Wednesday, February 8, 2023

In short: Below (2002)

I have repeatedly seen somewhat confused or annoyed comments online regarding the general disinterest towards this particular submarine-set horror film, given the involvement of general well-regarded people like David Twohy as director and co-writer, Darren Aronofsky as one of the writers and Bruce Greenwood and a cast of talented faces in it. Personally, after today’s re-watch I’m not very surprised, for while Below is a highly competent little horror film it is neither a very memorable nor a very deep (sorry) one, with little that’s thematically interesting about it, nor much about its scares that gives them staying power in my mind beyond the film’s running time. This is a particular problem if one keeps in mind this was made after the central films of the big late 90s/early 00s Asian horror wave hit, films that were much more memorable and often quite a bit more complex, so Below just looks a bit mediocre and conservative in comparison.

This isn’t to say Below isn’t good for a hundred minutes of mildly spooky, pleasantly claustrophobic fun, it’s just so traditional in its approach to its ghost story, you basically know everything that’s going to happen in it and how it’s going to happen once you read the film’s basic set-up of “haunted submarine during World War II cursed by its murdered captain (or is it)”. There are no surprises, little about the characterization that goes beyond the obvious, and little about the film’s thrills that doesn’t carry a slight whiff of staleness. I’m tempted to describe Below as “competent, yet lacking soul or an actual personality”, and look here, I just did.

Tuesday, February 7, 2023

In short: Sleepless in Seattle (1993) & You’ve Got Mail (1998)

These probably aren’t the sort of film anyone expects to find around here, but when it comes to writer/directors who continued the tradition of the romances of the studio era in Hollywood without just being retro, Nora Ephron at her best – and she certainly was in these two films - probably was the best too, dropping as many nods and smiles in the direction of other films as Quentin Tarantino. Of course, because being a woman in Hollywood still sucks, and the film genres Ephron was involved in usually don’t even get the cult credits of the sort of film I’m usually talking about here, only a handful of critics ever cared. Not that this blogger is an exception, mind you, for I’ve been turning up my nose at most romantic comedies for quite a few years, as well. Chalk this up as another thing about which I have been wrong.

What makes these two films special is not just Ephron’s ability to construct a romantic comedy that never is too sappy while still tugging on a viewer’s heart strings. Rather, Ephron here gives us a complete package full of perfectly timed sequences, dialogue that’s clever and sharp and flows so naturally you never stop and think that nobody talks this cleverly in real life, and direction that is much more imaginative in its approach than it lets on. Add to that an excellent cast (remember Tom Hanks when he wasn’t completely in thrall to the illusion he’s a great dramatic actor or, Cthulhu help us, a director, and when Meg Ryan wasn’t kicked to the curb side with Hollywood’s obsession not with youth but with people over forty looking like thin pressed sausages?), the director’s excellent taste in the use of music, and I don’t see how I couldn’t like these films.

Sure, I disagree with Ephron’s idea of romantic love, and certainly can’t help but raise my eyebrows at the absence of non-rich people in these films, but then, I also don’t believe in ghosts yet still enjoy a good ghost story told by fussy old upper-class academics.

Sunday, February 5, 2023

The Pale Blue Eye (2022)

1830. A West Point cadet dies in what at first appears to be a suicide. Somebody breaking into the morgue the evening after to very literally steal the corpse’s heart does make the place’s leadership change their minds about that, though, and they call in a retired New Yorker policeman living in a cabin not too far away from the Academy. Augustus Landor (Christian Bale) is a gifted investigator, but he’s not too happy to be drawn into his old profession again. He lost his wife and later his daughter some years ago, and would really rather prefer to drink himself into a stupor and wallow in his grief; he’s not too keen on West Point as an institution either, for reasons that will become clear later. However, he is also fascinated by the case and its macabre circumstances, something that will only increase once further murders happen. Landor acquires a kind of assistant among the cadets in form of one Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling). Poe is an outsider among his peers thanks to his combination of romantic weirdness and intelligence as well as his predilection for poetry and the weird. He also has a brilliant mind made to solve puzzles and ciphers, which will stand everyone involved in good stead, especially once things take a turn into the occult.

Going by what I’ve heard, Scott Cooper’s historical mystery with a touch of the Gothic seems to be a bit of a marmite movie, with any given critic either bored to tears or really fascinated by the film and its general mood. I’m part of the latter group, but then, the former seems to believe this in many ways very traditional mystery with an occult bent – and some more modern touches for the last act – to be a procedural. Everyone watches a different movie, apparently.

Be that as it may, I’m not usually terribly font of mysteries that enrol a random famous person from history as a detective; often, because little in these persons’ works or life suggest any interest in these matters (sorry, Oscar Wilde). Poe, on the other hand makes a lot of sense in a detective role, as the father of the modern detective story as well as through his public fascination with puzzles and hoaxes. Cooper, providing his own script from a novel by Louis Bayard makes great use of this, as well as of Poe’s macabre and grotesque and romantic (in the traditional sense of the word) side.

Melling is a great as Poe as well, finding mannerisms and language that makes him feel eccentric and emotionally overblown in many regards, but never drift into caricature. Rather, this Poe is a complete human being, and it makes perfect sense that this version of Poe and Landor begin hitting it off like a strange father/son duo. That Bale’s great doing the very standard “detective haunted by the past” bit should come as no surprise. In fact, he’s so good at it that later developments that could strain belief make perfect sense.

Add to this the film’s wintry mood of rural, US gothic, the various occult shenanigans, and Cooper’s calm, un-showy but often quietly intelligent direction, and a cast so full of great actors (there are Timothy Spall, Toby Jones, Lucy Boynton and Gillian Anderson, for example) it can throw away someone like Charlotte Gainsbourg on a minor role, and you’ve pretty much made a film so centred around various of my favourite interests, I’m bound to love it.

As a matter of fact, The Pale Blue Eye does quite a bit more as well. This is very much a movie about how the failure of all figures of authority and respect at just doing their damn jobs and treating their communities with respect and fairness destroys first single members of these communities (in ways that can be lethal, spiritual, or mental) and then the community as a community, without most of these men of authority ever even understanding what is truly happening; one might think because they do not want to see it, though the film isn’t really telling.

Apart from that, there’s also a much more personal story here, about grief, justice, and the things that might come after, but getting further into this would lead us into unnecessary spoiler territory.

Saturday, February 4, 2023

Three Films Make A Post: Reap what you sow.

