Friday, November 30, 2018

Past Misdeeds: Teseo Contro Il Minotauro (1960)

aka Minotaur, the Wild Beast of Crete

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.

Life isn't pleasant in Ancient Crete. For a generation or so, the Cretans have made yearly human sacrifices to the Minotaur, whom its priesthood sees as a protective godhood rather than a monster with a tragic backstory roaming a labyrinth. Crete's king Minos (Carlo Tamberlani) changes his mind about the whole human sacrifice thing when his wife begs him on her deathbed to abolish the practice. After all, she even has proof the gods don't care about these sacrifices, seeing as she secretly hid away one of their twin daughters with foreign peasants to protect her from being sacrificed as the later born of every twin pair in Crete should be, and was not punished by the gods for it.

That argument is enough to convince Minos, and while he's planning on breaking with traditions, he also decides to bring that twin daughter, Ariadne (Rosanna Schiaffino), to court. Alas, his other daughter Phaedra is not very happy with another claimant on a throne she already sees at hers, and the man Minos sends out to find Ariadne, Chiron (Alberto Lupo), is all too willing to fulfil her wish to see her sister dead rather than rescued.

Chiron's tactics as a political assassin are bad, though, for instead of locating Ariadne and then silently letting her disappear, he hires a horde of bandits to snuff out the whole village where she lives. Fortunately for the forces of justice, hero and prince of Athens Theseus (Bob Mathias) and his best buddy, the Cretan noble Demetrius (Rik Battaglia), are in the area. As Greek heroes, they are quite willing and able to push back a mere horde of bandits, even though Ariadne's adoptive parents and a lot of villagers die in the attack before the duo can get in on the action.

Since Ariadne is a bit of a stunner, and Theseus really a nice guy, he takes the now orphaned girl to Athens to be taken into his father's house and romanced. Demetrius's confused reaction to the girl looking exactly like his princess our hero just laughs off.

Of course, this won't be the last attempt on Ariadne's life, and of course Theseus and Demetrius will sooner or later have to set out to set things right in Crete. However, things will become more dangerous and complicated than anyone could have expected, with Phaedra falling in love with Theseus, the involvement of the Cretan resistance of people who sit around drinking wine instead of acting, and war and doom coming for Athens.

Silvio Amadio's Teseo came as a bit of a positive surprise to me. I do love my peplums, but I generally don't expect too much of them, so when a film delivers as much of interest as this one does, I tend to get a little giddy. It's only fair, too, for there is much to be giddy about here.

Some of the film's positive aspects are easily explained by the fact that it came relatively early in the peplum cycle, when the budgets for films of the genre often were a bit higher, so the productions could afford to hire extras for mass scenes and put more effort into their production design, which is always helpful in films as soundstage based yet in need of spectacle as these tend to be. Consequently, there are often more people on screen here when the script needs it than one would expect, giving the handful of battle scenes and the obligatory storming of the bad guys' throne room (though it's the sacrifice chamber here) a bit more weight and believability through the sheer number of participants. Compared to classical Hollywood monumental epics, there aren't still all that many participants, but when you have seen enough of these films, you become rather thankful when an army consists of more than ten people. Depending on your taste in historians, you may even see the not quite as large armies as more realistic, though I doubt anyone involved here was interested in historical authenticity as much as in producing as much of a visual spectacle as the budget allowed.

Weight and a bit more believability seem to have been important when it came to the production design too, for every set and every costume is created with a love for telling details, from the walls of the houses of nobles actually being adorned with pictures and wall hangings, to the ubiquitous minotaur and bull depictions in Crete. This extra effort helps make the film's Mythical Greece feel more like a world with its own coherence and its own rules than a series of sets.

Yet even an army of extras and the most beautiful production design in the world need a director equal to the task of using them properly. Amadio is more than equal to it, with a sometimes painterly eye for the staging of scenes to the greatest visual effect, and a wonderful sense for the use of vivid colours. Amadio's Mythical Greece may not be as dream-like and magical as that of Mario Bava, but it never is bland or colourless, and always vivid and larger than life.

The word "bland" unfortunately does lead me to the film's greatest weakness, Bob Mathias as Theseus. His performance isn't bad at all, but rather painfully neutral, as if that awesome (in the classic sense of the word) hero Theseus the other characters are speaking of had just stepped out for a moment only leaving his body there. Mathias's blandness isn't enough to ruin the film or even to annoy me much, yet it may be a stumbling block for some.

The rest of the cast is much stronger, with Schiaffino able to play her double role well enough to keep Phaedra and Ariadne believable as two distinctively different persons; even though the script tends to make Ariadne a bit too virtuous and Phaedra a bit too evil for my tastes. But that sort of thing is part of the genre, and on the other hand, Ariadne is a bit spunkier than peplum heroines usually are. It's probably not necessary to mention that Alberto Lupo could play the type of heel he's playing here in his sleep; he's clearly not asleep here.

On the script side, the film underplays the mythological elements of the story for most of its running time, making this a very entertaining and melodramatic story of Mythical Greek palace intrigues with an influx of swashbuckling, that just happens to include a surprise rescue by Amphitrite, and the battle against a not very threatening but rather lovely Minotaur with a very mobile but also very confused looking face. I also have to applaud the writers for their use of interesting and not always the most obvious parts of Greek myth here. They take their freedoms with it, but they sure do seem to know what they are doing and why.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

In short: Death Valley (1982)

As if going through his parents’ divorce and now making a tour through Arizona and particularly Death Valley with his mother (Catherine Hicks) and her new/old boyfriend who likes to pretend he’s a modern cowboy played by Joe Don Baker even though he’s hawking real estate and played by Paul Le Mat weren’t enough to trouble a little boy, little Billy (Peter Billingsley) stumbles into a caravan that’s actually the scene of a murder. Neither Billy nor the grown-ups realize it at the time, mind you, and just when they encounter the same caravan as a wreck surrounded by police by the side of the road, do they realize something was very wrong.

Billy took a medallion from the caravan, and wouldn’t you believe it, the nice waiter (Stephen McHattie) in their hotel is wearing one just like it! Billy is a clever little boy, so he gives the thing to the local sheriff (the Wilford Brimley); unfortunately not before the nice waiter has seen is too. For reasons best known to himself, after dispatching the sheriff and, as you do, stowing his corpse in a cupboard, the killer waiter now begins to stalk Billy and his family with murderous intent.

Death Valley’s director Dick Richards started his career as an ad director, and watching the film, this doesn’t come as a complete surprise. The film’s visual style is certainly slick, and the plot goes through all of the expected motions of a film neither quite a thriller nor a pure slasher with perfect competence. However, there’s a certain lack of depth that makes it easy to fall back onto the old cliché of ad directors not tending to make very brainy films. And not just because it telegraphs its supposed plot twist early on in the scene when Brimley gets offed.

It’s one of those films that really doesn’t do anything that’s wrong, but it also doesn’t much that’s right, and certainly little that’s interesting. Quite a few scenes here should by all rights be real suspenseful nail biters but there’s an emotional distance to the film that makes it very difficult to become very excited by much what’s happening in it. You know you are supposed to be on the edge of your seat, but the film never puts in the effort to actually drag you there.

The whole affair doesn’t become more interesting once you have copped to the fact that the whole subplot about new boyfriend trying to prove himself to Billy has all the psychological sophistication of a very special episode of a contemporary TV show. On the plus side, Stephen McHattie could be pretty creepy without the script he’s working from actually providing much help even this early in his career, and Peter Billingsley was a great precocious kid performer.

It’s just all a bit too riskless and harmless to grab me.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Upgrade (2018)

A near future. The somewhat improbably named Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) seems to be something like the next to last car mechanic on a planet full of autonomous cars and people with light cybernetic enhancements. Despite him being a bit of a luddite, he’s married to tech company suit Asha (Melanie Vallejo), and they seem to be very happy indeed. Happy, that is, until Asha’s self-driving car has a curious malfunction – though not so curious anybody in the film will ever think it strange until it’s plot twist time – and first drives them into and then crashes them in the worst part of their city.

As luck (cough) will have it, there’s a group of heavily cybered up thugs on the spot to greet them, murdering Asha and severing Grey’s spine. Grey ends up quadriplegic and suicidal, but one of his clients happens to be a genius tech mogul and offers to fix Grey’s little problem with his newest invention, a microchip implant called STEM that can basically do anything. It’s all quite hush hush and illegal of course.

Anyway, the thing does indeed give Grey control over his body back, something that becomes rather useful when he decides he’s dissatisfied with the investigating cop Cortez’s (Betty Gabriel) handling of his wife’s case and involves himself in the investigation. Turns out STEM has quite a bit of superpowers, like speaking to Grey in his head (in the voice of Simon Maiden), doing movie-magical photo enhancement, and showing itself really useful when it comes to taking over for bloodily dispatching wife killers while doing a variation of Keanu Reeves’s stiff back fu.

Given that, as a writer, he’s heavily involved in two of my most loathed franchises in the horror genre, the Insidious movies and the Saw films, I’m really not a fan of the work of Upgrade’s  Australian writer/director Leigh Whannell. However, despite sharing a couple of the flaws of these franchises, the film at hand is a much more enjoyable proposition, at least for as long as it is an unapologetic love letter to old-style exploitation films and particularly ozploitation flicks, with an added dose of cyberpunk. Which basically means until the last minute big plot twist comes around, for it, alas, is utter, unmitigated shite, leaving most of the actions the film’s villains have taken throughout the film inexplicable and more than a little absurd. In fact, given the plot twist, there’s no reason at all for anything in the film to have happened as it did. Up to that point, the film does a fine and highly entertaining job in carting out all kinds of exploitation film clichés, while giving them a new coat of paint that’ll signal “RELEVANCE TO OUR TIME!” to any mainstream critic or viewer who may stumble onto it, without ever actually saying anything insightful or relevant. This last bit is not really a complaint, but me admiring Whannell’s chutzpa.

