Sunday, July 3, 2022

The Poem of Hayachine Valley (1982)

aka Ode to Mount Hayachine

Original title: 早池峰の賦

Ostensibly, this long – the version I’ve seen is two and a half hours long but there appears to be a different cut for the Japanese market that adds at least another thirty minutes of material – documentary movie by pioneering, brilliant, female independent documentarian Sumiko Haneda is about the culture surrounding a traditional, devotional folk dance called the kagura as practiced in two villages situated around Mount Hayachine, in Iwate Prefecture (as far as I understand the least modernized part of Japan at the time). It certainly is about the two different versions of the dance the two villages practice, showing long, loving sequences portraying its practice, the way its masks and costumes are prepared (and the important differences between these masks in both villages, and the divergent interpretations they take on), training and education in the dance. Haneko also portrays the way the dance’s meaning to the villagers has shifted over time from religious practice as well as a form of entertainment to a bit of a saleable commodity for people who don’t have many of those.

At the same time, this is also a film about the way traditional Japanese village culture is shifting and changing with the times, containing a degree of sadness and nostalgia for the disappearance of traditional living – as is only right and proper – but – as is just as right and proper - never pretending the past was a perfect place and the influx of modern living is only a destructive force. I believe there’s a reason why Haneda shows a ninety-two year old gentleman early on, sitting and musing at the place where people over sixty-one were – at least according to local lore – left to die in the old times. Tradition, the film suggests without ever actually needing to say it, is wonderful, complicated and yet can also be horrible. The same goes with a more modern way of life.

But – as it is with the lives of the population of these villages – the film is not all about the kagura or a past slowly drifting away, but also the daily life of the people living there, the rhythms of their daily work, all still turning with the changing of the seasons. There’s a meticulous sense of the filmmaking itself shifting with the seasons as well, Haneda changing the calm rhythms of her editing and narration through the year she shows in the film.

As the two English titles suggest, there’s a sense of poetry running through a film that at first glance is just a bit dry and slow, a sense of a less visible but palpable additional quality to it and the quotidian things it shows, a luminescence won through calm and patient observation of human and natural rhythms and their intersections.

Saturday, July 2, 2022

Three Films Make A Post: An Edge-Of-Your-Seat Thriller!

Murder 101 (1991): This TV mystery by Bill Condon with Pierce Brosnan really wants to be a twisty, cleverly constructed example of its genre, further emphasising this by adding certain meta elements via Brosnan’s hilariously melodramatic creative writing lessons. Unfortunately, the kind of clever-clever mystery this wants to be really needs to actually be cleverly constructed, whereas Murder 101 is more confused than elegantly confusing, and simply not terribly interesting for most of its running time. Brosnan’s character is such an egotistical twit that it’s pretty hard caring about what’s happening to him, as well.

Fire Music (2018): Apart from not really managing to squeeze as much of twenty years of free and avant jazz history into ninety minutes as one would ideally want to see, and then bizarrely pretending forward thinking jazz stopped with the advent of the Crouch/Marsalis bubble, this is as wonderful a music documentary as one would hope for, working as an excellent antidote to the conservatism of something like Ken Burns’s jazz documentary series. It’s chockfull of valuable and incisive archive material, wide-ranging interviews with a good handful of surviving musicians. It also really works as a movie, for director Tom Surgal does not use the interviews as sound bytes but lets them inform the structure and rhythm of his film, using archive material and visual collages very much in the spirit of the kind of music the musicians are talking about.

Synth Britannia (2009): Not quite a great as Fire Music, but still far away from the talking head nostalgia fest this easily could have turned into, this is a serious exploration of the roots and development of what would become British synth pop, not just aiming for the most obvious and successful examples of the form but also finding time for its more avantgarde roots. Some more details about how synth pop lost its more experimental impetus beyond “it’s the money” would have been nice, but there’s still quite a bit of substance to the interviews.

The film is not quite free of the tiresome rockism versus popism nonsense British music writers are so obsessed with, but it’s fortunately not really concentrating on it.

Thursday, June 30, 2022

In short: Ax ‘Em (1992)

aka The Weekend It Lives

A rather large group of school buddies – nearly all of them black – make their way to one of those cabins in the woods where the young habitually go to get brutally murdered. As luck will have it, there’s a potentially undead killer with a machete (and sometimes a hatchet) on the loose, so there will indeed be a bit of brutal murder for those interested as well as for those running away screeching.