I Want to Go Home (2017): This sixty minute documentary by Wesley Leon Aroozoo about Yasuo Takamatsu, a man whose wife was swept away in Japan’s 2011 tsunami, and who is still diving nearly every week in the coastal town where he lost her in hopes to find her body is a quietly moving, respectful attempt at looking at the greater impact of the tsunami on Japanese society by focussing on the experiences of one man. Its treatment of Takamtsu is delicate, respecting the distances the man wants to keep yet still portraying some of the depth of his grief. There’s a quiet, gracious kindness on display throughout the film – by Takamatsu as well as Aroozoo – I found deeply moving.

What to Do with the Dead Kaiju? (2022): Despite a basic idea that seems readymade for clever satire or original meta-science-fiction, this tokusatsu comedy by Satoshi Miki suffers from a bad case of not knowing what it wants to be. It shifts between broadest comedy, slightly subtler stuff, and misguidedly shot earnestness in awkward ways I’d call amateurish coming from an inexperienced director, but can’t explain from someone who is as good at this sort of thing as Miki often is. Most of the time, the whole thing comes over as a bad attempt at shooting a parody of Shin Godzilla for idiots, which is just a sad waste of a good idea.

Petite Maman (2021): This shortish feature by the great Céline Sciamma is a rather wonderful bit of fantasy, as filmed by a director steeped in the French arthouse tradition who is always turning the visual language of it around to fit her own ideas and interests. Here, she takes on the experience of childhood, specifically a girl’s experience of childhood, putting the feelings of wonder, awkwardness, sadness, and confusion into patiently staged scenes that manage to be beautiful as well as meaningful.

It’s also a portrayal of the connections between mothers and daughters, distance and closeness, and as quietly touching a film as I’ve seen.

Thursday, February 2, 2023

In short: Senritsu Kaiki File Kowasugi! File 02: Shivering Ghost & File 03: Legend of a Human-Eating Kappa (2012)

In File 02, Director – I actually assume that’s his first name – Kudo (Shigeo Ohsako), assistant Ichikawa (Chika Kuboyama), and their camera man Tashiro (Koji Shiraishi) follow a new viewer’s video that supposedly shows a ghost haunting an abandoned school – all schools in the series seem abandoned, and look rather a lot like the same school. This quickly evolves into the search for a disappeared young woman, her curious relationship to an older man, and the occult significance of the Tokyo Skytree, culminating in a bit of High Strangeness.

File 03 leads our heroes into the countryside, where the search of what may or may not be a man-eating kappa ends up in a pretty ineffective banishing ritual.

The basic things I said about the formal cleverness and ultra-low budget creativity of the first Senritsu Kaiki File Kowasugi as well as my admiration for writer/director/actor Koji Shiraishi still apply. Both of these films actually seed quite a few concepts that will be important later on in the series, turning the whole series also into a bit of an Easter egg hunt once you’ve seen all of it.

These two are also the least effective films of the series seen without the context of the later films. File 02 suffers from being structured like an actual investigation, which means the moments of excitement here are surrounded by some scenes of the characters just observing or waiting around, something you simply can’t make look terribly exciting with the very low budget filmmaking technology Shiraishi has to work with here; however, Shiraishi being Shiraishi, there are also some suggestions of mind-blowing high concepts the rest of the series will heroically triple down on, a great no-budget climax, and moments of actual, simple strangeness that make this very much worthwhile.

File 03 is for my tastes the weakest part of the whole series. Apart from our protagonists, there’s no important connection to the rest of the series, and the kappa hunt tale itself is simply not all that interesting, even though I did appreciate how much stock Shiraishi puts into the importance of cucumbers. This film also has a fun enough final act with said banishing ritual, but most of what comes before is just too thinly stretched not to become a little bit dull.

From here on out, however, dullness is not a problem the Senritsu Kaiki File Kowasugi! series will suffer under, because now, Shiraishi is going to be doing his crazy dance of High Strangeness, low budget, peculiar humour, can-do-even-if-can’t-afford spirit full-time.

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

In short: Casting the Runes (1979)

Apparently, the great Lawrence Gordon Clark, the main driving force behind the initial run of BBC Ghost Stories for Christmas, couldn’t quite let go of ghost stories, or the works of M.R. James, even after the BBC did, so we got this James modernisation made for ITV – curiously enough broadcast in April, but then, TV programmers do tend not to understand how these things generally work.

Unlike Clark’s modus operandi in those of the Ghost Stories that were adaptations, this updates the plot of the tale into then contemporary times, so instead of Academic journals, we get a TV documentary raising the ire of Mr Karswell, and our not terribly antiquarian protagonist is actually (gasp!) a woman (Jan Francis in a fine performance with the right mix of disbelief, desperation and courage). Pleasantly, all of Clark’s updates make very good sense for the tale at hand, making it more modern without lessening its core joys and Francis’s Prudence Dunning is a believable heroine for the tale – provided with slightly more character as was James’s style, of course – whereas Iain Cuthbertson really hits the right note of sinister self-centeredness for Karswell.

Working on a TV budget in 1979, this is of course not as great a movie as Tourneur’s Night of the Demon but it is a closer adaptation of the story, despite the changes and some omissions. This being a Gordon Clark joint, there are some surprisingly effective scenes of horror, some very well chosen landscapes for the exterior locations, and a general sense of being in the hands of a filmmaker of pleasant intelligence working for the old pleasing terrors. That the interiors simply don’t look terribly good in the manner of contemporary 70s British TV, and that some of the special effects have aged somewhat badly doesn’t really change anything about that impression.

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

In short: Much Ado About Nothing (2012)

Joss Whedon's film is pretty much how I'd like more Shakespeare movie adaptations to be - keeping close to the text yet not treating Shakespeare's work as a monument but as a living, breathing thing that contains more than enough room for an interpreter's personality and ideas without a need to insert one's raging ego for Shakespeare's. So, it's pretty much the opposite approach to Kenneth Branagh (whose approach to Shakespeare I loathe with enthusiasm, while I very much dig his Agatha Christie). Rather, this Much Ado feels to me like a writer really good at working with and subverting conventions paying his respects to another working writer really good at working with and subverting conventions.

And because Whedon is the great kind of working writer, he also knows how and when to step back and let the other people involved in a production give space to do the things they do better than he does, so another reason for Much Ado About Nothing's success is that it feels like a group effort in whose development the actors involved took as much part as the director, with many a moment that feels spontaneous, and many an actor I wouldn't have thought to be any fit at all for Shakespeare showing how to make the bard’s verse sound and more importantly feel natural in a contemporary (if not exactly naturalistic setting, for you'd need to rewrite the play to have it fit comfortably into something socially realist instead of emotionally realist) setting. Particularly Amy Acker and Alex Denisof - whose romance as Beatrice and Benedick the film emphasises for good reason in a contemporary version - are pretty admirable.

