Thursday, January 31, 2019

In short: Home for the Holidays (1972)

A very merry Christmas to the daughters of what is laughingly called the Morgan “family”! After years, their much hated Dad (Walter Brennan), whom they make responsible for the suicide of their mother, has invited his daughters home for the holidays to their huge house in the deep dark woods. Actually, he has called them for help, because he is suspecting his second wife Elizabeth (Julie Harris) – hereafter known to everyone only as “That Woman” – is poisoning him. He wants his dear daughters to protect him by…killing her.

However, despite all of them being plenty stupid, not even Chris the naïf (Sally Field), Freddie the pill-popping alcoholic (Jessica Walter), Jo the party girl (Jill Haworth) and Alex the replacement mom (Eleanor Parker) are quite so stupid as to just start going around killing That Woman only on their father’s word. They are also, as it turns out, way too much into melodramatic whining to find time for this sort of thing. Someone however is a bit more of a go-getter, and soon, the daughters find themselves threatened, murdered and coming to absurd conclusions about who the killer anyone in the audience will have pegged in the first ten minutes or so is, while the film continues to pretend That Woman is totally suspicious. Help would be good, but alas, they also find themselves victims of heavy rainstorms. What a Christmas!

TV director great John Llewellyn Moxey’s Home for the Holidays is generally held in high esteem by connoisseurs of 70s horror and suspense TV movies, and in a couple scenes in the last third of the film, I can see why. To be precise, once Moxey gets the opportunity to stage a couple of suspenseful - gialloesque more than proto slasher-style - stalk sequences with Chris running idiotically through the woods, the film gets much more interesting. If there’s one thing this director has down pat, it’s staging classicist suspense on a TV budget, and this part of the film is indeed a bit of a master class on how to stage a suspenseful chase through the rainy woods.

My problem really isn’t with Moxey’s direction at all, but with Joseph Stefano’s screenplay. Stefano was an interesting writer, involved in a lot of classic SF and horror TV, as well as the screenwriter for Hitchcock’s Psycho; on the other hand, he is also responsible for stuff like Snowbeast. Here, he seems to be trying his hardest to make his cast of female characters the most annoying troupe of talking clichés about “neurotic” bourgeois women possible; after half an hour of rich people whining about how Daddy didn’t love them, killed their mother and really only wanted boys, and all the “That Woman” bullshit, I was rather siding with the killer. It doesn’t help the film’s case that Stefano puts way too much emphasis on the That Woman red herring, adding terminal stupidity to the family’s special traits. Don’t get me wrong, there are some subtle elements to the script too, like the way the daughters of the guy who only wanted boys all go by pretty boy-like short versions of their names, but as a whole, this delivers all the clichés about women of a certain class I loathe to encounter in concentrated form.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Cam (2018)

Cam girl Alice (Madeline Brewer), working under the nom de plum of “Lola”, is ambitious to the point of self-destructiveness, trying to climb the somewhat dubious ladder of the cam girl top 100 of her site with an intensity clearly born of the perverse puritan ethos that built the USA, even if it is applied in a direction that’s rather the opposite of puritanism. Right now, things seem to be going upwards in the top 100 regards.

That is, until Alice suddenly can’t log into her account anymore. If she has been hacked, she has been hacked by someone very peculiar, though. Someone looking and sounding exactly like her is still casting, just going a bit further, and into extremer directions Alice has not dared to take until now (though it would clearly only have been a question of time, really). There’s something truly weird and potentially supernatural happening here, and Alice might just not be the first victim of whatever is happening to her now.

Say what you will about Netflix, but as long as it continues to put at least some of its money into stuff as ambitious and accomplished as this feature debut of director Daniel Goldhaber (with a script by Isa Mazzei and Goldhaber), I’m perfectly happy to give it its disappointing productions (as if anyone cared, I know).

To my eyes at least, Cam is as good as intelligent horror gets (I don’t have anything against the dumb stuff, as you know), starting out in a way that suggests the beginning of a sleazy erotic thriller and getting weirder and more meaningful by the minute. This is a film that certainly has a lot to say about female self-exploitation in late capitalism, the tiny and not so tiny pressures put on its main characters to function as she’s supposed to, the drive to personal betterment turned into misguided and destructive directions, and the horrible void at the centre of all ambition. To my great pleasure, Cam does all this without morally judging Alice as many another film would (probably with glee). What happens to her is certainly connected to the way she leads her life – or really the way she sees life – but this is not a film where the intrusion of the Weird functions simply as a way to punish a character; the inexplicable – somewhat ironically – is really there to help explain the quotidian. Which, again to my pleasure, doesn’t mean Cam treats its supernatural horror exclusively as a metaphor – rather, it is metaphor, threat, and the suggestion of something dark under the skin of the world all at once. All of this is also a fantastic, truly contemporary update of the old doppelganger motif too, demonstrating how resonant the old bag still is when you want to talk about us human beings and the borders between the real and the unreal.

Unlike a lot of other media from the Weird side of the fantastic, Cam shows a lot of compassion for its characters. Not just Alice, mind you, even someone as deeply problematic as her decidedly creepy, sad, regular Tinker (Patch Darragh) is written as a human being. In a lesser film, Alice herself could have easily become an insufferable cliché of hysteric ambition, but in the combination of the carefully humane, yet also pretty funny, script, and Brewer’s physically intense but also nuanced performance, she feels just like one of us – flawed but not hopeless, and certainly not responsible for many of her flaws. That’s what the world and parents are for, after all.

Goldhaber’s direction is intensely stylish, making impressive use of the contrast between the artificial and hyper-real colours of Alice’s online life and the more simply real ones of her life offline, clearly taking pains to let these borders slip visually at just the right moments, when the borders of Alice’s lives slip for her, too.

All of this – and quite a bit more – comes together to form what I believe is a rather special film.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

In short: 1974: La posesión de Altair (2016)

The recently wedded couple of teacher Altair (Diana Bovio) and artist (I think) Manuel (Rolando Breme) are living a happy, even idyllic, life in the Mexican countryside. Idyllic, that is, until the night after Altair’s birthday party. The young woman has a dream of an angel standing beside her bed, talking to her, and from there on out, weird things start happening, most of them centred on Altair. It’s not just psychologically explicable stuff like sleepwalking, or her buoyant temper turning brooding and distant, there are also things like the very real phenomenon of the flock of birds that commits suicide by repeatedly crashing into the house. The angels – apparently there are now more than just one – tell Altair to build two doors out of black bricks in the house, the bricks and black paint appearing neatly packaged in the garage; strange phone calls come in at night; the couple’s pup disappears and then seems to reappear as a grown dog despite no time having passed for the animal to actually grow up. All the while, Altair’s behaviour turns ever more self-destructive and decidedly creepy.

Eventually, a desperate Manuel calls Altair’s reticent sister Tere (Blanca Alarcón) and his best friend Callahan (Guillermo Callahan) in for help, but it doesn’t look as if anything could stop whatever is playing games with the couple.

Mexican director Victor Dryere actually shot this period piece of POV cinema mostly on a Super 8 camera, the sort of thing his protagonists would have been using at the time. Unless one can’t get over the usual “why would these people film all of this!?” anxiety that seems to plague some of the particularly principled POV horror haters, this turns out to be a brilliant decision, providing the resulting movie with an instant patina – with the grain to prove it – of the past. It’s also a pretty admirable technique for making a low budget period piece, the grain and limited colour of Super 8 hiding quite a bit of the period detail a director usually can’t afford to bring on screen.

Dryere does quite a bit more with this though, using his film stock’s weaknesses to create very well imagined moments of strangeness (probably enhanced via digital magic). There are quite a few scenes which work particularly well because we can’t quite see what’s going on here. My personal favourite is a moment when Altair seems to nearly step backwards through one of the doors she has built, which becomes extra creepy by the fact that in this resolution her doors don’t look like bricks piled on each other but like black rectangles that could be and hide just about anything Wrong.

In general, Altair is quit excellent at creating this feeling of wrongness out of its grainy visuals, some very convincing acting and a mix of elements of various tales about alien/transdimensional abductions and general High Weirdness. Additionally, the film also happens to be one of the new wave of POV horror films that actually do pacing well – there’s not a wasted moment on screen here, the tightness of the script of course strengthening the impact of the strangeness even more.

Not a bad result at all for a movie that has apparently been making the festival rounds since 2016.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

You Might Be the Killer (2018)

You know the drill: a camp full of camp counsellors, a masked killer, physically improbable violence, self-conscious talk about the way slashers operate. But wait, don’t slink away yawning just yet, for Brett Simmons’s self-conscious slasher does actually have more than one good idea, and turns out to be a much better film than “ironic” slashers usually are. Perhaps because here, “ironic” isn’t a different way to write “lazy”.