Now, as a director, Whannell certainly is no George Miller, probably not even a Brian Trenchard-Smith, but he has a very good eye for a very 80s exploitation and cyberpunk mix of neon glowing high tech and gritty, grubby, urban street life, and a bit of gore. He’s using little of the bad music video editing and wobbly camerawork you might expect but provides Upgrade with clear lines and a stream-lined flow that isn’t even disturbed by the fact that many of Whannell’s best side-ideas are slightly bonkers and a little bit absurd. Being able to play a villain who has a weaponized sneeze among his super powers straight is quite something. This sort of thing certainly provides the fast, fun and violent revenge flick this mostly is with many entertaining distractions, distractions Whannell doesn’t let overwhelm the rest of the film but clearly enjoys including, and which keep the film from feeling too slick and factory-made. The whole affair has a lot of personality, and, as you know, personality goes a long way with me, even if you end your movie on quite as bad a note as this one ends on.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

In short: Secreto Matusita (2014)

The film consists out of the – apparently edited – footage that is the final trace of the traditional three student filmmakers (Lupita Mora, Bruno Espejo and Eduardo Ramos). The team manage to bribe their way into the most haunted house in Peru (whose backstory is explained in ten minutes or so of interviews), pack in a medium (Willy Gutiérrez) and start filming in the hopes of being the lucky ones among millions who finally get a ghost or three on camera. As it happens, they will indeed encounter quite a bit of paranormal activity, but even the surprisingly competent medium can’t save them (or himself) from some very bad ends.

Despite not really getting along with it, I found the good parts of Peruvian director Dorian Fernández-Moris’s previous film, Cementerio General, promising enough to try my luck with his next film. I’m happy I did, for while Secreto Matusita certainly isn’t any more original than the cemetery excursion, it is quite a bit more effective. For one, this is a much tighter film, establishing place and characters with effective briefness while still finding space for leading in with some nice ghost stories about the place the characters are going to die in. That last bit really helps in building up mood as well as expectation in an audience and also helps formally ground the film in the genre of paranormal documentaries, making it more convincing.

Once the POV spookery really gets going, this is still a much improved film over its predecessor – the various ghostly apparitions and supernatural shenanigans are well-timed and fun, the character reactions to them believable, and even the final act doesn’t fall into the POV horror trap of consisting of people running and screeching in the dark for half an hour that destroyed Cementerio’s middle part for me. In fact, the spooky old house stays effectively lit for most of the film, and while the camera is a bit shakier than you’d hope those of actual film students would be it’s the kind of shakiness that suggests tension and not an epileptic fit.

As a lover of ghost stories, I appreciated the film first building the house up through the kind of short, ambiguous takes that make up much of authentic ghost lore too, all of which will be important in some way or the other later in the film, and which certainly added a greater feeling of veracity than is usual in this sort of outing, as does the fact that the stories localize the house’s past in Peruvian ephemeral history, making it more specific and less generic through this.

Add to that the film’s tight running time and general air of competence, and you not only have a nice improvement on Fernández-Moris’s first film, but a genuinely fine bit of POV horror.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Terrified (2017)

Original title: Aterrados

Three houses in the same suburban street are hit by strange and disturbing events that end in more than just one death, as well as what looks a lot like the corpse of a child digging itself out of his grave and walking back home. The policeman Funes, and his good friend Jano, a former pathologist who has turned into the sort of paranormal investigator purposefully good at burying the terrible stuff, and the team of “specialist” Dr Allbreck and her colleague Dr Rosentok are involved in investigations of separate of these incidents, only to realize they might just be looking into the same series of events from different angles. I’d love to tell you which actor is playing whom here, but the absence of a proper cast and character list online in combination with my general lack of knowledge about more than a handful of Argentinean films and actors makes that impossible.

Anyway, when the characters team up and spend quality night time in the houses where all the strange stuff has been happening, events quickly get out of control completely.

I rather liked director Demián Rugna’s The Last Gateway from 2007. Like the earlier movie, Aterrados is a film very much in the spirit of the Weird and the strange, yet where Gateway sometimes felt amateurish and random (that’s not necessarily a bad thing), Terrified’s older Rugna has full control about the world of the strange and the grotesque he creates here. Watching the film, I still found myself sometimes reminded of Fulci-style cosmic Italian horror (though with far fewer gore effects than the maestro would have included) with its dominating mood of the irrational. However, the Fulci-esque elements have turned into small nods included in a more personal approach to cosmic horror.

And cosmic horror Terrified’s tale of a dimensional rift right in suburbia absolutely is, even if it at first seems to be a more conventional bit of supernatural horror with comparatively conventional, though well realized, shock sequences (at least if you find the idea of a creepy, naked, long-limbed man living and not living under a guy’s bed conventional). That, as it turns out, is the director biding his time until the final act turns towards the kind of strange that reminds even more of Junji Ito’s grotesque cosmicism than of Fulci – a huge compliment, even though I do love Fulci much more than the next guy. Rugna plays an interesting structural trick: the film’s first half, when you still expect a more conventional horror piece, is actually less conventionally structured, non-linearly moving around the plot’s timeline in a way that in hindsight is a spiral movement towards its core. Once the true cosmic grotesquerie starts, the film’s narrative becomes unexpectedly linear. You’d expect it to work the other way around, of course, but Rugna’s control about the Weird stuff – which I don’t want to spoil for those having the luck of going into the film for the first time – is so great the final act is strange enough it doesn’t need added formal strangeness to work how it is supposed to. This structure is also a wonderful way to play with the audience’s expectations, keeping the viewer confused early on until she gets the increasingly disturbing picture of what’s really going on.

Technically, Terrified is a fine film too, featuring camera work whose angles and movements are only ever subtly wrong and some wonderfully “haunted” suburban homes that become stranger in ways a viewer might only notice subconsciously. The only element of the film that doesn’t always quite come together as well as it could are the special effects – while everything is conceptually very strong stuff, sometimes the effects look a bit too much like effects; there are, on the other hand, some very strong moments there too, like the short glimpse of Allbreck’s fate (that’s as wonderfully Ito as things can get).

All this together add up to a film I find very special indeed, at least from the perspective of the friend of cosmic horror on screen. And which right minded person isn’t one?

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Three Films Make A Post: This movie is so real it makes every other movie in this town look like a movie.

Playing It Cool (2014): Meta genre films are difficult, for you really need to have something interesting to say about a genre if you want to get away with deconstructing it (at least a little) while still staying inside its lines. Otherwise, a film will end up looking embarrassed being part of the genre it is in, satisfying no one, most certainly not an audience going into a genre movie because they actually like the genre it operates in. Which is a bit of problem. In parts, this dreadful fate does strike Justin Reardon’s film. It has its funny moments, its short flashes of interesting insight, but mostly, it really doesn’t seem to want to go for the big tearful emotion, and isn’t really as clever as it thinks it is to make up for that. Adding to the problems is that the film is – like a lot of the more male centric romantic comedies – really not interested in romance so much as in its male lead Chris Evans’s character learning to stop being a complete dickhead, with the supposed partner Michelle Monaghan really not being fleshed out terribly well. Which again doesn’t exactly scream romance to me.

La délicatesse aka Delicacy (2011): In the same genre is this French movie directed by David Foenkinos and Stéphane Foenkinos about Nathalie (Audrey Tautou) losing her husband and much of her joy in life until she rather randomly romances her mildly weird, not terribly pretty (that’s a plot point, though one rather curious in a film from the country that treated Gerard Depardieu as pretty damn hot) colleague Markus (François Damiens). It’s just as genre conscious as Reardon’s film but where the American movie seems a bit embarrassed by the whole thing (and really not terribly interested in being romantic, like a slasher movie without murders), this one steps into clichés, traditions and regular plot beats with wild abandon, discarding the bits it doesn’t like, wallowing in those is does, adding an honest appreciation of the weight of pain, as well as general whimsy, and otherwise trusting in Tautou’s natural awesomeness. Or more precisely, her ability to go through emotions from bereft to confused to adorable (that’s an emotion, right?) with full conviction, changing tracks at the drop of a hat, while actually producing effective chemistry between her and her not exactly obvious romantic partner Damiens.

The Hearse (1980): It’s easier to go from that last film to this horror film starring Trish Van Devere than you’d think, seeing that both concern a female main character coping with loss, badly. Just that Van Devere’s Jane stumbles upon a mix of late 70s/early 80s supernatural horror clichés from ghosts over Satanic conspiracies, to bad love, reincarnation and (sort of) an evil car instead of love. Unfortunately, director George Bowers (or the script, for that matter) never manages to get a grip on the material, turning what should by all rights be at least an entertaining grab bag of horror fun into a tame little film that never amounts to much – not even a decent ending.

It’s too bad, for Van Devere certainly applies herself with conviction, but apart from two, perhaps three creepy scenes, she seems to be the only one involved. Unless you count Joseph Cotten chewing the scenery outrageously (and tone deaf) as an impossibly rude lawyer.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Past Misdeeds: Der Fälscher von London (1961)

aka The Forger of London

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.

Peter Clifton (Hellmut Lange) and Jane Leith (Karin Dor) are getting married, but the bride at least isn't very happy about it, seeing as she only marries Peter so his money can provide for her uncle, the not very successful postcard painter John Leith (Walter Rilla). Peter for his part should be happier, for he loves Jane madly, but he's surprisingly moody nonetheless, as if several dark secrets were hanging over him and his affairs.

On the couple's (such as it is) wedding reception, some of these secrets begin to come to the fore. Firstly, there's some curious business about a forged five pound note. When Scotland Yard inspector Rouper (Ulrich Beiger) finds it in his heart to go to a frigging wedding reception to question people about a forged five pound note, family doctor and friend Donald Wells (Viktor de Kowa) says he got it from Peter, who of course and quite believably says he knows nothing about it. Still at the same wedding reception, Basil Hale (Robert Graf), an admirer of Jane appears to make a very loud nuisance of himself, insinuating much and achieving little. And because fun comes in threes, next up is a certain Mrs Unterson (Sigrid von Richthofen), who races in to loudly complain that Peter doesn't deserve all his money. By rights, it should belong to her (dead) son, his half brother. Or so says wedding crasher number three.