As is director-hat Whedon's ability to keep a film taking place in very constrained locations visually interesting and meaningful throughout in an elegant and often off-handed way that's never showy for showiness's sake.

Sunday, January 29, 2023

The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds (1965)

Government agent Johnson (Bert Williams) is ordered to infiltrate a gang of moonshiners operating in what the Internet tells me are the Everglades, so what we call the Particularly Weird South. He is quickly uncovered by sweaty uncouth men, and has to flee through the swamp by night. There, an encounter with what may or may not be a mad masked woman nearly kills him. Johnson just barely manages to get himself to a lonely. isolated swamp inn – which is no kind of inn at all, if you think about it. The place’s owner, Mrs Pratt (Ann Long?) and her factotum Harold (Chuck Frankle) take care of our hero’s wounds and provide him with a place to rest.

The inn is as Southern Gothic as it gets, however, everyone at the place having emotions as heightened as Mount Everest. Secrets of course do abound, as well. Mrs Pratt keeps her “mad” daughter Lisa (Jackie Scelza) – who rather resembles that other mad lady with the knife though our hero doesn’t appear to notice – chained up in the attic, and let’s not even get into the very special doll collection in the cellar. Johnson does of course fall for Lisa, and plans to eventually escape with her, once he’s figured out what’s going on around him.

Long thought lost, a print of this Southern Gothic/exploitation piece from, with and by Floridian one-time auteur (and rather more regular actor) Bert Williams was discovered a half a decade ago and restored with the help of Nicolas Winding Refn, who clearly has a taste for strange exploitation films, and does put his name and his time up for them.

The film is probably not for anyone not at least a little experienced with local productions and weirdo exploitation, for it shows quite a few of the less palatable hallmarks of this very indie (decades before we used the word) kind of movie. So expect many a scene of actors very consciously not looking at the camera while emoting to their physical limits in ways that are as intense as they are stilted; blocking and framing is often awkward, a nailed-on camera adding torpor to the less than dynamic approach. Unless, of course, an act of violence or gothic strangeness occurs, when the editing suddenly freaks out, loud noises begin to dominate the soundtrack, and short, sharp jolts of striking imagery cut through the visual dullness with heated intensity. There is also an increasing number of moments of moody swampy goodness, that provide the moments when the film isn’t shuffling its feet trying to bore you to tears with quite a bit of actual atmosphere.

These more interesting gasps of excitement occur more often the longer the film goes on, for like many of its siblings, it is frontloaded with some of its most dull scenes. It gets pretty excited (exciting might go too far) for a bit, only to slow down to a dull crawl again until the final act excitedly sketches out the place where the Texas Chainsaw Massacre will meet Southern Gothic. If you’ve seen as many films of this kind as I have over the decades, you’ll probably appreciate the contrast between extreme dullness and the sparks of the low budget visionary – I at least found this rather bracing, lending The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds even more of the quality of a dream, or really, the quality of something of made to show you an approximation of somebody else’s dream.

Saturday, January 28, 2023

Three Films Make A Post: Still Partying Like It’s 2022

The Wonder (2022): I’ve read rather a lot of excited praise for Sebastián Lelio’s film, but I can’t say I can agree with much of it. Sure, on a technical level, this is a highly accomplished movie, but to my eyes, it is also one that doesn’t have as much substance as its form suggests. What is has to say about grief and female empowerment is rather on the trite and obvious side, its deliberate surface artfulness trying to distract from a lack of deeper thought at its core, its moments of hapless yet self-important fourth wall breaking notwithstanding.

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio (2022): In contrast, this little wonder of puppet animation by del Toro and Mark Gustafson is just as surface artful in its own way, but it also has – despite much more obvious emotionality and plotting – much more depth on any level: emotionally, politically, aesthetically and intellectually. It is also much less po-faced in its approach to the surprising number of things it talks about – from the problems of fathers and sons, over fascism, death, to the troubles of homeownership when you’re a grasshopper. This doesn’t mean it lacks seriousness in its thinking. Rather, the film treats humour and warmth as important parts of the human experience even under circumstances full of suffering and grief, not allowing itself or its viewers to lose sight of the totality of life.

Count Magnus (2022): Mark Gatiss’s newest Ghost Story for Christmas – again based on a tale by M.R. James, obviously – seems to have been the least well-regarded of the irregular series until now. Admittedly, the tale takes a bit too long to get going, with a talky beginning that’s less than ideal in a thirty minute piece. Particularly in its early stages, it looks terribly stagey and nearly aggressively digital, the BBC’s unwillingness to give Gatiss a decent budget showing to ill effect.

I found myself reconciled with the tale once it got going, though. Even though it never reaches the height of the original story – which is one my favourites of Monty’s – there are eventually some nicely creepy moments, despite the script keeping things a bit more removed from the viewer than even the James tale does, perhaps in reaction to the criticism of last year’s episode showing its monster somewhat longer.

Thursday, January 26, 2023

In short: One Day, You Will Reach the Sea (2022)

Even years later, Mana (Yukino Kishii) hasn’t been able to emotionally let go of her friend Sumire (Minami Hamabe) who disappeared during the tsunamis of 2011. In flashbacks, the film shows their friendship as well as the course of Mana’s grief that may eventually end in some kind of healing through Mana’s eyes. Eventually, we’ll also witness some of the same scenes from Sumire’s perspective.

Ryutaro Nakagawa’s film is aesthetically quite typical of this sort of Japanese artsy fare, with decidedly pretty photography, and using as little dialogue as is necessary. The film’s rhythm is slow and thoughtful, with shots that go much longer than most American filmmakers outside of explicitly slow cinema circles would even dare, and scenes that take their time, but also have a point in taking their time.

This is, after all, a film about the quiet moments, about silence, about the things not said yet still expressed; also, a film about queer longing and desire that can’t or won’t be expressed or fulfilled, not in a high level dramatic or hand-wringing tragical way – after the films of his I’ve seen, I doubt Nakagawa believes in that sort of thing or at the very least has very little interest in it – but one that feels in keeping with the characters’ nature, Mana’s painful interiority, as well as Sumire’s inability to express anything like an authentic self directly.

