Sunday, January 16, 2022

The Glove (1979)

Sam Kellog (John Saxon), something of a loveable loser, works as a bounty hunter to – barely, if at all – pay the child support he owes his ex-wife for their daughter. While he’s perfectly willing and able to beat you up when he’s trying to catch you, he’s a bit too soft to be a proper money-grubbing bastard, bound to let a target go if their particular true sob-story is too much for his feelings.

Right now, a very large man we’ll soon know as Victor Hale (Rosey Grier), dressed in body armour, is using the titular steel glove to occasionally but heavily beat up a specific group of former and current prison guards. It’s gotten so bad, the local prison guard union has put out a bounty of $20,000 to whoever catches Victor, preferably dead instead of alive. Sam would really rather like that money, but finding and catching Victor is much more difficult than you’d think. Turns out the supposed violent maniac is otherwise a genuinely lovely person with a tragic backstory who is nice to neighbours and kids, and has a surprisingly pleasant singing voice. So it’s not that easy to find anyone willing to sell information on him, even more so when the guy trying to buy is white like Sam.

While marketing and title suggest a bit of fun and brutal exploitation, in reality Ross Hagen’s The Glove is quite a different film that mixes a couple of brutal gloved-based beatings with many a scene of Rosey Grier (in a much better performance than he gave as racist Ray Milland’s second head) being nice to people, and many more scenes of Sam episodically going through his sad sack bounty hunter daily life, letting a nice elderly lady go, learning that gay people can hit you really hard as well, and philosophizing about the evils of a world that’s all about the dollar, while having to hustle for it himself. Also, going through a lot of off-screen monologuing to somehow stitch this thing together.

Which does of course mean that the film mostly doesn’t work as a thriller, crime, or action movie – apart from that couple of genuinely effective beatings – but is more like a road movie that takes place in a single city, with John Saxon encountering various characters and having fun interactions with them that reveal his flaws and virtues as well as, perhaps, some of the flaws of the world he lives in. Thanks to what must have been quite a bit of adlibbing and a cast that for some reason managed to attract everyone from Saxon to Grier to Joanna Cassidy, from Joan Blondell(!) to Aldo Ray the result is rather fun to watch, at least if you’re like me and just like to see interesting characters interact.

The film goes about its business so charmingly, I’m even willing to believe its somewhat anti-capitalist and anti-racist agenda to be genuine, though not thought through or argued well.

Technically, The Glove is all over the place: there’s a lot of standard competent 70s exploitation filmmaking here, but also improbable stuff like an incredible moment where the actors obviously flub not just a line but a whole dialogue interchange, but the camera just rolls on through the grins and the suppressed giggles. It’s pretty shoddy in that regard, but in context of the leisurely rest of the film, this just adds to The Glove’s curiously companionable quality. It’s as if you’re not watching a product or a work of art, but simply a group of people doing stuff while a camera happens to roll.

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Three Films Make A Post: And you thought that other HOUSE was bad

Venom: Let There Be Carnage (2021): I already wasn’t terribly happy with the first Venom movie, what with its combo of a crap script and uninventive action, but compared to this second attempt at a movie, that thing was a masterpiece. Instead of even a bad script, this is based on what really just a series of badly connected memes that’ll probably go well on Instagram but certainly do not a movie make, terrible acting by a bunch of people who can do so much better, some of the worst effects you will see in this budget bracket, and direction by Andy Serkis that suggests he’s not even acquainted with the concept of tone, much less able to provide this nonsensical mess with one.

Perhaps the writer of the next Venom movie might take a look at some of the better comics runs of the characters and just crib from there?

The Hypnosis aka 최면 (2021): In comparison, this deeply mediocre horror movie by Choi Jae-hoon with its much too obvious twists, its indifferent character writing and its never more than okay staging at least feels like it is at trying for coherence in tone, style and narrative. Sure, it mostly only manages to land there in the blandest manner imaginable, and ends up being the kind of film you’ll watch and forget in a manner of minutes, but at least it isn’t going out of its way to become a bad time.

The House on Straw Hill aka Trauma aka Exposé (1976): By all rights, this pretty sleazy British thriller with Linda Hayden and Udo Kier (and barely anyone else) as directed and written by James Kenelm Clarke should be a much better time, if in a pretty unpleasant way. There are certainly all the elements here that make comparable exploitation movies (mostly from Italy) a good bad time, but things never come together as they should: the sleazy bits feel more awkward than anything else, the thriller narrative is much too predictable (not helped by a narrative style that shows always too much or too little), and the film’s attempts at being artsy (always useful for exploitation, obviously) manage to at the same time weaken the sleaze and feel like a put-on.

Thursday, January 13, 2022

In short: Puppet on a Chain (1970)

Because a trio of drug dealers are murdered in the USA, some US drug-centric law enforcement agency sends their agent Paul Sherman (Sven-Bertil Taube, who is about as American as I am), and extra secret undercover agent Maggie (Barbara Parkins) to Amsterdam to put a stop to that part of the drug trade once and for all. The Dutch colleagues aren’t terribly impressed by him, or enamoured by the idea, and don’t know about Maggie.

From then on, Sherman tortures and murders his way through Amsterdam, following leads and clues in the least effective yet most violent manner imaginable.

Say what you will against Geoffrey Reeve’s Alistair MacLean adaptation Puppet on a Chain, but it is most certainly a film ahead of its time, prefiguring the asshole on a rampage movie style by someone like Michael Winner for quite a few years. Sherman is a deeply unpleasant hero, a law enforcement agent who seems to go out of his way to break ever law imaginable, all of the time, even in situations where going by the book would make rather a lot more sense. He’s usually more violent than he needs to be and lacks in any actual investigative skills. Much worse for my sometimes rather amoral tastes when it comes to this kind of movie, he’s no fun at all, with no character traits apart from a badly written love affair with Maggie (who is of course killed off to motivate him to further violence), and played by Taube with all the verve and charisma of a concrete pillar.

It would be enough to make a boy rather cranky, if not for a couple of saving graces that eventually do make the adventures of an unpleasant prick doing unpleasant things for little reason at least decently entertaining. For one, there’s a certain degree of weirdness running through much of the plot, with villains who occasionally seem to think they are in a giallo, and so tend to rather creative corpse presentations and plans that make even less sense than Sherman’s investigative techniques. Corpses just look better in traditional Dutch garb.