Our protagonist and potential killer (see title, so nobody complain about spoilers please) Sam (Fran Kranz) reports the story of his very bad night at camp to his slasher-expert friend Chuck (Alyson Hannigan) over the phone while hiding from the killer (or is he?). He did actually call the sheriff before her, or really his voicemail, but the guy is old, has the voice of Keith David in grandfather mode, and really isn’t going to come around for hours at best. Chuck tries her best to help, but once Sam tells her of his curious lapses in memory and other incidences of the kind not wont to make a friend optimistic, she’s more the expert nerd delivering all the bad news. Let’s just say that definitely mild-mannered Sam just might have encountered a cursed mask, and just maybe do very bad things when he’s wearing it. And we all know what happens to the masked killer at the end of these films, right? So the story is until the final act when the timelines converge mostly told in flashbacks that aren’t necessarily trustworthy or in the right order.

At first, this approach, particularly with the film showing an actual body count on screen, seems rather too self-conscious and constructed but it quickly becomes clear that You Might Be the Killer actually uses this structure not only to point out how clever it is but to actually get a degree of suspense out of the samey genre that is the slasher. Sure, it says, we all know everyone of these guys except for the obvious final girl are going to die horribly, but let’s use our more self-conscious perspective on things to get a bit more into how all the deaths fit into the way the narrative is constructed. Yes, the film does indeed attempt to build a degree of suspense out of examining the way a slasher is actually put together; it also succeeds in this goal surprisingly well, mostly because it is indeed as clever as it thinks it is: that seemingly too-clever body count, for example, is not just as smug nod and the base for a couple of actually funny little gags, but also an actually clever way for the audience to orient itself in the flashbacks. So, obviously, the script by Simmons, Covis Berzoyne and Thomas P. Vitale has put rather a lot of thought into the structure of the film, even if it doesn’t appear that way at first.

But let’s get back to the gags, for this is, after all, billed as a horror comedy. Pleasantly, at least for my taste, it’s not one of these a joke every ten seconds affairs that tend to get tiresome fast. While there are some actual jokes, the film’s humour is based more on its general tone and its knowledge about the basic absurdity of the slasher genre, not so much making fun of as having fun with slasher clichés, avoiding to become a series of unfunny “funny” situations like for example the Hatchet films do by the simple power of good taste applied intelligently. It also helps that Simmons actually seems to like his characters and cares about their fates. So when it comes to post-slashers, the best comparison would probably be Final Girls, even though these are still two very different films.

Very much to its credit, You Might Be the Killer also manages to be fun horror film, never forgetting that the bloody business at hand is indeed supposed to be bloody, and that, even in a horror comedy, the actual supernatural threat needs to be threatening instead of clownish. Indeed, the killer and the mask are played perfectly straight, and there are a quite a few moments that are straightforwardly suspenseful. Simmons also really knows how to shoot a slasher-style wood and cabins set-up in Louisiana atmospherically; in fact, the way it is set up, there’s just a small step between this and a more traditional slasher movie, which makes the humour and the film’s perspective on the genre all the more effective.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Three Films Make A Post: In the heart of every victim is a hero and he'll tear apart a city to prove it.

Wild (2014): In part, Jean-Marc Vallée’s film (based on a memoir)about a woman making a thousand mile plus hike through the US wilderness to conquer her personal demons is certainly made of the material of self help books, but there’s also actual emotional weight in Reese Witherspoon’s performance, in the way Vallée tries to make the rhythm of her days in nature visible, in the beauty as well as an amount of danger (usually in the form of threatening men who never quite get around to doing something to Witherspoon but also make clear that they very well could which is a thing we male parts of the audience should take a good look at) the film finds by the wayside, and in the film’s general lack of preachiness. I also rather admired the way Wild shifts into flashbacks that feel as associative as actual memory, suggesting something true about the way memories come to the surface of our minds.

Go for Sisters (2013): This is probably not the best or “most important” film John Sayles has ever made, but there’s so much unhurried beauty, and such a clear eye for the ways cultures and people intersect in border regions that it’s still impossible for me not to find it rather on the brilliant side. On paper, the plot could make a thriller, but in practice, this is a road movie about friendship, class, and borders that lets its dangers and crimes happen as just another thing coming up by the wayside.

This approach doesn’t feel slow or lazy but has a relaxed beauty mirrored in wonderful performances by LisaGay Hamilton, Yolonda Ross, Edward James Olmos and various others. Like quite a few of Sayles’s later films, this feels like a product of someone who has a lot to say about people and the very specific world they inhabit, and shares it thoughtful, without grand gestures. I imagine Sayles to be a very good listener.

Begin Again aka Can a Song Save Your Life? (2013): This film by John Carney is a bit of a Hollywood feel good film about the saving graces of music featuring Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo, but it comes about its positive feeling the honest way: by accepting the bad shit and thinking about ways to get through it. That some of these ways might not be a hundred percent applicable in real life seems neither here nor there – this is a film that cherishes hope, music and friendship so much it’s not a lie but a promise. It also has a better ending than you’d expect or fear.

Carney knows and understands music much better than many directors making films about musicians, so there’s a lot in here about the way songs and life intersect, the impact a song can still have on a life (and not just of those writing them), as well as the sheer joy of music. The music the characters make is also just right for them as well as the film. This is the kind of movie that really can make someone happier and more hopeful for a bit. At least this someone.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Past Misdeeds: Ninja (2009)

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.

Not to be confused with Ninja, Ninja, Ninja, or Shinobi

Master Takeda's (Togo Igawa) dojo is the last true progenitor of the fighting style of the Kouga ninja, but one that has been adapted into a more honourable kind of philosophical teaching, because who'd want an evil ninja as their movie hero. Takeda also keeps the Yoroi Bitsu, a chest containing the nearly-sacred armour and weapons of the last true Kouga. The sensei is progressing in years, and it will soon be time to choose a successor for his position. Two men are in the final running  - the adopted American orphan Casey (Scott Adkins) and Masazuka (Tsuyoshi Ihara). As is tradition in this sort of film, Masazuka is a total jerk, but instead of going the equally traditional way of trying to put his rival into an undeservedly bad light, he just loses it completely one day and tries to murder Casey in front of the whole dojo, a clever move that sees him banished forever.

On the plus side (for him), Masazuka can now begin to adapt the ninja style to the modern world, using some technical gimmicks to reproduce age-old ninja tricks and/or stuff he liked in Splinter Cell, and starts a career as a professional assassin for a powerful secret criminal society in New York. Said society is the kind of society that is so secret, it brands its members with its sign right on their breastbones, and so powerful, it consists of one rich guy and a bunch of thugs wearing partner-look leather jackets. But hey, whatever gets you through the night.

Things could stay rather peaceful for everyone Masazuka isn't trying to kill, but once the day comes when Takeda finally is going to make Casey's status as his successor official, the evil ninja returns to Japan to make a scene. Takeda immediately sends Casey and his daughter Namiko (Mika Hijii) - yes, of course she and Casey are in a state of undeclared love - to the US, supposedly so they can keep the Yoroi Bitsu safe, but clearly also to keep them out of harm's way when Masazuka's obvious attack will come. Not unexpectedly, Masazuka kills Takeda and the rest of the dojo the following night.

Now, Casey and Namiko have to keep the Yoroi Bitsu safe, survive the onslaught of Masazuka's secret society buddies out to get them, escape the police who make them responsible for various murders because all the non-stupid cops must be on holiday, and finally cope with Masazuka himself once he arrives back in New York. Nobody ever said being a ninja is easy.

When it comes to contemporary (mostly) direct-to-video action directors in the USA, Isaac Florentine is a bit of a throw-back to the middle to late 80s with a preference for filming martial arts based fighting scenes in ways that actually let his audience see what's going on, and letting his movies hang together through more than semi-ironic winking.

Ninja, of course, takes many of its ideas and basic plot beats from the curiously beloved sub-genre of US low budget action that concerns the adventures of - white unless they're Sho Kosugi - ninjas doing what action movie ninjas are wont to do. It's not a sub-genre I'm personally very nostalgic for (witnessing middle-aged Franco Nero pretending to be a martial artist will do that to you) , but Florentine's film does its thing so well nostalgia isn't necessary to enjoy Ninja.

Obviously, I do highly approve of Florentine's project of not making action sequences boring and actually showing us what's going on in them without giving up on dynamic camera work (though I could go with a little less slow-mo/sped-up edits). There's a really beautiful flow to most of the action scenes, with the actors' bodies and the camera working together in what I often think is the more bloody (and therefore entertaining) version of the same thing a classic film musical does. Of course, you can do this sort of thing only well when you have actors you don't have to replace with stunt doubles for every shot; they at least need to be able to pose a little. Fortunately, that's where the talents of Adkins, Ihara and a horde of stuntmen playing henchmen come in, as well as Akahiro Noguchi's fight choreography. Mika Hijii does get a few convincing fight moments in, too, but unfortunately, the film does rather tend to make her "the girl", so she doesn't kick ass as well as the men and is of course in the end kidnapped by the main bad guy, something the poor actress knows well from her role in Garo. At least she is allowed to project some personality, has some chemistry with Adkins, and isn't helpless as much as out-matched.

