Sunday, May 26, 2024

The Cat and the Canary (1978)

The 1920s. A murder of prospective heirs descend on a somewhat creepy, and definitely creaky, old mansion, to hear the reading of the will of one Cyrus West (Wilfried Hyde-White). In a peculiar turn of events, the old man does the reading himself, via a filmed message that doesn’t just contain the will but also some rather rude remarks about his family, bastards all (or most of them, anyway), he says.

Not surprisingly, the will is about as peculiar as its presentation, seeing as it shows a curious fixation on the mental stability of the heir. Should the chosen heir to judged mentally unstable, the next heir is going to inherit; should that one botch their SAN test as well, it’s the next in line, and so on.

So one isn’t quite sure if one should congratulate West’s chosen victim, ahem, heir, Allison Crosby (Wendy Hiller) for winning the heir lottery, or simply suggest to her to run as quickly as she can.

Alas, running is out of the question in any case, for on the night of the reading of the will, the family is going to be stranded in the old dark house anyway, and soon, curious things begin happening. There’s the curious case of the suddenly appearing local psychiatrist (Edward Fox) on the armed hunt for a supposedly homicidal maniac who believes himself to be a cat; the curious case of the disappearing lawyer; and the many curious cases of the disfigured creep only Allison ever sees. Why, it’s enough to drive a woman mad.

I have no idea why the greatest of the arthouse porn directors Radley Metzger added another entry to the list of adaptations of this most archetypal of all old dark house stage plays; I have even less of an idea how he managed to acquire a cast that also features Honor Blackman, Michael Callan, and Olivia Hussey (among others) for what is clearly a pretty low budget affair.

What I can say is that he managed to turn out a very interesting (in the good meaning of that descriptor) version of the tale. A peculiar one, as well, for The Cat’s most obvious feature is its tendency to fluctuate between two very different tones – about half of the film is very much in keeping with the old-fashioned creakiness of its material (and of the house its plot takes place in), an old-fashionedly staged mystery comedy that might have been done exactly this way in the 30s or 40s. Its other half, on the other hand, seems to be unable to help itself from dragging the material to the borders of sleaze and exploitation cinema very typical of the late 70s; it never quite gets outrageous, but there are suggestions of what you’d have lamely termed “alternative lifestyles” when this was made and hints of outright perversion the old creaky stage play would never have dared even consider.

This latter element never becomes quite as explicit as in a giallo – which Metzger must have been influenced by – yet you never have the impression the film is squeamish. Rather, it feels to me as if part of Metzger’s approach here is meant as a comment on the fluidity of social mores over time, without wanting to quite make fun of the more stuck-up morals of the past (and, alas, sometimes the future) too much, lest the future will do the same to him.

Much of what makes the film as entertaining as it is – apart from some excellently timed jokes like West’s incredible video message and effective old-fashioned, creaky suspense – is in the tension between the very old-fashioned material and the idea of modernity used at the time when this film was made, a feeling of a movie that manages to look at the past and its own time with a degree of ironic distance, but also of sympathy.

So, apparently, I do have an idea of why Metzger might have chosen exactly this material.

Saturday, May 25, 2024

The Fist of the Condor (2023)

Original title: El Puño del Cóndor

A mysterious, shaven-headed, nearly mythical fighter (Marko Zaror) is setting out from his monk-like retreat to take some kind of vengeance. It takes quite some time, and a series of flashbacks, half-flashbacks and voice overs to reveal that he is searching for his twin brother (obviously also Marko Zaror), who took everything that meant anything to him some years ago.

Among the things taken was the manual to the powerful fighting technique the Inca used against the conquistadors, the Fist of the Condor. While our warrior hero sets out on his quest, his evil brother begins taking his own steps back into the world, or rather, he sends his brutal and really rather unpleasant disciple Kalari (Eyal Meyer) out on some nasty business that’s meant to make our protagonist suffer some more before Kalari is supposed to kill him.

It’s been quite a few years since last I saw one of the usually pretty fantastic low budget martial arts movies from Chile starring Marko Zaror – who does quite a bit of work in Hollywood on the stunt and choreography side these days, but still seems to make an independent martial arts or action movie in Chile every few years.

As always directed by Ernesto Díaz Espinoza, this particular outing is probably not the best introduction to Zaror’s body of work for the completely uninitiated. Not because it is a bad or mediocre martial arts film – the fight sequences are all somewhere between great and absolutely inspired, mixing the beefy-brutal with the elegant in a highly convincing manner. Rather, it is the film’s narrative that might give quite a few viewers pause, or rather, a narrative structure that takes a rather straightforward vengeance tale and pulls it into temporal loops and twists that can remind one more of the temporal approaches sometimes found in arthouse cinema than of the way martial arts and action movies like to present themselves. To my eyes, it does so successfully, indeed deepening its narrative instead of obfuscating it. I can imagine myself coming out of this confused and a bit irritated watching it in the wrong mood, however.

Of course, simply going with the flow and enjoying its structural peculiarities as simple trippyness would be another fruitful, at the very least highly enjoyable, way of approaching the film as well.

The other possible stumbling block is how seriously and straight-faced Fist of the Condor takes itself as a philosophical tale of martial arts as a way to nurture body and spirit. There is no sense of irony to it at all, nor any attempt to put even the tiniest bit of distance between long monologues about martial arts philosophy and its audience. While I’m clearly not of the same mindset as the filmmakers, I do appreciate this seriousness of purpose, and even more so the risk one takes when putting oneself out there like they do.

But then, putting themselves out there, making the film these filmmakers want – perhaps need – to make, seems to be rather the point of Fist of the Condor, apart from showing off Zaror’s sculpted body and a series of great fight scenes in often spectacular landscapes (the old adage of nature being the best special effect holds), of course. This is a film that’s rather a lot more ambitious than most low budget action movies, and therefore takes the elements of the genre it is interested in and shapes them into forms it finds more interesting and pleasing, even if they will be confusing to some.

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Three Films Make A Post: One Small Ember Can Burn Down Everything.

Monkey Man (2024): You really needn’t tell me that this somewhat overlong tale of revenge is Dev Patel’s directorial debut. It’s impossible to miss in a movie that feels quite this desperate to show how stylish and clever and original it can be visually. Patel often appears so unsure of his own simple narrative he bloats the film up with incessant flashbacks to things the audience has understood the first time around, and visual flourishes that detract instead of add. There’s a sense of desperation to prove that Patel can indeed direct like a real director surrounding the project that permanently gets in the way of the film simply working.

That’s particularly disappointing because Monkey Man is quite good whenever its director/writer/star gets out of his own way and trusts his instincts and those of his crew. There’s a really good action lead performance hidden below all of the guff, and whenever Patel calms down a little, there are also the makings of a really good – and stylish - action movie director visible. Just one who needs an editor – internal and external.

The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare (2024): Guy Ritchie’s newest film wishes to have that problem. This one feels rather desperate as well. Here, however, the film’s not desperate to have depth it wants to express through style that only obfuscates what’s good about it, but wants so desperately to be FUN, it never relaxes enough to actually have or provide any. Making matters worse, it is so afraid of not being fun for even a single second, it never tries to find grounding anywhere. The film is an incessant bombardment of colour, edits, “clever” dialogue, and so on. None of which amounts to much beyond two hours of movie because there’s no weight to any of it – no tension, no suspense, no stakes, no human connection between what it laughingly calls its characters. It’s a movie so fun, it’s utterly bland.

City Hunter aka Shiti Hanta (2024): In comparison, Yuichi Sato’s adaptation of an 80s manga is a complete work of art, not because it is deep, or clever, or meaningful, but because it not only knows what kind of movie it wants to be – a light action number with a somewhat sleazy sense of humour – it goes about becoming that movie with simple, calm professionalism and a sense of fun that doesn’t have the air of an abused child star grimacing “joyfully” at you for two hours while tapdancing.

There’s no ambition here beyond providing an entertaining, violent hundred minutes of action and dubious humour, but that ambition, the film fulfils without fuzz – and with fine action choreography that’s not hidden behind obfuscating camera work and editing, nor suffering from being without impact.

Sunday, May 19, 2024

Heroes of the East (1978)

aka Shaolin Challenges Ninja

aka Shaolin vs. Ninja

aka Drunk Shaolin Challenges Ninja

Original title: 中華丈夫

Hongkong businessman’s son Ho To (Gordon Liu Chia-Hui) has come of age. This means he is bound to marry the daughter of a long-time Japanese business partner of his father, in a marriage arranged when the victims were still kids. Ho To’s not best pleased. However, things turn less gloomy for the groom when said daughter, Yumiko (Yuka Mizuno), turns out to be rather on the attractive side. Even better, the young couple do hit it off rather nicely, and things seem set for a great marriage with attractive, bilingual kids.

Alas, both of the newlyweds turn out to be rather fanatical martial artists. Instead of bonding over this shared interest, they focus on cultural differences and short tempers. Ho To thinks Japanese martial arts rather unladylike, while Yumiko clearly finds her husband’s kung fu a bit girlie. Quite a bit of physical fighting between the irascible couple ensues, until Ho To manages to insult Yumiko and the whole of Japanese martial arts, and she flees back to Japan in anger.

Following the advice of his dumbest servant, Ho To then decides to lure his wife back to Hongkong by writing her a challenge letter in which he further insults Japanese martial arts. Thanks to a former admirer of Yumiko, who is also her ninjutsu teacher, that letter lands in the hands of the grandmaster of a school for all kinds of Japanese martial arts, who, keeping with the short tempers of everyone in the movie, does not like what he reads there. Thus instead of a penitent or even more angry wife, a whole horde of masters of various martial arts arrive from Japan on his doorstep, and Ho To will have to beat every single one of them without causing the martial arts version of an international incident. On the plus side, Yumiko returns without wanting to fight.