If you let yourself fall into the film’s rhythm, you’ll probably find quite a bit of emotional truth and depth to much of what is happening (or not happening) on screen, in Nakagawa’s calm and quiet method for lending a voice to people whose truths are very often not voiced, while keeping to the tone that fits them. From time to time, particularly in the final act, there are moments where the emotional honesty One Day aims at may feel bordering on the kitschy or sentimental to some, but I prefer to think Nakagawa is just being the kind of genuine here that doesn’t care if you think he’s getting sentimental or not. I, for my part, found myself deeply moved by much of the film, its care for little gestures and silences, the quiet and deeply human performances by Kishii and Hamabe, and its sense for the intersections of editing rhythms and the rhythms of human emotions.

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

The Fantastic Planet (1973)

Original title: Le Planète Sauvage

Somewhere, some time, a race of blue giants called the Traags live curious lives of psychic, machine-based learning and pretty psychedelic looking meditations. The latter seem to take up most of their time. Still, these people are down to Earth (or Ygam, in their case) enough to hold pets. Namely, what they call the Oms (a really subtle play on the French word “homme”, of course), little hairless monkey creatures they took on an expedition to a planet you might have heard of called Terra that seems to have become somewhat post-apocalyptic, the film suggests. The tale is narrated by the grown-up version of a little Om boy whose “owner”, the young daughter of a leader of the Traags, gave him the name “Terr”. Through happenstance, Terr gains access to the same psychic teaching material used to educate his owner, so he learns to speak and understand rather a lot about the peculiar world he finds himself in. Both will be very useful skills once a grown-up Terr flees into the wilds where small clans of escaped and free-born humans live and try to avoid the Traags’ regular attempts at exterminating what they only see as animal pests.

Eventually, Terr will become a catalyst in bringing changes to the relationship between the two races.

As a rule, I am not much of a fan of fantastic cinema – nor literature, for that matter – that trades heavily in the allegorical, even if, like in the case of French director René Laloux’s film here, I’m perfectly fine with the politics being allegorized. I’ve never quite understood why you’d use an allegory this obvious when you could simply straight-up say what you mean. There’s a strange thing about the simple and obvious allegory here, however, for if you read half a dozen pieces about the film, you’ll find half a dozen different readings of what the allegory actually means, from racism (which seems to me the clear and obvious reading), to animal rights, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia (which happened right when this was animated there, and drew out the production for years), or, if you’re Gene Siskel (together with his buddy Ebert always there for the most clueless view of any given genre movie), druggy nonsense. All of which might suggest something about the subjectivity of interpretation, even of the obvious.

Be it as it may, one of the virtues of Laloux’s film is its complete lack of a moralizing tone even while it tells a moral story. The plot itself – the script was written by Laloux with the great writer Roland Topor and is based on a novel by Stefan Wul – is about as simple and matter of fact as things go. This stands in grand contrast to Fantastic Planet’s biggest selling point for someone of my tastes: aesthetics where nothing looks straight, or straightforward, or seems to belong to the world a viewer might simply understand. The visual imagination on display maybe does owe a little to the drug trippyness of its production time, but rather more to surrealism and European traditions of non-naturalistic art. The diverging Czech and French approaches to the surrealist and the strange come together rather wonderfully into scenes that are at times alien, funny, grotesque, just plain weird, and always a little bit mind-blowing, really giving the whole thing the air of a tale neither taking place on the shores we know nor told there, adding the quality of watching a myth from a very different and strange place. This gives Fantastic Planet a particularly curious quality: of being absolutely of its time in its ideas about the world and how to present it and its general ideas about life, yet also so strangely situated in a place that never actually existed that it becomes something singular.

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

In short: Death Ranch (2020)

1971. Brandon Cobbs (Deiondre Teagle) somehow manages to escape from imprisonment for a crime he may or may not have committed, ending up in a pretty swampy looking patch of woods somewhere in the South. His siblings Angela (Faith Monique) and Clarence (Travis Cutner) come to help him out, and together, the three decide to wait out some of the heat that must be coming after Brandon hiding in an old farmhouse half a state or so over.

Alas, the place they’ve chosen is not ideal for three African-Americans, for it is in the territory of a Klan chapter which not only consists of your usual violent racist pea brains in silly outfits, but violent racist pea brains in silly outfits who are also cannibals. When Brandon witnesses and interrupts the first Klan murder ritual he stumbles upon at night, all hell breaks loose.

Or really, as much hell as the budget of Charlie Steeds’s Death Ranch can allow, so don’t expect a huge – or even middling - number of locations and more than a minor horde of cannibals. Fortunately, the director is very adept at filming around problems like that in a way that distracts from them so much, they stop being problems and just become part of the general background of the film; things you notice when you keep an eye out and think about them, but not things that get in the way.

Typically, Steeds is about as British a filmmaker as you can be when making gory low budget fare, but he doesn’t seem to have much trouble with adapting to a short stint in America, leaning into the history of backwoods and survival horror movies with loving care.

The whole film is simple, but also very satisfying, putting the emphasis less on the racists torturing the black protagonists, but much more on the latter striking back, so there’s pleasantly little – beyond what you need to set things up properly – to watch of black people being violated, and quite a bit more of the racist cannibals getting killed and mutilated via fun practical effects. Thanks to a general sense of fun and a pleasantly light hand when it is needed, the whole affair, despite objectively being rather tasteless from time to time, never feels mean-spirited or unpleasant (unless you’re a cannibalistic Nazi, I suppose).

As usual in most of Steeds’s films, the bloody violence is choreographed effectively, and shot and edited with a sense of vigour and pace, using as much time for characterisation and interpersonal elements as you need for the plot to work, putting the emphasis on keeping things decidedly un-boring. Which makes it crap as a meditation on family or race relations, I suppose, but rather great at being the joyful exploitation throwback it is supposed to be.

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Senritsu Kaiki File Kowasugi! File 01: Operation Capture the Slit-Mouthed Woman (2012)

A tiny made-for-DVD (apparently) “true paranormal” show believes they have hit the big time with an audience video that shows a supposed encounter with the Kuchisake Onna, the Slit-Mouthed Woman, herself. Or at least, a woman of considerable height who likes to dress the part and can run astonishingly fast. Pasted scraps of paper and other clues lead the intrepid reporters – irascible and sometimes violent director Kudo (Shigeo Ohsako), his assistant Ichikawa (Chika Kuboyama) and their typically unseen cameraman Tashiro (director Koji Shiraishi) – on the trail of a mystery that involves curses, a magic school of dubious morals and village tragedy.