Secondly, some of the action sequences are pretty decent too. The film’s major claim to fame is a long and pretty great motorboat chase scene; that one’s not directed by Reeve, but by Don Sharp, who also did some other trouble shooting. If I were a cynical man, I’d suggest all the good bits were Sharp’s responsibility.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Some Thoughts About Scream (1996)

Wes Craven’s Scream is one of those certified horror movie classics beloved by millions - including quite a few writers, friends, and filmmakers whose tastes I tend to trust - I never did get along with too well. Because it is such a classic beloved by many people with good taste, I do tend to try and get into the film every half a decade or so, and what better time for that attempt (again) shortly before the late sequel hits.

With this newest try, my opinion of the film has in so far improved that I don’t actually actively hate it anymore. My heavy dislike, I’ve realized, is not so much for Craven’s film itself, but for the legion of smug, “ironic” teen slashers that followed it – some of them scripted by Scream’s Kevin Williamson, to be sure.

It’s not that I’ve started to love the meta horror elements of the film at hand, mind you: I’m still of the opinion that the script doesn’t really do much more with slasher clichés than to point them out, not fulfilling all of them for sure, but usually not really replacing them with something I find terribly interesting or engaging. or haven’t seen in dozens of giallos done with more style. There’s a sense of smug self-satisfaction running through this arm of horror as a whole I’m never going to become fond of, particularly when this smugness isn’t grounded in as much intelligence as the pose suggests, and never seems to rise above mere cleverness.

In Scream’s specific case, I’m also not at all fond of the final reveal of the killer as a couple of mad people clichés in desperate need of an attic. The film does its very best to make them act as stupidly as possible, so as to make a viewer really work at getting to believe these stupid pricks are criminal masterminds who have managed to fake a couple of murders before (and yes, I know what the later films do about this problem, but there’s no hint on screen that’s something Williamson and Craven were already planning here). Which is not helped by the acting of our villain actors in the final scene, which is so broad as to border on the offensive.

To be fair to the Williamson’s script, the killers’ earlier scenes work excellently when you already know whodunnit, adding a macabre dimension to these interactions on a re-watch, while also playing fair with the audience, something that’s certainly difficult to achieve if you don’t want the genre-savvy viewer to cop to the killers’ identity early on.

The serious – or semi-funny – thriller and murder set pieces still don’t get me as excited as they do my peers and imaginary enemies, alas. It’s not that I find any of them uninteresting, incompetently done or anything else that would make my opinion spectacularly irritating to true fans of the film (and more power to you) – I just don’t find them anything more than slick and competent, following classic suspense models well, but adding little stylistically or thematically that I find particularly involving. But then, I’ve never shared the admiration for Wes Craven as a director, either, so take that for what you will.

But hey, perhaps I’ll change my mind about all of this in the 2030s, when my next attempt at a re-watch is going to be due. Until then, I rather re-watch Scream 2 again, the one film in the franchise I genuinely love.

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

In short: McCanick (2013)

When he hears that his old acquaintance, a young man called Simon Weeks (Cory Monteith) has been released from prison early, policeman Eugene McCanick (David Morse) starts an increasingly irrational and dangerous attempt to find Weeks and most probably do something very violent to him. In a series of flashbacks, what at first seems like your classical movie revenge trip is revealed to be something more human and much sadder: the attempt of a coward to avoid having to look at himself in the mirror and be honest to himself for once in his life. As it goes with cases like this, other people will have to suffer so that McCanick won’t have to take responsibility for anything in his messed up life.

Even though Josh C. Waller’s direction is focused and clever, and the supporting actors are doing fine work, McCanick really is the David Morse show, a state of things that seems only fair towards an actor who has spent large parts of his career supporting others on screen. Not surprisingly, Morse makes the most out of the opportunity, providing McCanick with complexity and humanity even once the script has reached the point where the flashbacks disclose how petty the secret that drives McCanick actually is. That’s rather important in a film featuring a central character who is such a coward he’d rather see people dead than have someone walk around free who knows about his actual sexual preferences and who actually seems to think he could assuage his own feelings of guilt by just adding more and more to be guilty about.

Waller’s direction and Morse’s acting are good enough to keep McCanick interesting and human once this turning point in the film is reached, while Daniel Noah’s script takes great care to not forgot that the cop’s victims are human beings with all the good and bad that entails, too. It’s the kind of old-fashioned humanist approach films of this sub-genre have never been exactly full of, and thankfully in a version that does keep the hand-wringing down regardless.

Sunday, January 9, 2022

Side Effect (2020)

Original title: Pobochnyi effekt

Following a home invasion and an attempted rape that resulted in the loss of their unborn child, the marriage of singer Olya (Marina Vasileva) and architect Andrey (Semyon Serzin) is on the ropes. They’re now separated from each other, with Andrey desperately trying to win Olya back and somehow drag her into better mental health at the same time; not a winning combination, that.

We’ll never quite figure out what Olya thinks about what happened and Andrey’s guilt in the proceedings until very late in the film, but Andrey himself feels particularly guilty for not having done some stupid violent thing that would only have gotten him killed to protect her. Eventually he is desperate enough to go to the witch Mara (Aleksandra Revenko), whose fungi-based spellcraft is supposed to be the absolute state of the magical art. Andrey simply wants a spell to make Olya forget what happened, which surely will make his own guilt disappear as well, and bring their marriage back on the old track, right?

As it happens, Mara not only provides a fine little fungus for Andrey to secretly – what’s “consensual”? – feed to Olya to do the partial amnesia job, but also wants the couple to housesit her large apartment in a constructivist nightmare of a building. Apparently, so that the spores in the air there can do their job on Olya, and Mara’s fungi will be properly fumigated while she’s away.

At first, things go as Andrey had hoped, and Olya not just gets back with him the very same night she has imbibed a fungus-enhanced cake but actually seems to feel somewhat happier. To nobody’s surprise but Andrey’s, things don’t stay positive once the couple moves into Mara’s apartment. While Olya indeed begins to forget parts of her trauma and even the traumatic event itself, she gets flashes and spurts of the rape attempt that seem even worse than before because they now lack in any real life context she can remember. Other disturbing things begin happening as well, of course. Why, it’s as if Mara – a rather present absence in her apartment – has some sort of very unkind plan for the couple.