There is really very little about Lau Kar-Leung’s Heroes of the East that isn’t awesome in one way or the other. Really, the only thing I don’t like about this tale of marriage troubles caused by some of the hardest heads in romance/martial arts is that the set-up leaves no room for the Japanese martial artists to win a bout or two against Ho To. But then, unlike most Hongkong movies, Heroes of the East does not portray the Japanese as bucktoothed villains, instead giving them and their particular martial arts cultures respect, and the fighters personalities – of course mostly expressed via fighting styles. Even better, the Japanese characters are actually portrayed by Japanese martial artist actors, so the Chinese vs Japanese martial arts are a bit more than Hongkong actors imitating Japanese fighting.

Instead, Lau’s fight choreography finds particular joy in the match-ups of the most artistic versions of culturally differently coded fighting styles, putting such an impressive amount of thought and intelligence into making every single fight different and inspired, one will hardly even notice that what starts as a martial arts romantic comedy turns into a series of fight set pieces.

But then, as is only proper and correct for martial arts cinema, there’s actually quite a lot expressed through the fighting. One of the movie’s subtler points is how much Ho To grows by having to level up his kung fu against so many accomplished fighters, acquiring a poise, dignity and politeness that is directly expressed through the changes in his fighting style. With these traits he could of course have avoided the whole marital malaise completely if he’d only already had them when squabbling with his wife.

Even though the film unfortunately spends very little time on her in the later proceedings, it is clear that Yumiko goes through a comparable process of personal growth, less by having to fight it out, but by watching her friends and her husband putting themselves through an ordeal for little more than angry words.

Saturday, May 18, 2024

F for Fake (1973)

Hired to take over/make use of the bare bones of a documentary made by François Reichenbach about art forger and general high living faker Elmyr de Hory and his biographer and semi-professional liar Clifford Irving, Orson Welles starts having a bit of fun, turning the material into a meditation on art and reality, the nature of forgery, the flim-flam elements of his own particular talents, and takes an opportunity to show off his late life partner Oja Kodar  – in a very unreconstructed kind of way you really wouldn’t encounter anymore these days, very much for better and for worse.

Also involved are thoughtful moments of Orson – in his role as one of the great and wonderful hams of the screen - hamming it up considerably when the opportunity for a monologue arises (or whenever he simply fancies doing one), some moments of “high art” theatre, and a dirty story about great painter made particularly funny via a combination of “look how hot my girlfriend is!” and Michel Legrand’s score going full softcore soundtrack on us.

All of this is very Orson Welles in many aspects. Welles treats the project as yet another opportunity to show off his – considerable – intelligence and his – hardly in need of an adjective - talents – real and imagined. On paper, this should be a rather unpleasant watch – Orson holding forth to his friends with a glass of wine or three, Orson showing magic tricks, Orson talking up his girlfriend, Orson wearing his favourite hat, and so on, and so forth. In practice, like most of the man’s weirder projects, there’s a genuine charm to film and man. Sure, he’s full of himself, but he also appears to approach his audience as people who are on his own level (up in the stratosphere, at least), whom he invites to think about a couple of things, to have various very diverse kinds of fun with him, to listen to interesting people tell even more interesting lies and truths, and to present us with a last run-through of what Orson Welles was all about.

Only the very disagreeable would disagree with this approach, and only the much too serious would not be caught up in Welles’s charm. I for one don’t want to be any of these things, at least this evening.

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Three Films Make A Post: Children can be such monsters.

Abigail (2024): In Matt Bettinelli-Olpin’s and Tyler Gillet’s new directorial outing, yet another hapless gang of criminals (among them characters played by Melissa Barrera, Dan Stevens, Kevin Duran and Kathryn Newton) kidnaps a little girl (Alisha Weir) that turns out be rather more dangerous than anyone could have expected.

Once the kid vampire ballerina is revealed, things turn into the typical chase through a mildly creepy location, with a couple of decent twists and betrayals added to the mix. It’s all decent enough, but also not terribly creative on the scripting level: Barrera’s character, for example, is supposed to be the likeable one because she has a child she loves and hesitates about five seconds when it comes to kidnapping another child, which assumes an audience willing to cut a pretty face rather a lot of slack. Fun fact: Hitler really loved dogs.

I’m also less than enthused about the movie’s absolute fixation on that vampire ballerina thing, something that stops to be as funny or creepy as the filmmakers seem to believe long before she starts on the vampire ballerina kung fu.

Late Night with the Devil (2023): The first half or so of Cameron and Colin Cairnes’s (what’s it with all these directing duos these days anyhow?) is a wonderful little horror film, a lovingly created exaggeration of a late 70s TV talk show that turns increasingly bizarre in its supernatural shenanigans. Unfortunately, that’s not enough for the film, and it begins to turn into an oh so 2024 series of “twists” and unnecessary reveals that I began feeling I was watching a scriptwriting rulebook come to life instead of the film the first acts promise.

It’s still a pretty interesting movie, with some effective performances – David Dastalmachian is particularly great at the talk show host – but I found myself increasingly bored by its screenwriting 101 approach to narrative.

Dune: Part Two (2024): I really didn’t expect Denis Villeneuve’s second Dune movie – adapting the second half of the first book - to go quite this consequently and ruthlessly down the road of deconstructing the idea of the chosen one Frank Herbert mostly left for his second novel. Yet here it is, with Villeneuve doubling down on this element of the books early – perhaps because a third film wasn’t guaranteed or simply to set up more physical conflicts for that film – making this the central point of the film.

This doesn’t mean this second film loses any of the visually visionary power of the first one – in fact, here, too, the director seems to be doubling down, making his future even stranger and awe-inspiring than that of the first.

Sunday, May 12, 2024

Dirty Ho (1979)

Original title: 爛頭何

“Dirty” Ho Ching (Wong Yu) is a pretty enthusiastic thief with a certain penchant for self-taught kung fu. He’s just managed a great jewel heist and is in the process of spending some of his ill-gotten gains on some high class courtesans (one of whom is played by house favourite Kara Hui Ying-Hung) in a brothel situated on a river boat when a man in a neighbouring pavilion we’ll soon enough learn is named Wang Chin Chen (played by yet another house favourite, Gordon Liu Chia-Hui), is starting to get in a not terribly subtle bidding contest for the ladies’ interests. The size of jewel chests is compared and Ho’s found wanting, until the latter clearly wants to start a more physical kind of fight. The brothel owner calls the police who arrests Ho. However, Wang secretly shows the police a seal that identifies him as part of the Imperial Court, and orders them to let Ho go as soon as possible, while he himself takes care of the thief’s jewels.

Obviously, once released, Ho wants to get back at Wang, but loses a fight against Crimson, whom Wang declares to be his new bodyguard. Well actually, Ho loses against Wang who puppets Crimson while pretending to hide behind her back, but Ho not being terribly bright he’s not going to notice subtleties like this.

Ho does go on to further attempts at getting back at Wang, but the latter needs little effort to have things go his way. Eventually, Ho finds himself poisoned and blackmailed into the role of Wang’s martial arts student.

Unlike Ho, the audience at this point knows what’s going on: Wang is the eleventh son of the Emperor, spending his time on art, fine wine, women and martial arts training while roaming the country, and shows little interest in becoming the next Emperor. However, one of his brothers believes exactly this will undoubtedly make Wang the Emperor’s candidate of choice, and has set in motion various plans to kill this most unwilling of rivals.

Which leads to a couple of incredible scenes during which Wang is invited to sessions with other friends of the arts who try to murder him while both sides pretend to only be interested in wine or paintings. Ho, as usually not getting it, blithely pokes around the edges of these scenes.

Eventually, Wang is hurt badly enough in one of those fights that he needs to intensify Ho’s training as his body guard.

Dirty Ho is a particularly fun example of director and martial arts director Lau Kar-Leung’s ability to make deeply physical kung fu comedies that still don’t have as much of an affinity to slapstick as the Golden Harvest model (which I have grown to love over the years) shows. Instead, his Shaw Brothers comedies have a certain restraint in their physical comedy that can express uproarious humour through the incredible precision of Lau’s brilliant choreography given life through a fine cast of martial artists and actors, but that feels more like Fred Astaire than Buster Keaton (who I both love, as regular readers will know).

There’s a great sense of invention in the film’s fights, even when Lau uses ideas you will also have seen in earlier films of the genre (and that will be repeated ad nauseam in the future). There’s just such a perfection of comical timing and elegance in something like the the puppetting sequence with Liu and Hui, it can leave this viewer quite breathless. Not only from laughter but also in admiration for the intelligence of choreography, visual staging and performance on display. Liu never repeats a trick in the movie, and so every fight scene is of equal brilliance but also absolutely distinctive from the next.

The wine and arts assassin sequences are particularly fine as well, with the mix of physical violence and verbal politeness making for some poignant bits of humour.

This being a Hongkong comedy, there are also moments of outrageous weirdness – some of which might be seen as problematic for some contemporary tastes – as well as a transition to some more serious – and still incredible – fights in the climax, all of which Lau and his cast and crew handle with the same aplomb, elegance and off-handed visual class.

Saturday, May 11, 2024

The Return of the 18 Bronzemen (1976)

Original title: 雍正大破十八銅人

Qing prince Yong Zhen (Carter Wong Chia-Ta) doesn’t like the choice of successor to the throne made by his late father, and so changes Daddy’s last will to become emperor himself. Framing the actual successor for an assassination and grabbing the throne is all in a day’s work.