Apart from that weakness, there's little I don't like about Ninja: it's a film that treats its silly ideas with utmost seriousness without ever feeling the need to make fun of them or apologize for them to the audience, has some outstanding action scenes (my favourite would probably be the fight in the subway), decent acting-acting and brilliant physical acting, and is excellently paced. Plus, despite having been shot in low budget mecca Bulgaria, it puts some much appreciated effort into making things feel authentic. It's not normal to find actual professional Japanese actors one might even know from film or TV in their own country in this sort of thing, nor is it typical to hear them speak actual Japanese among each other or accented English with their own voices, yet it is exactly the level of care and respect this demonstrates that makes Ninja so great.

Well, that and lots of scenes of Scott Adkins kicking people in the face.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

In short: Midnight Show (2016)

Warning: structural spoilers ahoy!

A small, third-string cinema in late 90s Jakarta. Projectionist Juna (Gandhi Fernando) and ticket seller Naya (Acha Septriasa), their boss, and the worst security guard ever are a bit of a personnel overkill for the midnight showing of an elsewhere rather successful horror film “based on a true story” about a small boy murdering his whole family. There are, after all, only four paying customers.

As it will turn out, one of these customers is of a rather murderous persuasion. He may even be the little boy from the film all grown up and out of prison partaking in a bit of practical film criticism that overlooks the truth every moviegoer knows: films based on a true story are never actually true.

For the first two thirds of its running time, impressively named director Ginanti Rona Tembang Sari’s Indonesian slasher variant Midnight Show seems to be a pretty straightforward affair, a well-done thriller that comes down on the fun side of films about masked maniacs slaughtering a handful of people. However, for its third act it isn’t only going the plot twist route but also turning up the impact of the violence, changing from a more film-like bloodiness to something that feels more real and even a bit disquieting. In spirit, this turns out to be not so much like a late 90s slasher, the pinnacle of the slasher as a film genre ignoring any possibility of having an emotional impact on its audience, but rather the sort of bleak affair I tend to connect with the 70s. In fact, as the film’s killer turns out to be a bit of a too active film critic, so does Midnight Show turn into a bit of a critique of the merely fun slasher, getting nasty about the business of killing people for our entertainment because that is indeed a bit of a nasty thing.

That doesn’t mean Sari’s film isn’t an effective slasher. In fact, its somewhat lighter first acts are very well done thriller fare, the director clearly having a knack for the classic low budget business of portraying simply yet deftly drawn characters fighting off a violent menace in an enclosed space. There are some very cleverly staged sequences early on, some subtly stylish flourishes to the framing that build tension even when there’s no outright action happening, and a general sense that you’re in the hands of a director who is very much in control of his material and what he wants out of it. That he then escalates to something harsher and a bit more complicated than Midnight Show at first appears to be is obviously only improving on something that’s already been a very a good film.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Possum (2018)

Following some sort of scandal surrounding one of his shows, puppeteer Philip (Sean Harris) returns to his decaying childhood home and his equally decaying “uncle” Maurice (Alun Armstrong) in the ugly part of the British countryside they never show on TV. It’s never quite clear if he’s going there to confront his past, run away from the present to what will turn out to be his just as horribly fucked-up childhood, or just because it is the only place he knows to run to. In any case, he does seem to plan to destroy his puppet, the titular Possum, a thing that’s as nightmarish as it is because it does indeed come from Philip’s childhood nightmares. Sometimes, Possum seems to have a sinister life all of its own, and it certainly is very difficult to destroy.

I’m not going to go much farther into the plot of Possum, for the only way to really do that in a way doing justice to Matthew Holness’s film’s sequence of chronologically disordered scenes, some of whom may be visions or hallucinations, some nightmares, and some memories turned into nightmares, would be to recap it scene by scene. And once I’m doing that, a reader is simply better off just watching the damn thing herself. Of course, watching Possum is highly recommended anyway, at least if you like (I’d say enjoy, but that’s not a feeling that really has much to do with this one) the more cerebral and mood-driven psychological side of horror cinema.

Holness takes a deep dive into the shadowy places of British culture, letting Philip wander through the bleakest kind of countryside, touched by humankind’s garbage in all the ugliest ways, living in a house that has been decorated in the 70s and left to rot since then – a description also applicable to Maurice – while touching on moral panics of a sort that seems particularly resonant in the UK. The film is oozing an air of wrongness that is clearly influenced by things like the mind-bogglingly creepy Public Information Films of the 70s and other typical hallmarks of the Weird UK of that time. Holness never just copies his influences, though, but channels them into a film very much his own.

Much of Possum truly has the quality of a nightmare, or rather, of being trapped in the head of the heavily traumatized man that is Philip – and his is not the sexy or romantic kind of trauma that makes for a nice dramatic backstory, but the shitty one that feels way too real even if it is, like here, expressed through the Weird and the (horribly) fantastic. For this isn’t one of those films that just pours out nightmare images and stops there; rather, Holness is very careful in the choice of his visual metaphors and pictures. Everything we see has a very concrete meaning that will indeed make sense in the end.

Which, I believe, is actually the film’s only true weakness, at least for my tastes: in the end, there’s really no ambiguity at all left concerning Philip’s past and present, with everything we have experienced clearly applicable to what happened to him, and all questions answered. Clear answers aren’t really what I personally come to the Weird and fantastic cinema as a whole to, so it must say something about Holness’s skill here that I still think that Possum is a deeply disquieting masterpiece of a movie, acted and directed with deep intelligence and empathy.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

In short: The Marsh (2006)

Claire Holloway (Gabrielle Anwar), a writer of creepy books for children, may be successful, but she’s also suffering from chronic exhaustion and depression. In the last months, recurring nightmares about a frightened little girl, a feral teenage ghost, and a somewhat creepy house have added to the pressure. So when she sees the house from her dreams on TV, she decides to take a Christmas holiday right in the home of her nightmares. Whatever could go wrong?

To nobody’s surprise, the house turns out to be haunted by the children from Claire’s dreams, whose appearances become increasingly more threatening, yet they also hint at a connection between them and Claire’s own, mysterious past. As the film goes on, the ghosts will kill quite a few people connected to that past. On the plus side, the town of Claire’s dubious vacation has its own paranormal investigator, one Geoffrey Hunt (Forest Whitaker), so she won’t have to go through this stuff alone.

Looking at Jordan Baker’s The Marsh on the good old IMDb, I was very surprised this isn’t a TV movie. It does look and feel a lot like one, and not a good one, I hasten to add, but rather the sort of thing made by people totally indifferent to the material they are working with. At the very least, Baker demonstrates a pretty distressing inability to effectively stage even the most basic of horror sequences; if a director can’t even make a simple nightmare sequence with creepy little kid ghosts work, he’s really not a good fit for horror.

Of course, Michael Stokes’s script, with its contrived and derivative murder scenes, its lack of emotional impact even when it talks about childhood trauma, its mechanical plotting, and its general lack of imagination, is the sort of material even a great horror director couldn’t do much with, so blaming Baker is perhaps a little unfair. The script doesn’t even manage to make proper use of the fact that it takes place around Christmas, the second-most ghostly season of the year.

Nobody else involved seems much inspired either: Anwar, while certainly beautiful and at least basically competent in whatever role she’s given isn’t the kind of actress who can conjure up an interesting character out of nothing; the rest of the cast, even the usually wonderful Forest Whitaker, phone things in completely.

There’s an air of disinterest hanging over the whole of The Marsh, as if nobody in front of or behind the camera could actually have been bothered to do more than show up and put as little effort into the film as possible. That, at least they managed.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

The Clovehitch Killer (2018)

Teenage Tyler (Charlie Plummer) leads a rather overly protected life, directed by the wishes and opinions of his Evangelical conservative parents Don (Dylan McDermott) and Cindy (Samantha Mathis), and clearly not planning on rebelling against the course they set for him beyond some backseat fumbling with a girl from the church band. However, doing said (awkward) fumbling in his father’s car one night, the teenagers find a bondage porn picture in the car. Next thing Tyler knows, he has the reputation of being a perv, and starts to harbour doubts about his father’s lifestyle. As a matter of fact, he begins connecting his Dad to a serial killer of women known as Clovehitch (named after a type of knot he used) who was active in their town some years ago.

Tyler’s somewhat confused search brings him together with Kassi (Madisen Beaty), a girl obsessed with Clovehitch for reasons Tyler typically never questions. So, if Don truly is Clovehitch, what are Tyler and Kassi going to do about it, and what’s Don going to do to his son if he finds out?

Duncan Skiles’s The Clovehitch Killer is that rarest of things, a movie about a serial killer that doesn’t romanticize serial killers in one way or the other. In fact, one of the film’s core strengths lies in portraying its evil as banal, or at least quotidian in its way, avoiding being spectacular about Clovehitch or his murders. That’s not because the film thinks its serial killer is harmless. Rather, it understands that the true horror of its killer lies in the fact that he’s a perfectly normal seeming, if ultra-conservative, man who decently fits in a society that thinks itself decent also. Just that he can only gets his kicks when he’s tying up and murdering women, which, to him, quite clearly feels quotidian and normal, too. McDermott’s excellent performance really drives this aspect of the film home – there’s not attempt at trying to be horror movie creepy, or larger than life and Evil. Instead, the actor plays Don as just some guy, (with horrible secrets, obviously) but realizes that what’s inside him is not something written on a man’s face. On a horror level, this arguably makes the killer much more impressive and frightening than the usual eye-rolling and scenery-chewing would, giving Don a reality that’s truly disquieting.