Aleksey Kazakov’s Side Effect is rather different from the somewhat more generic Russian horror movies I’ve seen during the last few years. There’s something rather more serious-minded about the film, and it is clearly an honest attempt at exploring the results of trauma and guilt on a relationship through its tale of pretty nasty witchcraft. Even our villainess’s evil is the result of a trauma of her own, just that her reaction to it is an attempt to perpetuate her own suffering on others unlucky enough to remind her of it.

The further the film gets into its plot, the more it expresses its interests through a mix of surrealism and the folkloric, using potent images from Slavic folklore to position itself right at the border between a very dark fairy-tale and more free-floating strangeness to try and speak of dark and sad psychological currents through the lens of the Weird.

It’s a very interesting attempt at this kind of exploration, making much of moody as well as meaningful production design, and taking on an increasingly nightmarish as well as metaphorical quality, where someone’s death can be easily reversed only to increase a person’s suffering, and where the ghosts of the past can put a very physical effort into helping out the living.

Saturday, January 8, 2022

Three Films Make A Post: Seven Suicides - and they roared back as The Living Dead.

Psychomania aka The Death Wheelers (1973): For the longest time, I didn’t get along with this particular bit of British bikersploitation/folk horror by Don Sharp at all. It’s not a complete surprise, for the film does have some undeniable drawbacks: the pacing is – rather atypical for Sharp – leaden, until it suddenly isn’t because it’s time for a stunt sequence; the bikers seem awfully well-groomed and polite even when they are undead and working for Satan; and the script never seems to agree with itself on the proper tone for the affair. On the other hand, and that’s what rather worked for me this time around: the stunt sequences are really great in mixing Sharp’s excellent instincts for action with a very British looking mundanity, and the folk horror tale has moments of proper weirdness that very consciously resemble folk tales about deals with the devil, until everything culminates in a set piece that absolutely should be part of a modern (as of ‘73) version of an actual folk tale.

Antlers (2021): I’m honestly more than a bit confused about what to make of this film by Scott Cooper. It’s at once an attempt to use a version of the wendigo myth to talk about circles of abuse and poverty, and a monster movie (with an awesome looking creature) so traditional, it could have been on the SyFy Channel before they go lost in the bad jokes. Which might have worked out fine indeed, if the script had ever found a way to actually connect its disparate impulses to build a proper whole.

Instead, the narrative drags the characters back and forth between two very different kinds of movie, without ever even seeming to make an attempt to convince its audience why they belong together.

The Negotiation aka 협상 | hyeob-sang (2018): That sort of thing could never happen to this ultra-slick South Korean thriller by Lee Jong-seok about a very intense hostage negotiation that turns into a series of twists and revelations. It’s all very professionally done, acted well (particularly Son Ye-jin as our hostage negotiating heroine does a wonderful star turn), and really rather exciting.

It is also somewhat predictable for anyone who knows this style of movie – it’s just made so well I didn’t actually find myself caring it is in a terribly negative way – and mostly surprises by not going for the sort of deep formal or thematic turn many highly commercial films from Korea love to take despite this sort of thing supposedly not how highly commercial films are done.

Thursday, January 6, 2022

In short: Wekufe (2016)

Students Paula (Paula Figueroa) and her boyfriend Matias (Matias Aldea) travel to the Chilean island province of Chiloé, where she is planning on shooting a report – as some kind of college work, I suppose – about the very high percentage of rape, incest, sexual assault and unwanted pregnancies on the island. People say it’s all because of the incubus demon dwarves roaming the forests of the place; others, like Paula, rather prefer the inheritance of colonialism, poverty, and the cultural, social and economical gap between the descendants of the initial native population and those of the colonialists as an explanation. Matias, on the other hand, just wants to shoot a found footage horror movie, demons or politics be damned.

Which is indeed what he’s going to do, if a rather more real one than he probably wished for.

Turns out you still can add some new elements to the ole POV horror formula and easily make it a bit more lively and contemporary. At least Javier Attridge’s Chilean example of the form does this rather well, managing to tell a folk horror tale that is also sceptical about some of the forms and tropes of its own genre. That may sound a bit too much like having one’s cake and eating it too, but Attridge’s script is clever enough to still make this work as a horror film. Mostly by not treating groups of people with comparable backgrounds as a single group-thinking body, realizing that this sort of homogeneity simply doesn’t exist in reality.

The filmmaker manages to turn Wekufe into an effective little horror movie that does hit quite a few of the expected tropes – but with mild yet important variations – and keeps things well-shot and well-paced, both not always a given in POV horror, as we all well know. There are even a couple of wonderfully creepy scenes, shot by daylight with everything important clearly visible. The only element about Wekufe that didn’t completely work for me were the scenes early on where the characters poo-poo the usual clichés of POV horror. That sort of thing does tend to feel twee rather than clever to me.

Of course, if that’s the biggest criticism I have towards a POV horror movie, it is rather successful at what it does.

Friday, December 17, 2021

Eldritch Tidings

Yes, it's the time of the year again to put one's blog on hold, cut one's tentacles into a beard-like shape and put on a jolly red suit. Regular service will resume on January, 6th.

I wish everyone reading a happy festive season of their choice and inclination, as well as a better new year than, well, the last several ones.

Thursday, December 16, 2021

In short: Star of India (1954)

After five years of war in India, French country squire Pierre St. Laurent (Cornel Wilde) returns to his home only to now find it the property of a widowed Dutch countess named Katrina (Jean Wallace). Governor Narbonne, the man responsible (and clearly evil because he is played by Herbert Lom) took Pierre’s home and estates for unpaid back taxes and sold them off, or so he says. He also offers no recourse (and certainly no apologies) to the rather incensed soldier.

Katrina, on the other hand, does. Apparently, another bit of bad business instigated by the Governor not only left her husband dead in a duel with the man, but also put the villain’s grubby hands on a family jewel that means rather a lot to her. Right now, it is hidden in a pretty tacky looking “Indian” statuette in Narbonne’s office. If Pierre would agree to, ahem, reacquire the jewel for Katrina, she’d pay him by giving him back everything that belonged to him. Obviously, the good lady might by leaving out some pertinent facts Pierre will learn in due course while swashbuckling, and sometimes scheming his way back to his proper home and hearth, and of course into Katrina’s heart.