Mostly ignored by western distributors, the great Koji Shiraishi has spent several years in the 2010s on a series of connected made for home video/streaming/whatever POV horror movies about the misadventures of the trio of paranormal documentary filmmakers we first encounter here. By now, we’re up to nine films, with all but the last two of them fansubbed by some unsung heroes of the cause.

This early in the series, there’s just a hint of a larger meta plot in Kudo’s backstory as well as the way the occurrences here don’t quite resolve; not yet having seen any of the later films, I have no idea how or if any of this is going to be important later on, which makes me quite happy, actually.

As you may know, Shiraishi has turned into something of a specialist in the POV horror form, and has probably used the mode in more films than anyone else making horror movies right now. Not surprisingly, he is rather good at this sort of thing, using the stylistic elements of POV horror to disguise miniscule budgets, dodgy effects, and the sort of flaws that come with a tight shooting schedule, rather adeptly. Shiraishi also understands the use of POV horror as an actual aesthetic, the joy of hiding things in blurry backgrounds, or revealing them with slow motion and post-production zooms. In Shiraishi’s world, cheap digital media take on the same haunted quality as the VHS tape does for other filmmakers, and he’s using this to create a feeling of liminality.

Unlike other filmmakers of the style, Shiraishi clearly doesn’t believe in the necessity of keeping dull scenes during which little happens on for too long, so things zip along at a nice pace, the characters following the trails of their investigation from hint to hint, while things become increasingly creepy. It’s a budget-conscious kind of creepiness, of course, but one that’s wonderfully effective for a viewer willing to go with the film’s conceits and its aesthetic.

Even though the film does indeed feature a slit-mouthed woman, the backstory and the way she acts do not try to repeat Shiraishi’s first movie concerning the legend. They do seem to belong into the same kind of occult world the director’s POV masterpieces Noroi and Occult take place in, where urban myth, folklore, and those aspects of Japanese religions closest to what we in the West would call occultism blend into something that always feels close to the nihilism of certain types of cosmic horror to me. If the Senritsu Kaiki File films will completely go there in the end, I don’t know yet, but particularly the last act does suggest they may very well end up in that direction.

Putting on my Weird Fiction fan hat, I found myself particularly enjoying how much the film uses its cheap shot filmmakers as a group of occult detectives, though the sort neither with electrical pentacle nor much practical magical knowledge, who try to unravel an enticing mystery that seems to suggest strange vistas, and even seem to plan on some ill-advised ghost(?) busting.

All of this, particularly presented in Shiraishi’s carefully made to not look carefully made style, and showing much of the director’s interests, is very much catnip to me.

Saturday, January 21, 2023

Three Films Make A Post: "Once upon a time …"

House of Darkness (2022): Clearly, I’m never going to connect with anything Neil LaBute does. After all, not everybody is going to rave about a painfully dull and obvious “reworking” of elements of Dracula that tries so hard to be about Toxic Masculinity, #metoo, and so on, it forgets to include anything new or interesting to say about the matter. That LaBute’s approach doesn’t do characters or narrative is a bit of a problem, particularly as he uses so many words to say so few things. Things do tend to become rather tedious when you know what a film has to say after five minutes but it’s going to talk at you for ninety when there’s nothing else to hold onto.

Personally, I find LaBute’s dialogue tedious, dull and painfully self-congratulatory; his mode of satire is obvious, and his general idea of how to shoot a movie stagey and of little interest. Come to think of it, it’s the man’s films, not me.

Alienoid (2022): Where LaBute would never do anything so gauche as to attempt to tell a story, Choi Dong-hoon’s science fiction, fantasy, martial arts, action epic, tells its own in as complicated a manner as possible, shifting pointlessly – unless you’re really into obvious twists – between two main time frames in a way bound to give the film a stop/start feel that’s not exactly ideal for this sort of cinema.

The film also suffers from the fact that its Joseon era South Korean wuxia stylings are much more entertaining and fun than its present day timeline science fiction shenanigans, which are rather dull in comparison. On the plus side, most of the big set pieces set are fun – the final act completely in the olden times even fun throughout – and there’s an undeniable joy at seeing South Korea doing its version of big blockbuster cinema.

The film’s only really inexcusable flaw is that it doesn’t end but just suddenly stops on a cliffhanger in a really annoying way.

The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson (2015): This post’s high point is quite obviously this joyful, thoughtful and often very funny documentary by Julien Temple which tells the tale of Dr Feelgood’s Wilko Johnson’s diagnosis with incurable cancer that should have left him only a couple of months to live, and his rather uncommon reaction to his death sentence. Because the universe can be that way, there are also various plot twists towards the better.

Through interviews and a collage of material from films and other arts, Temple paints a loving portrait of Johnson not just as a musician but as a person, as an independently eccentric thinker (that’s a good thing in his case), and as an intensely likable guy full of surprises, finding a sense of lightness even in the the tale’s dark moments, without resorting to kitsch or sentimentality.

Thursday, January 19, 2023

In short: Antrum: The Deadliest Film Ever Made (2018)

After a bit of fake documentary footage that enumerates the burned-down cinemas and dead festival programmers the mysterious Romanian film “Antrum” may or may not have caused, we get to the meat of the matter, namely, the actual cursed movie.

Here, a young woman named Oralee (Nicole Tompkins) takes her little brother Nathan (Rowan Smyth) into a forest camping, supposedly to enact a ritual that will eventually lay to rest the spirit of Nathan’s dead dog, whom Nathan believes to be in hell. In truth, Oralee is trying to help Nathan through his first close encounter with death via occult rituals she has made up herself.

However, the siblings encounter increasingly strange things and seem to drift into a realm where Oralee’s made-up rituals seem to be true and working, conjuring up powers the siblings will hardly be able to control or even understand. Also, a stop motion squirrel.

For once, the fake documentary bits about the cursed/bad/etc movie David Amito’s and Michael Laicini’s Antrum starts with and finishes on are not terribly interesting to me. Mostly, because I don’t believe the core narrative actually needs any of this high concept stuff to work at all.

The film’s core is a really wonderful recreation of the tone and general air of weird 70s cinema, the sort of movies that play out like extended trips into a filmmaker’s subconscious, movies full of shots that probably have some deep symbolic meaning to their makers but which seem puzzling to an outside viewer, where budget and vision are caught in a knife fight that makes an animatronic and/or stop motion squirrel look like a probable special effect.

Antrum’s approach to this kind of filmmaking never feels “ironic”, or in the need to assert that it’s so bad it’s good while winking at the audience. Rather, it truly gets into the spirit of these things by being earnest, careful, and weird in all the right ways, hitting the dream-like aspect these films take on at their best and keeping to it throughout.