I’d love to get into the nature of the killer in Michael Mfume’s (who stars, writes, directs, edits, and so on) Ax ‘Em. Alas, the film was made in the spirit of backyard made cinema and cheapo indie SOV slashers all over the world, and so at least half of the dialogue is unparsable because nobody involved knew how to mike a scene properly, nor did anything happen to improve the situation during post-production.

Yes, it’s one of those films, not really watchable as a traditional horror movie for civilians – though some of the gory bits are technically pretty decent. The film does, however, work very well as the sort of cultural documents where we watch pretty much live and unfiltered how a group of young people come together to have fun, improvise jokes funny, strange and unfunny, screech into a camera, and overact lovingly, in the manner of their place and time. Seen as part of this specific SOV slasher subgenre, Ax ‘Em is actually pretty great, not just because there are very few films of this kind made by Black Americans, but because the enthusiasm level of the participants seems exceptionally high, and Mfume manages to go from scene to scene rather more quickly than you usually get in these films.

Seen this way, it’s actually a pretty great film.

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Playroom (1990)

aka Schizo

Archaeologist Chris (Christopher McDonald) does not appear to be the most stable kind of guy. He seems to see himself taking part in a game of one-upmanship with his dead father – also an archaeologist – to the degree of obsession. But then dear Dad and the rest of Chris’s family died under mysterious circumstances during the search for the hidden grave of a – naturally – evil prince inside of an old monastery. The kid version of our protagonist was the only survivor of the incident, and so it’s no wonder he’s plagued by psychological problems as well as the traditional mix of amnesia and nightmares about dark corridors.

So his plan to continue his Dad’s monastery dig decades later is surely a great idea for his mental health. Because archaeology works weirdly in this film’s world, Chris is only accompanied by his girlfriend and owner of a hot archaeological mag which somehow pays for all this, Jenny (Lisa Aliff), a photographer of dubious trustworthiness, and his oversexed, “spiritually” minded girlfriend Marcy (Jamie Rose). Since this is still absolutely how archaeology works, Chris is going to hammer at every interior wall in the monastery he can find with a pickaxe while the rest of the cast does nothing. Is it any wonder he starts having visions of his old imaginary childhood buddy last seen when his father died and grows increasingly deranged?

Also appearing will be Vincent Schiavelli as a supposed mad killer via a subplot custom-made to bring the film up to a ninety minute runtime; and to slow the film down considerably.

Before Manny Coto became a successful TV producer, writer and occasional TV director, he dabbled a little on the feature film directing side of things with this – his debut – as well as the Dolph Lundgren vehicle Cover-Up and Dr Giggles. I don’t think we missed out on too many great films when he got into other parts of the business.

Playroom is not a terrible movie, but it’s certainly one that could have been improved by greater focus and a tighter script. The one we get is based on an original script by Jackie Earle Haley(!) that was rewritten by one or more people going by the likely moniker of “Keaton Jones” and really can’t seem to decide if it wants to be a full-on late 80s/early 90s cheese fest with bad one-liners and inventive kills or a more psychologically minded movie about a man turning violent and dangerous through reliving the worst parts of a terrible childhood. There are tantalizing hints of the latter in some of the set-up and parts of Chris’s dream-sequences, as well as in some of the early scenes between Chris and Jenny, but these parts of the film never go anywhere.

Worse, they never really seem to belong next to McDonald’s insane scenery chewing and eye-bugging, a performance that makes Jack Nicholson in The Shining look subtle, or the lovingly crafted titular “playroom” of torture devices with very easily breakable shackles, not to speak of scenes of Chris and his evil kid mentor trying to properly display the corpse of one of their victims. Let’s just ignore the Schiavelli sub-plot completely, because, as much as I love the guy, he’s only in the movie to fill time and put another body into the climax.

The playroom does actually hint at one of the film’s biggest strengths, some very atmospheric production design mixed with clever location use when it comes to the portrayal of the monastery and its deeper levels – including a lot of candles and a couple of catacomb chambers that look and feel pleasantly gothic. When he puts his mind to it, Coto is actually able to wring quite a bit of atmosphere out of these elements, too. Which, of course and alas, does make the contrast between these more atmospheric elements and the quippy kills more just more grating.

Still, one takes what one can get, and while McDonald’s performance and these quippy kills are about as subtle as a vertical sawblade through the back, they are fun enough in their cheesy way. Just don’t think about the mechanic doll in the climax, or love it for its cheesiness, and you might even have quite a bit of fun with this one, like I did.