Most of the rest of the movie flashes back to Yong Zhen’s earlier years, when he, an already accomplished martial artist, takes on the role of a commoner to be taught the legendary martial arts of the shaolin. The harsh training regime isn’t quite enough for the guy, so he also commits some minor acts of villainy trying to acquire further shaolin secrets.

Joseph Kuo’s follow-up to to his rather wonderful 18 Bronzemen is a bit of a mess. The first act and the final ten minutes or so seem to belong to a different film – one that doesn’t even have an actual ending. The film appears to believe because its audience already knows the folklore surrounding the destruction of the shaolin temple, it is not its business to actually tell that story even in so far as it touches on what’s happening in its own main plot, the shaolin temple sequence. Which leaves Return not just without an ending but also without a dramatic climax. There’s a pretty random fight against Polly Shang-Kuan Ling-Feng, out to take vengeance on our nasty protagonist, but since we never actually spend time with her, or see the reason for her need for vengeance, or even get a conclusive ending to that fight, this just strengthens the feeling of Return simply being unfinished – or consisting of scenes of two different films with the same cast that have been smashed together without rhyme or reason, or interest in coherence.

The main shaolin training sequences are fun, at least, with some nice further ideas for shaolin torture, I mean training and testing, regimes that make much of visual interest of the film’s small means, fun choreography, and a very accomplished editing flow. This part of the film really only lacks at least somewhat distinctive characters – none of Yong Zhen’s co-students are fleshed out to any degree, and even he doesn’t have anything like actual character development – to be riveting. However, the martial arts are fun enough and the training methods weird enough, to make for a somewhat entertaining middle film, even though it never acquires an actual narrative or makes anything much out of the opportunity to flesh out the backstory of one of he major off-screen villains of kung fu folklore.

Wednesday, May 8, 2024

Damsel (2024)

Princess Elodie (Millie Bobby Brown) is traded in to a far and apparently very prosperous country to marry the local prince in trade for the food and riches that will help her famine-plagued home country survive. Independent and a bit wilful, Elodie isn’t terribly happy about this, her starving subjects only being a thought the script mentions when it remembers them. At least the prince (Nick Robinson) she’s bound to marry seems pleasant enough, while her future stepmother (Robin Wright) is rather on the horrid side, and never acts like you’d act towards a girl you’ll spend a considerable amount of time with in the future.

That’s because this is meant to be a very short marriage, for Elodie is not really meant as a long-term daughter-in-law but as a sacrifice to a dragon. So soon, our heroine finds herself thrown into an abyss by her betrothed and hunted through its murder cave by a sadistic dragon who probably shouldn’t have read all those Thomas Harris novels.

On one hand, I’m all in for a film in which a princess supposed to be sacrificed to a particularly unpleasant kind of political convenience strikes back and wins her independence, and I think parts of the fantasy survivalist middle part of Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s movie are rather effective.

On the other hand, I find Damsel’s moral stance when it comes to its dragon main villain either completely unexamined or actively repugnant. Apparently, committing serial killings while gloating sadistically over hunting down young women for centuries, during that course shifting an already shitty culture into an even more shitty form is a-okay and totally excused when said culture – whose living members are generations divorced from the inciting incident – once murdered one’s babies. One wrong apparently makes serial killing innocents perfectly alright, forever. Let’s not even talk about the implied suggestion that, if the victims of the dragon were only really of the bloodline of the royal family of Evilstan, and not just poor nobles married into it to die, murdering them would be any better.

Damsel even plays it as a happy ending when our heroine – after teaming up with the dragon to slaughter the royal family in an act of vengeance that at least hits the actual perpetrators of an evil deed - finishes the dubious tale by taking said serial killing dragoness with her to her homeland, a place that also already suffers from a famine having to feed the fucking monster will probably not help alleviate, even if you’re ignore its murderous and sadistic character.

This makes the ethical stance of most vigilante movies look downright progressive; or at least coherent.

Sunday, May 5, 2024

The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail (1971)

Original title: La coda dello scorpione

Warning: I’m going to spoil an early twist!

The plane the businessman husband of Lisa Baumer (Evelyn Stewart) is on is destroyed by a bomb while the good lady is having a bit of fun with her lover. Hubby had insured his life for a nice million dollars, and the insurance company seems perfectly willing to pay out at once, without any investigation into the matter. Lisa only has to come to Greece to get the money, for reasons. In truth, the company isn’t really as happy to oblige Lisa as it pretends to be, and has put sexy investigator Peter Lynch (George Hilton) on her trail.

He doesn’t seem to be the only one interested in Lisa, though, for a shadowy figure in classical giallo killer get-up is following her around. For some reason, Lisa wants to take the money due her in cash; and once she has it in her hands, the killer loses little time in dispatching her and absconding with the money.

After Lisa’s death, the female protagonist role shifts to journalist Cléo Dupont (Anita Strindberg), who is rather too nosy for staying healthy in a giallo environment. Of course, there are further murders and curious plot twists coming.

I am quite the admirer of the giallos of director Sergio Martino, and The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail is no exception here. This is certainly one of the more conventional of Martino’s giallos, seeing as it follows a properly constructed, if overconstructed (it is a giallo after all), thriller plot that even borrows its early protagonist death from Psycho as if this were a Jimmy Sangster script for one of Hammer’s thrillers of the 60s. This is not a complaint, mind you, for Martino, as was his wont at this stage of his career, puts out all the visual stops: hand camera, POV shots, dramatic close-ups, wonderfully artificial light, unconventional camera angles are all part of his toolkit, as are picture postcard beautiful shots of Greece, and a good bit of bloody business.

Because Martino at this point was one of the masters of this sort of thing, this intense stylishness isn’t just a way to distract the director and his audience from implausible plotting, and the tedium of straightforwardly shot dialogue, or to make his beautiful cast look even more glamorous, but also creates the flow and energy of the film, the tension and release quality so important for thrillers and horror films. As is often the case in the giallo, the director’s style takes on the function of the choreography in a martial arts film or a musical, turning what could be a dry presentation of twists into a sort of dance. Style becomes substance.

Saturday, May 4, 2024

Immaculate (2024)

Warning: I will spoil some elements of the film’s ridiculousness, including its ending, because I’m not going to hide its main selling points.

American novitiate nun Sister Cecilia (Sydney Sweeney) is transferred to a pretty swanky looking convent for her final vows. The place is actually a hospice for elderly, dying nuns, many of whom suffer from the mental vagaries of old age as well, but clearly, the Church has decided to see them off in style. However, some of the nuns – elderly and not – act rather weirdly, treating Cecilia either as if she were about to be sainted, or like their mortal enemy. Things become curiouser still when Cecilia becomes pregnant – without ever having had sex in her life.

Her superiors decide rather quickly – and certainly without consulting the Vatican – this to be a case of immaculate conception, and thus, Cecilia is the new Mother of God. But there’s something nasty hiding behind dressing our heroine up like Maria and singing her praises.

I have repeatedly gone on record with my general lack of interest in religious horror, but I do tend to make an exception for its absurd and trashy arm, even more so when the absurdity and trashiness is combined either with the values of classic Italian exploitation or an comparatively high budget to pump into its idiocy. Michael Mohan’s Immaculate manages to have a foot in both camps, thus making me very happy indeed.

Having said that, I also have to warn anyone looking for a serious piece of (religious) horror: this is as absurd and trashy as it can get away with, throwing away concepts like believability and logic with great enthusiasm. Andrew Lobel’s script suggests it knows Catholic doctrine only from the pages of 18th Century anti-Catholic literature (as if the actual church didn’t have flaws enough), and has never met a human being or an actual religious believer – fanatic or not. It’s pretty impressive, in its own way, mostly because it enables the film to come up with its central conceit: a Church conspiracy to mad science up an embryo clone of Jesus Christ (gene material apparently donated by a nail from the True Cross) and implant it in a particularly “fertile” young nun, obviously – this is the Church, after all – without consent. Or, if needed, a series of nuns.

As it happens, this conspiracy also is into torture and murder, and has nuns who hide their faces behind stocking masks directly out of giallo central. In practice, this is exactly as awesome (and tasteless) as it sounds. The film’s plot, such as it is, contains little actual drama, but does provide a series of set pieces for Sweeney to enthusiastically overemote in, mechanical jump scares in exhausting number, surprising amounts of squishy gore in the Italian tradition and a general sense of unhinged enthusiasm for material that’s crude and more than just a bit dumb. Of course, its’s exactly that crudity and stupidity that makes the whole affair as enjoyable as it is, even more so since the film mostly plays things straight, as if this were high religious (anti-religious?) drama.

To make things even better, Mohan packages the glorious nonsense in often strikingly composed shots – with more than a nod to Italian exploitation cinema of old –, and stylish, moody camera work while strolling through some wonderfully designed sets.

It’s a truly wonderful piece of exploitation cinema that had me riveted to the screen throughout. I suspect not exactly in the way the film was meant to be taken, but it’s not as if I were doing something as disrespectful as enjoying myself ironically.

Apart from the obvious candidates from the 70s and 80s, this would make fantastic double feature with the likeminded yet also antithetical The Pope’s Exorcist – one can only dream of a team-up between said exorcist and Sister Cecilia, killer of the Sweet Baby Jesus, in a future Pope’s Exorcistiverse movie.