After the best wedding reception ever is over, the newlyweds go on their honeymoon in a dark and spooky old castle that'll surely lighten everyone's mood. Jane - who doesn't want to sleep with Peter because he "bought" her, by the way, even though it really looks rather more as if she sold herself to him quite purposefully, as neither shotguns nor blackmail were present at the wedding - soon learns more awesome things about her new family life. Turns out Peter fears he has inherited a bit of violent schizophrenia from his dear dead dad. And might be the biggest forger of Britain, known as The Cunning. And might be going around murdering rude people like Hale.

Obviously, once she finds her husband in bloody clothes and with a bloody hammer by his side, Jane decides she suddenly does love her husband. That sudden love is so gigantic, Jane's even willing to hide murder weapons and lie to the police. Speaking of the police, another Yard inspector, Bourke (Siegfried Lowitz), is just as willing as Jane to break the law to protect Peter, for both he and the woman suspect somebody has it in for the young man, and that he is a poor beleaguered innocent.

This early in the Wallace movie cycle, nothing about the movies was as set in stone as it would soon become, so there was still room for a movie to be quite different from those that came before or after it. Der Fälscher is quite a bit more of a "normal" mystery than most of the other Wallace krimis, though also a film quite focused on its melodramatic elements, while the pulp elements are rather underplayed. This doesn't mean the film is totally devoid of your typical Wallace-isms, or in any shape or form interested in being realistic, its feel is just delightfully weird in ways slightly different from other Wallace films.

Sure, the film's comparative lack of two-fistedness, evil orphanages and odious comic relief (well, Eddi Arent pops in for a curious very minor double role, but I always rather liked him) may come as a bit of a shock to the krimi neophyte, especially since the first two of these things are elements of the genre the film's director Harald Reinl usually excels at, but a plot that manages to be at once obvious and ridiculously convoluted and a series of well-paced revelations, semi-revelations and reversals will soon enough distract from that particular shock.

Der Fälscher's major positive surprise for me is the emphasis its script puts on Jane as an actually active character. I suspect the relatively heavy influence of (gothic) melodrama to be the catalyst for this not very Wallace-ian change. The melodrama, after all, is one genre in film history absolutely dominated by its female characters. In a typical Wallace adaptation on the other hand, the female lead is usually there to be threatened and kidnapped, and sure as hell isn't allowed to do anything regarding the solving of the film's core mystery.

On a plot level, the damsel in distress here is really Peter, who may not get kidnapped but is knocked out and confused more often than not, and is utterly unable to help himself in any way. Even though Jane isn't allowed to solve the whole mystery herself - that's what Siegfried Lowitz in an unusually sympathetic and finely ironic performance is there for - she is the audience identification figure of the piece, not given to hysterics, and resolute when she needs to be. Even more surprising is how well Dor - all too often an actress with much beauty but little presence - sells the role. She's still as stiff as usual, but here, her stiffness seems to be there to tell us something about her character, and not because she's totally lacking in personality. If it weren't for a slight subtext of helping one's spouse during a murder investigation seen as a married woman's duty, I'd even call the film's gender politics progressive instead of just progressive for a German film made in 1961. But I'm not complaining.

While Reinl's direction has been more obviously strong in other krimis, he still shows his usual fine, often clever, sense for the blocking of scenes, an eye for the slight gothic touch - especially whenever the plot concentrates on the rather fantastic looking castle and his surroundings -, a hand for pacing that works for this melodramatic pulp mystery as well as it does in the pulp adventure movies most of his other Wallace krimis are, and of course an un-Germanic love for dynamic set-ups in the movie's few action scenes. Add to Reinl's talents some rather beautiful, moody, photography by series mainstay Karl Löb (who is probably as responsible for the actual look of the krimi as any of the various directors he worked with), and a fine semi-jazz soundtrack by Martin Böttcher (who somewhat unfairly always stood in the shadow of the slightly more crazy and original Peter Thomas, even though his scores are generally nearly as good), and you have yourself a Wallace krimi as fine and entertaining as they get.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

In short: Cementerio General (2013)

Iquitos, Peru. A bunch of teenagers decide to assuage the grief of one of their own for her dead father by sneaking onto the picturesque Cementario General by night and holding a ouija board session. As you will surely be surprised to hear, things don’t go too well, and soon a possessed eleven year old does what possessed people in movies do – though she has to play on tomb roofs instead of hang in ceiling corners on account of a despicable lack of ceilings – and everyone runs around, screeching. But wait, there’s more, because all of this is part of some revenge plot for some adulterous family business. The film doesn’t bother to get into why the kids not part of any of the families involved have to die too.

At the beginning and in its final act, Dorian Fernández-Moris’s Cementerio General is a decently shot, if been-there, done-that low budget horror movie, just coming from Peru instead of a backyard near me, again demonstrating that the drive to make a horror movie, any horror movie is something like a universal impulse. The young actors are decent enough, the director stages scenes with a promising eye, and the long-suffering viewer is hopeful for whatever follows. However, once the full-on POV middle part of the story came around, my patience frayed increasingly. There’s a certain amount of night-vision shaky-cam and running around screeching in the dark I can take with no problem, but once a film does like Cementerio General and adds quite a few out of focus shots to what feels already like a lifetime of shaking and screeching, even I start sighing sarcastically. Even more so when I encounter this in a film that demonstrated before, and will demonstrate in its final act, too, that it knows how to stage things straight and somewhat effectively.

The possessed kid is neither terribly convincing nor used very effectively either. All this leaves us with a film that has an okay beginning, a godawful middle, and a decent ending.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Sole Survivor (1984)

Through luck so sheer it may as well be called a wonder, ad executive Denise (Anita Skinner) survives a plane crash that leaves everyone else dead. There was already a bit of strangeness surrounding the incident before it actually occurred. The star of Denise’s latest ad project, former beach party exploitation movie star Karla Davis (Caren Larkey) was trying to get in contact with Denise to warn her off going on the plane completely, because she had a vision of her surviving the crash, something that suggests a kind of doom worse than death to Karla the film will only make more concrete much later on.

Things really take a turn for the weird once Denise – who also used the opportunity of her short stint at the hospital to romance her doctor (Kurt Johnson) – is from medical care. She seem to be followed by curiously motionless, hollow-eyed people who stare menacingly at her, and there’s a series of near accidents that threaten to finish what the plane crash didn’t manage. And the people following our heroine? They just might be walking corpses (that look very much the part too, thanks to simple yet brilliant performances and make-up effects). It’s as if death itself is trying to correct the mistake of Denise’s survival.

Not to be confused with a couple of other films called Sole Survivor – some of them even concerning plane crash survivors too – this slow and subtle bit of horror filmmaking is to my eyes the magnum opus in the filmography of its director Thom Eberhardt, fan favourite Night of the Comet notwithstanding. But then I’m bound to prefer the deeply serious slow horror to the goofy (and also pretty slow) piece of horror goofiness.

Be it as it may, Sole Survivor certainly recommends itself by the right kind of slowness. Like a decades-early precursor of many of the more subtle indie horror films of today (It Follows seems an obvious example because it also shares a comparable mood of inescapable dread) this is a film that is slow because it takes its time – and really needs to take its time to work properly – slowly and menacingly building its mood and its main character, all the better to trap her in truly inescapable doom.

Eberhardt does a lot of the tale’s heavy lifting through small, seemingly throwaway details that come together to build his movie’s world, suggesting many things he doesn’t outright state about Denise and her life very effectively. He also has a great hand for making details precise. For example making Karla not just an aging actress with visions that ruin her life and what’s left of her career but one known for beach movies specifically draws a much more concrete picture of her and what her life has been like than the easier, shorter “generic aging actress” lesser films would have chosen. Generally, Sole Survivor handles even the more clichéd parts of its material well. The romance, for example, actually feels perfectly fitting and helps flesh out Denise as a person beyond her status as a woman doomed by Death itself.

Speaking of Death, I would be rather surprised if Sole Survivor wasn’t an influence on the Final Destination films, at least the brilliant first one. Calling the newer films rip-offs like some people on the internet inevitably do seems to be rather wrong-headed to me, however, and not just because the series’ love for complicated death traps and teen angst takes the idea of Death trying to correct mistakes into an emotionally and thematically very different direction. There’s also the tiny little fact that the idea of a personified Death taking care of business this way has been part of the literature of the fantastic long before Eberhardt was born.

This doesn’t, in any case, lessen the quality of the film at hand. Sole Survivor is such an effective and doom-laden experience, carried by such a subtle, insinuating air of actual dread that turns into highly suggestive moments of actual physical threat it is a little dark wonder to behold.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

SyFy vs The Mynd: No Escape Room (2018)

The car of a squabbling father/daughter duo (Mark Ghanimé and Jeni Ross) breaks down somewhere in small town USA. Because these things can take their time, they decide to search what goes under “excitement” in the area while their car is being repaired. As it happens, there’s an escape room happening in town, so our protagonists soon find themselves teaming up with three other poor horror film victims, solving puzzles and encountering increasingly peculiar things in a somewhat creepy old house.

In these sad, post-Sharknado times, when seemingly all of the handful of SyFy Originals still produced in a year apparently need to be “ironic” and/or about sharks, or are so atrocious I can’t even bring myself to write them up most of the time, Alex Merkin’s No Escape Room feels like a breath of fresh air by sheer virtue of being none of the above things. Instead it is a simple, yet slick looking little low budget movie that goes through with its basic concept from beginning to finish in a convincing and professional manner. That sounds like I’m damning with faint praise again, but really, giving the SyFy Original movie output of the last few years, being a film that’s actively avoiding being crap is something of a triumph. Why, when watching this, it’s not difficult to believe that Merkin and writer Jesse Mittelstadt actually care about their audience having a good time watching this. Sure, elements of the film feel a bit like a lite version of “No End House”, but there’s nothing wrong with borrowing from the good stuff.