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

In short: Vacations of Terror (1989)

Original title: Vacaciones de terror

Architect Fernando (Julio Alemán) has inherited a house somewhere in the loneliest parts of the Mexican countryside from an aunt he never really knew. Because he’s a bit of a go-getter, he decides to pack up his family – wife Lorena (Nuria Bages), nearly grown-up daughter Paulina (Gabriela Hassel), the twins Jaimito and Pedrito (Carlos East Jr. and Ernesto East) and little Gaby (Gianella Hassel Kus) – for the weekend and just go there. Paulina’s boyfriend, the deeply stupid but supposedly very hot Julio (Pedro Fernández), is going to come too, just half a day later. Fernando has not checked the state of the house and its surroundings beforehand, so it’s a bit of an adventure trip. No electricity, and various death traps for kids (who are told not to play too close to the house to boot) are included.

When Gaby falls into a well, survives unhurt and brings out a doll she finds there, the dangers of horrible parenting are increased by a supernatural threat: for the well was the place where the Inquisition (like in many a Mexican horror film interpreted as the Forces of Good) murdered a witch. Said witch has of course sworn vengeance on…random families that happen to drop in.

Gaby’s new doll – super power: rolling its eyes – soon takes possession of the little children, causes mild telekinetic ruckus and some hallucinations. Fortunately, Julio just happens to have acquired a witch-repellent amulet.

The most likeable thing about René Cardona III’s Vacaciones de Terror is how much of a family project it is, with a production staff full of people who are the second or third generation working in Mexican genre cinema – the film’s dedication to René Cardona I is perfectly in keeping with this.

Of course, being a family affair doesn’t make a movie good, exactly. Vacaciones isn’t much of a highlight of 80s Mexican horror. The film suffers from a lack of tension, and often feels so harmless I started thinking this was really meant to be a kids movie that got a little too frightening for that market; some of the humour would suggest that as well. Part of the problem is that Cardona III isn’t a terribly subtle director, so he really has to fall back on a handful of special effects and some very few scenes where he is allowed to go loud, and otherwise tries to keep things together and on budget with the technical basics he can afford.

It’s not a terrible movie, but then, I’d probably have enjoyed it more if it had been objectively worse.

Sunday, June 26, 2022

In short: Dashcam (2021)

The height of the pandemic. Anti-vax conspiracy nonsense screeching, MAGA-hat-wearing “musician” and live streamer of crap Annie Hardy (Annie Hardy, who hopefully isn’t playing herself) decides to fly to Britain to torture her old bandmate/touring buddy Stretch (Amar Chadha-Patel) who, one supposes, has attempted to get as far away from her as possible, with a surprise visit.

Eventually, when Stretch’s girlfriend is fed up with her bullshit, Hardy ends up stealing his car and is very randomly (aka the plotting doesn’t give a crap about coherence) hired to transport a mysteriously ill woman somewhere. Demonic shenanigans, even more bad scatological rapping and much waving of the camera ensues.

I wasn’t quite as enamoured of Rob Savage’s first COVID POV horror piece Host as most people seem to have been, seeing it as a perfectly okay film whose main claim to fame was being exactly of its moment while lacking in any kind of substance worth mentioning or thinking about.

Dashcam on the other hand is one of the worst films I have seen in a long time, apparently made in the belief that having its audience spend an hour in the grating one-note presence of the worst person in the world egged on by a scrolling chat of trolls you’ll soon stop reading because it’s just monotonous (and if you want to read this crap, you know where to find it) is of some worth. Part of this…thing is probably meant as a satire on the real-world versions of people like Hardy, but it’s the sort of “satire” that stops at pointing out that somebody is horrible and then does nothing whatsoever with it. It’s also never, not for a single damn line, funny – most certainly not as funny as it clearly thinks it is.

Why is Annie so shitty? Why did she become this way? The film doesn’t know, doesn’t tell, doesn’t care, and instead repeats the same beats of crappy behaviour again and again and again ad nauseum, with no actual characterisation, character development or even vague sense of humanity included.

Watching a woman be a potty-mouthed shit for an hour is pretty grating, but it’s neither interesting nor insightful, nor does it for a movie make. Horrible person is horrible, news at eleven. Once the supernatural horror parts of the movie start, the film adds short bursts of blood and incessant blurry camera shaking most backyard filmmakers would find too excessive, improving exactly nothing.