Which of course also means that this isn’t a movie for everyone but rather people like me who love the more outsider-style 70s arm of horror with a passion. For people like us, this is basically paradise/hell, hypnotic and more than a little beautiful.

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

The Harbinger (2022)

(This is about Andy Mitton’s The Harbinger, not the movie by Will Klipstine of the same title, from the same year).

It’s the height of the pandemic lockdown in the US. Monique (Gabby Beans) leaves the home where she is sheltering with her brother and father when her old friend Mavis (Emily Davis) asks for her help with some unspecified problems. They haven’t seen each other for years, but Mavis once saved Monique’s life during a hard run-in with mental illness, so even the pandemic is not going to get in the way of the woman repaying the favour.

Mavis’s problem is rather disturbing. As she tells it, she is plagued by nightmares, or more than nightmares but dream states which don’t end like normal dreams do, and can take days out of her life.

In these nightmares, Mavis regularly encounters a being dressed  like a plague doctor; she has started to believe it is this entity that attacks her through her dreams, with the end goal of completely erasing her from existence. She doesn’t believe she can take it any longer, so Monique’s support is supposed to be a life line for Mavis. Her supposed saviour is sceptical when it comes to the objective truth of what Mavis thinks is happening to her, but she has lived with her own mental illness long enough herself not to disbelief the truth of the experience. Unfortunately, her attempts of helping Mavis seem to infect her with the same entity her friend is fighting.

Andy Mitton is one of the more interesting directors working in the indie space right now. He is particularly good when it comes to portraying those states where dream and reality seem to drift into one another and the ground of reality turns into quicksand. So a dream horror film like this does certainly play to his strengths. There’s a strong sense of proper dream logic to the nightmares Monique will begin to suffer through (we never get into Mavis’s mind this way). The dreams are suffused with a sense of dread that feels very personal and individual to Monique, distorted echoes of a past Mitton never exposits at us, because is is always clear enough how to understand the reality through the nightmare – without things becoming bland.

How personal these dreams feel is rather typical of Mitton’s films (perhaps with YellowBrickRoad as an exception), where the supernatural is always very effectively connected to a protagonist’s inner life, in often subtly revealing ways. Consequently, the film at hand takes great care drawing Monique and her lockdown-reduced social world in meaningful ways.

The Harbinger doesn’t just want to tell a tale of personal horror taking place in a world of real global horror but also attempts to reproduce some of the psychological effects of the pandemic, all those little feelings of wrongness and the low-level dread many of us suffered under at its height. The titular monster isn’t a metaphor for the pandemic itself, exactly (because allegory is the lowest form of art), but embodies elements of how many of us felt about it.

It is also a very fine horror creation, a being that doesn’t just kill you unpleasantly like your run of the mill dream demon does, but rips people-shaped holes in the world, in memory and reality, holes whose existence you can only realize through the feeling of absence and loss caused by them. In The Harbinger, taking away lives is secondary to the titular entity taking away all the small kindnesses and gestures of human connection that now never have existed either, making the world a worse place little by little, absence by absence. Something which the film portrays chillingly despite its small scope.

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

In short: The Otherworld (2013)

Original title: L’autre monde

As regulars among my imaginary readers will probably know, I tend towards a pretty mechanistic and materialistic view of the universe, so I’m about as far from being a “believer” as you can get. I do try to treat people looking at the word with different eyes than I do respectfully and loathe the aggressive fanaticism of people like Dawkins-style New Atheists, who are just as irrationally convinced of their world view as the most extreme religious fanatic or UFO believer, and pretty damn rude about it, too. One needs to keep in mind that it may be oneself and not the others who are wrong about everything. Plus, even when one doesn’t believe in something, it is usually enlightening, fascinating or sometimes just entertaining to learn what others think about it.

However, I generally do find my patience tested by a lot of paranormal/esoteric/etc documentaries who often argue their cases in ways that make it very hard for me to give them the benefit of the doubt or my eyes and ears.

So I went into Richard Stanley’s documentary about every esoterically minded person’s favourite part of France, Occitania around Rennes-le-Château, Montségur and the other core places of the Cathar faith, his own spiritual encounter there and the various wild and woolly theories and stories about what’s going on around there with a bit of care. Once people start talking about spiritual vibrations and telluric energies, as they do rather a lot in here, my eyebrows can’t help but rise. However, the longer the film went on, the more interested I found myself, and realized that Stanley isn’t in the business of convincing anyone of his beliefs (or even making terribly clear what those beliefs actually are) but trying to portray a place that clearly has something beyond its history drawing the stranger – or more original – parts of humanity there.

While he clearly has his own ideas about the place, Stanley doesn’t attempt to turn a whole lot of sometimes very different experiences into a coherent tale, nor – thankfully – into a conspiracy theory, but is satisfied with letting his subjects and himself share their tales. He enhances those tales through some cheap yet effective psychedelic – and often just loveably playful (watch out for the running gag about cats!) – effects, nature shots that can’t help but impress at least some of the place’s draw on a viewer, and the kind of intelligent editing hand you usually don’t get in documentaries about esoterica.

Which, really, is rather a lot for any documentary to achieve.

Sunday, January 15, 2023

Bodyguard Kiba (1973)

aka The Bodyguard

Original title: ボディガード牙

This is based on the Japanese version of the movie; the US cut seems to vary considerably.

Kiba (Sonny Chiba), karate ace and all-around tough guy, returns to his native Japan after a long stint with his martial arts master in the USA. He plans on becoming the public face of his school to rid it of its low class implications, for apparently, the public believes this particular style of karate to be the realm of thugs and no-goodniks. Also, don’t mention bull-punching.

Kiba plans on reaching this goal by getting into the public eye: first, he thwarts a plane hijacking to then declare at the following press conference he’s going into the bodyguard business.

Soon, a mysterious woman named Reiko (Mari Atsumi) drops in at the home of Kiba and his sister (Etsuko Shihomi) in the attic of a Catholic church that is only ever shot in Dutch angles to hire him for five days. Kiba is not too happy his new client isn’t telling him why exactly she needs a bodyguard, but he gets somewhat distracted by various attacks on her life from the Japanese arm of the cosa nostra, as well as by various home-grown thugs. Eventually, he learns that Reiko was the lover of an assassinated Mafia boss and is trying to sell off a load of drugs she took from him.

Ryuichi Takamori’s Bodyguard Kiba is situated just before the great Sonny Chiba finally fell into his star character as the central protagonist of Toei’s soon-to-be very fevered style of martial arts exploitation movie.