While it probably won’t rock your world, this little film is well realized on a craftsmanship level, using the artificiality of escape rooms and their structure well to pace its plot and get its characters to interact naturally, slowly escalating things into a somewhat weirder direction. Merkin’s directorial style is slick enough to mostly play over the fact that most of his film is taking place in only a handful of small rooms, and he certainly knows how to introduce weird elements to the plot with small gestures. Personally, I’m also rather fond of how little direct explanation No Escape Room gives for the nature of its supernatural threat, but then I’m also sure that’s an element of the film that’ll drive viewers with different tastes batty.

Me, I had quite a bit of fun with this one, and when was the last time I could write something like that about a new SyFy movie?

Sunday, November 18, 2018

A Quiet Place (2018)

Welcome to another version of the post-apocalyptic US of A. This time around, most of the country’s population has been decimated by monsters who find their victims by sound. So now it’s time for everyone to finally shut the hell up. The film is concerned with your typical white middle-class family unit, the Abbotts, you might remember from all American movies ever. There’s mother Evelyn (Emily Blunt), father Lee (John Krasinski, who also directs and co-writes the script), deaf mute daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds) and youngest son Marcus (Noah Juppe). There was an even younger kid, too, but he dies in the intro sequence in a space shuttle toy related incident that still haunts the family, with particularly Regan taking on most of the guilt for what happened.

The family has built themselves quite a nice little quiet fort out in the country; they’re going to need it, too, for Evelyn is very very pregnant, and a new-born isn’t exactly ideal when you’re threatened by sound-seeking monsters.

I fear I’m starting to turn into one of those horrible curmudgeons that hate everything that’s popular, for after finding little to praise about the critically well loved Ghost Story, I’m also not terribly happy with this particular flavour of the day in horror. In my defence, at least I love Hereditary. However, let’s start with the positive: Krasinski sure knows how to make a film look good, letting the – clearly brilliant – DP Charlotte Bruus Christensen fill the screen with slick and gorgeous nature shots, and also uses some sleek lighting once stuff becomes more outwardly exciting to make things appropriately spooky. The sound design is pretty well done too.

Unfortunately, all the film’s prettiness is let down by a script that’s just not terribly interesting: if you expect a film that seems to so heavily emphasise the death of the family’s youngest to actually have to say anything but the most superficial and obvious about the death of a child, guilt and how it threatens family relations, you’re out of luck. Or if you expect a film that is this heavily about quiet to do very much with that, you might be confused when quiet and quietness as an idea doesn’t even cross the film’s mind. Again, it’s all surface-level monster-enabling survival stuff without any thought given to the metaphorical strength of what their new world should ask of its characters. But then, the film very consciously avoids anything that might take any effort from its audience. Just for example, while this nominally is a film with little dialogue, A Quiet Place still has its characters talking nearly incessantly, using Regan’s deaf muteness as a convenient excuse to have everyone babbling away in sign language all of the time.

Convenience really is the watch word for the film’s script. Clearly, everything here is positioned to move everyone and everything as conveniently as possible from one okay but not terribly exciting thriller set piece to the next. So obviously the same family that builds a sound-proof box for their new-born – and don’t even ask me about how plausible I think Evelyn’s pregnancy under the circumstances is – and constructs semi-ingenious defensive and warning systems for their farm doesn’t have a meeting place set up in case they are attacked and separated, or manages to overlook a pregnant woman-threatening nail right in the middle of their cellar stairs.

And isn’t it really convenient, too, that apparently nobody managed to find out these hearing-heavy monsters are allergic against certain high sounds? And that again nobody but our super family notices that the creatures’ fold-out mouths might be the place to shoot them? And isn’t it, well, even more convenient that the homebrew hearing aid Lee constructs for his daughter emits exactly the right monster-hurting frequency?

Now, I’m well willing and able to roll with – or won’t even notice – this sort of thing in a film that has other things to offer. Alas, A Quiet Place’s empty prettiness and boring competence provides no way to avoid everything that’s lazy about its script and empty about its conception.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Three Films Make A Post: Once the pigs tasted blood... No one could control their hunger!!

The Farthest (2017): I had heard great things about Emer Reynolds’s documentary about the Voyager mission. Actually having seen it, I find myself mostly annoyed by it. In theory, there’s an incredible richness of material in here, interviews with a bunch of intelligent and important women and men who were involved in one of the great achievements of human history, but what the film does with this is pretty pitiful. Because its assumed audience are apparently idiots who can’t follow a thought that’s longer than ten words, it turns these highly intelligent people into talking heads out of a shitty “TV’s Stupidest Awards” show, dispensing sound bites instead of thoughts. Add pretty pictures, a cloying soundtrack, and a nearly desperate drive to entertain instead of to enlighten, and you have your award-winning documentary right there.

Proof (2005): As John Madden’s adaptation of David Auburn’s play proves, you can make things more accessible without making them painfully stupid. Madden also mostly manages to turn the stage play into a movie while neither ignoring the roots of the piece nor having the visual elements be pure, functionless flim-flam. This features Gwyneth Paltrow (before her unfortunate contemporary career turn into hawking crap to the gullible), Jake Gyllenhaal, and Anthony Hopkins (actually acting instead of doing the shtick he has frequently fallen back on after Silence of the Lambs) at their best, working through the film’s complicated emotional and intellectual turns, bringing its thoughts about family, mental illness, “Great Men” and their daughters, and quite a bit more to life. Sure, from time to time things are a bit mid-brow, please give us an Oscar, Hollywood (there’s an inadvertently hilarious montage full of chin-stroking mathematicians you gotta see to believe), Madden can’t get away from completely even in his best movies (let’s not speak about that thing with Nicholas Cage), but the film’s stretching far inside of these genre structures.

Summer Wars aka サマーウォーズ (2009): Because I am apparently a curmudgeon today, turns out I’m also not quite as fond of this anime by Mamoru Hosoda about a traditional, if crazy, Japanese family saving the world as the rest of said world apparently is. It’s not that the animation isn’t beautiful, or the character design doesn’t breathe warmth and love for these characters, nor am I complaining about a lack of clever ideas. It’s just that this thing is so incessantly emotionally manipulative, doing its damndest to squeeze the last possible tear drop out of its audience that it rubs me all wrong, nearly becoming a satire of the things it praises by the pure power of laying everything on so thick and then ladling tears and good cheer on top. Honestly, I felt slightly nauseated by it.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Past Misdeeds: Arena (1989)

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

Please keep in mind these are the old posts 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.

In the future, an intergalactic, inter-species fighting championship is held in a shoddy looking space station. Since the contestants are kept on the same physical level (except for things like size and number of limbs which won't ever be important in a fight, no sir) by magicalscientific handicap beams, a level playing field should be guaranteed for all. In truth, the championship is in the hands of evil Rogor (Marc Alaimo for a change being the evil boss instead of the evil boss's first henchman) who cheats, lies and sucks the sportsmanship out of the sports wherever he can. Under these circumstances it comes as no surprise Rogor's rude fighter Horn (Michael Deak) is the Champion of the Universe right now, and there's no chance for the only honest trainer in the universe, Quinn (Claudia Christian), to ever lead one of her fighter to the title.

That is, until a series of complicated circumstances including a punch-up in a Space McDonald's, an illegal space gambling den and the human's four-armed buddy Shorty (Hamilton Camp doing his best Ernest Borgnine) turns Earthling Steve Armstrong (Paul Satterfield in the beginning stages of anime hair) into her main fighter. Steve is not just as pure-hearted as Quinn, but also, as it turns out, the fighter who will once and for all lay the space sports rumour to rest that humans can't fight. Even if he has to survive sex with and a poisoning attempt by Rogor's (space, one supposes) girlfriend and (definitely) space singer Jade (Shari Shattuck), and other evil plans of Rogor and his assistant Weezil (Armin Shimerman) to get and win his title fight.

People who know me won't be at all surprised to hear that one of the few movie genres that doesn't do anything at all for me is the sports film. Turns out I don't care who can throw the ball hardest or kick his opponent in the reproductive organs the most subtly, and find the whole ideological shtick of these films rather unpleasant. Hell, I usually don't even enjoy tournament martial arts films, unless they feature a yogi with retractable arms.

But put the sports film onto a space station and make most of the fighters cute little alien freaks, and I get all excited. It seems as if the best method to convince me the general silliness of sports movies is fun lies in transporting them into even more silly space opera SF surroundings. And who am I to complain about it, seeing as I get a very fun time out of it, at least in Arena's case?

One of the best features of Arena is how serious it takes its own silliness, with nary a moment going by where the film isn't decisively not winking at its audience, even if winking would be the most natural thing to do given the circumstances. However, delivering the weird and the silly with a straight face is often the best technique to make it fun to a viewer instead of just annoying. One doesn't, after all, go into a movie to witness how much the filmmakers look down on their own work (and implicitly the audience paying to see it). Here, the knowledge of the silliness of the film's basics is taken as self-evident but not as a reason to half-ass anything.

In fact, half-assing is quite the opposite of Arena's way of going about things. Instead, director Peter Manoogian (also responsible for the awe-inspiring Eliminators), working for Charles Band when Charles Band was still doing his best to be Roger Corman and not a puppeteer, scriptwriters Danny Bilson (also responsible for a few other fine bits of fun low budget movie writing before he became a videogame company suit) and Paul De Meo (Bilson's long-time writing partner), and the usual Empire Pictures gang do one hell of a job of piling weird, interesting and often funny detail upon weird, interesting, and often funny detail. There might not have been much money going around, but what these guys had, they put visibly on screen in form of a surprising number of different aliens with actually different body types (no Star Trek "facial lumps only” aliens here), sets that may depend on the audience's goodwill yet are also built with love and effort, haircut and make-up crimes that make for a distinctly 80s kind of future, and more sight-gags than anyone could notice in a single session with the film.