At least this abomination is mercifully short – even shorter when one is wise enough to stop this garbage before Annie gets into another session of scatology during the ending credits. I can’t help but think this was made by people who a) believe they are much funnier than they actually are and b) hate anybody stupid enough to inflict this on themselves.

Thursday, June 23, 2022

In short: The Shock (1982)

Original title: Le choc

An aging hitman named Christian, who is often going by the alias of Martin Terrier (Alain Delon) rather suddenly decides to retire, and take the payment for the last job he refuses to do as his retirement bonus. Not surprisingly, his former employers are less than happy with his behaviour, trying to get their money back and perhaps retire him more permanently.

So our protagonist decides to lay low on a turkey farm his business manager bought for him, because clearly, nobody’s going to look for him at a place of business he actually owns under his most common alias. The farm is worked by Claire (Catherine Deneuve) and her completely crazy husband Félix (Philippe Léotard). This being a Delon/Deneuve vehicle, the two fall for one another so quickly, they’re banging on the very first night. Possibly for reasons of narrative economy, for hours later, a trio of German terrorists arrive who are very pissed about that time when Christian murdered their boss. Further improbable plot developments follow.

Alain Delon is one of those actors who, once they spent a certain amount of time being stars, suddenly started to believe they were great at every other element of the filmmaking art as well. Producing, writing, directing, while prancing in front of the camera are all in a day’s work for the type, and nobody’s going to tell them they aren’t actually any good at most of these things. And where they once worked under great directors, those are now chosen by their amiability towards the egotistical actor’s every whim.

Which naturally leads us to this very peculiar adaptation of a Manchette novel, co-written by Alain Delon, most probably co-directed by Delon, though credited to Robin Davis, of course starring Alain Delon. It’s about the train wreck you’d expect, with an aging star who often steps over the wrong side of the line dividing his standard icy coldness and just looking bored, a script that uses standard genre tropes badly to excuse a one damn thing after another plot, and direction that seems mostly fixated on making Delon look good in every single scene, even if that’s to the detriment of the film (or even just the scene) as a whole.

The film’s saving grace is its tendency to add the goofiest and most bizarre flourishes to standard thriller scenes. The film is full of strange decisions, elements that seem to belong in a Roger Moore Bond movie (just take the overweight killer lady or the insane ranting of Félix) but don’t seem to be meant as jokes, and plotting so threadbare and illogical, the whole thing becomes actually rather fascinating, and certainly never boring.

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Makmum 2 (2021)

Warning: there will be spoilers!

Ten years or thereabouts have gone by since the first Makmum. Our heroine Rini (Titi Kamal) has used that time to marry a supporting character from the first movie, have a child named Hafiz (Jason Doulez Beunaya Bangun), and become a widow.

Three years after her husband’s demise, she has yet to really work through her grief, so it’s not great for her mental state when she learns that her beloved auntie has now also died. Together with Hafiz, Rini travels to the tiny mountain village where she was raised (probably by the aunt) to take part in the funeral rites.

The village has not changed much since her childhood: the villagers, following the will of the local Big Head (Pritt Timothy), are renouncing modern nonsense like electricity and cell phone towers, even when there’s good reason to use electricity to power a water pump that should help everyone through the droughts gripping most of the other villages around. On the positive side, the village is just building a rather fetching new mosque.

Rini feels early on that something’s not quite right in the village, besides Luddism. For one, her ghostly prayer follower is acting up again, which is never a good sign. But there’s also an increasing number of strange and possibly supernatural occurrences that have nothing to do with Rini’s ghost, but seem to come from the spirits haunting a part of the local forest that has traditionally been forbidden to enter or develop; the spirits’ realm starts right next to the new Mosque, incidentally. Inexplicable problems with that new building’s substance are really only the beginning, as are a creepy little boy with a limp nobody in the two-kid village knows, and everybody shrugs off as a product of childish imagination. Soon enough, threatened children, possession, and spirits that love to puke black goo into their victims’ faces will make their appearance. Rini and Hafiz are of course right in the middle of it all.

Where the first Makmum was generally entertaining enough, but also much too generic for my tastes, new director Guntur Soeharjanto pushes this sequel into much more interesting directions, pairing the more religious side of contemporary Indonesian horror with folk horror. It’s folk horror with a bit of a twist, too, for where the terror in many of the films of this genre is caused by people following or reviving the old ways, here the problem is the direct opposite: the villagers not respecting their old pacts made to help them coexist with a very real spirit world as they should is what causes all of the film’s problems.