At this point, we are nearly there: Kiba’s still a bit too nice when compared to many of Chiba’s later characters – at least he never attempts to rape anyone, and will only mutilate his enemies in about half of the fights – and Takamori approaches the nudity and the more extreme moments of violence with a degree of reticence.

This doesn’t mean there isn’t any crazy karate action business going on. In a pretty fantastic early fight, for example, Kiba uses a door and his heavy-breathing based technique to amputate the arm of one of his assailants to later show it to his understandably nonplussed client. There’s also quite a bit of Chiba-caused eye-mutilation going on, though we never get X-Rays of any exploding hearts, nor do we actually see any eyes popping. There’s still a lot of very fun violence on screen, of course, shot with many of the stylistic elements you’d expect from a Japanese movie of this era, with wild hand camera, dramatic zooms, Dutch angles, and sudden bouts of erotic grotesquery. Just as an example, there is an early scene where Kiba’s sister loses a fight against three mafia killers, only for her brother to find her stripped naked and draped in a crucifixion pose on the shadow of the church cross of the place they live in. It’s of dubious taste, obviously, but it is also pretty  inspired on an aesthetic level.

The film’s noirish plot of dark secrets and the double crosses between Reiko, her former pimp and now partner and the various people they want to sell the drugs to or rob and their plans to counter-rob them is quite a bit of fun as well, setting Kiba up as the kind of guy who stays honourable even in utterly corrupt surroundings, rather a lot like a Chandler-esque private eye with a larger propensity for ripping your arm of.

Bodyguard Kiba’s problems – at least if you can cope with the sexual mores and the violence of 70s exploitation cinema – are generally not so much problems of the film doing anything wrong, but of it being so close to the Platonic Ideal of a 70s Chiba movie that would completely come to pass with The Streetfighter but not hitting that film’s crazed heights. So, if you go into this not hoping for revelation but for a very good time in the inimitable early 70s Toei style, you’ll probably walk out happy.

Saturday, January 14, 2023

Three Films Make A Post: “The Best Werewolf Movie In Years”

A Werewolf in England (2020): As much as I adore many of director/writer/low budget genius Charlie Steeds’s works in general, I can’t say this one’s more me. As always, camera work, editing and lighting are pretty great (particularly when you keep the production budget in mind), always influenced by the tradition Steeds is working in, yet also creative in how that influence is used, and the cast is often much better than you’d expect. Locations and sets are fine, as well. It’s just that the whole tone of the movie is pretty much the opposite of what I like: instead of the more straightforward werewolf fare you’d expect, this is a deeply campy comedy, with joke after joke after joke I found nearly painfully unfunny. Which becomes a bit of a problem in a comedy, even in one where I ended up laughing two or three times.

If viewers who actually like camp will have the same problem with this as I have is anybody’s guess, obviously.

The Corpse Eaters (1974): Teenage (at the time) Lawrence Zazelenchuk’s little – the only existing versions run for apparently incomplete 57 minutes – bit of early (non-voodoo) zombie horror may be Canada’s first gore film. It is certainly a bit of a mess in the state you can see it now, a blown-up, sometimes pixelated greenish print. Much of it doesn’t work and makes little sense, but there are moments when the whole thing does take on the quality of a freakish nightmare, especially in the gore scenes where the (mostly library, I assume) soundtrack drops into synth chirps and drones while we witness improbable but – as far as you can see it in this version – excellently gloopy gore, filmed with wildly wavering camera and edited over-excitedly. As an extra bonus, the film warns us before the gore scenes with its own version of the Horror Horn: shots of a balding guy about to puke set to annoying synth noises. If that doesn’t convince you of a film’s quality, clearly nothing will.

Vampires (1979): Vampires were in the air in 1979, though this entry into the BBC’s venerable (and sometimes absolutely wonderful) “Play for Today” series, as written by Dixie Williams and directed by John Goldschmidt may not feature any actual vampires. Most of it follows a trio of kids in a particularly desolate part of Liverpool finding their imaginations fired by a viewing of Dracula – Prince of Darkness. So much so, they decide a pale man walking the local graveyard is a vampire, as well.

All of this works wonderfully as a compassionate, sometimes funny, exploration of a specific time and place and its people. It finds much joy (and a bit of subtextual anger) in the kids’ resilience in interactions with a grown-up world that mostly – apart from a joke shop owner – seems to go out of its way to nip in the bud anything that might make the dullness of the surroundings more interesting, more adventurous. That it ends on an ambiguous note that might turn this into an actual tale of vampirism is nearly beside the point, but still appreciated.

Thursday, January 12, 2023

In short: Troll (2022)

A publicly not exactly lauded attempt to build a tunnel through the Dovrefjell mountain range in Norway awakens a kaiju-sized troll. The thing turns out to be rather unhappy with certain elements of Norway’s secret history and goes on a bit of a rampage that will eventually lead it to Oslo.

The authorities are not especially effective fighting a giant menace that seems immune to modern weapons. Only palaeontologist Nora Tidemann (Ine Marie Wilmann), who grew up with a father (Gard B. Eidsvold) obsessed with the hidden truth of troll lore, is willing to think outside of the box. She acquires her own mini-coterie of nerds – her father, assistant to the prime minister Andreas Isaksen (Kim Falck), Isaksen’s techie friend Sigrid (Karoline Viktoria Sletteng Garvang, owner of what I imagine to be a very exhausting name even for Norwegian names), and special forces captain Kristoffer Holm (Mads Sjøgård Pettersen) – and just might be her country’s only chance against the troll and the experimental weaponry of the mad minister of defence (Fridtjov Såheim).

I actually love parts of the world building of Roar Uthaug’s Troll, the way it creates a space where the international language of kaiju movie tropes can be read through the lens of the Norwegian local, folklore and cultural specificities.

Unfortunately, once it leaves the conceptual level, Troll’s script (by Espen Aukan) fails on nearly every conceivable level and plays out like a particularly lazily written pre-Sharknado SyFy Original with a bit of a budget but little idea of what to do with it.

Characters aren’t just one-dimensional tropes, something I’d be totally fine in a giant monster movie, but the blandest version of them, spouting ill-timed one-liners and tumbling awkwardly into emotional beats the script doesn’t put even the tiniest amount of work into preparing. The plot doesn’t actually feel like any such thing but a string of beats cribbed from other giant monster movies strung together with little thought about how they actually hang together. The writing lets Jun Fukuda era Toho kaijus look like Shakespeare, or really, like films crafted by actual professionals with a bit of self-regard. There’s nothing wrong with underwriting the humans in a monster movie; there’s a lot wrong with underwriting them so badly they get in the way of a viewer having fun with the monsters.