While not a top tier swashbuckler, this Cornel Wilde vehicle directed by Arthur Lubin is often very good fun, featuring very satisfying amounts of fencing and intrigue, though not quite enough romance, for Katrina is basically non-existent for much of the plot between the first act and the finale.

The plot is mostly a somewhat obvious developed series of moves, feints, and reversals of exactly the kind you’d expect from a genre in which the plotting does quite appropriately tend to take on the quality of a fencing match. Yet despite being obvious, it’s also nearly always fun and develops in a good pace.

Rather more surprising is that this is a movie about a swashbuckling hero acquiring foreign loot to put it in the hand of a group that wants to put it back where it belongs (apparently to guarantee peace in India), not at all a move typical for this sort of thing, and certainly rather likeable.

As is much of the film, really. Wilde, despite generally getting a bit stiff in the intrigue and dialogue bits (as usual), was the kind of actor at least putting extra effort into those parts of his performances that didn’t come natural, and always did some convincing swashbuckling, too. Lom is always a delightful villain, in this particular case a guy who always seems completely outraged by the idea that anyone could try to pull any of the sort of dirty tricks he enjoys on him, which is the sort thing that makes a villain fun.

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin (2021)

Warning: there will be spoilers!

Margot (Emily Bader) was dropped off at a hospital by her mother when she was a baby. She seems to have grown up in a proper adoptive home, but as a lot of adopted children growing up do, she wants to learn about her birthparents. So she is pretty enthusiastic when her cousin Samuel (Henry Ayres-Brown) contacts her via one of those DNA ancestry websites. Her mother is apparently dead, her father not much of theme for discussion, but there are still quite a few other relatives around. Also, the family turn out to be Amish.

Because this is a POV horror film, Margot decides to make a documentary about her first encounter with her family, so she’s accompanied to the meeting and potential Amish sleepover by her buddy and cameraman Chris (Roland Buck III) and local sound guy Dale (Dan Lippert). As all local sound guys or tech guys in all POV horror movies ever, the latter is our Odious Comic Relief of the day, I’m sorry to say.

Having backup might just turn out to be useful in the non-documentarian aspects of Margot’s stay with the family, because there are clearly dark secrets nobody is telling her about, as well as a possible supernatural presence, or dare I say paranormal activity.

I’ve never been much of a fan of the Paranormal Activity series, and the only film I remember actually enjoying was that Japanese spin-off, so I have no idea if there are any connections between this one directed by William Eubank (who made the wonderful Underwater, which I apparently never got around to writing up) and the lore of the earlier Paranormal Activity movies apart from the usual “It’s demons!” stuff too many US movies about the supernatural are fixated on. Though, since the proper description would be – and here the SPOILERS come in, sweetie(s) – “It’s a demon caged in the bodies of one of their women per generation by a family that only pretends to be Amish for tactical(!?) reasons!”, I can’t really complain about the film’s backstory being too typical.

In fact, the whole Amishsploitation angle with the added cynical wrinkle of them being fake Amish, so Amishsploitation is okay again, is symptomatic of the general stupidity of Christopher Landon’s script, where no angle seems to be too silly to be used when it is convenient. If you expect the Fake-Amish family’s methods to achieve their goals to make sense, or think that there just might be a slightly better way to trap a possessed woman than the one these guys use, you’ll probably go out of this one fuming.

The thing is though, as so often happens with movies quite this stupid, if a viewer is going with the flow, treating this as if it were an Italian bit of craziness from the 80s or 90s, for example, the whole big junk of nonsense can be great fun, with one silly idea following the next with great enthusiasm until everything climaxes in the fake-Amish apocalypse. Just don’t ask questions, like “why would a demon supposedly responsible for lust just get people to commit suicide with a single look?” or “why not post a guard in front of your demon hole (or security cameras, since you have them hidden everywhere else)?”. I found myself having quite a bit of fun with the wintery mood of the whole affair (beautifully shot by Pedro Luque) and admired the silly-coolness of the main set pieces instead of getting annoyed by them. While they make little sense on a logical level, the church out in the winter woods and the caves below it where the demon is trapped are very impressive pieces of set design too, really hitting on a nice and effective note of the desolate and the Gothic.

Eubank gives things a nice visual flow, too, sometimes sneakily breaking the found footage basics of the film for a better shot (particularly in the final act, where things become a bit more chaotic), so there’s a nice degree of forwards momentum you don’t always get in the sub-genre.

Seen that way, there’s little wrong with Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin I would want to be fixed, apart from the Odious Comic Relief, of course.

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

In short: Hydra (2019)

Takashi (Masanori Mimoto) is a quiet yet rather intense guy working as a cook in the titular small restaurant/bar in Tokyo. He’s a bit of a mystery to young bar owner Rina (Miu), but she clearly sees him as her slightly weird brotherly protector. Which Takashi in a way is, for he once worked as an assassin for a secret group murdering untouchable baddies in ways that don’t embarrass the establishment. Rina’s father (Yoji Tanaka), who officially disappeared three years ago, was something of Takashi’s mentor, yet it is also Takashi who is responsible for his death.

Obviously, the past is not going to stay dead, and soon Rina and Takashi will find themselves enmeshed in a fight between Takashi’s old group and a much more malevolent force that operates in a similar style.

Kensuke Sonomura’s Hydra is a somewhat frustrating film. It’s not because what’s there is bad, but rather because its miniscule 77 minutes runtime (and probably its small budget) is absolutely not enough to flesh out concepts and characters in a way that feels satisfying. I’m usually the first to say a film could use a good shortening, but here, it is absolutely the opposite.

This isn’t quite as bad as it could be because Sonomura (otherwise a stunt specialist) is a rather efficient director who doesn’t waste any time anywhere, though he still does understand the need for calm moments (which also happen to be cheaper). But there’s really only so much anyone can squeeze into any given amount of time, so much of the narrative feels rushed and lacks detail.

On the visual side on the other hand, there’s little to complain about here. Sonomura is particularly good at mood-enhancing shots of Tokyo, but there’s also quite a bit of careful framing in the character moments on display, the sort of basics that make one hope a director will get more opportunities.

Last but certainly not least, the film’s three main action sequences are absolutely great, simple, nearly minimalist in set-up and surroundings but staged and executed with verve and visual intelligence, violent and elegant at the same time.

