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.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

In short: Sleep No More (2018)

Warning: I’m going to spoil the film’s single (good) idea!

After a research project to “cure sleep” with some magical drug ends with the death of one of its subjects via eye mutilation and suicide, the medical – or pharmaceutical, the script neither tells nor has probably thought about it – researcher responsible (Yasmine Aker) convinces her grad students (Brea Grant, Keli Price, Stephen Ellis, and Christine Dwyer) to continue the experiment on a long weekend. After all, once they have reached 200 hours without sleep, they will reach a state of lucidity and will be feted as heroes of humanity everywhere, right? Of course, everyone involved quickly develops horrible hallucination, and starts to see a foggy CGI monster, while also suffering from various other psychological problems you might imagine to occur with drug-induced sleep deprivation.

There is, by the way, no connection to L.T.C. Rolt here, if you were asking yourself that. I rather enjoyed director Phillip Guzman’s previous film, Dead Awake, and I sort of dig the sleep themed horror thing he has going on, but the film at hand is pretty atrocious. It’s not so much Guzman’s direction – though the decision to show a CGI monster this crappy quite this often, as well as how the tonal shifts in the acting present don’t do the film any favours either and are certainly in the purview of the director’s job – but rather a script that gets basically nothing right apart from the cool, old school fantastika idea of dream-eating monsters living in symbiotic relationship with humanity until a couple of idiots decide to “cure sleep”.

The characterisation is broad and empty where depth and detail are needed for the story to have any effect on its viewers, and the tone shifts between awkward comedy and supposedly deadly serious horror at a moment’s notice. The actors seem to have been left without any guidance, so only Aker – who doesn’t have to go through these shifts – and eternal pro Grant actually seem to have any kind of grip on their respective characters. The rest of the cast wobbles and stumbles through the series of disconnected moments that goes for a plot here. The film’s basic problem is the complete absence of actual definition in characters and world, which is rather a heavy lack in a film all about horror based on the psychology and perceptions of its characters.

For some reason, this is also set in the 80s, so these aren’t just unconvincing characters, but also ones dressed up in “period” costumes who look exactly like that – costumed.

That Sleep No More’s idea of how medical research works, what a control group is and what it is there for, and so on, and so forth, has little base in even the most cursory research made by the writers seems to be par for the course for this sort of thing; that most of its deviations from reality – which make Flatliners look scientific – aren’t even useful in building drama, adds insult to injury.