The Clovehitch Killer clearly has its thoughts about what this fitting in with society of a killer has to say about the society itself, about all the other things hidden in plain sight. In fact, this is a film about secrets hidden in plain sight in more than one way. On a stylistic level, Skiles very often hides important details that will be revealed later to be found just outside the frame of a shot and the line of sight of his characters; suggesting that just one closer look, one move in a different angle, and all secrets can be revealed. In the plot, there are secrets just out of view (perhaps unconsciously ignored) all over: be it the motivation for Kassi’s obsession with Clovehitch, Tyler could learn if only he bothered asking, the way Tyler’s former best church friend is so clearly repressing that he’s gay, Tyler’s own unspoken frustration with the way he has to live even before the whole serial killer angle comes out. Just as much, this is a film about the way people in a society or a family (one mirroring the other) repress/have to repress these secrets, which will only lead to them coming out violently in the end.

At the same time, The Clovehitch Killer also works genuinely well as a quiet horror film, a variant on the kid detective mystery tale that reveals not that crotchety old Mr Smith has been dressing up as a Mummy to scare off the treasure hunters but that true, banal horror has been hiding in plain sight all along.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Three Films Make A Post: A sensational characterisation you wouldn't believe possible

The Darjeeling Limited (2007): I don’t usually write a lot about Wes Anderson’s films, because while I love most of them quite a bit, I don’t have much to say about them beyond noting my appreciation for his general aesthetic (and the guy’s films are nothing if not expressions of a single and very personal aesthetic), his curious ability to make films full of ironic distance that still seem to respect and portray human emotion in a stylized yet truthful manner. Why, he even gets me to watch a film about characters for whose little rich boy problems I’d have little patience otherwise like this one, and enjoy it.

Greenberg (2010): I’m somewhat more particular when it comes to the films of Noah Baumbach. About half of them I think are brilliant or borderline brilliant, the other half (say the confusingly beloved Mistress America or While We’re Young) I can’t stand at all.

One of the borderline brilliant ones is this one about the perils of being a supposed grown-up when you are perhaps not suited to it at all, embodied in a pretty fantastic performance by Ben Stiller (who is a properly good actor when he is acting instead of being Ben Stiller). The film also concerns itself with the perils of being a young woman who has had much of her confidence and self-esteem sucked out by life as a young, poor woman in late capitalist America as even more fantastically embodied by Greta Gerwig. As an actress, Gerwig has an incredible way of projecting telling degrees of awkwardness only comparable to the way Vincent Price could chew scenery to just the exact correct degree. Baumbach keeps some ironic distance here too, but where Anderson’s view is a bit more clinical, I believe Baumbach wants his characters to change and improve and be happy (to the degree being happy is possible for them) more often than not. As a viewer, I approve of this.

Stegman Is Dead (2017): Keeping with the comedy, though on a less critically acclaimed and less accomplished level, David Hyde’s film concerns a bunch of slightly eccentric criminals, killers etc, performing their merry dance of stupidity and mild violence while descending on the house of a porn producer (porn jokes are actually one of the film’s strengths) and other houses looking for a McGuffin in form of a video. It’s sometimes funny, sometimes going over the same couple of ideas over and over again, sometimes threatening to do something really interesting and crazy but never quite getting there.

It’s a generally likeable little film, though, not terribly cynical, not terribly involving, but certainly worth a friendly nod.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Past Misdeeds: Fatal Exposure (1989)

aka Mangled Alive

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 buff late 80s mullet-wearer with the pun-tastic name of Jack T. Rippington (Blake Bahner) has moved to a small town in the US South to follow in the footsteps of his great-grandfather, of whom, as Jack tells the camera, you might have heard under the name of (dun-dun-DUN!) Jack the Ripper. 80s Jack is a bit more variable in his killing methods, preferring not to use any single murder weapon twice, which of course brings out the true creative spirit in him. That's useful, for Jack is also a photographer and really likes to take charming pictures of his dying victims. Afterwards, our hero brews tasty drinks out of his victims' blood to keep his virility in ship shape.

For at heart, Jack wants what every homicidal maniac really wants - a girlfriend to impregnate with that treasured Rippington seed. It is of course rather difficult to start a romantic relationship when one tends to kill every woman one meets alone, so Jack, clever boy that he is, has developed a three point question catalogue to identify his perfect woman (a woman just like his great-grandma, by the way), which he asks a girl before beginning a murder attempt and the whole pregnancy bit becomes physically impossible. Woman Jack just tied up "for a photo series"! Do you regularly think about death and dying? The correct answer is "YES!". What do you think when you think about blood? Please answer with "Hot sexy times!". And, last but not least: have you ever thought about murdering someone? Again, the answer Jack wants to hear is a resounding "Yes!".

One might think it improbable, but eventually - quite a few dead bodies later - Jack meets Erica (Ena Henderson), a charming and friendly girl who just happens to answer random questions about death and blood a charming creep asks her the way he wants them answered. At once, romance is in the air, and there is little standing in the way of the production of little Jack Rippington Junior. But what will happen when Erica finds out about her new sex-hungry boyfriend's hobby?

When it comes to the realm of late 80s/early 90s video schlock it doesn't often get better (or "better") than Peter B. Good's Fatal Exposure. Sure, it's a film in dubious taste, made on a shoe-string budget with amateur actors and actresses (but at least they all drop their clothes at the proverbial drop of a hat), and a script so silly it's difficult to discern when it is consciously joking and when it is unintentionally funny.

However, Fatal Exposure is really good at doing its dubious thing, filled with an off-beat charm that is surprisingly effective when you're like me and like your local direct-to-video horror rather peculiar. It's - obviously - all very low-rent, but it works brilliantly as a visit in the kind of parallel world where a local sheriff can easily be killed by feeding him acid instead of beer during a private drinking game (the sheriff's not the brightest, obviously), and where all local women are surprisingly attractive (in a late 80s direct-to-video way), and just love to be tied up by strangers who tell them they are photographers. Really, it's a world where porn logic has drifted into the horror genre, just that on planet Fatal Exposure acting after porn logical impulses doesn't lead to sex with the mailman but rather to you being gorily murdered. Said gore is of rather variable quality, but the blood is very red, and the murders (and murder methods) become increasingly bizarre, therefore increasingly more entertaining.

While I'm praising the film's more bizarre moments (which, come to think of it, make up at least half of its running time), I might as well mention the number of fourth-wall breaking scenes where Blake Bahner begins to monologue right into the camera, as if the film were a more kill-happy version of a local TV ad for the sleazy but young and buff used car salesman of your choice (this is how it works in the US, right?), delivered with all the dishonest, sticky charm you'd expect. Bahner is quite good at this sort of thing too, and while he never sells his character as the horrible force of evil the film's soundtrack attempts to suggest, he is rather good at oozing a smarmy affability that makes his success at charming and killing people not quite unbelievable - at least for the universe the whole mess takes place in. Bahner also does the most ridiculous/awesome stupid death scene imaginable. What more could I ask of a man playing Jack the Ripper's grandson?

The rest of the acting pales compared to Bahner's strange performance: Henderson is amateurish-cute, Bahner's victims are amateurish-nude, and Marc "The Sheriff" Griggs is the usual movie hick sheriff who is so dumb, he does never even realize there's a serial killer loading off ridiculous heaps of corpses in a single crypt of the local graveyard (which is quite an achievement in itself seeing as all of the early victims are local). Everyone's an amateur, yet everyone is also applying real - possibly misguided - enthusiasm to whatever he or she is doing.

Weird as the film is, Good's direction is actually a level above what this sort of direct-to-video thing generally provides. The camera isn't nailed down, the two or three locations in Alabama are used with a degree of competence if not style, and the film is well enough paced never to become boring; just imagine, scenes don't even go on until somebody finally shoots the cameraman like in a lot of local and indie productions.

All these dubious charms and accomplishments come together into a film that is difficult, maybe even impossible, to resist for anyone with a heart for the peculiar, the local, and the plain silly, so there's absolutely no reason not to watch Fatal Exposure. Well, except for that pesky good taste, but that's an illness watching enough movies I recommend will cure in no time.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Calibre (2018)

Because his fiancée's new pregnancy signals something like the beginning of responsible grown-up life, and realistically for quite a few years less time for swanning off with his friends, to him, Vaughn (Jack Lowden) is going on a weekend trip into the Scottish Highlands with his best friend Marcus (Martin McCann). It’s going to be a hunting trip, no less. Vaughn does not actually have much interest in shooting helpless animals but Marcus insists, and it’s pretty clear the latter man has been the dominant partner in their friendship since they met at boarding school, a place where you’d expect Marcus with his clear rich boy entitlement to have felt rather at home, and Vaughn not so much.

