilla suit. By night, the lions, tigers, panther and cheetahs are chilling in Michael's living room while he plays the organ for them. Curiously, seeing as he's obviously quite mad, Michael isn't living alone with his animals. He is married to chimp trainer Edna (Jeanne Cooper). She copes with Michael's erratic and abuse behaviour (he's one of those "I hit you but it won't happen again until it of course happens again and again" types) with the help of lots of booze.

Then there's Michael's mute assistant Carl (Rod Lauren). The zoo owner has had the young man under his thumb for years, systematically destroying his self respect to have a better class of helper than the mere hired help like his animal-hating zoo keeper Joe (Elisha Cook Jr.) can offer.

Of course, this very particular idyll can't last forever. Various people are real and imagined threats to Michael's lifestyle, and the zoo owner deals with these threats by letting his very cooperative animal pals loose on them, exceedingly puzzling the hilariously incompetent police with his murders.

Things come to a climax when Edna realizes how mad her husband truly is, and packs up her chimps and Carl and tries to leave.

Robert Gordon's Black Zoo is the classic case of a film that has all the elements that could make a thriller digging deep into the messed-up relationships and power imbalances in a deeply dysfunctional family by way of not exactly healthy psychology but instead applies all its energy to being as silly as possible.

Although it's easy enough to be disappointed by Gordon's - or producer and writer Herman Cohen's - decision not to make a film that's as much in the vein of Peeping Tom or Psycho as the better written parts of the script pretend it to be, the film's utter silliness does make it practically impossible not to be entertained by it. It all starts out innocent enough, if Michael Gough throwing pointed gazes around as if he were a basilisk is one's idea of innocence, at least. But before long, the film juxtaposes psycho thriller typical scenes about Michael Gough being a jerk to everyone close to him with scenes of a lot of big cats our villainous protagonist calls his children looking very relaxed on couches and settees in his living room (there's a big painting of lions on the wall, of course) while their buddy Mike creates an unholy racket on his organ.

And that's before the film presents us with a dignified big cat burial with the whole cat gang in attendance, again chilling very relaxed on a blue-lit, foggy graveyard set right out of a gothic horror movie, listening to a heartfelt speech by Gough about the deceased's particular kitty virtues.

Another moment of great hilarity follows when our hero visits the multi-cultural animal-lover cult he is a member of (which I didn't mention in the little synopsis because it has no import at all on the film's plot). There, the soul of his dead kitten is transferred to an adorable tiger cub by a high priest wearing the upper half of a dead tiger on his head (that is how true animal idolators dress) while a shirtless black guy plays the bongo and the audience mumbles rhythmically. In one of the greatest moments of acting I have ever had the joy to witness, Gough manages to keep not just a straight face throughout the scene, but one that is so full of fake intense emotion I found myself riveted and laughing tears at the very same time.

There's also an awesome swirly flashback late in the movie that explains Carl's origin story, a final battle to the death in the rain that would be dramatic and poignant if not for all the awesome nonsense that happens before, a gorilla costume that looks really good if you can overlook the fact that it doesn't look like a gorilla at all, and oh so much intense, overly dramatic ACTING by Cooper and Gough, who both manage to treat their roles with total, unwinking earnestness like the true professionals they are.

Surprisingly, given the usual budgetary standards of Cohen productions, the tenor of the script, and director Gordon's nature as typical hired gun director, all this intense, ridiculous beauty is presented with a degree of style that came unexpected to me until I realized that Black Zoo's director of photography is Floyd Crosby. Crosby was of course also the cinematographer of most of Roger Corman's best gothic horror films (and of some other fine budget productions too). His use of contrasting colours - just look at the interplay of deep blues and reds in some of the film's silliest yet most effective scenes - work exceedingly well with William Glasgow's (himself a man with an interesting filmography) more carefully realized art direction, creating a style for the film which may not be as gloriously dream-like and artificial as that of the best Corman productions of the time, but that still lifts the ridiculous up towards the sublime more than once. In fact, the sillier the given scene, the more creative energy the crew seems to have invested in its look, with the burial and the organ playing scenes ending up as particular aesthetic high points.