Wednesday, May 1, 2024

Three Films Make A Post: The World Has Come To An End The World Calls Upon The Hunter

Badland Hunters aka 황야 (2024): Hei Myeong-haeng’s post-apocalyptic action movie is good fun, with Ma Dong-seok (or Don Lee, if you prefer) and Ahn Jiy-hye making pretty great action heroes – the latter really throws herself into her action scenes while looking totally focussed – a hissable villain of the highest degree, and often very effective action choreography. It also has quite a few elements that remind me of the abandon of good, classical post-apocalyptic exploitation cinema, which isn’t as good for it as that may sound. This way, it becomes rather more obvious how much the film pulls its punches, how nice it feels at its core when it could use a bit of nastiness there to go with the theoretically nasty things it features.

Tora-san, His Tender Love aka Otoko wa tsurai yo: Fûten no Tora (1970): There’s a certain, well, a big, actually, be-there done that quality to much of the Tora-san/It’s Hard to be a Man film series as far as I know them, even this early in the cycle. However, this isn’t really to the detriment of the films when watched responsibly (Tora-san is only to be binged in the most dire of circumstances), but provides the films a comfortable shoe kind of quality. You know the characters, the kind of jokes the film’s going to make, Tora’s faults and foibles, and so on and so forth, but there’s something comforting and kind to the knowledge that fits its main character’s fits of – often badly applied – kindness beyond the fool’s bluster curiously well.

Last Night at Terrace Lanes (2024): Speaking of cinematic comfort food, sometimes you just want to be comforted by the tale of an estranged father and daughter bonding again through the fight against math-based cultists who are attacking the bowling alley they once bonded in, slaughtering all and sundry there.

Because this is 2024, there’s also a bit of Lesbian teen romance in here.

Jamie Nash’s film is never original or deep, but it does the classic low budget movie thing of telling a simple story taking place in a confined space effectively rather well. There’s really nothing at all wrong with that.

Sunday, April 28, 2024

The 18 Bronzemen (1976)

Original title: 少林寺十八銅人

His grandmother gives Tang Siu-Lung (Tien Peng) into the care of the Shaolin temple when is just a little boy, so they can train him for vengeance on whoever is responsible for the death of his parents. Though nobody bothers to tell the kid, apparently.

Twenty years or so later, Siu-Lung has grown up beside the abrasive, rude, but also protective, Brother Wan (Carter Wong/Carter Huang Chia-Ta) and the rather less strict Ta Chi (Chiang Nan) as brothers who share a somewhat sadomasochistically coded training regime. Little does Siu-Lung know that the man he is supposed to take vengeance on later for murdering his father is already making plans to assassinate him right in the monastery. But then, Siu-Lung has no clue who his father was or that he was murdered in any case. Before any of that becomes important (or, depending on the cut of the film you watch, before any of that is even mentioned), our hero and his friends must get through the final test of accomplishment for Shaolin kung fu students, an often deadly gauntlet that features some of the best robot armour ancient China has on offer as well as a lot of monks painted bronze and some rather remarkable tests of fortitude.

Afterwards, vengeance on an evil general (Yi Yuan) and a surprise fiancée with considerable fighting skills (house favourite Polly Shang-Kuan Ling-Feng) and a tendency for crossdressing and wearing capes await, as well as betrayal and dramatic revelations concerning all three of the Shaolin students.

I’ve never really delved into the body of work of Taiwanese martial arts and wuxia director Joseph Kuo Nan-Hong, and what I’ve seen didn’t exactly impress me much. His films – like most Taiwanese martial arts cinema of the era I’ve seen – tend to the rough around the edges and the scrappy, and while I usually like that sort of thing, I don’t seem to appreciate it as much in martial arts cinema for some reason.

However, a film like The 18 Bronzemen does make a boy rethink some of his prejudices, and there’s certainly going to be more Kuo in my near future. Ironically enough, the versions of The 18 Bronzemen made available by Eureka, doesn’t actually feel all that rough around the edges and scrappy. In fact, particularly in the reconstructed original version of the film, Kuo shows a decidedly great hand at providing his film with a proper flow – there are some simple yet wonderfully effective transition shots (half of which are missing in the the prettier cut of the movie based on a Japanese recut) that make clear passages of time and space easily enough. Even though the film does show its (much lower than Shaw Brothers or Golden Harvest) budget from time to time, there’s an energy and visual inventiveness to the direction that always puts itself in service of making the martial arts look cooler than the excellent choreography already is.

Kuo’s sense for flow also helps along the film’s curious structure of half shaolin training film – with that wonderful version of the 36 Chambers that predates the Shaw Brothers interpretation – and half martial arts vengeance movie whose feel borders on wuxia. Of course, you can see where Kuo got his ideas for some (or even most of it) but his execution is excellent and energetic, with neither drama – there’s some great melodrama here as well – nor action letting the side down or slowing the film down.

Being the kind of guy I am, I’m of course particularly fond of the film’s weirder elements, like our main villain’s final defence consisting not just of stolen Shaolin skills he trained with the help of useful little statuettes of bronze as a memory help the movie flashes to when appropriate but also of dressing random fighters up as himself (even doubling up on his transport for it), or male, heterosexual men not being able to identify a cross-dressing Polly Shang-Kuan as a woman (still one of my favourite classic martial arts movie tropes after all these years). I’m also particularly happy how much ass Shang-Kuan is allowed to to kick once her character is finally introduced halfway through, not always a matter of course in films on the martial arts side of the martial arts/wuxia divide. As always, what she lacks in precision during the fights, she makes up for by so fully applying herself to the action one can’t help but be convinced by her fierceness.

Hell, I even like Carter Wong in this one.

Saturday, April 27, 2024

Invitation to a Murder (2023)

A group of strangers – among them florist and mystery fan Miranda Green (Mischa Barton) – are invited to the isolated island mansion of an eccentric rich man for reasons nobody involved is clear about. During the proceeding weekend, somebody starts killing people. of course including said rich man.

Miranda just might be the only one able to figure out what’s going on, trained as she is on mystery novels of all shapes and sizes. Plus, the other characters permanently tell her and us how clever she is. They wouldn’t lie to us, right?

Stephen Shimek’s low budget attempt at doing a traditional murder mystery seems heavily inspired by the first two Poirot films of Kenneth Branagh, but doesn’t have the budget or the visual imagination to play on the same field. Which isn’t a problem as such – a country house mystery doesn’t necessarily need much more than a couple of country house sets, an interesting cast, a good script and a director who can get out of the way of what they and the story are doing. Unfortunately, this is not that film.

While the cast of mid-level actors is perfectly alright, as professionals on that level usually are – and Barton makes a more convincing amateur detective than I would have expected – the writing is simply not up to snuff, and Shimek here appears not to be the kind of director able to distract from that sort of thing with visual pizazz.

The film crawls from obvious plot point to obvious plot point at a snail’s pace – even when you’re prepared for the more sedate qualities this kind of mystery can have – and there’s little on screen to keep a viewer’s interest. Certainly not the rote mystery at Invitation’s core; it certainly doesn’t improve the film’s dramatic qualities that Barton’s detective doesn’t actually solve the mystery in the end but gets most of its solution presented to her by a side character. This is not exactly a great way to start a projected series about her adventures, and certainly does not bode well for sequels that may or may not get off the ground.

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Three Films Make A Post: The tide is turning.

Aquaman – Lost Kingdom (2023): Even though I’m not writing about the current crop of superhero movies all that often, I haven’t jumped on the superhero hate train, and “superhero fatigue” just fatigues me.

However, most everything bad you’ve read about this second Aquaman movie is unfortunately true. For much of its running time, this doesn’t feel like a proper, finished movie from a big studio at all, but the rough cut of something that doesn’t appear to even have had a finished script, with characters just dropping in and out of the plot for no good reason, no dramatic arc, and an absolute inability to sell the film’s tonal shifts; actually, I don’t even see attempts at selling them, for James Wan has apparently not just decided to direct this as if it were a TV movie, but given up on doing his job completely.

Making matters worse are special effects that often appear to simply not be finished, with many a scene that takes place in what looks like raw sets you’d find in 80’s Doctor Who serial instead of intricate greenscreen work. It’s just a complete train wreck of a movie, and not even an entertaining one.

The Marvels (2023): Also much maligned is this second Captain Marvel movie directed by Nia DaCosta. Here, I really can’t see the problems I’m supposed to notice. Sure, the film can get silly as all get-out, but most of the time, its jokes are actually funny and imaginative, and the script has no trouble shifting from this to the more serious stuff.

Unlike certain parts of the internet, I also enjoy watching a superhero movie carried by a trio of women where the male characters simply aren’t terribly important without the film making much of a thing of it one way or the other (call it the Claremont approach). But then, I am a simple man.

Detective vs Sleuths aka 神探大戰 (2022): If you’re like me, you’re missing classic Hong Kong cinema rather badly. As this extremely energetic mix of action movie and twisty thriller suggests, classic Hong Kong filmmakers do so as well, so long time Johnnie To cohort Wai Ka Fai’s film isn’t just a big damn action movie that follows many of the rules of modern blockbuster cinema to perfection and with considerable verve, but that also contains more winks and nods towards the tradition of post-80s Hong Kong cinema than you can shake a stick at, some of them very subtle, others very obvious indeed. Lau Ching-Wan playing another Mad Detective really is only the beginning there, and before the film is through, we’ll even have gone through a moment of baby juggling.

That all of this works as an absurd but absolutely riveting action film of the highest order instead of sinking into some kind of retro mire is a particularly wonderful achievement.

Sunday, April 21, 2024

Special Silencers (1982)

Original title: Serbuan Halilintar

This is based on the original Indonesian cut of the movie.