Interestingly enough, Soeharjanto does not use this to argue against modernity, but really for a fusion of traditional, Muslim, and worldly beliefs, in which a happy end is achieved by finding a balance between these things: the forbidden forest is reinstituted and respected again, the mosque is built, and there are solar cells on its roof. Which is the kind of ideal of mutual respect and attempts at understanding this old atheist socialist can agree with rather well. This approach also results in a film where conservatism and modernity often stand in a pretty ironic dialogue with what’s going on in the plot, and leads to some very interesting changes in the way the old horror concepts of the Believer and the Unbeliever are treated. I’ve not seen this exact way to treat these well-worn yet always interesting themes before. It appears much less rigid (perhaps more humanistic) than these specific genre tropes are typically treated and used.

I’m not quite sure why this needed to be a sequel, exactly, for apart from a prayer disturbing ghost and Rini, there’s very little truly connecting the two films. And Rini really doesn’t have much to do with the woman she was in the first film (which makes sense given the not terribly happy life she has had in between the movies).

On the other hand, it does enable Titi Kamal – who was solid but not more in the first movie – to return. She is really rather great in this one, throwing herself bodily into the script’s more melodramatic elements but also bringing enough nuance to the quieter ones. Her performance makes it easy to believe that Rini has had an actual life between when we last saw her and this film, which helps make everything around her as well her reactions to it much more believable and grounded in recognizable human feelings and behaviour. The actress also does a bang-up job when it comes to her mandatory possession scenes, screeching and crinkling her neck with the best of them.

I like the film’s approach to its spooky sequences as well. It does find a very effective middle between scenes and sequences that feel folkloric, particularly whenever the spirits trick people via shapeshifting, and those that are more your standard horror fare. Part of Makmum 2’s success in this regard is founded on Soeharjanto’s easy ability to create the village as a believable place, suggesting the actual village politics and hierarchies, and making the place feel real, with the supernatural always lurking at the borders of experience of the population.

If there’s more one could ask of the kind of sequel that could easily have been a simple cash-in, I don’t know what it is.

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

In short: Makmum (2019)

After being evicted from her home, chance points mortuary beautician and speaker to the dead Rini (Titi Kamal) towards the boarding school where she was raised. She hires on as a summer tutor. Her help is desperately needed, though not in educational matters. During summer vacations, three girls have been left behind at the school because of their bad grades (I’m sure that’s going to help), in the not so tender care of nasty new boarding school boss Rosa (Reni Yuliana). Rosa’s a bit of a sadist at the best of times, but these certainly aren’t. The kids are attacked, possessed and generally terrorized by a ghost that seems fixated on disturbing them during their prayer times, usually starting its business by imitating a prayer follower (the titular “Makmum”, as far as I understand) and proceeds from there.

Of course, Rosa doesn’t believe the possession tales, but she also doesn’t see the problem as one of mental or physical illness, even when Putri (Adilla Fitri), the ghost’s favourite possession body, shows clear signs of physical breakdown. As Rosa sees it, it’s all just a lack of basic discipline. So Rini arrives just in time.

Makmum, directed by Hadrah Daeng Ratu, shows various of the favourite concepts and set pieces of the milder side of contemporary Indonesian horror: there’s the haunted school, the woman with a tragic past (most of which she’ll only remember during the course of the movie) who can see and speak to ghosts, the nasty female authority figure making things worse by her insistence on knowing every damn thing about everything even though she knows very little indeed, the ghost who disturbs prayers (which I as a heathen atheist always find particularly fascinating a trope). Also appearing are the attack on an ill old woman, as well as a lot of generic set pieces you probably see in front of your inner eye right now.

So a well of originality or depth, this film is certainly not, yet there’s a certain sense of conviction in the presentation of the spooky set pieces that makes them always fun to watch. Ratu’s storytelling has a nice, light-handed flow to it that makes the clichés decidedly more convincing, and enough of a sense for mildly creepy mood to make the whole thing perfectly entertaining despite its lack of any personality of its own.

Sunday, June 19, 2022

Challenge the Devil (1963)

Original title: Katarsis

Shot by gangster types of his acquaintance, a man of dubious morals escapes into the monastery of Padre Peo (Pier Vido), in wilder times a friend of his. Apparently, it’s all about a set of documents the gangster types believe their victim is holding out on them. He, on the other hand, believes these documents were stolen from him by his friend Alma (Alma De Río).