Arena is the sort of movie that goes so out of its way when it comes to creating its world (even if its is a very silly world), it even features two pretty alien musical numbers for its not-all-that-alien singer Jade where most films would have contented themselves with a mock swing number with synthies instead of horns. The film isn't creating a believable future (not that it's out to do that), but it sure builds a place out of cheap sets, concepts and ideas plundered from Hollywood films of the 30s to 50s, pulp SF, and energetic enthusiasm.

That the few fights the film contains aren't all that great to watch (it seems Steve's fighting prowess consists in his ability to actually move faster than a snail) isn't much of a problem in this context, for who cares about the quality of the fights when everything else that happens on screen is so fun to look at?

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Gabi ng lagim (1960)

aka (4) Nights of Horror

There’s little known outside of the Philippines about this early local horror film. Apparently, the anthology movie of stories directed by Tommy C. Davis, Larry Santiago and Pablo Santiago initially consisted of four stories, but the first is lost to us now (apart from a bit of its credits) unless some heroic archivist drags it up some day. Given how much of Filipino cinema made before the 1980s or so is as gone as most of the films of the silent movie era here, I wouldn’t hold out hope it’ll ever surface again.

So it’s an even greater pleasure that the other three segments of the film still exist, even if it’s only in a beat up version that looks more as if it had been shot in the 1920s than four decades later. In the case of Gabi ng lagim, the bad state of the film material actually adds a bit to the first two segments’ mystique, emphasizing the visual elements already related to expressionist horror of the silent era just that decisive bit more.

Plot-wise, the first segment left to us concerns a very classically dressed vampire leaving his bride in a peaceful Filipino village to do what vampire brides are wont to do. She’s daylighting as a beautiful but reserved lodger in the house of an older farmer and his kids, but by night, she’s taking care of the parts of the population already rather overexcited by the mysterious beauty living among them. She aims to finish on the farmer’s virginal daughter, though. One hardly needs to mention there might be a teensy bit of a subtext about class in form of the city/country divide and an expression of sexual anxiety very much filtered through Catholicism going on here. It’s a fine piece of work in any case, with a spirited vampire performance, and a lot of extremely moody shots of graveyards and our vampiress prowling by night that contrasts nicely with the segment’s naturalistic portrayal of country life.

The next segment is even better, for it concerns the ghost of a murdered man taking his vengeance on the vile pimp who killed him; another man who looked on and let the murder happen is exempt on religious reasons and because he thought the victim was the actual vile pimp. That’s not how this stuff works in Daredevil!

Despite my theological confusion, I am very fond of this segment. It has the same mix of naturalism and expressionism as the first one, but it goes just a bit further with the latter, turning the nights of the ghost-haunted characters truly unreal. But let’s talk about the story’s most excellent ghost for a second. He comes in two part: part one are his hacked off arms and hand floating about, the second part is the – also floating – talkative rest of him, something that really adds a folkloric feel to a creature whose motives could come directly out of an EC comic. It also enhances the unreal aspects of the whole affair further – there’s something strangely disquieting about these floating arms, even though the special effects are primitive when looked at today.

About the final episode, the less said the better. A bunch of idiots run through a haunted house while making the kind of jokes that had me thinking fondly of Abbot and Costello; so true horror.

However, the middle segments are so strong even the last one can’t ruin anything about Gabi ng lagim as a whole.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Mandy (2018)

Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) and Red (Nicolas Cage) live absurdly peacefully in a home in the deepest darkest forest. Both clearly have pasts of the complicated kind - he, as it will turn out, the kind that teaches a guy how to forge a battle axe that looks like abstract art or rather a lot like the Celtic Frost logo (good taste) - but have found a place for themselves that looks like an eternal now. This of course can’t last. The leader of one of those hippie murder cults roaming all American backwoods, one Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache), happens to spot Mandy walking through the woods, and wants to possess her in all imaginable ways and those you’d rather not.

So Jeremiah’s henchmen attack Red’s and Mandy’s home with the help of an associated gang of mutant (it’s the drugs!) bikers; and when Mandy’s reaction to being drugged, played Jeremiah’s bad self-written psych folk record and getting shown his penis is to laugh, he does react rather like you’d expect by burning her alive. The cultists leave Red for dead, which turns out to be a bit of a mistake, for fuelled by what is clearly a returning alcohol habit, hallucinations and visions of Mandy, drugs, and sheer bloody rage, the walking wreck of a man slaughters his way up the mutant biker/cultist food chain.

I absolutely loved Panos Cosmatos’s first film, Beyond the Black Rainbow, for its complete insistence on film as an aesthetic experience instead of a plot-driven one, among other things. When it comes to this approach to filmmaking, Cosmatos’s second feature Mandy continues on the path the first film set. It is basically everything the first film was, but more so.

So we get something in theory inspired by an early 80s exploitation movie and heavy metal cover aesthetic that in practice looks and feels like no film or album cover made in that era actually does, but rather like a fever dream recollection of one, taking the idea of what this sort of film is and does and intensifying it so much it becomes stranger and stranger – and these films were often pretty damn strange already. That Mandy’s plot, such as it is, is a series of clichés, but turned up to eleven again, is just the logical conclusion to Cosmatos’s aesthetic approach; it’s also as beside the point as a criticism as it is in my other great favourite example of a film whose aesthetics and their meaning are the point rather than the plot or the meaning the plot contains, Argento’s Inferno. A lot like metal or a symphony, these are films best approached by experiencing them and viewing their plots as frames to be filled with the visual, aural, etc elements that are the actual things they are about. Which doesn’t mean there’s necessarily a lack of a point or theme to the film, it’s just not made in the way many a viewer is still most used to. At least to me, it is difficult not to see Mandy as a film very concretely making visual the inner world of a man broken by the loss of his wife, speaking through their private codes and shared artistic preferences. Cosmatos, fortunately, never pulls the sort of “it was all a hallucination” kind of reveal that would make this too obvious and too concrete, understanding that your evil hippie cults and mutant bikers can very well be real for the characters and real in the world they inhabit yet still carry other meanings.

Cosmatos also finds room for some great, larger than life – because only people larger than life can exist in this sort of dreamscape - performances here. Riseborough’s presence is rather special. Even though the role of the woman killed to induce a murderous rampage is usually an unthankful one, her performance suggests a woman who found the sort of knowing innocence some, very few people, reach after they have gone through some pretty horrible things, and makes the cliché painfully real. Cage has by now developed actual control over his personal style of overacting, where a decade or so ago it looked very much as if it were the other way round (I sometimes imagine him possessed by a crazier version of himself riding on his back). He is going big here, obviously, but he’s going exactly as big as any given scene needs him to, an often unrecognized art; he might be turning into Vincent Price in his old days.

If it’s not perfectly clear already, Mandy is a film that’s as if it were exactly made to my personal specifications, therefore coming with the warmest recommendation for any viewer that’s me.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

In short: Realms (2018)

Warning: I’m going to spoil the plot twist!

aka Treasured

aka NeverRealm

I assume Americans Bobby (Ryan Kelley) and Jewel (Madison McKinley) are the winners of the price for “Worst Bankrobbers of the Year”, yet somehow, they still have made it geographically far enough to rob a bank in Thailand. During the course of said robbery, they scream, they shout, they shoot people for no good reason, and they take two young Thai women – Winny (Priya Suandokemai) and her best friend Earn (Air Phantila) – as hostages despite there being no reason for taking hostages. They also don’t have an escape plan, so they hijack one Chaow (Golf Pichaya Nitipaisankul) and his car. Somehow these idiots and their hostages get away from Bangkok and into the countryside. There, a scuffle between Winny and Bobby leads to a car crash, leaving everyone worse for wear and the car out of commission.

Eventually, the bankrobbin’ fools and their hostages end up at an old dilapidated mansion set. Here, things turn even worse, for besides the whole “kidnapped by violent idiots” angle, the hostages and said violent idiots also have to cope with some paranormal activity, as well as a plot twist. Spoilers coming in.

See, all of the characters are in some kind of hell, going through violent events to apparently be punished for a minor massacre they committed in the 1920s. Winny, who would be the final girl in most films, turns out to have been the worst of them all. Alas, that twist really doesn’t work at all. Why would hell put these 1920s people into a contemporary setting? Why do only the Americans act murderous in this version of events? Even turning Winny from being the most sympathetic character to the least sympathetic one doesn’t really do much. Sure, it is somewhat surprising, but otherwise, it adds nothing to the film and really doesn’t say anything about any of the characters, turning the final fifteen minutes into a flabby growth with little point. Well, thematically, we learn that killing people is bad, which will come as a complete surprise to anyone watching I’m sure, so there’s that.

It’s unfortunate, too, for while Daric Gates’s film up until that point wasn’t exactly the most interesting horror movie I’ve seen in the last couple of days, it was at least effectively diverting, showing a decent, international cast walking and running (and so on) through a really rather atmospherically lit mansion set that was shot just as atmospherically by Tiwa Moeithaisong (who also works as a director himself), while confronted by simple yet not completely uninteresting supernatural threats. I’m tempted to say the Thai crew behind the camera (this was shot in Malaysia and Thailand) did pretty good work while the Western part of the production really let their side of the deal down.

If you can ignore the pointlessness of the final fifteen minutes and the resulting lack of satisfaction, Realms is still an okay low budget timewaster, mind you.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Third World Cop (1999)

After committing what we in the biz call “murder” on an already disarmed suspect, a Jamaican cop going by the not exactly trustworthy sounding nickname of Capone (Paul Campbell) – though to be fair he’s really more acting as if he was called “Django” or “Dirty Harry” – is transferred back to a place where his “shoot first, shoot second, then shoot again” approach to policing will be more appreciated. Back to his home city of Kingston it is.