Criminal mastermind – the subtitles say so, so it must be true – Gundar (Dicky Zulkarnaen) and his evil nephew are attempting to take control of a village in the Indonesian countryside. To achieve this goal, the village mayor as well as the mayor’s brother, a cop en route from the city, need to die. Because nobody here is into regular assassinations, the villains poison their victims with a red pill that makes a mass of roots burst from their bodies.

Mayor and brother are easily despatched thusly, but the cop’s daughter Julia (Eva Arnaz) escapes this fate by chance and through some pretty nifty martial arts skills. Directly before her father dies, Julia also meet-cutes strapping young Hendra (Barry Prima), who quickly puts his considerable fighting prowess into the service of punching villains with and for her.

In most regards, Special Silencers, directed by Arizal, is pretty typical for an Indonesian martial arts movie starring Barry Prima: the fights are vigorous, well choreographed – if typically not on the level of comparable Hongkong films – and decidedly on the bloody side; there’s a romance element that feels somewhat more serious than in many another martial arts film; the villains are truly hissable.

Also there and accounted for is a pretty incredible synth soundtrack (I believe only partially needle-dropped) that helps make even the most normal fight feel a bit weird, and a certain sense of strangeness.

Despite that inspired and inspiring roots-based murder method – so good the film repeats the effect again and again – the strangeness level is a bit low for an Indonesian movie, for while there are some nods to black magic, and a bit of dubious but fun poison animal action, most of the fighting here lacks the bigger gimmicks you’d find in something like a Jaka Sembung film. That’s a complaint in so far as this lack of the more extreme bits of exploitation movie value robs Special Silencers of the chance of becoming  mind-blowing instead of just being a well-made and highly entertaining example of Indonesian martial arts cinema of its era.

Saturday, April 20, 2024

The Sweet East (2023)

High school senior Lillian (Talia Ryder) semi-accidentally goes on the run when the opportunity arises to while she’s on a class trip to Washington DC. From there, she goes on a long strange trip across the Eastern seaboard of the US, during which she falls in with leftist college activist, becomes  the live-in Lolita of pseudo-intellectual neo Nazi (Simon Rex) who likes to go off about Poe but really doesn’t seem to have made it to Nabokov, turns curiously (or not so curiously, really) great actress in a low budget movie for a bit, survives a massacre that’s somewhat her fault, and falls in with a member of an Islamic cult living in the woods. Among other things.

The first ten minutes or so of veteran indie cinematographer Sean Price Williams’s first feature as a director go for maximum lo-fi indie grain eyestrain, threatening the sort of misunderstood naturalism I still loathe known as mumblecore. But as soon as Lillian starts on her improbable trip across the Eastern seaboard of the United States by going through the modern version of a rabbit hole, things turn more interesting – and calmer – to look at.

They also turn increasingly surreal, Lillian drifting through an America that has gone off-kilter and ever so slightly grotesque. Like the proper protagonist of any good picaresque, Lillian herself is a bit of a trickster, able to project exactly the qualities the people – mostly men - she falls in with want to see in her, and thus uses this ability as a survival tool. Or, one can’t help but think, as a way to keep the world off her back, so she can drift, and look and just be in the world. Lillian always seems to sit right on the border between user and used, naïve and manipulating here, and the film never makes the mistake to replace this enigmatic quality – perfectly projected via Ryder’s exceptional performance – with something as boring as psychology or trauma porn.

While there’s violence and horror here as well – we are talking about contemporary America after all – The Sweet East never loses its dream-like quality, never playing as a coming-of-age movie in the traditional style, but rather one that portrays the strangeness of a self not fully formed colliding with the strangeness of the world. This quality of dream, of a fairy tale without a moral, is probably what draws me particularly to the movie. Even though I wouldn’t exactly call this a work of fantastic cinema, its feel is much closer to the realm of, for example, Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural than US independent cinema of this style typically ventures these days.

Sunday, April 14, 2024

Demon of the Island (1983)

Original title: Le démon dans l'île

Dr Gabrielle Martin (Anny Duperey) moves to a somewhat isolated island to become the new general practitioner there. The islanders haven’t told her, but her predecessor, Dr Marshall (Jean-Claude Brialy), is still there, dwelling in the 80s idea of a high-tech mansion, and giving off a decided mad scientist vibe. Consequently, and for other reasons that will only become clear to Gabrielle much later, nobody wants to have anything to do with the guy.

At least, Gabrielle won’t have to fear a case of duelling doctors this way. She’s going to have larger problems anyway, for the island is hit by a series of curious and improbable accidents all apparently caused by objects of daily life – from razor blades to household appliances – acting out aggressively with little rhyme, reason, or respect for the actual laws of physics as we know them from the real world.

The truth behind these occurrences will be quite surprising, for our heroine as much as for the audience.

Which is the sort of surprise that’s predominantly caused by a film that builds up its mystery in so pleasantly nonsensical yet also derivative a manner, I was surprised to encounter it in something made in France during the 80s instead of Italy in the 70s.

In the case of Francis Leroi’s Demon of the Island, that’s a compliment, and certainly not an impediment to enjoyment. For what’s not to enjoy about a film that has such a good time finding improbable ways in which household appliances can mutilate people, then realizes them through decidedly not realistic but very fun effects, and finally makes them part of a story that touches on as many clichés as it can grab. I particularly enjoyed the misguided attempts at making Gabrielle’s trauma of child loss part of her motivation.

All of this is filmed by Leroi in the slick and appealing style I associate with softcore filmmakers like him doing horror for a change (or a buck). He’s not great at building suspense, but he’s certainly applying himself to it anyway, often mistiming things in ways I found charming rather than annoying.

Leroi also gets fun performances from Duperey and Brialy, the former increasingly losing her considerable cool, while the latter rants, raves and looks sinister with the best of them.

Even better, Demon of the Island finishes on a moment of genuine greatness, Marshall’s final fate being as strange as anything I’ve seen on screen.

Saturday, April 13, 2024

Somewhere in the Night (1946)

After throwing himself on a grenade, a soldier (John Hodiak) in World War II suffers from amnesia. He’s probably called George Taylor, or so the facts suggest. He’s not too keen on finding out more about himself, and even hides his condition from the Army, because he has found a letter among his belongings that suggests he might not be the nicest of guys.

Yet when the opportunity arises to be released to his apparently native Los Angeles, he still grasps it. Once there, the shell-shocked George even learns he might have had an actual friend by the name of Larry Cravat. Looking for something, anything to hold onto, George decides to find Larry. What follows is a series of encounters with the night people of LA, various attacks on his life, and even more questions concerning his own former habits and personality. Bar chanteuse Christy Smith (Nancy Guild) appears quite smitten by George, so things aren’t all bad, confusing and traumatic, even though our protagonist’s face has the sweaty Hollywood glow of stress on his face most of the time.

In many regards, Somewhere in the Night is a bit of a best of collection of the tropes later decades decided would make up the character of the noir as a genre. As many a noir, it isn’t an orderly constructed mystery, it hardly even is a laissez faire one, but rather a film that puts its audience very much into the same position as its protagonist has stepped into: utter confusion about his self and the world surrounding him, chasing shadows while encountering characters – all played by brilliant character actors – whose importance to his own questions or his life he can neither grasp nor understand for much of the film’s running time.

This sense of dislocation and confusion isn’t a weakness of writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s film, however, but its point. If ever there was a film about existentialist angst and a world that has broken down so much, a person even has to doubt their own identity and character, this one is it. As a portrayal of this, Somewhere in the Night is flawless.

Even George’s encounters with people who will turn out to have very little to do with his problems have a point in this regard, as Somewhere in the Night shows most of these characters to be just as much in the dark about the world, the plot and their roles in it as he is. Even the film’s main villain knows only parts of what is actually going on, and about these, he isn’t exactly right. Confusion and doubt are just the natural state of the film’s world.

All of this gives Somewhere the quality of an anxiety driven dream even before Mankiewicz and DP Norbert Brodine drench much of it in shadows not so much of night but of our ideal of night.

The dialogue wavers between sharp, clever and sarcastic quips and bouts of depression and existentialist doubt – all of which is about as naturalistic as a Shakespeare monologue, and therefore perfectly fitting to the artificial depths of the noir.

Somehow – perhaps because Hodiak looks and feels like a guy who really deserves a break, and Guild projects a genuine kind of  goodness that makes one root for the guy she goes out of her way to protect – I’m not even annoyed about Somewhere in the Night’s happy end, usually  a small irritant in noirs for me. Nightmares do turn into more pleasant dreams from time to time, after all.

Sunday, April 7, 2024

You Shouldn’t Have Let Me In (2024)

Kelsey (Diana Gardner) and professional Gay Best Friend Blake (Nathaniel Ansbach) travel to Italy for the surprisingly intimate bachelorette party of Kelsey’s former best friend Rochelle (Isabella Egizi). There’s some bad blood Kelsey has never actually talked through with Rochelle concerning the fact that Rochelle’s husband to be is also Kelsey’s ex; what seems to have caused a larger rift in the friendship, however, is Rochelle’s career as an influencer. This turns all of her private interactions public, and makes actual friendship as Kelsey understands it impossible.

Right now, that rift is certainly not bridged by Rochelle’s bridesmaid Jenny (Anastasiya Bogach), who acts like the director and producer of the five person – one of whom mysteriously never arrives - bachelorette outing as if it were an important event to be micromanaged to death.

On the plus side, Jenny did manage what looks like the greatest Air B’n’B coup ever: an actual centuries-old Italian villa.

As it turns out, this place usually belongs to a man named Victor (Fabián Castro). And Victor for is part is soon the be revealed as a vampire who sees Kelsey’s as the reincarnation of a former lover and wants to make her his bride, by any means necessary – so mostly sex, hypnotism, bloodsucking, and more hypnotism.