After a night of drinking and flirting with the female populace of the village they have booked rooms for the weekend in, or a bit more than just flirting in Marcus’s case, off to the hunt they go. From now on, things will go very badly indeed, for Vaughn accidentally shoots and kills a little boy. The following confrontation with the child’s desperate father ends up with Marcus killing him, too, in what he clearly honestly believes was the bodily defence of his friend. To the audience, the situation is rather more ambiguous; it’s a clear possibility that Vaughn had managed to talk the man down already when his friend shoots.

In any case, from here on out, Marcus takes control of the situation, with little resistance from the just as shell-shocked Vaughn, and the two start on a series of increasingly horrible, and just plain wrong decisions, starting with the idea of burying the bodies and (badly) pretending nothing happened.

Matt Palmer’s Made for Netflix thriller is a rather wonderful example of intelligent filmmaking, based on a script – also by the director – that particularly impressed me with its measuredness, its ability to escalate a situation yet to find the point to stop before things, characters and situations become too over the top.

So Marcus is certainly a bit of an entitled prick – certainly someone I’d dislike heartily in real life - and Vaughn a bit of a wet blanket, but both are so in believable measures, keeping their friendship a concrete thing between two believable and concrete men instead of an abstract or a cliché only there to drive a movie. And the villagers, as country people in horror films and thrillers are wont to, certainly have their own ways of going about things, but again, the film finds exactly the right spot just before they turn into crazy backwoods folk and portrays their actions as consequence of the things they go through.

In fact, one of the film’s subtle arguments seems to be that part of the situation evolves like it does exactly because our protagonists view these people – even an obvious man of distinction like Logan McClay (Tony Curran, as off-handedly wonderful as usual) – as villagers, these curious humans city people meet when they are on vacation, not quite like us, and therefor not quite evoking the kind of empathy and respect they might afford those they meet in their daily lives. That’s not to say there isn’t resentment coming from the other side, too, though it mostly is the sort of resentment provoked by random outsiders just trampling through your life without even seeming to notice when they do harm.

This kind of thoughtfulness, the willingness to let things and people be complicated runs through every aspect of Calibre’s script. However, it also manages to be just a wonderfully effective genre film, if you like your thrillers quietly tense and subtly tight, that is, for while there is indeed something of a violent climax, much of the immense tension of the film is based on careful observation and consideration of people and situations and seldom built on obvious set pieces. That’s not a criticism, of course, it’s a sign of subtlety, and while I do love loud and visually stylized thrillers, subtlety is not a bad thing, especially if it’s realized so well.
It’s also remarkable how little interest Palmer shows in twists, something that now seems to be a mandatory element of most thriller and horror films, often to their detriment; instead of twists, Calibre has actual organic plot developments, the feeling of a noose pulling tighter, and things deteriorating. I rather prefer that.

I haven’t really said much about the film’s technical aspects. That’s not because they are not worth mentioning, but because Palmer’s direction is so self-assured and at the same time so disinterested in pointing at itself, that the film’s highly effective framing of scenes, the pointed editing, and the often beautiful camera work of DP Márk Györi, as well as the through the bank excellent acting, just become part of the gestalt of Calibre.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

In short: Dislike (2016)

A grab bag of the worstmost popular vloggers in Russia are invited to a sponsored event that’ll see them drinking some dumb energy drink while meeting up in some villa in the middle of snowy nowhere. Nobody of them seems to be the least bit curious about the fact that there’s no actual human being apart from a voice coming from a loudspeaker awaiting them at the villa, so what happens next seems a lot like natural selection in action. They are, of course, going through a Saw (repeatedly mentioned in the film, so we at least can’t blame it for being dishonest) and slasher crossover, with the difference that there are no actually cruel games to win or lose, and there’s something of a lack in torture, so dying and infighting is pretty much all that’s in the cards for the foreseeable future.

As far as I know, the horror sub-genre of the Internet personality slasher is still waiting for an actually decent film for everyone else working in it to copy; Pavel Ruminov’s Russian version certainly isn’t that one. Though, to be fair, it is neither the worst film in its sub-genre, nor is the rest of the film quite as bad as its first half hour. But then, said first half hour consists mostly of the set-up for the backstory of our mandatory heroine and the online shenanigans of the other six idiots the film will then start to whittle down.

Not unexpectedly, there’s not a single interesting character in the bunch, and the film’s attempts at satire stay completely on the surface level, leaving the audience to go through a film concerning the fate of a bunch of mostly uninteresting (and obviously unlikable) nonentities. While the film shows a certain amount of low budget movie slickness in its presentation, it’s not enough to overcome the core problem of having a cast of characters nobody watching will give a crap about. There are some decent bread and butter kind of horror film moments and some classic red and green lighting in what would be the climax in a better film, but even this Dislike’s muddles up with a double plot twist. The first of these twists is risible, while the second takes about then minutes of build up with the kind of “satire” that isn’t actually more clever than the things it makes fun of, for a pay-off it should have come to in one minute.

Nothing new in the world of movies about Internet people getting slaughtered, then.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

In short: Malicious (2018)

Warning: I’ll have to spoil some of the film’s more interesting ideas!

Notorious city dwellers Lisa (Bojana Novakovic) and Adam Pierce (Josh Stewart) can’t help but move to the country, for Adam has been offered a position as a math professor at a rural college and the position is just too lucrative for someone as early in his academic career as Adam is to pass it up. Why, there’s even a huge house for the couple providing plenty of room for the child Lisa is pregnant with. Further developments will reveal Adam’s position is quite this well paid because many maths professors apparently can’t cope with the fact that their department head, Dr. Clark (Delroy Lindo), is also a parapsychologist (gasp).

That second field of interest will come in handy though, when the Pierces encounter some really rather nasty paranormal phenomena that seem to start at about the time Lisa opens a “fertility box” her wayward sister Becky (Melissa Bolona) has given her. Lisa miscarries under rather mysterious circumstances; whatever has caused the death of her child now seems to have latched onto her in the worst way.

Getting into the spoilers, the entity the Pierces have unwittingly invited into their lives is a thing that kills the unborn children of pregnant women to then take hold of the soul and the future of the child. So both of them have encounters with nasty versions of what would have been their daughter in various stages of development, like a suburban version of maiden, mother and crone. Though the film’s not clever enough to leave it at the traditional forms. Not being quite clever enough really is the problem of Michael Winnick’s movie for most of its running time.

While the basic idea of the film’s Big Bad is rather on the tasteless side, it is also very resonant, theoretically an ideal way to explore all the fears and horrors of young parenthood, as well as a path to giving the protagonists very mixed feelings towards the thing that haunts them. Unfortunately, the film never really goes anywhere interesting with its basic set-up, and seems to use the the four and a half versions of its monster just to provide visual variety, not to get deeper into the characters’ heads. There are some vague gestures towards a weird incestuous thing between the entity and Adam, but again, the film just doesn’t seem to know what to do with this either. Nor does it do much with the way Adam clearly tries to hide his lusting for Becky behind rather impressive amounts of rudeness towards her – there are a couple of moments that nearly go somewhere with this, but then it’ll turn out to be just an excuse to get a breast (or two) on screen.

If all this sounds as if Malicious perhaps sells its potential for psychologically incisive horror for trashy charm, that’s not the case either. Here, too, the film stops halfway, avoiding to become entertainingly crass as much as it avoids to have much depth.

Winnick’s professional but personality-free direction doesn’t do Malicious any favours either – it’s just a tepid film that is neither here nor there.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

The Inerasable (2015)

Original title: 残穢 -住んではいけない部屋- Zan'e: Sunde wa ikenai heya

Mystery novel writer Ai (Yuko Takeuchi) earns her daily bread by turning true ghost stories her readers send her into a series of newspaper tales. When an architecture student we’ll call Ms. Kubo (Ai Hashimoto) sends her a story about the curious swishing noise of heavy fabric on tatami mats she hears coming from the bedroom of the small apartment she has just moved into, Ai becomes instantly fascinated. Ms. Kubo’s first thought of the noise being the sound of somebody sweeping the floor takes on a more sinister quality soon enough, suggesting the dragging back and forth of a loose kimono sash worn by a hanged woman. Trying to explain what is going on, she makes various inquiries, learning that, even though nobody killed themselves in her apartment as she has begun to assume, the former tenant did kill himself after he moved out. Stranger still, the apartment building has an uncomfortably high turnaround rate in tenants. More research uncovers hers isn’t the only apartment in which strange things happen.

Ai and Ms. Kubo continue the research, increasingly teaming up in person, where they only talked via email before, discovering one terrible and disquieting thing after the next.

Yoshihiro Nakamura’s The Inerasable is a wonderful film, telling its tale of a series of interconnected hauntings, or the tales about these hauntings in the calmest and most gentle of voices which belies the actual horror lurking behind them. Nakamura, as the director of the wonderful Fish Story, has more than just a bit of experience with shaggy dog tale structures, and uses his considerable control about this format here wonderfully. Unlike in Fish Story, the shaggy dog here is more of a shaggy abyss, of course.