Which may not turn Hydra into the satisfying narrative it could be, but should certainly make it worth watching.

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Last Known Address (1970)

Original title: Dernier domicile connu

Marceau Leonetti (Lino Ventura) is a violent cop but seems rather more thoughtful in his use of violence than most of his movie colleagues of the type. Probably, going by the rest of the movie, because he’s not using violence out of sadism or laziness – he is, in fact indefatigable at the grinding and plodding parts of police work, and I can’t help but suspect he’s using violence only when he deems it most efficient to get things done.

Somewhat ironically, Marceau finds himself demoted to a country office where stolen pigeons are apparently the most interesting case one can encounter for an act of violence he didn’t commit. That’s what you get when you arrest the son of an influential lawyer for a drunk driving incident, apparently.

Eventually, an old police acquaintance (Alain Mottet) asks him for help in a special investigation about the “pervert epidemic” that’s apparently gripping the nation’s cinemas. Leonetti is paired up with rookie Jeanne Dumas (Marlène Jobert) who has the tiring and undignified job of being his perv lure, and together, they’re rather great at this thing too. Because his old boss – quietly and behind closed doors – still trusts Leonetti very much indeed, this job leads to another, more interesting one: Leonetti and Dumas have only six days to find the only surviving witness to the murder committed by an influential gangster/businessman. Of course, said witness has evaded police and crooks alike for nearly five years now…

In the – mostly very positive – reviews for José Giovanni’s Last Known Address, you’ll predominantly find this praised as a bit of a hidden gem of French style noir. I certainly don’t disagree with these appraisals, though I do tend to think the 70s downer ending is a bit too rote and on the nose - in a very particular French way even with an appropriate literary quote to tie things up for all us cultivated viewers. The film certainly recommends itself with the fine chemistry between Jobert and the always wonderful Ventura who as so often does find true grace in an on paper minimal performance, and the kind of filmmaking by the (as a person more than a little dubious, unlike you really like Nazis and murder) Giovanni that’s spectacularly effective while seeming completely unspectacular.

All of which is all nice and good or even great. However, what I find utterly spellbinding about the film is its middle part, consisting of scene after scene after scene of plodding police investigation, where one clue leads to another clue leads to hope leads into nothing again and again and again. There’s nothing elegant, no terribly clever deductions at play here, instead, the film portrays investigative work, realistically, as a game of patience and endurance, of hitting the sidewalk and asking questions and getting unsatisfying answers, asking more questions and still getting nowhere, and looking through files for hours until total exhaustion sets in. For obvious reason, even the more realistic crime fiction seldom goes quite as far with this approach as the film at hand does by being okay with showing its protagonists doing boring, slow things for nearly an hour.

Yet somehow, this approach works incredibly well for Last Known Address, in part certainly because Ventura and Jobert clearly can make going through the phone book look somewhat interesting, but also because films simply don’t do this, turning what could be boring radically new and therefore interesting, at least to me.

Saturday, December 11, 2021

Three Films Make A Post: Crime runs in the family

Ida Red (2021): If ever you needed proof that making relatively simple genre movies is actually much more difficult than some filmmakers seem to believe, John Swab’s crime family drama should be it. Clearly thinking itself part of the great American tradition of these films, in truth is only a revue of its greatest clichés, wasting a really wonderful cast (Josh Hartnett, Frank Grillo, William Forsythe, Deborah Ann Woll, and so on) on material that never feels fully thought through beyond copying the surface of better films. This is particularly problematic in a film that clearly wants the audience to feel for a murderous shithead like Hartnett’s character, but never delivers anymore reason for it than him loving his mum and criminal overlady (who is even more horrible than he is, because Freud), and that is, at least treated in this superficial way, simply not enough.

Kajillionaire (2020): I like director/writer/renaissance artist Miranda July’s earlier films quite a bit, despite their nearness to the dreaded mumblecore, particularly for their ability to make the weird feel strangely logical and human. Here, working in a somewhat higher budget bracket, July’s still holding up the flag of genuine weirdness, occasionally hitting on an image or a scene that’s breath-taking and quietly daring in its individuality.

But she’s also clearly aiming for deep, emotional resonance here, something I didn’t feel at all, because in this version of July’s world, everything’s either inhumanly weird or an obvious metaphor, and neither of these things is what makes me feel actual emotions.

A House on the Bayou (2021): For the first half hour of its runtime or so, I was all in for Alex McAuley’s Blumhouse-produced streaming movie, on account of its very specific mood of southern weirdness, and despite its plot focus on rich peoples’ marital problems and the eternal search for veal cutlets.

Alas, after that strong start, the film turns into a godawful mess of random plot twists, inane ideas, and decent ideas realized inanely. There’s simply no way for the film to bring all of its disparate ideas together into anything like a whole – or really, anything like an actual movie. Instead, it just throws nonsense at the audience without even pretending there’s much hope it might stick. Because that’s not annoying enough, the thing feels really rather enamoured with a particularly mediaeval idea of morals as well, as if all the dumb talk about the horror genre’s innate reactionary core were actually true.

Thursday, December 9, 2021

In short: Running with the Devil (2019)

Somewhere on its way from South America into the USA and further north, the cocaine of a big drug cartel gets “enhanced” with something rather deadly. We learn very early on that the problem zone lies in the US, with a character the film only, in a pretty annoying effort to pretend to talk about archetypes but which really feels more like it is being too lazy to come up with character names, calls The Man (Laurence Fishburne). The Man is a keen customer of his own product, and plans to find just the right mixture to let him continue to steal cocaine from his very dangerous bosses; he’s an idiot, obviously.

Some of the victims of the guy’s new and improved cocaine turn out to be the sister and brother-in-law of a DEA agent, or, sigh, The Agent in Charge (Leslie Bibb). Said agent gets rather angry about this, and is only too happy to use tools like torture and murder to get at the people responsible.

Of course, the cartel isn’t happy about customers dropping dead quite this early in their careers as addicts, either, so they send a middle manager we will only know as The Cook (Nicolas Cage) to follow the supply chain northwards right from its start.