I enjoyed Dave Parker’s Tubi low budget original quite a bit more than I expected going in. In fact, encountering it felt a bit like stumbling onto one of the lesser Charles Band productions before he got all puppet-y on us: a film that embraces being cheap and cheesy without using this as an excuse for not putting any effort in.

So what if many of the American characters have suspiciously continental accents, if this means we can shoot on location in Italy? Sure, sexy vampires have been done to death, but what if we mix the well-worn tropes of 90s erotic (or “erotic”, if you prefer) vampire movies with some contemporary concerns? That’s the kind of thoughts I suspect to have gone through the filmmakers’ minds, and that’s the sort of thing I’m looking for in my low budget movies rather than total originality or the kind of production values you realistically shouldn’t expect anyway.

You Shouldn’t makes appreciating it rather easy as well – not only does it look pretty great for what it is – the 90s indoor fog and some clever, also 90s-style lighting tricks work wonders for nightclub scenes as well as for a bachelorette party turned hopeful orgy turned hallucinatory mini-hellscape – it’s also very well paced.

The script by Michael Lucid and Mary O’Neil is much cleverer than it strictly needs to be, and eventually turns many a trope of the sexy vampire movie on its head to use the space of wonderfully cheesy horror to think through toxic relationships and the vagaries of female friendship in a world full of toxic men and general assholes in a way that’s at once efficient and aggressively non-stupid. Again, that’s how many a great low budget movie has done it in the past, and clearly, it is a tradition these filmmakers understand and appreciate.

Among the other surprising joys of the script is character work that starts from the expected tropes but eventually turns them into characters that don’t always act like their initial nature suggests, but feel rather more complex and, dare I say it, human, thereby. The cast certainly seem to appreciate that as well, and transitions from bitchy one-note to person very effectively.

Plus, how many horror movies feature a gay occult shop owner and vampire hunter?

Saturday, March 30, 2024

Jonathan Creek, Series One (1997)

Jonathan Creek (Alan Davies) uses his considerable powers of logic and imagination to invent tricks and illusions for the sleazy stage magician Adam Klaus (Anthony Head, in a hilariously slimy one episode performance). Sometimes, that’s bad news for potentially levitating elephants. Over the course of the first series’ five episodes, Jonathan finds himself roped into solving various locked room mysteries and impossible crimes by Maddy Magellan (Caroline Quentin), an investigative reporter specializing in using means foul or fair to uncover miscarriages of justice. The two also develop the will they/won’t they dynamic apparently beloved of all TV and romance writers.

This long-running – in the weird, sporadic way of BBC TV shows – mystery series is particularly beloved among mystery and crime fans who prefer the strange mental contortions of the locked room mystery style to grittier or more realistic fare. Even though I’ll probably never stop loving my hardboiled detectives, I’ve grown much fonder of this sort approach to crime over the years, particularly since the purer strains of this approach often show a deep love for the outré, the bizarre and the grotesque that fits very nicely indeed into my tastes. One must just give up on ideas on murder methods being probable and often on the niceties of characterization as well.

The latter isn’t a problem for Jonathan Creek, however. Writer, creator and what the Americans would call show runner David Renwick uses his comedy background to populate the world of bizarre crimes Jonathan Creek takes place in with characters who are usually ever so slightly off. This solves a couple of problems impossible crime can run into rather nicely for the show. The improbability of murder methods and their constructions is easily waved away now: these weird numpties populating the series would never murder anyone in a sensible and direct way, so the building of fake rooms and overcomplicated alibis seem perfectly logical in context. Furthermore, the humour helps the series avoid turning into a sequence of scenes of a guy explaining and theorizing about a crime at the audience. There’s still quite a bit of that, but it is organically integrated into proceedings where the next gag is seldom far away, and where the interplay between Jonathan and Maddy keeps the explain-y scenes light without needing to make them stupid.

Renwick’s jokes hit more often than not, and even when they tend to rather broad satire – particularly of showbiz and popular culture - and the easy gag, they are typically nicely timed and simply work.

Apart from its mysteries and the fun character interplay, the show also puts rather a lot of effort into bits and pieces of weird worldbuilding – Klaus’s stage show and some of the background of fictional 70s rock act Edwin Drood are particular highlights in this first season, though the titular House of Monkeys of the last episode is nothing to sneeze at either. This actually increases the impression the show takes place in a rather fun parallel world that’s exactly like ours (well, the one of 1997), just with a much better quality of murders.

At the same time, the mysteries and their solutions are often as fun and clever as they are improbable; even this early on, the show also seems to find proper delight in playing with certain genre expectations while keeping very strictly to those you can’t play with without breaking the locked room/improbable crime genre.

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Three Films Make A Post: If you can't smoke it, drink it, spend it or love it… forget it.

Payday (1973): Sleazy country star Maury Dann (Rip Torn) is on the road, lying, bullying and sliming his way across the USA while growing increasingly deranged.

I’m a big fan of 70s grimdark, but this nearly plotless portrait of a horrible man doing horrible things, horribly, by Daryl Duke actually beats me. It’s not that I can’t appreciate its skewering of the 70s country star, Duke’s version of hyperrealist style, or the great, though somewhat one-note performances, it’s just that I miss some moments of genuine humanity to measure Maury’s horridness against. Or, come to think of it, Maury showing one or two not redeeming but not horrible character traits to put some shading into the black and black of the movie at hand. Hell, the guy can’t even sing.

Tiger Zinda Hai (2017): This Bollywood piece of action-heavy super spy cinema sequel certainly charms with its series of overblown, wonderfully unrealistic action sequences, its treatment of BIG EMOTIONS that makes its predecessor look downright restrained, and its larger than life (in the best way) star performances by Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif.

Director Ali Abbas Zafar (who also co-wrote) also puts a lot of effort into fulfilling the increasingly mandatory quota of Indian jingoism while at the same time doing subtle and not so subtle things that complicate and humanize this jingoism, in ways I’m not at all sure I’m interpreting in the way they are meant to be understood. It’s a fun big damn action blockbuster in any case.

Girl in the Case (1944): A lawyer (Edmund Lowe) who is also an expert on safecracking and lockpicking (it’s a hobby) and his wife (Janis Carter) are sucked into an increasingly complicated case, concerning Nazi spies, a locked trunk, and a particularly stupid police force.

Tonally, William Berke’s B-movie marries mystery and screwball comedy, probably in an attempt to reach the same tone as the later of the Thin Man films. Lowe and Carter are no Powell and Loy – and really should acquire a dog – and Berke no W.S. Van Dyke, but there’s a breezy quality to the film, and a likeability to its basic silliness that makes it pretty difficult to dislike it. If one is at all interested in this era’s mystery comedies, obviously. I’m always happy about movies concerning mismatched couples solving crimes while cracking jokes.

Sunday, March 24, 2024

The Phantom of the Convent (1934)

Original title: El fantasma del convento

Friends Alfonso (Enrique del Campo), Eduardo (Carlos Villatoro), and Eduardo’s wife Cristina (Marta Ruel) find themselves lost in the woods at night. A rather creepy man shows them the way to a monastery they have heard curious rumours bordering on fairy tales about. The friends expect the place to be a ruin, but in actuality, it is populated with monks who have taken a vow of silence they occasionally break for exposition. Thus, the ideal place for the trio to stay the night instead of staying lost in the woods.

However, the monastery seems to have a strange influence on the visitors that brings out their repressed desires and the darkest sides of their personalities. Eduardo and Cristina have been quietly lusting after one another for quite some now, but on this night in this place, this desire turns destructive – Cristina turns into a proper femme fatale, while Eduardo just can’t help but stop lying to himself about his feelings and now believes that taking his best friend’s well-being into consideration is rather less important than getting the man out of the way.

When they are not consumed by their private drama, the visitors are spooked by various strange occurrences – monks that seem to disappear where there’s no place for them to disappear to, monks badly hiding their skeletal hands, and a door nailed shut with a cross from behind which horrifying, human cries drift.

The Phantom of the Convent is a very early example of Mexican Gothic horror, featuring motives that would reoccur in movies from the country as a matter of course during the next four decades at least. Here, director Fernando de Fuentes (also responsible for the first Mexican talkie only three years earlier in 1931, or so the Internet tells me) still seems somewhat uneasy with the truly creepy stuff in a couple of scenes, whereas others demonstrate a firm grasp on the proper use of the interplay of light and shadow to create the mood of dream-like strangeness which best occurs in dilapidated surroundings that is so important for this particular style of horror, whatever its country of origin.

There are also rather a lot of hints at one of Mexican popular cinema’s great strengths in the coming decades – the ability to use genre tropes and visual hallmarks of an international tradition and mix them productively with more local interests and ideas. Here, it’s a – to my eyes, nearly a hundred years later, on a different continent – specifically Mexican Catholicism expressing itself through typical Gothic horror monks and the mood of an old-fashioned ghost story. There are also some surprisingly unpleasant looking corpses in the film’s later stages that surprised me to find in a film from 1934, from anywhere, but that are clearly inspired by the same type of mummification process we find in the mummies of Guanajuato.

As it goes with cinema from a very different era, Phantom of the Convent pacing isn’t really to modern tastes – there’s a tendency of scenes to go on a bit too long for my contemporary (non-blockbuster mode) tastes, and the feeling of a film pulling some punches it needn’t have pulled even in 1934, but there’s also a sense of languid, Gothic beauty (a Poe idea of beauty for sure) to The Phantom of the Convent that makes up for these failings in spades.