One of the film’s great strengths is its ability to create a sense of place and of community, digging backwards into the lives and times of a specific building lot, implying the mores and characters of the people populating it over time with just the right, short, strokes, while at the same time creating lively characters out of our two heroines, their increasing entourage of helpers, and all the people that tell them their stories, or more often the stories they heard from others, in the process. On this level the film not only tells creepy stories but also explores how communities create stories out of their lives. Nakamura does all this with a very impressive eye for the telling detail that brings a character to life, putting the rest in the hands of a capable cast of Japanese character actors of all generations.

As a shock-delivering device, The Inerasable isn’t terribly great. The handful of direct horror sequences suffer a bit from Nakamura’s insistence on some rather bad looking CGI effects, and sound design that’s – apart from the really creepy swishing – too generic to be effective. However, the actual manifestation of the supernatural isn’t really where the film’s terror lies. Rather, this core lies in the way every ghost story its two main protagonists uncover is in fact just the result of another, even more terrible one, that itself covers a different one and grows tendrils of other just as terrible stories. If you’re just looking long and hard enough, and peel off enough layers, the film suggests, every place is haunted, and all hauntings seem to be connected to something terrible in the end. Which does of course fit nicely into the Japanese style curse the film concerns itself which tend to operate like a supernatural or spiritual virus. Unlike me, Nakamura and his film suggest all this in a gentle thoughtful tone, probably offering you tea next; it’s quite wonderful, reminding me not so much directly of M.R. James but of the mild, ironic tone James framed his ghost stories with so often.

So, if you like your ghost stories gentle but not at all harmless, told with a deep feeling for the humanity of all characters you encounter but not looking away from terrible implications (even when the characters try), this one’s for you.

Saturday, January 12, 2019


Warning: this trilogy of crap movies isn’t for the faint of heart!

Dracula 3000 (2004): Not to come over as excessively negative, but this German/South African co-production directed (in a rather generous interpretation of the term) by one Darrell Roodt must be one of the most joylessly bad films ever made. At the very least, it’s one of the most joylessly bad films I have seen in a long career of trying to find the entertainment value in things of generally dubious quality. There’s a theoretically okay enough cheapo cast including Casper van Dien, Tiny Lister and at least two minutes of Udo Kier, but the combination of Roodt’s clueless yet boring direction, the industrial building this was shot in nobody even tried to dress up as space ship interiors, and a script that includes lines like “I wanna watch my anaconda spit all over your snow white ass” and deems them funny come together to produce the perfect piece of shit.

To be avoided at all cost.

L’immortel aka 22 Bullets (2010): I’m more often than not criticizing the films that Luc Besson’s Europacorp crap out for their blatant stupidity but at least, they don’t have pretensions of artistic class and do their best to entertain their audience, quite unlike this particular Europacorp film. Richard Berry’s L’immortel plays out as a painful attempt at cramming as many gangster movie clichés into nearly two hours of running time as possible, filming them in an overbearing way that’s so pseudo-artistic it becomes tackier than anything Olivier Megaton has ever done, and hoping the audience hasn’t seen the dozens of better movies using these clichés to much better effect. Poor Jean Reno does his best as our honourable hero gangster boss (he’s against drugs, saves prostitutes etc) but not even he can save this particular film.

Repo Men (2010): And yet, the Berry film is still more watchable than Miguel Sapochnik’s dystopian SF action comedy monstrosity that takes a perfectly serviceable anti-capitalist idea and turns it into a series of scenes that are by turns unfunny, puzzling in their use for the film, would-be transgressive, or painfully generic. As is the custom for films like it, it also features way too many scenes where it winks into the camera while clapping itself on the shoulder for how clever and subversive it is, never actually finding the time to be clever or subversive.

As an action film, it also suffers more than a little from the fact its hero is the kind of asshole who has no problems with murdering people for money until his head is on the table, and never demonstrates anything even vaguely resembling a change of heart. Which is of course unavoidable in a film whose characters never resemble actual human beings, either.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Past Misdeeds: The Uninvited (1944)

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.

While out in the country on vacation, music critic and composer Roderick Fitzgerald (Ray Milland) and his sister Pamela (Ruth Hussey) stumble over a house they immediately fall in love with as it reminds them very much of their childhood home. Pamela's more open about it, so she's the one to decide she and Rod will attempt to buy the house and leave their London life behind.

As luck will have it, Winward House, as it is called, is indeed for sale. Its owner, one Commander Beech (Donald Crisp), offers the siblings a surprisingly low price, even though his granddaughter Stella Meredith (Gail Russell), is quite set against selling the house at all.

As so many horror movie characters before and after them, Rod and Pam soon learn that a cheap new home can only mean one thing: said new home is haunted. Consequently, there are curious occurrences in the house. Its studio room where Stella's father once painted her mother, is colder and more damp than it should be and has a certain air of dread about it. Pets don't approve of the house's upper floor, and some nights, just before dawn, a woman's voice coming from nowhere can be heard crying.

On the positive side, after first misgivings, Roderick and Stella begin to fall in love. The Commander is dead set against this, but it's not so much the romance he seems to disapprove of, as the thought of Stella putting even a single foot into Winward House. Given what actually happens once Stella does step into the house, the Commander's fears aren't exactly unfounded.

In the end, if Roderick and Pamela want to have a nice, spook-less home, help Stella grow independent of the shadows of a past she doesn't even remember, and get a bit of romance in trade, they'll have to delve into Winward House's and the girl's past, and thwart not only a supernatural menace but also a rather more worldly (yet thematically appropriate) threat.

Lewis Allen's The Uninvited is that most curious of things, a 40s horror movie made by a major studio that doesn't explain its ghosts away with some evil uncle in a gorilla costume. Apart from taking its supernatural menace seriously, the film also talks rather directly about some things films made under the iron rod of the production code did not usually dare talk about that way. It's as if the film were made by grown-ups with a grown-up audience in mind and just didn't feel the need to coddle anyone.

Not that The Uninvited sets itself so apart from the film mores of its time that it's afraid of a bit of deeply Hollywood-like sentimentality, especially since it is not only a horror movie but also a romance that transplants a handful of Gothic tropes into the contemporary 1940s, with a deft understanding of how to use them properly in this context. The characters here are after all modern people, so their reactions to the things going on should be modern too, however old-fashioned the tropes these dangers are based on are. In a really curious development, the merging of the gothically inclined romance and the ghost story elements works perfectly, with both sides of the genre equation strengthening each other, and nary a moment when the horror lover will gasp "oh no, they're romancing again" nor one for the romance lover to sigh "now with the ghosts again". This isn't a film of two genres grafted together like Frankenstein's Monster (or Bob, as I call him), but one that happens to belong to both and would make little sense - emotionally, thematically, or otherwise - if it restricted itself to just one of them.

While the script's (based on a novel by Dorothy Macardle I now really want to read, and not just to see how large the differences between original and adaptation are) fusion of ghost story and romance is very strong, a strong script alone does not always make a good movie. Hauntings can easily become ridiculous instead of haunting, and romances cloying instead of charming. Fortunately, Allen is quite capable of handling both sides of the film with equal verve. Allen is in general quite an interesting director. Once the mid-50s came around, he began a nearly absurdly fruitful career as a TV director, but among the films he made before that and - somehow - in between are some fine examples of filmmaking in various genres. It's this adaptability Allen makes great use of here, still very early in his career, showing a fine sense of how to develop a haunting mood through shadow and sparse light, and especially noise, as well as a knowledge of how to be romantic without turning kitsch.

Allen makes particularly good and subtle use of his actors to deepen the feeling of the house's haunting, with many a scene where Milland and Hussey are trying to joke away their fears (they are modern people living in the modern world, after all) yet their faces show how out of sorts they really are. It's always wonderful to witness the young dapper Milland in films of this age, when a guy who'd later turn into the perpetual old grump in front of the camera was allowed to bring the type of charming, slightly roguish characters to life that can become so annoying in the wrong hands but are really rather loveable when done right.

Thematically, this is of course a rather romantic (in various meanings of the word) film about a dapper young man who - with the help of his very competent sister who'll win herself her own grown-up romance in the process - has to rescue his lady from the shadows of the past, shadows that in this particular case haven't quite allowed her to grow up or to reach her full potential as a person, which in turn will probably help him with the same problem for himself. Despite the whole set-up not exactly providing Stella with much agency, the film also makes it clear that Roderick wants to help Stella not just because it's difficult to marry a dead woman but also to help her to actually grow up and reach that potential. We can argue about how progressive this can be when Rod is the one party of the relationship actually active here (though I'd really rather not), but we can hardly argue that a guy applying himself to help his romantic partner become a whole person instead of a pretty cipher isn't romantic in concept.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Xtro (1982)

Little Tony’s (Simon Nash) father Sam (Philip Sayer) has disappeared three years ago while they were out playing in the country. Tony has been telling a story about his Dad disappearing in a blinding light that’s obviously connected to a UFO, but his mother Rachel (Bernice Stegers) and the rest of the world clearly assume Sam has simply run off and left his family behind.

Now, one night, another UFO appears, dropping off something unpleasant. Said unpleasant thing roams the countryside for a bit, killing and, well, sucking dry a couple and then impregnating a woman in a highly improper manner, which somehow leads to a very short pregnancy that ends with a full-grown Sam bursting out of his poor new “mother’s” belly.