Jason Cabell’s Running with the Devil got quite a critical drubbing by the few professional reviewers who bothered with it, and it’s really not much of a surprise. Its whole “Sicario as an exploitation movie” shtick must be rather infuriating to quite a few critics. As someone who thinks the Villeneuve movie is – like most of his output – massively overrated, I don’t feel the outrage myself. Instead, I can’t help but think the film at hand has just as little of substance to say about the complexities and horrors of the drug business and the idiot attempts to curtail it with the heaviest hand possible as its more upmarket cousin.

My main problem with Running isn’t even that it is lacking in insight, it is how badly it uses its on paper ambitious and interesting drug picaresque structure. On one hand, it doesn’t trust into having a truly episodic structure enough to just skip a traditional main narrative altogether; on the other hand, its main narrative itself is much too fragmented to work straightforwardly. There are also decisions I find simply bewildering. For example, why tell the audience so early in the movie that Fishburne is the man responsible for the whole plot, and make Cage’s travels so even more pointless on the narrative level?

Additionally, there are painfully awkward tonal shifts, so we go from the film’s handful of scenes of actually tight and interesting crime business to what I can only assume is meant to be comedy, though it certainly isn’t funny. It’s a bit of a shame, too, for more of those tighter scenes could have been combined into a pretty great crime movie.

But at least Running is the one movie you’ll encounter in your life where Fishburne chews the scenery and Cage stays cool throughout.

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Grave Robbers (1989)

Original title: Ladrones de tumbas

Centuries ago. The inquisition (heroes for once, if only in a movie!) just barely manage to thwart the plan of one of their own executioners (Agustín Bernal) to beget the Anti-Christ via the icky ways of ritual and virgin rape. On the torture rack, just after he has cursed everyone involved and prophesied his eventual return, he is dispatched via his own axe in his chest. 

Today, well, the late 80s. A group of teenage grave robbers – one of whom apparently finds their targets through a psychic gold finding sense – really appear to hit it big this time around. They find their way into a secret crypt below a grave, where a lot of very old corpses wear a lot of jewellery. Alas, dire warnings by Psychic Gal notwithstanding, they get too greedy and open the coffin of the executioner, and remove the axe from his chest. Obviously, this wakes the angry dead guy up but good, and soon the local lethality rate by decapitation, face pressed through lattice, and axeings rises to Halloween Kills levels. Campers are particularly under threat.

Eventually, the dead guy will certainly also try to revive his old rapey plans, if the local cop Captain López (Fernanda Almada) doesn’t find a way to fight him off. Since the cop’s daughter (Edna Bolkan) will turn out to be the killer’s preferred virgin, he is at least highly motivated.

I have to admit, I didn’t really expect terribly much going into Rubén Galindo Jr’s mix of supernatural slasher and religious horror. Most of the little I’ve seen of Mexican horror of the 80s does tend to the cheap, boring and not terribly interesting to look at. The two last problems really do not apply to the film at hand, though, for once his film gets into its groove, it provides so much gloopy fun and so many bizarre ideas and films them so pretty damn attractively, you could probably make two normal movies out of them.

The beginning of the film is a mite slow, but once the executioner is walking around again, heads and extremities start to fly left and right, Almada’s cop beats up teenagers and wastes ammunition like a good action hero, and stranger things dawn on the horizon.

All of this is most probably inspired by Italian 80s horror. At the very least, Galindo seems to like the same mix of blueish light, indoor fog and specific camera angles as his European colleagues. That’s not a complaint, and perfectly keeping in the tradition of Mexican horror, which also was rather good at taking European or North American influences and given them a very individual turn.

The mood of the film is strange and a bit dream-like early on, partially thanks to the camerawork but also because the way the characters go about their business doesn’t exactly make sense (unless most grave robbers are teens with their own psychic), the way the locations are supposed to be connected never quite comes together as anything you’d call a believable picture – even if you ignore the executioner’s Satan-given ability to teleport. This sort of thing will of course be a bit of a weakness if you like things logical and plausible, but here, it seems rather consciously used as a way to create a mood of the outré.

And things do get rather out there in the final half hour, when the slasher we’ve been watching suddenly adds things like a murderous hand coming out of a guy’s belly, a hand which then suddenly comes – plaster colour and all out of a wall to strangle another character. Then, a priest is attacked by a flying dagger he can’t pray away, and Captain López really gets into dynamite in the action movie plus horror plus what the hell climax. All of this is realized via pretty wonderful practical effects, shot attractively, and staged – apart from a couple of bizarrely wayward reaction shots in the finale – very effectively.

Ladrones de tumbas is a wonderful example of all that is good and right about fun 80s horror, and, because Mexican horror unfairly never made it terribly big outside of Spanish language audiences, probably a new old example of the form for many a potential viewer.

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

In short: The Tall Target (1951)

1861, just before Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration. New York police sergeant John Kennedy (Dick Powell) has discovered a plot to assassinate Lincoln during a pre-inauguration speech in Baltimore. Nobody wants to believe his report on the matter, so he takes it upon himself to get on the night train to Baltimore to try and get the information into the hands of people who’ll take it seriously.

On the train, it becomes clear very quickly that Kennedy isn’t wrong. At least, somebody likes his ideas so little, they attempt to murder him. For the rest of the night Kennedy tries desperately to survive murder attempts, manoeuvre through very dramatic versions of more quotidian problems like the lack of a train ticket, and finds himself hindered and helped by various characters on the train, like Colonel Caleb Jeffers (Adolphe Menjou), a very dutiful train conductor (Will Geer), and an enslaved girl named Rachel (Ruby Dee, who steals every scene she is in). Someone certainly is part of the conspirators against Lincoln. Kennedy’s life isn’t made any easier by the fact that he ended his last meeting with his boss by throwing his badge into the man’s face, making the small bit of authority he usually has rather shaky, and impossible to prove.

As far as I understand, The Tall Target is one of the first films of Anthony Mann not made for the B-slot in an evening at the movies, so he could work with a budget of about a million dollars here, which must have opened up some possibilities.

The resulting film is a pretty fantastic example of what we’d today call a thriller in the Hitchcockian vein, where a mostly normal guy stumbles into a situation that’s really rather out of his depth, but fights on regardless. Sure, Kennedy may be cop, but he has no authority beyond his word, and even has to try to beg, steal, or borrow a gun. And while he has some experience with violence, the traits that help him survive are tenaciousness and sheer luck. So, the film would make a pretty great double bill with the (later) North by Northwest.