Before Capone has even had the possibility to visit his old haunts properly and reintroduce himself to old friends from the time when he was running with low level gangs like everybody else he knew, he stumbles unto parts of a large gun smuggling operation. It’s not really clear what local gang boss One Hand (Carl Bradshaw) needs quite as many guns for as he is smuggling in but it obviously can’t be anything good.

Most troubling for Capone will be that his closest friend from way back when – we’re basically talking brothers here –, a guy with the unfortunate moniker of Ratty (Mark Danvers), is not just working for One Hand but may be as deeply involved in the gun smuggling operations as possible.

As you may or may not know, Jamaica doesn’t have much of a film industry of its own, so every film that’s made there, independent of style and genre, will have to struggle through a lack of infrastructure, experienced crews and money. In this context, it makes sense that Chris Browne’s crime action movie Third World Cop was shot on digital at a time when that still wasn’t usual. Cheap digital photography at the end of the last century did tend to look rather ugly, unfortunately, so there’s really not much good to say about the film’s basic look. It is, however, staged and blocked well, and certainly enhanced through editing that makes the best of what’s there.

The action sequences are usually not terribly well realized either. There are many shots of people either crouching behind something and shooting or standing and shooting, with comparatively little actual movement that would make these scenes dynamic. The editing picks up quite a bit of the slack here, but still, if that were all the film had to offer, I’d probably say something patronizing about it making the best out of what it has to work with, and leave the movie be.

However, once the film has introduced its hero and his pretty cartoonish cohorts (like his comedy colleague who only ever hides and calls for reinforcements) and enemies, it actually starts doing interesting things with them. I suspect a certain inspiration by Hong Kong cinema, but in any case, Third World Cop turns into a – pleasantly melodramatic – tale of male friendship complicated and betrayed that simply works on an emotional level and even has something to say about poverty. Capone and Ratty’s relationship actually starts to feel true, and certainly emotionally engaging. Browne builds them up as believable friends who parted ways some time ago, and still feel close but only half still know each other. They are also mirror images. One can’t help but think that Capone is quite as desperate as he is to save Ratty because he realized the only difference between Ratty and himself is that he managed to get away from Kingston and street life and found an opportunity to change (a little, he’s still a cowboy cop), while Ratty stayed behind and never found any other way to deal with the poverty and violence dominating his surroundings. If Capone hadn’t left Kingston, he might very well be the one working for One Hand.

Where the digital set up the film has to work with doesn’t work out terribly great for the action scenes, its documentarian, unadorned eye does wonders when it comes to portray Kingston – not the parts of town where you’d meet any tourists, mind you, but those where actual people live harsh lives. Most, if not all of the exterior shots look as if they were made guerrilla style (or Browne is absurdly brilliant at making them look that way), so there’s a very direct sense of place to the film that gives its tale of gangsters and cops a feeling of veracity a comparable Hollywood production wouldn’t be able to reach. I wouldn’t exactly call it authenticity - there are still filmmakers making very conscious artistic and commercial decisions here, after all – but it certainly tries to come close to the actual spirit of its place.

For the music fans among us, it’s also rather nice to have a film featuring various Jamaican musicians (for example Ninja Man and Elephant Man) in smaller roles and with a soundtrack that’s produced by Sly & Robbie.

Saturday, November 10, 2018


Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate (1971): Four elderly ladies (Helen Hayes, Myrna Loy, Mildred Natwick, Sylvia Sidney) create a completely fictional young woman for a “computer dating club” to pass the time between drinks. Alas, their imaginary girl attracts a budding serial killer (Vince Edwards). This Ted Post-directed TV movie’s considerable entertainment value is mostly gained through the merry interplay between its four elderly Hollywood Stars, who clearly enjoy not having to play the standard roles women their age have to put up with, and who do know a thing or three about comic timing. The mystery plot itself isn’t particularly interesting, but Post does get quite a bit of tension out of the contrast between his female stars’ companionable fun and the killer’s well-written, downright creepy, whispered off-screen monologue.

The Haunting of Sorority Row aka Deadly Pledge (2007): Keeping with the TV movies, this Canadian Lifetime film by Bert Kish, is on a quite lower level. A sorority pledge (Leighton Meester) has to cope with an evil spirit that haunts her and her prospective sisters because of a hazing ritual gone very badly wrong. Unfortunately, most of the cast is pretty bad – the best performances here could be politely described as “unremarkable” – the script has about one and a half decent ideas during the whole running time, and director Kish shows no flair at all for staging spooky scenes. However, I probably have to praise this one for being willing to go for a much sillier and in your face finale than TV horror movies of its type usually do. It’s too bad that silly and in your face don’t make this a decent movie either.

Swiss Army Man (2016): We leave the world of TV far, far behind with Dan Kwan’s and Daniel Scheinert’s extremely weird comedy about a man (Paul Dano) stranded on a deserted island teaming up with a supremely useful and increasingly communicative corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) to get back to civilization. The first fifteen minutes or so are pretty insufferable, so consciously tasteless I found it difficult to persevere with the film. I did, however, and made my way through a tale that went from insufferable to moving to philosophical to silly to stupid to creepy at a moment’s notice, leaving one with the feeling that this thing is truly one of a kind. What at first looks like a too self-conscious bizarro comedy turns into a film exploring the vagaries of the male human heart through bizarre comedy and other things, while keeping in mind there just might be something very wrong with said male human heart, yet still never losing its compassion.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Past Misdeeds: Desyat negrityat (1987)

aka Ten Little Indians

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.

Warning: this Soviet adaptation of Agatha Christie's novel uses the initial title and version of the nursery rhyme that's so important for its plot, so if you're afraid of that authentic period racism, this is not the adaptation for you. I'll spare you the deeply problematic terminology in the review, though.

Eight strangers - among them a retired judge (Vladimir Zeldin), a secretary and governess (Tatyana Drubich), a former policeman (Aleksei Zharkov) and a soldier/mercenary (Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy) - arrive at an isolated island mansion (on what I shall call N-word Island). They all have been invited, each guest for a different reason, by a certain U.N. Owen, a person quite unknown to everyone. On the island, the group is awaited by a freshly hired couple of servants (Aleksei Zolotnitsky and Irina Tershchenko), who have neither seen nor heard their new employer. Supposedly, Owen has been held up on the mainland and will join the party the next day.

Owen and his various promises to the various guests turn out to be lies once dinner time arrives. A gramophone recording explains the sins of all ten guests; everyone is responsible for the death of at least one other human being, and everyone, the recording explains, is going to pay for their sins. Which is exactly what happens: one after the other, the guests are killed in ways echoing an old British nursery rhyme that just happens to be posted in everyone's room. Soon, the guests realize they really are the only people on the island, so the killer must be one of them. But who is it, and will they find out before everyone's dead or broken by the situation?

I am, in general, not much of an admirer of the works of Agatha Christie. In part, it's a problem I often have with the cozy subgenre - I just can't bring myself to care if it was the butler or the young relative who killed Lord Arsebutton for his money, and really, why should I? Christie's case is further weakened by her love for perfectly annoying detectives (why isn't anyone murdering Poirot and Miss Marple, for Cthulhu's sake?), her classism, and the intensely improbable construction of many of her mysteries.

I do make an exception for novels like Ten Little N./Ten Little Indians/And Then There Were None, though, because there is little that is actually "cozy" about them - but who'd call a literary sub-genre the "bleaky"? Ten (let's make it easy on ourselves with the title) is a novel whose basic set-up has fascinated many a movie director, too, but some of them have balked from giving the film its proper, grim ending. Certainly not Soviet director Stanislav Govorukhin, whose Desyat negrityat not just keeps all the uncomfortable elements of Christie's original novel including its ending, but focuses on them to create the psychologically dark period piece the novel deserves to be.

In Govorukhin's hands, the sometimes somewhat dry book turns into a claustrophobic nightmare that at times feels like a horror film. The director often uses consciously cramped framing - even in shots taking place outside the house - to emphasize how the situation the murderer constructed for his victims throws them back onto themselves, their guilt - even though not all of them feel guilty, and this isn't a movie where a feeling of guilt saves anyone from anything anyhow - and the pasts deeds whose consequences they can't escape anymore, if they ever could or did. There's an incredible sense of tension running through the movie that belies the surface talkiness of its script (though Govorukhin knows quite well when to let his characters stop talking, which becomes clear in the last stages of the film), the seeming simplicity of Govorukhin's direction, and the film's length of 129 minutes. On paper, this might still sound like your typical cozy mystery plot, but in practice, this is a film interested in, and awfully good at, exploring the existential darkness inside of and around its characters. And, if we want to give the film a political dimension instead of one sitting between philosophy and psychology, can it be an accident that every character in the film - the killer of killers being no exception - has at one point not just killed, but killed by misusing a position of authority and trust?

The actors, especially Drubich and Kaydanovskiy, are fantastic, selling the moments of naturalistic break-downs as well as those of heated melodrama. They - and the script, of course - also manage to turn what could have been only a series of vile people who get exactly what they deserve from somebody no less vile who gets a friendly nod for it (let's call that the "Dexter hypocrisy syndrome") into complex characters who have at one point in their lives given in to weaknesses that - this seems to be a particularly important point for the film - are universally human. These aren't all "bad" people, or "good" ones, or "misunderstood" ones, but just people deserving of compassion even though they have done horrible, or callous, or weak, things. Which, on the other hand, doesn't mean Govorukhin is willing to pretend his characters are the sort of people acting well under outside pressure.

The film's only weakness in my eyes lies in the construction of its plot, or rather, how artificially constructed it is. There's a central plot point - and we can thank Christie for that - that just beggars believe when you stop and think about it for a second (and, to digress for a parenthesis, it is ironically a plot point contemporary movies like the mildly diverting Saw series seem to have fallen in love with wholesale), needing everyone still alive at a particular moment to be outrageously dense or credulous, and the killer to be extremely lucky and talented in the ways of the pulp yogi. However, Govorukhin's direction is so strong I couldn't help but look with raised eyebrows at the solution of the film's mystery, yet still be decidedly enthusiastic about the film as a whole.