Sam (or whatever he/it is) soon turns up at his wife’s place, and tries to continue their family life where he left off, claiming amnesia. Never mind Rachel is now living with another man (Danny Brainin), and their au pair Analise (Maryam d’Abo, clearly only in here to provide the film with more opportunity for nudity). Well, Sam has rather different plans than Rachel could have expected, and soon, he has pumped little Tony full of alien juice that gives the kid reality bending powers.

Harry Bromley Davenport’s Xtro is not exactly what anyone who went into the cinema to see it at the time must have expected. Sure, there are obvious attempts at ripping off Alien and the works of David Cronenberg, but there’s also quite a bit of The Twilight Zone’s “It’s a Good Life” in here, as well as all kinds of exploitative tactics to shock the squares. The intriguing thing about Xtro is that it goes about its business of ripping stuff off and stitching it together again in as weird a manner as possible. It’s not just Davenport’s strange idea of how to pace a film where all scenes are either too short or too long, but every single variation the film makes on its predecessors turns stuff peculiar. The result is often unpleasant and usually feels wrong, overloaded with the sort of stuff that’ll give a Freudian a field day. Leaving out the outrageous (and awesome) birthing scene, just take a look at the way Sam puts the alien into his own son, basically by giving him a super hickey that seems to make the little boy rather too ecstatic for most viewers’ comfort; or even just the glance these two share when they decide to turn Analise into their alien egg-laying machine.

All these elements – while certainly not partaking of that “good taste” you might have heard about – do at least somewhat fit together on a thematic level, but what are we then to make of the inclusion of Tony’s new reality-bending powers, that will result in an nasty old neighbour lady getting killed by a life-sized toy soldier? Or of the shenanigans Tony gets up to with the evil little person clown (!) he manifests? I have no idea, and I very much suspect neither had anyone involved in this production. And let’s not even try to make sense of the endings. And yes, of course this thing has more than one.

Obviously, if you’re like me and can go into a film enjoying it as a series of scenes of increasingly bizarre fucked up shit (that’s the professional term), Xtro is certainly the film for you. If not, running away screaming seems the proper reaction.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

The Silent Partner (1978)

Bank teller Miles Cullen (Elliott Gould) is in the throes of a malaise very specific to old-style American white middle class people of his time. Still secure he’s going to be secure in his job and position for the rest of his life, it is exactly this security that seems to haunt him: it is obvious he believes he is doomed to spend the rest of his days doing a boring, mind-numbing job, the highlights of his life being his aquarium and ineffectively flirting with his favourite colleague Julie Carver (Susannah York), who clearly finds him terribly boring. Julie, by the way, clearly suffers from the same trouble as Miles, just that she’s actively trying to relieve her existential boredom by having an affair with their married boss. And here you thought life in the bourgeoisie was satisfying.

Miles is going to relieve his own ennui soon enough, too, in rather more radical ways than Julie. For when he accidentally stumbles upon the plan of one Harry Reikle (Christopher Plummer) to rob the bank – while dressed as Santa Clause – he doesn’t alarm his superiors but sets in motion a plan that finds him waiting on the robbery to steal most of the bank’s money in his hands himself, while handing only a fraction of it to Reikle. It’s something of an awakening for Miles; he’s clearly never felt as alive as he does now.

Unfortunately for him, when Reikle hears on the news how much he is supposed to have stolen from the bank, he rather quickly cops to the fact he had a very silent partner. Reikle isn’t the kind of guy you want to be angry at you, but the newly alive Miles turns out to have repressed quite a bit of criminal energy, as well as personal charm towards the ladies, himself, so a cat and mouse game between the two men ensues that grows increasingly violent and dangerous.

Daryl Duke’s relatively obscure Canadian tax shelter movie The Silent Partner is quite a pleasant surprise. Given the cast, you’d certainly expect this to be the showcase for the considerable talents of its two male leads it is, but it is also an effective thriller with more than just a hint of Chabrol-style pondering of the mental state of the bourgeoisie. It’s not as refined a treatment of the theme as you’d get from the French, but on the other hand, Duke’s film does work better at being thrilling and tense than most of Chabrol’s films do.

Gould’s performance is just as good as you’d expect him to be in this sort of material. He wears his usual scruffy, somewhat goofy, surface charm, and certainly keeps Miles sympathetic, but his performance also makes clear he knows exactly that Miles’s awakening isn’t all roses. As Gould portrays him, the more alive Miles is certainly more charming, more lively and more fun to watch, but Gould also makes clear that there’s an unpleasant smugness and a ruthlessness to the man now that was held in check by societal convention until he started to break these rules. I’m not sure the film always realizes this; at times, it feels as if it were treating this really rather dubious character a bit too much like its hero than just its protagonist. On the other hand, his antagonist in Plummer’s Reikle is certainly much worse – where Miles is merely callous, Reikle’s a murderous sadist; where Miles uses people in what seems a not completely conscious manner, Reikle uses them and delights in crushing them afterwards. There’s a really nasty scene where he kills his former girlfriend who has thrown in with Miles that makes this very clear. Speaking of delight, Plummer really seems to revel in the nastiness of the character, smashing places and people up, and glowering icily to great effect. Though, watching the film, I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that Reikle may very well have started out like Miles, the difference between them just being one of degrees that may very well get smaller in the coming years.

Of course, the film does end on what plays like a conventional happy end, so I suspect that’s my interpretation of the characters and not the one of the film, itself, though I wouldn’t put this sort of thing totally past scriptwriter Curtis Hanson. Apart from the rich thematic resonance of the whole film, Hanson’s script also is just a really inventive, sometimes more ruthless than you’d at first expect, example of classic American-style thriller writing, wonderfully paced, and clever in all the best meanings of that word.

I haven’t said much at all about Duke’s direction, but then, there’s really nothing spectacular about it. It’s standard, professional 70s-style work, nothing more, nothing less. But then, given the script and the performances, not trying to be too stylish or extravagant seems to me rather the right directorial choice. This is a case where the director’s job really is to show off the work of actors and writer, getting out of their way and letting them do what they do best.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

In short: The Predator (2018)

One of the more puzzling phenomena in mainstream genre cinema is the inexplicable inability of all sorts of filmmakers to understand the core draw of the Predator as very clearly laid out in the first, and hell, even the second movie of what alas has become a franchise of ever repeating mediocrity. If you don’t know (which would make you a Hollywood screenwriter, I guess), the core of the Predator is that he’s hunting the most deadly prey available – usually competent violent action movie machos - while being invisible, creepy, and mysterious, destroying the hubris of competent violent machos even if they should survive the movie at hand.

What Shane Black’s Predator is all about: umm, wacky comedy crazy people, autism as “the next step in human evolution” (because everyone on the Spectrum is a genius Hollywood kid I suppose – insert the sound of a head hitting a desk repeatedly here), some evil government conspiracy whose actions make little sense in connection with their supposed goals, and competent violent machos kicking Predator ass without learning a single thing, even though most of them die. Because it goes with the territory, Black just can’t resist giving the aliens more backstory than they already have, destroying every possibility of them being, you know, alien, or mysterious, or threatening instead of just another CGI monster, while adding some random noise about global warming that has of course no actual point in the script at hand.

Otherwise, the film is all the worst parts of Black’s usual shtick without the good one’s. So everyone speaks exactly the same, which of course is like a potty-mouthed naughty twelve-year old boy who thinks he’s particularly clever, the characters are too thin even for the SF action film with heavy emphasis on the action this is supposed to be, and the plot and its solution are clearly of little interest to anyone involved (or they might have come up with a decent climax or an ending that doesn’t promise the next movie to be Super Sentai Predator). It’s all so perfunctorily done I can’t even enjoy it as cheap pulp SF like Aliens vs Predator.

In short, it’s crap. Let’s not even talk about the charisma free zone that is the film’s so-called “ensemble” of actors, or Black’s bland direction. Sure, the action sequences are competent, but in a film on this budget level, technical competence surely isn’t an achievement deserving praise?

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Primal Rage (2018)

Ashley Carr (Casey Gagliardi) is picking her husband Max (Andrew Joseph Montgomery) up from a one-year prison stint. During this time apparently both of them have kicked their respective drug habit. Going by the row they get into in the car about five seconds after they’ve said hello, it’s not quite clear if things would have ended in a shouting match or a motel bed between these two. As it happens, their drive home through the Pacific Northwest towards home and their child puts a stop to whatever could have happened when they crash into an already deadly wounded man in some of those traditional lonely wooded parts. Before you can say “Bigfoot victim”, they are attacked too, and eventually find themselves half-naked and lost in the woods, stalked by something very big and hairy.

The local sheriff (Eloy Casados) is for once actually competent, but he just might have to reconcile with the beliefs of his native American forebears he is rather shying away from like your typical lapsed Catholic, before he can be any help to anyone.