Mann here is particularly great at creating a sense of place, the feeling of spending a rather dangerous time in the very enclosed space of the train, as emphasised through the pretty spectacular looking work of DP Paul Vogel. Because most of the film takes place by night, even the handful of scenes taking place outside share the feeling of claustrophobia, of darkness hanging over and enclosing Kennedy, a darkness that will not always turn out to his detriment in moments of danger.

There’s no fat at all to the script by George Worthington Yates and Art Cohn – every scene, every character interaction, every shot carries import and meaning, helps the plot along, defines the characters Kennedy meets along the way, and creates just the right amount of historical context. As a result, The Tall Target is a tight, enormously suspenseful film, yet one that never feels too breathless.

Sunday, December 5, 2021

The Spider Woman Strikes Back (1946)

Warning: spoilers ahoy, for some things, you just have to write down!

Jean Kingsley (Brenda Joyce) comes to the small town of Domingo, a place of cattle ranches (which the script calls farms for some reason) and very little else, to work as a companion and occasional secretary for blind Zenobia Dollard (Gale Sondergaard). Zenobia is a charming and kindly woman, knitting many a sweater for the kids in town, and keeping on the dumb and for 40s people apparently very frightening looking Mario (good old Rondo Hatton) as her servant. Why, she’s so nice, she even insists on Jean drinking a nice, warm glass of milk before going to bed each night.

Curiously, ever since she has arrived Jean has begun sleeping very heavily. She is also plagued by nightmares and has problems getting out of bed. It is probably the good country air as Zenobia says. Or is Zenobia slowly draining Jean’s blood to feed it to a giant plant she brought with her from South America and which she uses to poison the local cattle, so the ranchers (which the film calls farmers for some reason) will leave and she can get their lands which once belonged to her family back on the cheap? You decide.

It is rather difficult to not find at least a small place in my heart for a film whose villainess has tried this hard to come up with a needlessly convoluted and ridiculous plan, and thankfully, that’s not the only point on which Arthur Lubin’s Universal production The Spider Woman Strikes Back delivers.

There’s also the sheer chutzpa of a title that tries to sell itself as a sort of sequel to the Rathbone Sherlock Holmes Spider Woman while having nothing whatsoever to do with the Universal Holmes cycle apart from Gale Sondergaard here taking on the role of a different villainess.

On a more practically and less conceptually fun level, this is simply a very entertaining little programmer, surprisingly efficiently plotted by Eric Taylor, and directed with as many flourishes of mood – for example the very nice noirish lighting of Zenobia’s mansion by night – by Arthur Lubin as time and budget permitted. On the plot level, this isn’t at all far from your typical Poverty Row movie, but there’s a pleasant degree of focus and craftsmanship on display here Monogram or PRC directors only seldom rose to, so we get a delightfully silly plot presented with the amount of energy it actually deserves.

Another pleasant surprise is how much Joyce’s Jean is actually doing on her own her. Sure, the painfully boring male lead (Hal Wentley), missing from the plot bit of this post because he’s just that uninteresting, does get to save Jean in the end, but for most of the movie, she’s figuring stuff out herself, making decent plans, and giving off the air of a young woman perfectly able to take care of herself even under difficult circumstances. It’s always particularly nice to see a female character in a 40s movie who is as perfectly capable as she is, yet no femme fatale.

Sondergaard makes a fine villain too, which should come as no surprise since Universal was trying to sell the film on her past Holmes character. She may not be going to the heights of scenery chewing you’d hope for given her bizarre plan, but she’s wonderfully able to present Zenobia’s ability to change from decidedly nice, cultured, poetry-loving woman to cold-blooded killer of secretaries and fondler (there is indeed a somewhat erotic quality in her relationship to her plant) of dangerous plants. And, of course, it’s also nice to see Rondo Hatton, even though I, not coming from the 40s and all, always think he looks like a nice, quiet guy you’d want to have a beer and a chat with, instead of a reason to screech and faint.

What more could anyone want from a cheap Universal programmer from 1946?

Saturday, December 4, 2021

Three Films Make A Post: Don't let the holidays eat you alive

Black Friday (2021): This horror comedy by Casey Tebo about an alien parasite type of zombie outbreak in a giant toyshop recommends itself with a lot of nice gooey effects (and a truly adorably bad looking kaiju), fun and snarky performances by Devon Sawa, Ivana Baquero, Bruce Campbell, and the rest of the cast. The script is more competent and effective than great, but its practical realization is fast and fun enough to make this a properly entertaining ninety minutes in the tradition of your favourite pieces of fun horror from the 80s or 90s.

Which does make for a nice change from all the ghost movies about demons as well as all those earnest and slow horror movies about grief.

The Shadow Side aka La Parte Oscura (2020): Speaking of demons and an entertaining time (though it’s not even an hour here), this quarantine zoom conference POV horror movie from Argentina as directed by Max Coronel features the former as well as the latter.

The film is just as long as it needs and should be. It quickly and highly efficiently establishes characters and situation and then goes through a series of escalating and equally efficient horror set pieces, generally staged and shot as nicely as its production circumstances allow. Clara Kovacic makes a fine main characters/victim of your usual evil occult powers, and the rest of the cast is doing exactly what (and as much of it) as they need to.

Mad God (2021): Unlike these other two films, film Tippett’s insanely creative and capital-W weird feature-length stop motion animation isn’t efficient or simple yet effective genre work. Instead, this is a deeply strange trip into aesthetic netherworlds that feel intensely personal, lacking in explanation, plot, and character to make room for incredible, and sometimes deeply disturbing, visual worldbuilding.

I’ve honestly never seen anything quite like it, and certainly not in a shape that actually manages to keep up aesthetic thrills and intensity for nearly ninety minutes like this does.

Friday, December 3, 2021

Thursday, December 2, 2021

In short: The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

Medical doctors in 1920s London are killed in various peculiar and grotesque ways. It does take some time until the inauspiciously named Detective Inspector Trout (Peter Jeffrey) figures things out, but the only thing these doctors have in common apart from their titles is that they all took part in an operation which left their patient, one Victoria Regina Phibes (various very fetching photos of Caroline Munro), very dead indeed. It is the dead lady’s husband, the supposedly dead renaissance genius Dr Anton Phibes (Vincent Price) – assisted by the beautiful, talented and fashionable (that’s important) Vulnavia (Virginia North) - who is committing the murders, inspired by the biblical plagues no less. In between bouts of vigorous organ playing and monologues to his dead wife, of course. Will the police catch him before he manages to teach the last of the medicos, Dr Vesalius (Joseph Cotton) a valuable lesson from his bible studies?