Padre Peo decides to visit Alma at the club where she’s doing “erotic” dancing and ask her for the documents, so that everybody can go home alive and well. When she’s reticent, Peo tells her the story of his religious/moral awakening, which takes up most of the film’s running time.

Once, Peo was part of a gang of bohemian thugs led by a poet who never seems to do any poeting. Instead, the gang roams the Italian countryside in their cars and beats up strangers, as bohemian types are apparently wont to do in Italy. Eventually, they end up in a seemingly deserted castle where they start on what the film decides to call an orgy, until they are interrupted by an old man (Christopher Lee in age make-up), who does a highly dramatic declamation about the hair of his lover, his pact with the devil to keep her forever young, and the devil’s usual betrayal. He asks the bohemian thugs to search the castle for the lover’s body to give her a proper burial; in return, he’ll give them all the riches of his castle.

Thus ensues many a scene of random wanderings through castle sets of varying quality full of shadows, mirrors and weird traps that never really hurt anyone. Apparently, wandering long enough through cobwebby corridors full of dubious metaphorical nonsense makes you want to become a monk. Who knew?

Challenge the Devil as directed by one-time filmmaker Giuseppe Veggezzi is a strange, awkward but also rather interesting little movie. It really doesn’t make much sense as the exploitation plus religious messaging movie this at least purports to be, but that really only strengthens the pleasantly weird impression the whole affair made on me.

The curious genre hopping helps there, as well, of course, seeing as how the film starts as a spy/gangster film, switches over to ten minutes of (bad) singing and dancing, and then shifts towards the metaphorically gothic, never connecting the different moods that come with these shifts in any sensible manner. It’s very Italian in that, expecting its audience to go with the flow of shifting atmospheres and genre rules.

The film’s moral ideas – perhaps coming from a position of honest Catholicism, perhaps from the more amusing one of exploitational hypocrisy – are vague at best, and its attempt at selling a bit of symbolic rambling through a castle as a big spiritual event that burns the evil out of one’s soul is as unconvincing as it is bizarre. Challenge is a bit too quaint for its own good – especially in an Italian movie from 1963 – and has rather adorable ideas about what an orgy is supposed to look like. Apparently, really awkward “wild” dancing and bongo drumming are as animalistic as orgies get. The Man Who Couldn’t Afford to Orgy clearly didn’t miss out on much.

What’s pretty great about Challenge is the aesthetic presentation of its very weak case against Satan. The black and white cinematography by Angelo Baistrocchi and Mario Parapetti is very beautiful indeed, and Veggezzi uses this beauty, the artificial yet also starkly impressive sets full of black backgrounds and curious shadows, to create an at times very evocative mood of the dreamlike, suggesting the emotional and subconscious impact of these surroundings and slightly weird experiences on the characters much more convincing and effectively than anything in the actual script does. This isn’t quite enough to turn this into a lost classic, but does certainly make it more than just worth the while for anybody who does love the shadowy black and white of the Italian gothic like I do.

Saturday, June 18, 2022

Three Films Make A Post: She should be dead, now she wishes she was…

Urban Ghost Story (1998): I’ve seen Geneviève Jolliffe’s British low budget piece of kitchen sink horror taking place in Scottish housing estate mentioned as a hidden gem from time to time, particular in the last couple of years. I don’t see it, though. That’s mostly because the film’s attempt to pair the typical poverty tourism of British kitchen sink drama (if you want believable portrayals of poor people in their actual emotional complexity, look in a different genre) with a very low key poltergeist style haunting is always rubbing against how melodramatic the film’s plot actually is, leading to a piece that doesn’t have the tone it seems to believe it has. There are also a lot of the more embarrassing hallmarks of cheesy 90s direction on offer: particularly Jolliffe’s love for “emotional slow motion” often borders on self-parody, as does the perfectly stupid happy end following an absurdly melodramatic climax.

Hell’s Trap aka Trampa Infernal (1989): Pedro Galindo III’s Mexican slasher Hell’s Trap, that imagines a Rambo-style vet (with a surprisingly effective mask) as a slasher, while also trying to cash in on the paintball fad, does not have any such crises of identity. This is a piece of prime Mexican late 80s cheese, and it knows it. Characters are dumb and pretty – also pretty unlikable – the kills are sometimes surprisingly effective, and the series of bad jokes, broad characterisation and murder moves sprightly enough. Plus, how many other slashers do you know whose killers use a claw glove “inspired” by Freddy Krueger as well as an assault rifle?