It's this obvious effort everyone involved put towards a script that really doesn't deserve it that explains Black Zoo's particular charm for me. I see in this not just a demonstration of dogged professionalism, but the result of a group of filmmakers putting everything they have into their cheap drive-in movie fodder instead of just phoning it in. It is this on-screen enthusiasm that helped turn every moment where I should have been laughing at the film into one where I was laughing with it, congratulating it on a job well done.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

In short: The Haunted Cop Shop II (1988)

Original title: 猛鬼學堂

Apparently, Hong Kong has a big problem with (mostly) Western style vampires now. Why, even a big meeting of various government suits to discuss the solution to said vampire problem is attacked by the blood-loving fiends. The city’s best bet is apparently to team their worst, most cartoonish police officers with the most ridiculous nicknames as a vampire fighting force. This group does of course include Jacky Cheung’s and Ricky Hui’s returning characters from the first movie – these nitwits are what goes for vampire hunting experts. Kitty Chan is back too, but for some reason, she’s playing a completely different character. And hey, one of them gets bitten early on and from then on turns into a one-toothed half-vampire (don’t ask) whenever the light of the moon touches him, so he actually knows quite a bit about being a vampire.

Before the bunch of idiots can actually go to work, they’re supposed to train on the grounds of a some sort of former military property. Said military failed to mention the place is full of vampires and other undead, though. Supposed hilarity ensues.

I say “supposed”, for this sequel to the actually really funny Haunted Cop Shop, again directed by Jeff Lau Chun-Wai, is about as funny as getting a tooth extracted by a ninety year old dentist. One of the film’s biggest changes in comparison to the first one is that it replaces its predecessor’s approach of having a serious horror film invaded by its comedy protagonists by just throwing goofy shit at the audience without any coherence. Now, I’ve nothing (well, not much) against randomness in comedy, but if a film consists of ninety minutes of random nonsense, it damn well better be really funny nonsense. Perhaps Wong Kar-Wai’s (who appears here in an acting cameo) contribution to the first one’s script was more important than I had initially believed.

What Cop Shop II delivers instead of fun is a series of tedious and aggressively unfunny scenes full of unlikeable characters – and way too many of them to boot – clowning around for what feels like centuries, until a finale of running through corridors, random deaths, and vampire electrocution occurs. The first film’s impeccable sense of timing is gone from nearly all of the proceedings, as is Lau’s hand for atmosphere. Even the funny duo of Cheung and Hui seems to be phoning it in. That the film seems somewhat inspired by the dreadful Police Academy films does obviously nothing to improve matters.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Capture (2017)

Warning: I will have to spoil at least a couple of the film’s cool bits!

Hong Kong ex-pat living in the USA Sarah (Sarah Lian) has to return to the city of her earlier years because her grandmother has fallen ill, and she’s the only member of the family left that can take care of the old lady. Because this is a POV horror film, Sarah uses the shiny new camera phone her med student boyfriend gave her to film a travel diary for him. She’s mostly planning to show off her home city and her encounters with the friends – clearly the kids of rich parents and ex-pats who sent their children to a posh English language school – she hasn’t seen since the end of her high school days when she moved to the USA, but there’s quite a lot of disturbing stuff going on around her. It’s July, ghost month, you see, so the gates are open for a rather nasty series of supernatural events. At first, it seem to be random supernatural shenanigans, but it slowly becomes clear the events taking place now are connected to the reason Sarah left Hong Kong in the first place, and something is working towards a rather unpleasant goal for her.

I didn’t expect much at all going into Georgia Lee’s Capture, for POV movies supposedly filmed on the cells of their doomed main characters are a dime a dozen now, and horror films about Americans – which Sarah functionally is – meeting horrible ends in foreign countries are as a rule a pretty dire group. However, the film at hand turned out to be quite a bit better than I expected (or feared).

Firstly, Lee doesn’t use the cellphone source of the footage as an excuse to not put any thought into staging and blocking of scenes; instead, she seems to treat this basic conceit as a challenge to still create a film that’s moody and carefully staged. There are some very impressive moments shot with relatively static camera angles that use the strange intimacy of the POV form to creepy effect, but the camera also moves a lot in suspiciously non-shaky ways where the characters always get the right angle on something.