I’m actually rather surprised I’ve never written even a tiny piece like this about this particular high water mark in the career of the great Vincent Price, as directed by Robert Fuest in his own career best moment. It’s high pop art in look and feel (some would say high camp), a film so stylish and stylized, so clearly understanding how the funnily grotesque and the macabre are related, it is still a feast for horror kids of all ages and tempers. It’s not a film for anyone of my kind of taste to simply enjoy but one to feel completely at home in, a comfy chair/favourite blanket combo of absurd murder methods, bright, popping colours, and production design that is at once strange, bizarre and makes absolute sense in context. Of course Dr Phibes would have his own tin robot band, and of course he’d have an organ that not just glows in the most intense red but also moonlights as a practical elevator perfect for dramatic entries and exits.

Price is absolutely brilliant here (as he so often was), projecting a grotesque operatic grandness even though the script by James Whiton and William Goldstein – in one of those perverse decisions that can turn out to be pure genius – lets Price use his wonderful voice only occasionally, in a scratchy form, when he’s plugged into his self-made voice box. But no matter for our hero, he can use body language just as well and nuanced in its bigness as his voice, gifting the film (and the audience) a performance that’s just as bizarre and perfectly right as the rest of this pretty perfect movie.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Sukkubus (1989)

Around the early 19th Century, in the Swiss Alps. Three herdsmen, never named by anything but their job description, and therefore called Senn (something like the foreman in the alpine dairyman business, played by Peter Simionischek), Hirt (herdsman, Giovanni Früh) and Bub (boy, Andy Voss), are going about their cow-minding business, regularly moving their herd from one alpine hut to the next. It’s not all happy cow times, though. Senn is rather too much on the self-righteous side, so when he is fighting what he clearly interprets as his and others sinful urges he does it with a bit too much enthusiasm. Still, the version of Christianity of his time and place Senn follows is paired with quite a few little superstitious rites that can’t quite hide their pagan roots. Hirt, on the other hand, has never met any impulse he’s trying to repress. So he’s perpetually horny, dabbling in the darker kind of ritual magic, and not averse to attempting to rape the boy. The Bub, when not being accosted by the Hirt, is about as innocent as they come. Well, apart from his obsession with getting his hand licked by one particular cow.

After about forty minutes or so of watching these men, Senn and Hirt get raucously drunk on the medicinal stuff and start building a Sennentuntschi, the image of a woman made out of wood, clothes and hay while blaspheming merrily. Of course, the thing comes to life (as a perpetually naked Pamela Prati), and begins hounding the trio in various lethal ways that can’t be stopped by the grown-up men trying to brutalize her to death or ban her with folk magic.

Sukkubus is a curious film, a bit of psychological but staunchly supernatural folk horror made by a German company on a decent budget – so nothing German cinema has any love for – directed by Georg Tressler who mostly worked in sex comedies and the painfully harmless Heimatfilm genre before, and in just as bland TV afterwards. How and why this combination resulted in a German, Swiss-set folk horror movie with long swathes of calm character observation and a bit of sleaze in its second half is anybody’s guess, but I’m pretty happy this thing exists.

It is a rather slow film, but the slowness is caused by its focus on first showing us the psychological brokenness of these lonely men in a world without women, civilisation or even proper distraction. There’s also great care taken with simply showing us the world they populate, and the reality of the work they do, as well as the way they position the supernatural - the protective power of the saints in Senn’s case, something older and more honestly dark in Hirt’s – as part of their daily work and life. Really, the folk magic and folkloric interpretations of Christianity seem to be the best entertainment these guys are going to get; it’s no wonder the boy likes that cow so much.

Having prepared the field this way, the entry of the clearly and obviously supernatural only seems logical, not just on the psychological level where the repressed (in Senn’s case) or the much too un-repressed (Hirt) urges of the men come to life to haunt and kill them in exactly the form they loathe and desire, love and hate at the same time, but also simply following the folkloric logic the men themselves live by to its final consequence.

It’s a rather effective film in that, at least if a viewer has the patience for, or even better, interest in, watching Tressler first build the world that is going to come crashing down on the characters.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

In short: The Ogre (1988)

aka Demons 3: The Ogre

aka The House of the Ogre

Successful horror writer Cheryl (Virginia Bryant), her husband Tom (Paolo Malco) and their son Bobby (Patrizio) have rented a castle in Italy for some pretty special summer vacation time. Well, I say vacation, but Cheryl is so obsessed with exorcising her emotional demons via her writing, she’s still working rather a lot.

The family’s chosen vacation spot doesn’t seem to have been a great idea, either: once they have moved in, Cheryl begins having terrible nightmares and visions of a childhood encounter with a creature she identifies as an ogre. She becomes convinced these dreams are actual memories, and that the castle’s cellar is the place where she really did encounter something terrible back then. She does seem to have awakened something, for mildly strange things do start happening around her, even outside of her nightmares.

Tom, as is horror movie husbands’ wont in situations like this, is of course of little help, and acts in a way that would be less than helpful if Cheryl indeed had the sort of psychotic break he seems to suspect her to have, and is certainly not useful in case of actual monsters, even those perhaps conjured up by Cheryl’s subconscious.

The Ogre is another one of Lamberto Bava’s movies made for Italian TV. It isn’t one of the more exciting ones, going for a kind of psychological suspense with occasional monsters that neither Bava’s and Dardano Saccetti’s script nor the actors can really sustain.

Bava does seem to enjoy the opportunity to shoot in real locations for once a bit too much, so there are a lot of decidedly uncreepy shots of the very pretty castle, an much use of daylight and natural light that doesn’t play to the director’s strengths at all.

Some of the scenes of Cheryl creeping around the cellar or of the ogre doing his ogre business are fine, but the film seems more interested in the pretty castle and in Cheryl’s and Tom’s not terribly interesting rows to make much of those.

It’s all a bit harmless, and certainly lacks a scene or two of people getting killed via the power of golf.