The Whispering aka 속닥속닥 Sodak Sodak (2018): On the cusp of college, a group of teens stumble upon a cursed amusement park. Murderous ghosts hunt them down one by one.

The resulting film really is as generic as that makes it sound. If you’ve seen any other movie that sounds a little like this one, you’ve basically seen this one as well, sometimes done better, sometimes somewhat worse, I expect. From time to time, the film manages to achieve a comparatively effective set piece, but those moments are neither frequent nor creepy enough to make this memorable.

It’s not a terrible film – there are perfectly okay basic filmmaking chops on display, and the actors do what they can with the little they are given – but it’s so aggressively mediocre I rather wish it were.

Thursday, June 16, 2022

In short: Straight to VHS (2021)

Original title: Directamente para video

In 1989 the SOV film “Acto de violencia en una joven periodista” or “Act of Violence in [sic] a Young Journalist” was (barely) released straight-to-video in Uruguay. Directed (and edited and written and so on) by Manuel Lamas, it has apparently become a bit of a cult fascination with some filmmakers and critics in Uruguay and Argentina.

One of them is the director of this documentary, Emilio Silva Torres. In the film, Torres first attempts to define the strange fascination a theoretically badly made movie can have for certain people, the way it can arrive at results peculiarly similar to elements in the movies of filmmakers much higher on the artistic totem pole by going about things all wrong. If a film like this hits you, there’s something mystical about it, really. If loving you is wrong, I don’t want to be right, and all that soul.

Of course, Torres attempts to find out how a strange film like the object of his obsession came into existence. How was it made? Why? And where does its strange attraction come from? With this, the film turns into something of a detective story. Most of the actors and former associates of Lamas Torres is able to find don’t want to talk about the film or its maker – and certainly not on camera. On the other hand, strange synchronicities occur that further the project. All of which shifts Torres’ interest from Lamas the filmmaker to Lamas as a person, from where on out the documentary starts to include moments of weird horror, dramatizing the dread that can come with the realization that art you really love can come from pretty horrible people.

It’s an interesting approach to what Torres is trying to do here, straining against the idea that factual truth can actually deepen your inside about why a piece of art moves you. The inclusion of fictional elements certainly puts the factual truthfulness of the less fanciful parts of the documentary at hand in question as well, if not the use of any object truth in cases like this as a whole.

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Possessed II (1984)

Original title: 艷鬼發狂

Full-time misogynist asshole and police inspector Siu (Siu Yuk-Lung) is moving into a new apartment with his pregnant wife Li Chun and their little daughter. It’s clearly a better place for threatening to leave her if the new child isn’t a boy, and berate her for whatever crap comes into his head. Is anyone surprised he’s also cheating on Li Chun with a colleague (Pauline Wong Siu-Fung) at the moment, and that she’s not his first mistress? Ladies and gentlemen, our protagonist, and not even at his worst.

Adding insult to injury, the new apartment is also haunted by the ghost of a former starlet and prostitute (and various co-ghosts). The lady ghost begins possessing Li Chun to violently get back at people for sins decades past. There’s quite a bit of seduction followed by her turning into a hairy lady and killing the seduced involved. The ghost is also causing Li Chun to miscarry, for which Siu of course berates his wife, while also threatening to arrest her for “murdering his child”.

That he’s beginning to suffer from various ghost related troubles really does not trouble this viewer much. Our protagonist being a walking-talking human rights violation notwithstanding, something has to be done against the ghosts before more people die. Two colleagues of his who moonlight as feng shui experts and Buddhist exorcists are not as useful as you’d hope. Fortunately, there’s a magical white guy in form of a Hare Krishna dude (Jayson Case) with an actual reason to care for the affair hanging around the edges of the plot. While the film’s at it, it also provides Siu with an opportunity to better his behaviour.

Where I was complaining that David Lai’s first Possessed was a bit too normal and sensible for my tastes, this second movie triples down on the weirdness much beloved of Hong Kong horror. It’s also a bit confusing: is Siu supposed to be the same cop who didn’t survive the horror movie bullshit ending of the first film? If so, why is he alive? What happened to his sister? When did he have the time for daughter and marriage? If not, why doesn’t the film give him a different name? I’m sure actor Siu Yuk-Lung could have managed being called by a different character name.

Of course, questions like this get lost once the film at hand really gets going. There’s scene after incredible scene: See Possessed Li Chun seduce an overweight butcher and roll around with him in a dark meat wagon! Then watch her turn into the pretty incredible hairy lady monster (surely a Chinese creature I should know)!