Of course, and here we come to the spoilers, there’s a reason for the cameras in this particular POV film always filming the interesting stuff – unlike many a camera in other POV films - for this is one of the examples of the style that turns the cameras themselves into parts of the supernatural menace, even going so far as giving us a literal murder cam later in the film. Even better, the ghost possessing the cameras and cellphones in the film is actually written as the ghost of a person for whom this particular habit makes sense, filming Sarah – if she wanted to or not – having been one of his habits when he was still alive as well, the film doubling down on the horror of being stalked. There’s obviously a nice bit of mirroring happening between Sarah returning to a place where a guy stalked her and filmed her only to start filming herself there, too, in hindsight adding a particular frisson to the film’s early stages.

So, yes, this is indeed a POV horror film that doesn’t just look really good but that’s also written with a degree of thought and care you don’t often find in the format (well, unless it’s a Koji Shiraishi film), with actual thematic heft circling not just the menacing element of cameras being everywhere but also thinking about the way this might reshape human relationships.

Capture further recommends itself with a dark ending that actually hits home for once because the film does indeed put in the effort to make Sarah likeable and human, her past guilt not as huge as the horror-affine viewer would at first suspect, and so her final fate genuinely upsetting and unfair. A possible feminist reading concerning a very concrete male gaze should be rather obvious, too, but Lee doesn’t feel the need to emphasise this aspect of her movie specifically; it’s there for anyone to see as a part of Capture, but it’s not the only reason for the film to exist.

The script, as should be obvious by now, is really rather good, suggesting elements of the character backgrounds without feeling the need to endlessly reiterate them, drawing characters and scenes quickly yet thoroughly. There is indeed quite a bit of suggested stuff going on in the background, of Sarah not just leaving an old friend behind in high school but eschewing him stepping up the class ladder, of her being disquieted by now returning to Hong Kong and realizing that her former home isn’t quite a place she can as instinctively manoeuvre in as you should in the place you think of as home. There’s more intelligence to the script than might be strictly needed for a relatively straightforward film, even, but one shouldn’t complain about a film doing more and thinking more than it strictly needs to.

There are also quite a few nice shots of Hong Kong locations that find the good middle between touristy showing off of the places this was shot in and using them well for the plot – there’s a sense of place to this movie version of Hong Kong I wouldn’t have expected of it.

All of this comes together to form one really rather fine horror film, as well as one that suggests that there’s no problem with POV horror a good director like Lee can’t solve.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Enter the Devil (1972)

Warning: I need to spoil some of the film’s details, but I do believe anyone has had enough time to see it by now.

All around the hunting lodge and part-time mine of one Glenn (Joshua Bryant), people disappear or die under mysterious circumstances. Well, mysterious circumstances if you aren’t the audience, for we know they are killed by a cult of robe-wearing evil-doers carrying crosses (the proper way round) who like to walk picturesquely through the desert night carrying burning torches while chanting in Latin. Most of their early victims are racist rapists, though, so we’re not sure how bad this cult actually is.

While hunters are leaving because the body count doesn’t quite run the way they want, anthropologist Leslie (Irene Kelly) arrives at the lodge. She believes the area to be a hot spot of some kind of religious activity that mixes pre-Christian rituals with the accoutrements of Christianity and tries to find someone, anyone, willing to talk to her about it. Which would probably be easier if she spoke Spanish or actually, you know, made efforts to talk the people around. She also finds time to let herself be romanced by Glenn. What woman, after all, doesn’t lust after the kind of 70s macho who always interrupts her when she starts expounding on her theories? I am being sarcastic, if you didn’t notice. But then, Glenn will turn out to be evil in other regards, too.