The mystery isn't the point of the film anyhow. Desyat Negrityat is all about showing what made its characters what they are, and what they become.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

In short: The Whitlow House (2018)

aka The Haunting of the Whitlow House

Steph (Baranger Clark or Baranger Dean, depending if you go by the film’s credits or everything else you can find about it online) and Jason (Freddie Jarrett) apparently have been involved in running extreme haunted houses for some time now. Particularly Jason is set on stopping to work as hired hands in the business and really wants to build something all of their own. So it’s an excellent coincidence when the Whitlow House comes up on the market just when they are looking for a new place to live. The house has a genuine history of all kinds of horrible shit happening in it following a witch burning a couple of centuries earlier, so marketing it as a haunted house should practically work by itself. All this, and they can live in it too! And hey, it’ll only cost them all of their combined money, so whatever could go wrong?

Steph, clearly the sensible one of the pair, does take a bit of convincing, but eventually, they go through with the plan, buy the place and move in. Alas, the house is indeed haunted, and soon, Steph is plagued by strange dreams and blackouts, and encounters a handful of paranormal phenomena. She very quickly wants out, but Jason – in the tradition of horror film males all over the world – is still set on keeping with the plan, even if his girlfriend is slowly going insane.

Brendan Rudnicki’s and Joel Donovan’s Whitlow House is a nice little surprise of an indie movie. It’s – as you’ve realized by now – not a terribly original film, yet it is a nicely focussed affair that seems rather conscious of the pitfalls of working on really low budgets. Well, its old spooky house doesn’t look terribly old and spooky, but I’ll just put that down to the budget.

Technically, this is a clean and effective effort – if you can ignore a sound mix that isn’t always ideal – with more than decent acting particularly by Dean, a script that doesn’t overstay its welcome or try to stretch the material it is working with for longer than is possible, even if that means the resulting film is only a lean 64 minutes long. I certainly prefer this approach to the kind of indie horror that doesn’t seem to believe in edits or ending scenes before doomsday.

Even though the scares will not exactly be new to experienced (or even semi-experienced) horror viewers, they are well realized and do fit nicely together. They really do seem to belong in the same thematic and stylistic realm, making the film feel cut from one piece. The directors also avoid going to the jump scare well again and again, instead putting the emphasis on the increasingly strained relations between its central couple.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Blood Fest (2018)

Nerdy Dax (Robbie Kay) is a giant horror fan. It’s something his mother shared with him when he was little, and after she was murdered by your common and garden masked maniac right in front of him, his fandom only got bigger.

Dax is planning to visit Blood Fest with his female best friend – and of course secret love because movies just can’t do without it – Sam (Seychelle Gabriel) and his other best friend Krill (Jacob Batalon). Blood Fest is a new outdoors festival celebrating all things horror in mostly copyright friendly ways. Unfortunately, Dax’s father (Tate Donovan), a TV psychologist, is set against all things horror after the murder of his wife, making the genre responsible for turning one of his own patients into a killer of psychologist wives. Didn’t see that movie, myself. But even when Dear Dad destroys Dax’s ticket to Blood Fest, our young hero manages to find a way in in form of his kinda-sorta friend Ashley (Barbara Dunkelman), who is trying to make it in the movies by having a relationship (cough) with some asshole horror director, so she can provide.

Perhaps Dax’s Dad wasn’t completely wrong with his hatred and fear of horror though, for it turns out, Blood Fest is all too real. The carnival huckster type guy (director Owen Egerton) running the show has decided that modern horror has become too watered down and needs an injection of reality. Which means public murders of a captive audience of horror fans by his various mad science experiments and a super slasher dressing rather a lot like the one who killed Dax’s father. Of course, Dax, being the horror fan, knows all of the genre rules and is therefore predestined to become the film’s hero. No idea why all the other experts on these rules you’d encounter on this sort of festival aren’t doing their part.

However, if you ignore this little problem with the film’s set-up, and the fact ninety percent of its characters and their relations are pure cliché, there’s still some – depending on one’s taste and patience even more - fun to be had with Owen Egerton’s horror comedy. We’ve all gone through a lot of horror comedies fixated on “THE RULES” in the decades after classic bad influence Scream, so don’t expect every joke to be new to many in the film’s expected audience of horror fans. There is still some good stuff in here among the obvious jokes about the things you’d expect a film like this to joke about, however.

Well, you also need to ignore how the way too self-indulgent villain performance by the director (who is no Clint Eastwood) sometimes threatens to take over the film for no good reason whenever we pop over to his lair again so he can make lame jokes and explain how exactly he created his zombies, etc, as if anyone in the audience cared.

But to the elements that actually make the whole thing worth watching without having you cry about the loss of valuable time you could have spent cleaning out your closet: the cast as a whole give fun performances, making the best out of the flat characters they are dealing with and generally providing them with more life than they strictly deserve, not exactly turning them into people but into the kind of joke and monster death dispensers I don’t mind sharing some of my lifetime with. The cast also makes quite a few of the script’s jokes and ideas work through powers of comical timing that can transcend some of the writing. And, to be fair, some of Egerton’s jokes are indeed funny, as are some of his high concept ideas – I’m certainly rather fond of his non-Jason character with the gardening gimmick, and the play with well-loved elements of Friday the 13th Part II.

On the plotting side, Blood Fest is a homage-laden series of action and horror set pieces, and while I’m not terribly impressed by Egerton as a writer or as an actor, I certainly can’t fault him as a director of this type of set piece. There’s beautiful artificial light in all the right colours, more than enough fun blood and gore (also in all the right colours), there’s a feel for the sets as physical locations. Even though I wasn’t exactly gasping in excitement, the loud stuff is certainly the film’s strong suite.

There is one bit of writing in the film I liked quite a bit, too. It’s that Egerton actually realizes making a horror film that poo-poos people who hate horror but then puts them in the right when horror fandom does indeed lead to mass murder and madness makes little sense at all, so he does something about it. What he does (I’m not going to spoil it here for those who haven’t already realized) isn’t overwhelmingly clever, nor was it terribly surprising to me, but it certainly suggests more thought than some of the by the numbers elements of the film otherwise suggest.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

In short: Summer of 84 (2018)

When he sees a the picture of a disappeared kid on a milk carton, and remembers having seen him one night in the home of his neighbour, the police officer Wayne Mackey (Rich Sommer), conspiracy and weird shit obsessed teenager Davey (Graham Verchere) becomes convinced Mackey is a serial killer.

Davey ropes in his trio of best friends to spy on Mackey, and really, what happens then is – until the final five minutes – exactly the film you picture now in your head, for Summer of 84’s director trio François Simard, Anouk Whissell and Yoann-Karl Whissell seem to have set out to make the most generic film in the sub-genre of post-Stranger Things 80s retro fantastika humanly achievable. There is not a single character, not a plot beat apart from the ending, no scene, nothing whatsoever in this movie that isn’t desperately trying to demonstrate this is indeed a film made in the spirit of 1984. Unlike in Stranger Things there is nothing here beyond cloying nostalgia and formal mimicry, no breath of air, not even a little distance to the mores of the film’s time, and certainly no commentary on them (unlike in films actually made in 1984). Worse, it’s the imitation of a film so generically 1984, nobody in 1984 would have shot it fearing its audience would get bored.

Frankly, I don’t see what the point of the film is at all. Wallowing in nostalgia for the depiction of not perfectly happy childhoods as seen in other movies instead of trying to actually speak about these childhoods, not their portrayal? Making a thriller where every single plot beat is so expected the film might as well not exist beyond its basic idea? And why then end the film on a note that’s absolutely one from a film made in 2018 but that doesn’t really comment on what came before thematically? Perhaps the final couple of scenes are meant to deconstruct the nostalgia Summer of 84 has been peddling for ninety-five percent of its running time, but to do this effectively, it’s really too little, too late, feeling more like a generic grimdark gesture than anything of substance.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Hardwired (2009)

Welcome to a cyberpunky, corporate-owned future, where even the Pyramids have an ad banner stuck on them. Former special forces badass Luke Gibson (Cuba Gooding Jr.) has relaxed quite nicely into civilian life. His wife and he are clearly happy, and a child’s going to pop any day now. Alas, their car is hit by a truck, killing his wife and child. Because his insurance very suddenly expires, things wouldn’t look terribly great for Luke’s survival either, but a couple of corporate goons working for tech company high-up Virgil (Val “Doesn’t give a shit” Kilmer) convince his surgeon to save our hero by hardwiring an illegal experimental chip into his brain, as per the film’s title.

The procedure does indeed save Luke’s life, but he also loses large parts of his memory and starts to see things that suggest the chip is beaming ads right into his brain, a prospect that would most probably convince ad executives in our world to break a few laws, too. Worse, there’s also a kill switch installed that’ll blow up his head when he gets too uppity.

Fortunately, the mandatory semi-heroic group of hackers – tough yet avuncular Hal (Michael Ironside!), his paraplegic hacker son Keyboard (Chad Krowchuk), and the adorably named Punk Red (a pre-Orphan Black Tatiana Maslany) and Punk Blue (Juan Riedinger) – hack into Luke’s brain to for some well-needed ad-blocking and recruit him to their cause by showing him rage-inducing pictures of the family he lost. Turns out a multinational corporation is no match for badass Cuba Gooding Jr. and a couple of hackers with idiotic names.

Fun fact: I just love the direct to home video action movie phase of Cuba Gooding Jr.’s career much more than most of what he did in his Oscar-baiting time. As I have mentioned before, the wonderful thing about Gooding in this context is that he doesn’t act like a guy who is slumming at all, but applies his not inconsiderable talents fully to whatever bizarre crap the film at hand asks of him. Consequently, Gooding plays the silly bits, the trite bits, and the parts where he interacts with the horror of the ads beamed into his brain totally serious, with admirable professionalism, really making much of what we see doubly enjoyable. His performance – and those of the cast of fresh young actors and low budget veteran aces like the always great Ironside – stand in extreme contrast to Val Kilmer’s usual pay check grab. One could have put his absurd wig onto a life-sized doll and put his dialogue through a computer and have gotten the same performance for considerable less money. Fortunately, Kilmer isn’t actually doing much, so his lazy diva crap isn’t doing too much damage beyond adding one more embarrassment to a career that could have been great.