Patrick Magee’s Primal Rage is that most curious of things, a bigfoot movie that isn’t completely like all other bigfoot movies you have seen before. It’s not that all of the film’s constituent elements are strikingly original, but Magee puts them together in ways I haven’t quite seen done this way before, mixing and matching elements of other sub-genres in interesting ways, and certainly shifting its tone for the final act in rather unexpected ways.

The first interesting thing about the film is how much it treats its creature – often wearing bark armour and a creepy bark mask for better woodland stealth – more like a monstrous person than the animal or monster you usually get in your bigfoot movies. This version of bigfoot – that’s actually a corrupted warrior from native American mythology tasked to guard the borders between the wild and the places inhabited by humans, now having lost itself to mindless violence and cruelty – is a tool user, and a thinker, and spends the middle part of the film acting a lot like the slasher in a backwoods slasher movie. Alas this also includes the old “bigfoot wants to rape our women trope”, though the film does its best to treat this element comparatively tastefully; it certainly helps that Ashley is generally portrayed as a tough woman who copes well with things that’ll let soft people like me or you break down. Until the end, that is, when the film wavers rather inelegantly between going the old, lame, man versus bigfoot fighting for the girl route and trying to keep treating her as a person rather than an object. Of course, how many other low budget horror movies with a rapey bigfoot would even try?

Despite this problem, the final act is rather interesting, shifting the tone from something between survival horror and backwoods slasher into the realm of fantasy, with the Sheriff and Max getting help by a wood-dwelling witch whose inspired make-up makes her look exactly like a storybook witch, a thing from folklore and fairy tale, automatically shifting the tone into somewhat more fantastic realms that stand in fascinating contrast to the naturalistic way the film draws its characters and their interactions. Apparently, these woods really are a liminal space where people can shift – or be dragged - into the realm of mythology. Which is just such a wonderfully unexpected and cool direction to go into for the film.

If you’re into the bloody stuff, you’ll be in luck here, too, for this creature certainly does like to inflict all kinds of unappetizing wounds on its victims that, not exactly a surprise given Magee’s experience as make-up effects designer, look pretty damn great. Add to that the effective performances by the ensemble and Magee’s just as effective direction, and you have one fine bigfoot film.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Three Films Make A Post: Takes a killer to make one

Ocean’s Eight (2018): As with the Soderbergh Ocean’s films, this all-female spin-off directed by Gary Ross is a technically very accomplished heist movie. It also suffers from the same main problem as its brother movies: it’s not as smart as it clearly thinks it is and never stops congratulating itself for it. Turns out Soderbergh’s smugness is infectious.

However, what this one mostly made me think of are the horrors of Hollywood’s obsession with youth as beauty, particularly in women, and its habit to push aging actresses into what borders on self-mutilation based on the insane assumption that not being able to move her face anymore while looking like some sort of moving doll on the wrong side of the uncanny valley is a lesser problem for an actress than having a couple of wrinkles like actual human beings do. I’m also pretty miffed that all the all-female Ocean’s film is able to is make me think of the way its protagonists look.

Proxy Killer (2018): But enough of that. How about a perfectly fine low budget thriller instead? Scott (Charlie Babcock) survived an encounter with a serial killer his wife didn’t. Making his first step into self-help groups, he meets the mysterious O (Mandy Amano) who easily draws out the killer in him. Even though it is easy enough even early on to see where Kyle Downes’s film is going, the focussed presentation and convincing performances by Babcock and Amano keep things going effectively until the pleasantly logical conclusion.

Look Away (2018): Less focussed and less consequent is Assaf Bernstein’s tale about bullied eighteen-year old Maria (India Eisley) coping with an emotionally abusive family by trading places with her much more confident but alas evil mirror image. Thematically and visually, there’s a lot to like here, and India Eisley’s, as well as Mira Sorvino’s and Jason Isaacs’s performances are fine. The execution, however, flounders repeatedly, first making Maria’s environment just a little too horrible to credit, and then expecting the audience to care when Maria’s mirror image provides these nasty caricatures torturing our heroine with their comeuppance. A bit more subtlety, and a couple of human traits for everyone involved would probably have worked wonders there.

The film also suffers under the contemporary obsession with giving everything a backstory, so Maria’s mirror personality is of course not just a supernatural or psychological projection of her desires but the spirit of her dead twin her father apparently killed directly after their birth because she was deformed. See what I meant about subtlety and the lack thereof?

Friday, January 4, 2019

Past Misdeeds: The Bullet Vanishes (2012)

aka Ghost Bullets

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.

China during the Warlords Era. Policeman Song Donglu (Lau Ching-Wan, doing his crazy detective bit with all the verve and charisma I expect from what might be my favourite living Chinese actor) may work in a prison, but he's a nearly superhumanly able investigator. He spends his time actually talking to the prisoners, clearing up wrongful convictions through his powers of deduction - not that this frees anyone, mind you - and learning what he can about human psychology from the inmates. Donglu may be a cop in a dirty system, but he's as humanist a man as one could imagine.

The numerous letters regarding the wrongful convictions he has written must have earned him the respect or supreme annoyance of somebody somewhere, for he is transferred to the city of Tiancheng to work on the local police force's corruption problem.

Not a man to be discouraged by little things like getting an office in the file archive in the cellar, Donglu quickly inserts himself into an interesting case, the kind of mystery he developed his talents for. A peculiar series of murders has begun in the munitions factory of a certain Mr Ding (Liu Kai-Chi, in a horribly over-done performance that doesn't jive at all with anything everyone else on screen is doing). The victims are shot by some unknown and unseen person, but the bullets are nowhere to be found. It's as if they were disappearing into thin air. So it's no wonder the workforce - held in virtual slavery by Ding - believes the killer to be the vengeful ghost of a killed worker girl who died in a game of Russian Roulette dressed up as "asking the heavens" for a verdict on a supposed crime by Ding.

Donglu, working with cop Guo Zhui (Nicholas Tse, as neutral as always acting-wise), the fastest gun in Tiancheng, and clearly a policeman nearly as clever and as interested in the cause of actual justice as Donglu is, soon realizes that Ding is the kind of guy who would cheat in a game of Russian Roulette, and that whoever commits the murders certainly does so in connection with crimes Ding committed himself. But realizing this and finding out and then proving what is actually going on are different things. Things that can be dangerous once one finds out that the local chief of police is in Ding's pocket, and there aren't many people an honest cop can trust.

At first, it's easy to assume The Bullet Vanishes to be a Hong Kong clone of Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes movies, seeing as how the films share an eccentric and brilliant detective, some techniques of demonstrating said detective's brilliance, and a soundtrack style. However, once the film gets going it becomes clear that director Law Chi-Leung was certainly taking inspiration from the modern Holmes movies yet is wise enough to be doing very much his own thing with it. Which, as much as I enjoy Ritchie's pulp action mysteries, really is as it should be.

Law's film keeps inside the genre lines of the pulp mystery, with the mandatory - and excitingly done - chases and shoot-outs, the contrived murder method that can only be understood through just as contrived and very entertaining investigation techniques, and a damn boring romance sub-plot between Nicholas "I may win prizes for best actor but you sure wouldn't notice" Tse and Yang Mi as terribly cute fake soothsayer Little Lark (some women really know how to wear a 2012 idea of a 1920s hair cut is all I'm saying) who unfortunately share not an ounce of chemistry.

Despite the very uninvolving romance that feels shoe-horned in from a "blockbuster writing 101" checklist, I'd be perfectly satisfied with The Bullet if it did only repeat the expected genre beats in its own enthusiastic and accomplished fashion. However, Law is a more ambitious filmmaker than that. Consequently, Bullets goes through some mood shifts reminiscent of a style of Hong Kong film made thirty years ago, with tragedy and serious discussions of ethics as much on the program as detecting, shooting and a bit of silliness. The more po-faced aspects of the movie didn't work quite as well as I would have wished for, with some of the more melodramatic moments feeling not quite as well built up to as they should have been, and the discussion of political ethics coming somewhat out of the blue. However, I prefer a film like this that attempts to add something more to genre formula filmmaking and not quite achieves it to the more harmless and riskless kind of movie; at least when the not quite achieved ambition does not ruin the rest of the movie, which it doesn't here. Plus, it's nice to see a Hong Kong film that doesn't shy away from agreeing with a humanist view of people even though it is willing to respect other perspectives. There's none of the unpleasant respect even for corrupt authority that is en vogue in Hong Kong cinema since the Takeover to be found in the film, either - after all, these bad guys are Warlord Era capitalists, so there's surely no connection to contemporary China (or America, or Germany) here, right, Mister Censor?

While I and many of my Hong Kong cinema loving peers have written many sad words about the descent of Hong Kong cinema already, if you watch the right movies, the old lady still has some life in it beyond whatever Johnnie To directs in a given year. More importantly, there still seem to be filmmakers like Law Chi-Leung willing to do interesting and at least somewhat ambitious things inside of very commercial genres without looking down on them or their audience. The wild years of Hong Kong cinema may be long over, but films like The Bullet Vanishes are proof that there's a good chance that the second decade of the slick years of the city's cinema can still produce films very much worth watching and thinking about. Like Lau Ching-Wan's character in the movie, I choose to remain hopeful.