Texan filmmakers Frank Q. Dobbs’s Enter the Devil is, as they say in modern parlance “problematic”. Hell, I think its racial politics were even “problematic” for 1972, what with this being all about a cult of evil Mexicans – with one token white guy who surprises the pulp reader by at least not being their leader - sacrificing white people for their Catholic/pagan religious mash-up. It certainly doesn’t help that impression when I add that the film’s climax consist of all the brown people being gunned down by a group of white Texan good old boys. So yeah, if you want to watch an early 70s horror film and not be offended by this sort of thing, this is certainly something to avoid.

Despite my objections against the film’s racial politics – which I suspect not to be the point of the film but just prejudices drifting in combined with a lack of reflection by the way – I actually enjoyed it quite a bit once I started to look at it more as visual pulp. While the pacing is a bit too slow even for the tastes of 70s regional cinema, the film is carried by an exceptional sense of place and time (one might argue the film’s less than pleasant racial politics even add to that) that seems as close to putting the viewer into desert country in Southwest Texas in the early 70s as we can get from here. Particularly responsible here is Michael F. Cusack’s (whose only credit this film seems to be) beautiful photography that mixes early 70s grit, clever camera placement and a poetic eye for the use of natural light, torch light and so on to create a remarkable feeling of place.

The final third, with a series of sequences taking place in the desert and various caves at night, is particularly great, Cusack’s work adding a truly eerie mood to what otherwise would have been a pretty bland story of a somewhat random cult.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

The Haunted Cop Shop (1987)

Original title: 猛鬼差館

Macky Kim (Jacky Cheung Hok-Yau) and Man Chiu (Ricky Hui Koon-Ying) are your typical Hong Kong comedy cops, which is to say, they are of dubious mental capacity, morals, and work ethics, like a couple of nasty little boys somebody thought it to be a good idea to arm. Not that anyone else we meet in their station is any better, of course.

As it happens, the titular cop shop our protagonists are based in was a Japanese officer’s club during World War II, where quite a few suicides took place once the Japanese side lost their part of the war. So clearly, there’s going to be no problem at all when the high point of ghost month comes around.

Well, except for the part where the excellently named Sneaky Ming (Billy Lau Nam-Kwong), brought to confession by our heroes by pretending to be ghosts in one of the film’s best scenes, loses a rigged Mah-jongg game against some of the place’s ghosts and is tasked with bringing Japanese general Issei (Rico Chu Tak-On) back to the world of the living. Issei, it will turn out, is a Western style vampire for no reason the film ever explains, complete with awesome/ridiculous and definitely snazzy high-collared cape, and Sneaky is going to be his first victim. When Sneaky attempts to explain the situation to our cop heroes, they don’t believe him until contact with the sun turns him to dust. Their boss is so displeased with this turn of events – and certainly doesn’t believe any of their talk about the supernatural – he calls in Chief Superintendent Fanny Ho (Kitty Chan Ga-Chai) to exclusively supervise Macky Kim and Man Chiu. Eventually, these three incompetents will team up to fight the vampires running round Hong Kong.

Jeff Lau Chun-Wai’s The Haunted Cop Shop is pretty much exactly what you assume a Hong Kong horror comedy made in 1987 to be. As in many a comedy from the city, its heroes would be absolutely vile if they weren’t as ridiculous as they are, and still the film manages to make their misadventures entertaining for other reasons than mere Schadenfreude. Having as a film’s – comedy or not – protagonists police personal that’s quite this hilariously incompetent wouldn’t fly at all in contemporary Hong Kong – not to even speak of mainland China – anymore, so viewed from today, Macky Kim’s and Man Chiu’s personalities even look a bit like social criticism. I am pretty sure it wasn’t actively meant that way in 1987. These are just standard Hong Kong comedy characters who look like something a bit different in hindsight.

Anyway, nobody’s going to watch this because of hard hitting social criticism but for the series of often actually funny, usually weird, and plentifully absurd things our supposed heroes encounter. Lau, working from a script by himself and a young Wong Kar-Wai – who is the last guy you’d expect to have written any of this – is very good at giving a film that’s actually mostly a series of loosely connected episodes a feeling of directed movement, making the whole affair much more satisfying than you’d expect. It does of course help rather heavily that many of the episodes are really rather funny, from time to time even playing with audience expectations of its genre.