Anyway, while the plot is obviously silly, there’s quite a bit more to enjoy here than bashing Kilmer and watching Gooding and co. Director Ernie Barbarash is certainly one of the more talented people working in the direct to your couch action space, here as usual demonstrating a sense of pacing that’s good enough to convince a viewer there’s more action happening in the movie than there actually is. The action sequences that are there are indeed fine, mind you.

What’s most fun about the film – at least to me – is its somewhat early 80s Corman-esque sense of sledgehammer satire. Luke’s brain ads are truly hilarious, as are the branded landmarks in the intro and many another idea of the sort. Plus, who doesn’t like a movie that’s so down on ads?

There’s also something to be said for the somewhat thrown together look of Hardwired’s near future that mixes the mildly science fictional with the grubbily contemporary as of its making, and a handful of dubious aesthetic ideas, and probably ends up on a more realistic look for its future than the completely designed one of a film with a budget would have been. After all, whose outer reality consists exclusively out of objects made during the last two or three years?

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Three Films Make A Post: If your skin doesn't crawl, it's on too tight!

He’s Out There (2018): I’m not usually someone beating movies with the morality club, but when a film like Quinn Lasher’s He’s Out There comes around and mostly wants to base its suspense on various “children in danger” tropes, and never uses this as anything but an intensely cheap way to try and get to its audience, it really deserves to be clubbed with it. I’m not even against films exploiting the automatic sympathy most audiences will have for children, but there really needs to be a reason to use this particular element as enthusiastically as this thing does. Otherwise, it’s just a cheap and unpleasant evening without much of a point. Apart from decent lead performances by Yvonne Strahoski and the kid actresses Anna and Abigail Pniowsky, there’s little else to recommend the film – it certainly has one of the uglier colour schemes I’ve seen in quite some time, and a script that’s not just heavy on the child exploitation angle but also on all grown-ups acting exclusively like “it’s in the script” horror movie characters.

Powwow Highway (1989): Jonathan Wacks’s (UK produced!) film about two Cheyenne (A Martinez and Gary Farmer) going on a road trip to get the sister of one of them out of custody is a bit of a mixed bag. Shot and told in a very typical late 80s indie style, it fluctuates between a somewhat abstracted (the director certainly isn’t a Native American) anger about the way the US were still treating people they’d beaten and betrayed again and again, some very generic odd couple friendship stuff, and moments that actually remind more of Burt Reynolds movies than anything else (only the characters’ car is crap). It’s not a terribly coherent and concise film, even as road movies go, losing any prospect of actually thinking any of its potential themes through early on and mostly getting by on Wacks’s generally solid filmmaking and the performances of Martinez and Farmer. The film also doesn’t seem to want to face the fact that nothing its characters do in the end will change anything about them or their lives at all, badly selling empty gestures as something profound.

Welcome the Stranger (2018): Finishing up this trio is this one directed by Justin Kelly. A sister (Abbey Lee) suddenly appears at the house of her brother (Caleb Landry Jones) whom she hasn’t seen for ages. Incestuous tension rises and both siblings are plagued by visions and dreams. Some time, the brother’s girlfriend (Riley Keough) appears, though she might be a figment of his imagination, or the projection of something; or the sister might try to bring him to share her own delusions. Apparently, closeness between siblings isn’t what it’s generally made out to be.

The film is obviously influenced by David Lynch, but there’s also more than just a suggestion of Ingmar Bergman in his least realistic mode. However, unlike with Lynch, the film’s various strangenesses never add up to a feeling of real disquiet, and where Bergman’s use of symbolism and the weird is incisive and sharp yet still ambiguous, Kelly’s film never really dives that deep.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Past Misdeeds: They Came From Beyond Space (1967)

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.

A number of meteors crashes onto a field belonging to a farm in Cornwall. It's the most curious thing though - usually, meteors don't fly in a V-formation. The UK government thinks the phenomenon requires investigation and decides to send a group of scientists lead by an astronomer with a special interest in the discovery of extraterrestrial life, Dr. Curtis Temple (Robert Hutton), to Cornwall.

There is a tiny problem, though: Temple's love for vintage cars (slightly prefiguring the Third Doctor, like some of the film's tone, if you ask me) has resulted in an accident some months ago that left the astronomer with a silver plate in his head, and - at least that's the opinion of his doctor - still too sick to work away from home, even though he'll act as fit as James Bond throughout the movie. We all know about the dangerous wilds of Cornwall, far away from civilization, after all.

So there's nothing to it than to send Temple's colleague and girlfriend, Lee Mason (Jennifer Jayne) to lead the expedition and send all pertinent data up to Temple.

Alas, things at the crash site fastly become problematic. The meteorites contain alien consciousnesses that take over the scientists, break off all contact with the outside world and slowly begin to infiltrate a close-by village too (starting with the local banker, of course, as if that were necessary). Then, the aliens begin to requisition large amounts of building materials and weapons through government channels.

After a time without news, Temple, as well as someone in government, realizes that something's not right at all. An attempt by the aliens to take the astronomer over too failing thanks to that practical silver plate helps Temple's thought processes there. Temple's investigations in the village and around the crash site turn up curious developments: it's not just that the scientists and the dozens of people they have taken on are obviously not themselves anymore, they have built an underground lair all the better to be able to shoot rockets to the moon. Fortunately, Temple is one of those two-fisted scientists from the 50s, and his astonishing abilities (yeah, I know, he must have survived World War II, but how many astronomers really were astonishing commandos and still were when they hit middle-age?) at fistfighting, shooting, and escaping from cells will be very helpful in thwarting the plans of the aliens and their leader - the Master of the Moon (Michael Gough). Not even a strange alien illness that is also part of the aliens' overcomplicated plan can touch Temple; I suspect the illness is afraid to be infected by Hutton's well-known right-wing real life opinions about everything.

Now this, ladies and gentlemen, is how you make a 50s alien invasion movie in 1967. This time around, much-kicked – when it comes to non-anthology movies - Hammer rivals Amicus are throwing their shoestring budget at that old stalwart of British cinema, the alien invasion movie with the American no-name actor in the lead role. One suspects Quatermass and the Pit might have had something to do with that decision, though They Came counters the complexity and intelligence of the Quatermass approach to SF with a tale of a properly dumb alien invasion with a badly delivered 60s peace and love twist at the end that wants me to believe that the two-fisted American scientist whose adventures we have witnessed up to the point is willing to shake hands with aliens who wanted to kill him or make him their slave because they say they now think better of it - twice. Let's not even talk about these aliens' idea of secrecy (or the idea of the film's UK government about how a quarantine works; hint: generally, letting people come and go as they please isn't a part of it).

This may sound as if I were rather dissatisfied with They Came, but nothing could be further from the truth. The alien invasion plot may be dumb, it is however dumb in the most delightful manner, easily convincing me that I may not live in a world where this sort of plan would sound logical, but really rather would. Not only are the aliens' plans and the film's hero - who reminds me of a more conservative version of one of these non-professional Eurospy movie protagonists - a delightfully groovy age version of 50s traditions (a total improvement on the model, obviously), the way to thwart them is just as beautifully insane, seeing as it consists of knocking one's possessed girlfriend out, kidnapping her, and using her as a test object while working on a (of course very silly looking) anti-alien-possession helmet, even sillier alien detection goggles and alien re-possession methods with a friendly scientist (Zia Mohyeddin) who just happens to live somewhere in the country close-by, and also owns many silver trophies and as well as utilities to melt metal. In an especially pleasant development that helpful man is a Pakistani Englishman, who is not played as a comical figure, doesn't have to die to prove how evil the bad guys are, and will turn out to be save-the-day-competent. Given his role, and how competent Lee is allowed to be once she's not under alien control anymore, it's pretty obvious this is a film that may love to indulge in silliness for silliness' sake but that also has a clear idea of which parts of his 50s models just don't cut it anymore in 1967.

When people - though too few of them do - talk about They Came's special effects, they unfailingly mention their quality to be comparable to contemporary Doctor Who (this was the time of the Second Doctor Patrick Troughton, if you're not quite up on important historical dates). That's an old chestnut when talking about British SF cinema, yet in this case it is indeed true. Consequently, the effects' execution has more than just a whiff of cardboard and spit, but it also shares the other, more important part of the Doctor's legacy, a decidedly British visual imagination that makes up for the unavoidable cheapness and threadbareness. My favourite set piece is the yellow and black striped elevator that sits right inside a typical British country home, exemplifying at once the loving absurdity and the Britishness (for wont of a better word) of the film's production design. It's the mix of the local and the strange that gets me every time.

What the Doctor generally didn't have at the time (though the show did have some good ones) were directors quite like They Came's Freddie Francis. Francis, veteran that he was, was someone seemingly unable to not put real effort even into his cheapest and silliest films, and he works his magic here too, milking every possibility to turn the cheap yet creative sets and the landscape of the locations into a cheap pop art dream that feels saturated with colours even when the surroundings are rather brown more often than not, and that builds visual interest even from the smallest thing.

The movie's pop art feel is even further strengthened by James Stevens's score that belongs to the jazzy swinging kind you often find in Eurospy movies, though it has a peculiar habit to just fall into an unending series of drum rolls when Hutton punches people in the face.

The cheap pop art feel of, well, everything about They Came From Beyond Space suggests a film made to treat the old-fashioned tropes of the 50s alien invasion movie with the sensibilities that produced the Eurospy movie. In a wonderful turn of event, Francis's movie actually succeeds at that mission, for words like "groovy" and "awesome" come to my mind quite naturally when I think about it.