Saturday, March 23, 2024

Love Massacre (1981)

Original title: 愛殺

The film takes place among a group of Hong Kong expat students living in the United States. Joy (Tina Lau Tin-Lan), who appears to suffer from a psychosis, attempts suicide when her boyfriend Louie (Charlie Chin Chiang-Lin) decides to move to New York without her.

Louie – who isn’t a complete tool - and their friend Ivy (Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia) really don’t know how to help Joy anymore, so they ask Joy’s brother Chiu Chung (Chang Kuo-Chu) to fly in from Hong Kong to help hi sister somehow. At first, the plan seems to work out well enough, but once the married Chiu Chung and Ivy start an affair, Joy’s getting even worse than before, and finally goes through with killing herself.

Chiu Chung is understandably hit hard by this and deteriorates much further than anyone could have expected, for he really is mentally just as unwell as his sister was, he’s just better at hiding this in front of strangers. He returns to Hong Kong, but does not become more stable there. In fact, he murders his wife (his former psychiatrist no less!) to then return to the USA and start stalking Ivy and murdering every woman in her closer surroundings he deems “uncooperative”.

Patrick Tam Kar-Ming is one of the less sung heroes of Hong Kong’s New Wave cinema. Given the quality of those of his movies I’ve managed to see (I don’t trust my old, negative, review of his The Sword anymore in this context), I suspect this has rather more to do with their bad availability than their quality.

Love Massacre is a case in point. At once a cool, serious but not compassionless, exploration of an extreme of mental illness and eventually a pretty brutal thriller of great formal strength and cold beauty, this is the kind of film that would normally put a filmmaker on the map of the greats. However, the best way to see Love Massacre at the moment is a Laser Disc rip with decidedly not great subtitles (though not as bad as some for Hong Kong films), so there’s only talk about it at all among those movie fans actually looking for this sort of thing and knowing where to find it, instead of the somewhat larger audience of more strictly law-abiding connoisseurs it deserves.

The washed out colours of a Laser Disc aren’t particularly wonderful in a film as strictly and meaningfully colour composed as this one either, but even so, there’s an intense cold power to Tam’s strict use of clearly separated colours, as is to his just as strictly composed use of the frame. In the latter, Love Massacre shows some visual kinship to the best works of Dario Argento, yet where Argento does tend to get emotionally involved in the acts of violence and the more grotesque elements of his films, Tam watches them with a cooler and more distanced eye that does get increasingly disquieting the longer the film goes on, and the more unpleasant the violence gets exactly because it seems so dispassionate.

Still, despite the cold eye, when there isn’t violence on screen, there is also a feeling of thoughtful compassion running through it, or at least a genuine human interest in its characters. Tam does show this for killer and victims and those in-between alike, which makes the whole affair’s distanced visual beauty a particularly interesting and individual decision. An artistically risky one, as well, but one that makes Love Massacre particularly worth watching.

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Three Films Make A Post: First There Were Ten…

And Then There Were None (1945): This mystery directed by René Clair is the first of a considerable number of adaptations of Agatha Christie’s best novel (and thankfully uses the US version of the book’s title, for while I’m all for not pretending the past was nicer or better than it was, I’d rather not have to type that one out) wherein ten people isolated on an island are murdered one by one in ways based on nursery rhyme that also mirror some hidden unpunished crimes they committed. Once the plot really gets going and the first characters have been killed, Clair’s direction turns increasingly moody and tense; things take on a feeling of Gothic dread mixed with a rather more modern paranoia.

It would be a perfect version of the material if not for the fact it replaces the grim ending of the novel with a ridiculous happy ending for at least a couple of characters. But then, many of the adaptations that follow will make the same – dubious – decision and this version of it does not ruin the film in any way; it just provokes raised eyebrows.

Righting Wrongs aka Above the Law aka 執法先鋒 (1986): A Hong Kong police Inspector (Cynthia Rothrock) on the trail of a prosecutor turned vigilante murderer (Yuen Biao) uncovers the much worse misdeeds of a colleague. A lot of pretty damn brutal violence ensues.

Despite some painfully obvious stunt double replacements – would it really have killed them to give the guy a Rothrock-style wig? – for some of the most dangerous stunts, the fights in this Corey Yuen Kwai joint are impeccable, highly creative and at times so brutal I felt myself wince on impact of bodies with hard surfaces. In the plot around the action, the film shows a total commitment to let terrible things happen to the kind of people who’d be absolutely taboo in US (or German, if we had action cinema, for that matter) films, providing proceedings a dangerous edge as well as a great basis for its melodramatic elements. Combined, it’s a bit of a classic.

Kill Boksoon aka 길복순 (2023): Boksoon (Jeon Do-yeon) is a hassled single mom as well as a legendary professional killer working for one of these absurd and fun organizations of killers movies about killers adore so much. Eventually, inter-organization political intrigue puts her on the kill list of her employers, which turns out to be a bit awkward for the bunch of killers and killer adjacent fools she’ll have to dispatch.

Byun Sung-Hyun’s action movie is very much on the stylized, comics (manhwa?) affine side of this sort of thing (and most probably influenced by the John Wick films), clearly having a lot of fun creating the underground world Boksoon is eventually going to smash while providing space for ample amounts of cool to brilliant action.

Sunday, March 17, 2024

Monolith (2022)

Disgraced after failing to do some crucial background checks during an investigation, a journalist (Lily Sullivan) coming from a wealthy background has turned solo podcaster with one of those “unsolved mysteries” style endeavours.

When she is sent the contact of a woman who once came into contact with a mysterious black brick, the journalist starts on a series of phone interviews that suggest a number of these bricks exist. People who are somehow touched by them, or perhaps are only hear or think about them enough, begin to suffer from hallucinations and strange obsessions, drifting towards violence and madness, or change in disturbing, perhaps unnatural, ways.

Our interviewer, clearly an obsessive personality already, is no exception to these effects. While her podcast becomes a bit of sensation, she appears to become increasingly unhinged by what she learns, sliding towards a confrontation with the lies and omissions at the core of her life as well as whatever force is embodied in the black bricks.

Matt Vesely’s Monolith is a wonderful example of contemporary weird fiction filmmaking. It uses some very of the moment cultural artefacts and concepts – true crime/weirdness podcasting, conspiracy culture and its online and real life consequences – but doesn’t quite tell the story you’d expect it to tell with them.

There’s a strong through line of cultural criticism embodied via in its protagonist running through the film, but apart from some to on the nose metaphorical work in the end, much of Monolith manages to keep the feeling of metaphors and meanings not quite resolving that I believe to be one of the more exciting and defining elements of the Weird. The interesting point in this kind of film to me is never the clear explanation, but the scenes when possible meanings float just before they coalesce. Once they do coalesce here, they do lose some of their special vibe, but thankfully there’s nothing wrong with the story the film is then telling. Apart from it telling a very specific one, but that’s my problem, not the movie’s.

That the landing on actual meaning works out as well as it does for the movie has a lot to do with Lily Sullivan’s performance. Sullivan never loses a quality of basic humanity even once we learn less than great things about her. Of course, it does help that the film never seems too interested in having her go through judgement and punishment as much as it is in a painful transformation towards betterment – at least in my reading of the movie.

Formally, Vesely manages to make a film consisting of a single woman looking at screens and talking on the phone with various people we only ever get to hear in a clearly expansive but also pretty expensive house feel dynamic and exciting, or tense and claustrophobic, depending on the needs of the film.

The use of short, enigmatic scenes that describe the feeling of the things the interviewer hears rather more than precisely show what she is told strengthens the truly Weird (in the sense that needs the capital W) mood of the first two acts wonderfully, and provides Monolith with a very specific rhythm that is great joy to experience.

Saturday, March 16, 2024

Out of Darkness (2022)

Following their strong, arrogant prick of a leader Adem (Chuku Modu) a small splinter group of a stone age tribe of early humans have crossed a large body of water to find new, hopefully better lands full of game and cosy caves, or so is the picture apparently gained through visions Adem paints of the place. The group consists of Adem’s pregnant mate Avé (Iola Evans), his brother Geirr (Kit Young), his son Heron (Luna Mwezi), old guy with a whole sackful of chips on his shoulder Odal (Arno Lüning) and stray outsider Beyah (Safia Oakley-Green), there to provide whatever is needed.

That new land full of game and green grass of Adem’s imagination, nay, conviction, is rather less pleasant than advertised. Food sources seem to be scarce, as is shelter. One can’t help but notice these particular hunters and gatherers apparently don’t really forage for things very thoroughly. Stones are most definitely left unturned, so the complete absence of game is an even bigger problem here than it would be for more competent groups.

This isn’t going to be the tribe’s only problem for very long, though, for something dangerous is lurking in the shadows, stalking the group and picking them off one by one. Adem’s promised new land might very well eat them all, as promised lands have the habit to.

Andrew Cumming’s Out of Darkness is in many aspects a very typical stone age adventure movie, in so far as it absolutely mirrors the interests and fears of its own time much more than it does attempt an actual portray of stone age life. The difference is that, where, say, the late 60s/early 70s version of the stone age was a world of deeply silly adventure and fur bikinis, this version is mostly there to teach its audience valuable lessons about the evils of patriarchy, the human tendency to fear and hate the different and the unknown (though, given what the unknown does to our protagonists out of its own fear of the unknown, I can’t blame them for their reactions to it as much as the film does), and that a woman’s body belongs to herself.

All very worthwhile things to speak and think about of course, but also, one can’t help but think, not things actual stone age people would have wasted much of a thought on, unless you want to argue that the inner life of Grok the cave woman is basically the same as that of Inga the modern woman.