My favourite bit of this sort of business comes when our heroes, looking for the vampires randomly stumble into the convenience store of Chung Fat Pak (indeed played by Chung Fat). Chung Fat Pak, it turns out, was once a successful Taoist exorcist. So successful there wasn’t anything left for him to exorcise, therefore the convenience store. Which he at once proves by having a short yet wonderful kung fu fight against two vampires, demonstrating the most awesome staking technique ever put to celluloid. Chung Fat, the audience will probably assume, is going to be the film’s Lam Ching-Ying type character (see the Mr Vampire films), the ultra competent master to the bumbling idiot protagonists. Then the boss vampire appears, rips off one of his arms, and Chung Fat sacrifices himself so that said bumbling protagonists can get away.

As in practically all Hong Kong comedies of this style, there are scenes of inspired slapstick – the bit early on where Sneaky Ming is ghost-bullied into confession is a perfect example –, scenes of wonderful surrealism, as well a couple of scenes that bring home this isn’t a film made anywhere but in Hong Kong. How about that bit where our heroes decide their new boss is going to believe their tales about ghosts and ghoulies when they ruin her luck by getting her to eat dog meat? Or several scenes that teach the importance of wearing one’s panties on one’s head when trying to fend off ghosts? I never got any of that reading M.R. James, that much’s for sure.

Lau does some rather fine work not only with the film’s pacing but also when it comes to staging the supernatural encounters in the right – often blue as you might imagine – light. When the film’s not laugh out loud funny, it is very moody indeed, never making the mistake of turning its supernatural threats into slapstick characters too. That’s after all what the protagonists are for, so large parts of the film consist of the three idiots stumbling through sets, set pieces and situations that would be rather fine straightforward horror if The Haunted Cop Shop weren’t populated by the kind of guys who dress up like their big antagonist just to teach their friends some pithy lesson.

Saturday, October 6, 2018


Húsið: Trúnaðarmál aka The House (1983): Egill Eðvarðsson’s haunted house movie about a teacher for deaf kids and her composer boyfriend getting a house very, very cheaply and paying for it dearly is well-directed, well-acted, and from time to time oh so very 80s even though it is pretty much the opposite of what you’d call an 80s horror film. It’s also, the IMDb informs me, the first Icelandic film to have a screen credit for a stunt double, which is a bit ironic in a film that is quite as slow-going as this one. Now, I generally don’t mind a slow film but there’s being slow and careful, and then there’s slowing everything down for no particular reason, the film at hand slowly crawling into the latter category. Despite some moody moments and the exotic bonus a film gets by being one of the handful of Icelandic horror films, this one’s also not terribly effective: neither as a ghost story nor as the sort of psychological study it clearly has ambitions on being.

Ice Queen (2005): If you have always dreamed about a film that grafts bits – mostly the “jokes” – taken from atrocious sex comedies to a would-be SyFy movie said channel wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot-pole because it’s so bad, you’re in luck with Neil Kinsella’s epic. If you’re, well, sane, you’ll have to look forward to snowboarding scenes, a fake avalanche from planet fake, a monster that is basically an ice-based version of Smurfette after a very bad week, hilariously weak acting, and of course a lot of feet-dragging. It’s not pretty.

Lake Placid 3 (2010): If you’re generally not convinced by the charms of the SyFy Original movie, this second direct-to-SyFy sequel to “Ally McBeal vs. The Gators” directed by Griff Furst certainly won’t change your mind, what with it being, well, pretty crap. It goes through the usual SyFy Original dance of really bad jokes (well, admittedly there are one or two that made me snort), the usual family stuff made worse by the fact that the more typical teenage-daughter-as-portrayed-by-an-actress-in-her-mid-20s has been replaced by a particularly stupid little boy, and features blurry CGI crocodiles that seem to float over their surroundings. Unlike in a lot of the more entertaining films of the Channel, the action and suspense sequences aren’t much fun, and apart from a somewhat funny turn by Yancy Butler as a poacher, and a bit of Michael Ironside slumming, there’s really no one else on screen who either can or is willing to act. It’s still much better than Ice Queen, mind you.