Andin the way the shoddy plotting of the affair and its non-characters truly get, always adding at least an element of irritation to what should be perfectly fine giant monster action and actually perfectly fun giant monster mythology.

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Blind Justice (1994)

Some time after the US Civil War. A nearly completely blind, yet still exceptionally deadly when shooting, gunfighter named Canaan (Armand Assante) roams the borderlands between the US and Mexico, carrying two guns and a baby, looking for a town that might not exist. He promised the baby’s father, whom he killed, to get the little one to her family, apparently, though Canaan and the film will be reticent about going into further detail.

After a meet-cute with a quartet of Mexican bandits – three of whom he shoots while the last one gets to hold the baby – Canaan comes to a small town that is under sieged by the gang of Alacran (Robert Davi). Alacran is after a wagon-load of silver protected by an ever decreasing number of soldiers. Their leader, Sgt Hastings (Adam Baldwin) has repeatedly sent men out to fetch help, but not one of them has come back alive, or seems to have reached the next cavalry outpost. Hasting is too dutiful to give Alacran the gold, or simply not stupid enough to believe the sadistic maniac wouldn’t murder his little troop in any case.

Canaan is still bitter, as well as PTSD-stricken, about what happened to him in the war, so he’s not terribly interested in the soldiers’ plight. He might be willing to do some blockade running for them, for a price, of course. Cigars and milk have to be paid, after all. In truth, the gunman will have trouble with Alacran and his men in any case, for one of the three bandits he shot before coming to town was the man’s younger brother; and while Alacran – a man who mutilates his own men regularly – doesn’t have many softer human traits, brotherly love was one of them.

I can only assume that when he was writing the HBO western Blind Justice Daniel Knauf asked himself why only blind swordsmen, masseurs, boxers and vigilante lawyers have all the fun, but nobody thinks about the poor, blind shootist and then proceeded to solve this problem. As directed by Richard Spence, the resulting movie is a lot of fun.

Clearly going for the spirit of the Italian western in its goofier variations, the film does a very enjoyable job of presenting touches of wonderful weirdness like Canaan’s disgust about having come to a town that has neither smokes, nor milk, nor booze - and yes, when our hero has got a smoke, he’s huffing it in the direction of the poor kid. These elements, Spence presents with a degree of camp, but never so much as to overwhelm the more dramatic or nasty moments of the film with the horrors of irony; here, it feels more like a companionable nod at an audience to suggest that, yes, the film knows it trades in silliness and well-worn clichés, but it also genuinely wants us to simply enjoy them as they are, and actually revel in them a little.

So we get a mix of jokes good and bad, some genuinely fine and creative shoot-outs, explosions, and standard Italian and Revisionist western scenes like our hero’s crucifixion. From the latter, Canaan is at least partially saved by an elderly and somewhat crazy Native American shaman (Jimmy Herman), who is put in stark contrast to the town’s traitorous Catholic priest (Ian McElhinney), which you may or may not want to read as a political statement.

There’s also a romantic subplot between Canaan and the town nurse (Elisabeth Shue), but the less said about this horrifying combination of no chemistry and bad acting choices (what the hell does the usually perfectly competent to awesome Shue think she’s doing!?), the better. It’s not so terrible as to actually damage the film as a whole – it’s just too weird at heart for that – but it sure does little to improve it either.

In general, the acting tends to broad scenery-chewing, strange line readings and the overwrought – particularly, and to nobody’s surprise, Assante and Davi are downright incredible whenever they get going, leaving no mouth in the audience closed. This is not a complaint, of course, for this style of acting is the only fitting approach to the movie’s mix of peculiarity and Italian western made in the USA two decades too late. You don’t go method when the going gets weird, unless you’re not as clever an actor as you think you are, Jared Leto.

As an added bonus for the “before they were stars” column, there’s a one-scene appearance of Jack Black as a Private who gets knocked out by an unarmed blind man. The stuff careers are made of, apparently.

Tuesday, January 10, 2023

In short: Werewolf Castle (2021)

Some medieval fantasy England. Young and not particularly courageous Thorfinn (Peter Lofsgard) witnesses the slaughter of most of his village – lover and parents included – by a group of werewolves captained by one Wulfstan (Reece Connolly). What’s left of the local authorities believe the wolves will continue to be a problem and attack other villages in the vicinity, so they decide to ask their very much not beloved king Vortigern (David Simcock) for help. There’s just a little problem: between the village and the king’s castle are several days’ worth of a journey through the werewolf-infested forest. So the villagers round up a small group of heroes with wonderful names like Hal Headsplitter (Jay O’Connell) and the geographically confusing Hamelin Wiltshire (Tim Cartwright) to make a quest out of the business. An angry and confused Thorfinn joins the group as their local guide.

It’s going to be a rather difficult time for everyone involved.

I don’t think this fantasy horror piece that seems to reuse some of the werewolf suits from director Charlie Steeds’s Werewolf in England is ever going to be a particular favourite of the man’s merry output for me. It’s – rather atypical for Steeds – a bit slow in parts, taking breathing breaks for characterisation that’s often not terribly interesting even in the realm of tropes and shorthand this film moves in. It is also clearly rather difficult to make a proper quest narrative on what the film can afford, so it plays out as a series of somewhat escalating encounters with the same werewolves during each of which characters and audience learn something more about the threat’s nature and where Thorfinn gets to have a variation on the Hero’s Journey. Given the circumstances, this is probably the best way to tell this particular story.

Speaking of the Hero’s Journey, the script’s best – and certainly its original – idea is how it actually subverts some of the ways modern screenwriters tend to use this particular holy writ, letting Thorfinn hit all the right beats on the road, make the proper experiences, and then lets him fulfil his destiny in a way that feels closer to the darkness in actual myth and legend than our modern readings of this. Which is not at all bad for a low budget movie about guys with swords fighting werewolves.

While they don’t all hit for me this time around, I do think that at least two of the film’s set pieces – the surviving heroes’ stay in a rather unhealthy village with the proper mood of doom and the climax – are really well done and edited with the kind of controlled verve I’ve come to particularly respect about the Steeds’s films. That our filmmaker is still pretty great at finding atmospheric and photogenic locations (no warehouses for his films, unless a warehouse actually makes sense) might deserve a mention here as well.

So, even though I didn’t quite love this as much as I did The Barge People or A Haunting in England I still had a fun enough time with Werewolf Castle.