However, as there was absolutely nothing wrong with the old fur bikini movies using the far past as their adventure playground, there is also not much wrong about a contemporary movie using the same past to explore its own interests. Well, it could be a bit more subtle about it from time to time – the awkward post-climax voiceover provided so the most stupid audience members understand what the film is talking about really is a bridge too far for me – but often, its putting contemporary troubles into the past does what this approach is clearly meant to do: put the evils of a particular kind of masculinity, and how it feels to be at the receiving end of it into a clearer, more brutal form. This makes it easier to understand its victims by helping us empathize with them more clearly and lets us thrill to the moment when they regain – or gain for the first time – agency.

It does help the film’s case as well that it is rather good at portraying what I assume to be one of the most basic of human fears – being lost in the dark, stalked by something whose nature appears so alien it might very well not be natural, of starving and being very much alone in a seemingly empty world, thrown together with a handful of people who are only interested in the use you can be to them.

Particularly the first two acts are full of scenes that most certainly aren’t believable portrayals of actual stone age life, but feel true to what we imagine it might have felt like in its most dramatic and horrifying moments, the horrors of staring into the darkness, something invisible staring back at you.

Thus, Out of Darkness often feels like the cross of stone age adventure and horror movie I didn’t know I needed before.

Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Three Films Make A Post: The heist begins at 40,000 ft.

Lift (2024): This Netflix production as directed by F. Gary Gray is rather astonishing. Astonishing in how forgettable it is. If I hadn’t made a couple of notes while watching it, I’d remember not a thing about it a week after having seen it. Going by these notes, this is a heist movie neither charming enough to be light fun, nor serious enough to ever build up any stakes one might care about.

It also contains a terribly written romance between Kevin Hart and Gugu Mbatha-Raw and a somewhat inexplicable performance by Vincent D’Onofrio, who is certainly doing something that may or may not have anything to do with an attempt at being Udo Kier.

Otherwise, there’s nothing here to even waste another sentence on.

Lovely, Dark and Deep (2023): Screenwriter Teresa Sutherland’s feature debut is a very frustrating movie. In its beginning stages, it makes interesting and creepy use of the urban myth of the mass disappearances in US National Parks, with quite a few shots of mildly disturbing background happenings our protagonist doesn’t notice. In these early stages the film builds a wonderful mood of the weird and the outré.

Alas, its back half consists of what amounts to an endless dream sequence in which said protagonist – Georgina Campbell, wasted –works through emotional issues through the most hackneyed and obvious symbolism possible at tedious length, until the film finally ends. The Weird turns into the boringly prosaic.

Life of Belle (2024): I had heard rather nice buzz about Shawn Robinson’s POV horror (in the Paranormal Activity vein) piece. I can’t say the film does very much for me at all. While its approach to a child filming random childish crap while the borders of her world slowly break down in the background is certainly interesting, it’s also a bit tedious. That the film goes quite as heavy on the “mentally ill equals evil” part of the horror equation because it tries to be too subtle about its supernatural bits doesn’t exactly make it more likeable. Though I do have to give it props for not being afraid of eventually leading its audience into tasteful but disturbing scenes of child abuse.

Like with Lovely, Dark and Deep, there is a clear influence of creepypasta on display; like that movie, and a lot of creepypasta itself, Life of Belle has trouble getting beyond showing a handful of creepy images and calling that a movie.

Sunday, March 10, 2024

The Safecracker (1958)

Colley Dawson (Ray Milland), designing safes for rich people who use them to lock up treasures for nobody to see, has enough of the small life: fast cars, pretty women and touching said treasures loom large in his mind. So when an antiques dealer (Barry Jones) makes him an offer to put his talents to a safe-cracking use, Colley is easily convinced to start on a rather lucrative side-career.

To have use of his ill-gotten gains right here and now without alerting the police with a sudden influx of money, Colley starts on a double life, playing the daring safe-cracker and playboy under an assumed name on the weekends while keeping up his old life-style – including living with his elderly mum – on weekdays. Eventually, he gets caught when he ignores warning signs and directed warnings. He is sentenced to a ten year prison sentence.

However, in 1941, when World War II isn’t going terribly well for the British, Colley’s talents are in demand for a commando mission. The mission’s goal is to photograph secret documents kept in a safe in mansion in occupied Belgium that would disclose the whole of German spy operations in the UK. Particularly, doing this without the Nazis figuring out it happened would be quite a success for the British. Offered a full pardon on success, Colley agrees to take part in the mission, despite his decided lack of patriotism.

Ray Milland dabbled in directing from time to time, and clearly was a fan of directing himself. He’s still trying to hang on to his old charming, somewhat roguish image here in 1958, but at this stage in his career, “roguish” often turned out somewhat sleazy. Which isn’t a bad fit for Colley at all, though I was never quite sure Milland actually realized that was the impression he gave.

As a director, Milland isn’t terrible; he certainly isn’t great either. He has a tendency to use the least interesting shot in too many scenes, and doesn’t have a great hand for pacing either, leading to a lack of tension and a sluggishness not great in the sort of genres this is dabbling in.

The script doesn’t help there either. Structurally, this is a film of two halves from different genres, both of them not terrible successful. First, we have a heist movie that isn’t terribly interested in actually making the safe-cracking business exciting, focussed on a character who doesn’t change in any way once he’s turned from safe-maker to safe-cracker. Thus, the film is more going through the motions of a crime movie than actually being one. The second half does the same with war movie tropes. Again, there’s little tension; again, Colley isn’t changed by any of his experiences; again there’s an aimless, ambling quality to the way scenes are set-up. Not even the climactic raid appears to be all that tense.

Now, one could argue the decision to not have Colley experience any sort of inner redemptive arc as a somewhat interesting and uncommon decision, but since this leaves us with a character that goes through hardship and error completely without much of interest to an audience happening with him, I’d argue it’s an inherently boring decision as well. In the hands of more accomplished director and much more accomplished writers, one could of course do something with this reversal of expectations about how this sort of film is supposed to play out, but as it stands, this just makes a pretty lifeless film even more uninvolving.

Saturday, March 9, 2024

Bucktown (1975)

Big city hard ass Duke (Fred Williamson) comes to the conveniently named Bucktown to bury his estranged brother who owned a nightclub there. For dubious reasons of The Law, Duke must stay in town for at least sixty days to put his brother’s affairs in order.

Given that he’s hassled early on by the corrupt and racist police force, whose main reasons to exist seem to be racketeering and extortion (and who will of course also turn out to be responsible for the death of Duke’s brother, as if that ever was in any doubt), that’s not a great proposition. Because a man needs something to do, and the buck needs to flow, Duke lets himself be convinced by a hustling kid and by Harley (Bernie Hamilton), an alcoholic buddy of his brother, to reopen the nightclub for a bit. This also gets him far into the good books and the bed of his brother’s girlfriend Aretha (Pam Grier).

When Duke very violently disagrees with paying the protection money the police expects of him, things do start to look a bit bleak for his continued survival, so he calls in an old buddy of his from the city, the gangster Roy (Thalmus Rasulala). Once Roy arrives with three generally unpleasant mooks (one of them played by the late, great Carl Weathers) in tow, he and Duke begin to gleefully murder their way through the cops.

Once that’s over, Duke expects Roy and the goons to go back to the city. Instead, Roy decides to stay in town and take over the police business, legal and illegal. Duke’s not too happy with this, because he clearly didn’t plan on replacing one group of violent shits with another one, and apparently thought better of Roy. Which, giving their whole companionable killing spree, seems somewhat peculiar. Eventually, the former friends will come to blows.

Before going into Arthur Marks’s blaxploitation movie Bucktown, it is probably best to temper one’s expectations a little. Specifically, the promise of Fred Williamson and Pam Grier starring in the same movie isn’t fulfilled in quite the way I would have hoped for: Williamson’s as Williamson as he always is, but Grier’s role in the movie is strictly being The Girl, so don’t expect razors hidden in afros, much asskicking or just coolness from her. She is unfortunately in the movie mostly for the melodramatic outbursts of awkward dialogue, which doesn’t at all play to her strengths as an actress or as an on-screen personality.

Having put the film’s great disappointment out of the way, there is rather a lot to like about the rest of the movie: its portrayal of the police force of Bucktown as just another gang goes even further than the racist and corrupt police forces in most other blaxploitation movies that at least seem to involve law enforcement work from time to time do; but then going another step further and positing that gangsters and pimps aren’t a great replacement for that role either puts the whole thing dangerously close to being a blaxploitation film that actually critiques the kind of violent but awesome (in the movies) types of black men that are the bread and butter of these films as well.

Of course, this being an exploitation movie, it also takes great delight at showing us the badassery of Duke and Roy quipping while brutally murdering some – admittedly very nasty – people, and certainly is never going to make a – for it obviously hypocritical – final stand against answering brutal violence with even more brutal violence.

It does, however, use the somewhat less awkward opportunity to portray the kind of close, male friendship that would later become one of the core interests of Hong Kong’s heroic bloodshed movie beyond the (heroic) bloodshed. These scenes of Duke and Roy first being buddies in violence and then growing increasingly disenchanted with one another – Roy’s disgust with Duke’s apparent growing of a tiny little bit of conscience is played particularly well by Rasulala – are the strongest of the film’s dramatic scenes. Rasulala and Williamson play off one another wonderfully whatever their relation, suggesting a lot of the men’s personal history without never needing to explain them.

That their final throw down is the climax of their relationship as well as the film’s best action scene – not that there’s anything wrong with the earlier action – seems rather fitting in this context.