Be astonished at racism so bizarre, it’s impossible not to laugh, particularly when our possessed heroine seduces an “African warrior” (or so he tells her), who reacts in ways as embarrassing as they are crack-brained to that situation! All of that happens in between melted faces, crap attempts by Siu to do policework, general spookery of the blue-lit kind, some very mild sex, and a comedic scene in which the feng shui cops attempt to secretly take down a mirror and move a shelf in the apartment while Li Chun is standing right in front of them, and which involves a fake mah-jong session as well as strategically thrown mah-jong stones.

Adding further joy is the perfectly bizarre Hare Krishna business - which will also stick its Hare Krishna theme tune into your brain in ways to never let it leave – featuring said Hare Krishna ghost fighter using all the best hi-tech equipment of ‘84 (absolutely what these guys are known for), as well as a lot of gloopy effects work and general mayhem.

Really, the only way not to enjoy Possessed II is when you work yourself into an offended snit watching it, which I can understand but simply not feel.

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

In short: Firestarter (2022)

I was initially rather excited to see this Stephen Kind re-adaptation, as its director Keith Thomas was responsible for The Vigil, one of the finest low budget horror films of the last decade or so. Which I apparently never wrote about here, because I prefer wading through crap instead, apparently. This, alas, leads us to this awkward mess of a movie.

This is no The Vigil, heck, it’s barely a coherent movie, but rather a movie consisting of three acts that share neither mood nor themes, and while there’s little technically wrong with Thomas’s direction, it does nothing to fix any of the problems it inherited from its embarrassment of a script. Credited to Scott Teems (who also co-wrote Halloween Kills, so no surprise there) is an awful mess that can’t decide if this is supposed to be a psychological horror movie about repression and generational trauma, a bad X-Men origin story, a conspiracy thriller, one of those po-faced “what if superpowers were happening in the Real World™”  things, or what? Fusing any of this reasonably or effectively is of course completely beyond the ambitions or abilities on display here.

Because that’s not bad enough the film is full of random scenes that have no bearing on anything that comes before or after. What’s with Kurtwood Smith’s one scene appearance, for example? Why is he vomiting up a hairball of exposition so pointless, the film’s never going to pick up on it again. Character ethics, motivations and behaviour change from scene to scene without any proper development laying the groundwork for these changes, and narrative flow is a thing other movies do. Also, why the hell do the filmmakers believe finishing by putting its main character kid into the care of the violent psychopath who murdered her mother (as well as a lot of other people) in cold blood is a positive ending? Even King in his most coked-up incarnation knew better than that.

Sunday, June 12, 2022

In short: Possessed (1983)

Original title: 猛鬼出籠

Following an eventful time with a guy who tries to hack Hong Kong cops Siu (Siu Yuk-Lung) and Kong (Lau Siu-Ming) into pieces while his own head appears to do some rather funky transformation stuff, Siu finds himself haunted by increasingly weird occurrences. At the beginning, he appears to be possessed into bouts of violence not unlike what the man from the initial event was doing, but the supernatural force threatening him quickly begins to move into his apartment like a rather unwanted house guest, ruining Siu’s teenage sister’s (Irene Wan Pik-Ha) attempts at having sex with her boyfriend even worse than Siu’s tendency to threaten said boyfriend with physical violence does. Then there’s the very unpleasant time when an invisible force tortures and rapes Siu’s girlfriend Sue (Chan Chi-Shui).

Eventually, the possession and haunting will turn out to be not quite as random as they at first appear, pointing back to some unresolved family business. Obviously, Siu and his family will end up trying to solve it, with the help of Buddhist practitioner Auntie San (Chan Fung-Bing).

Unlike its sequel (at least in name), David Lai’s Possessed does not belong into the exalted realm of the weirder Hong Kong ghost horror movies of its era. It does contain the nearly mandatory – and really unpleasant – rape scene, but for most of the running time, the haunting is very much of the bread and butter style seen in many a Hong Kong or Taiwanese or Chinese movie. It’s not exactly boring, but it certainly has neither the heightened weirdness of the best films of its genre, nor is it quite satisfying as a more standard horror film. Lai’s direction is more solid than remarkable, as well.

Possessed does become rather more exciting – and excitable – in the climactic exorcism sequence, where everything suddenly goes as crazy and tense as you’d have hoped for the whole of the movie: assistant priests die horribly, people and things fly, grabby demon hands come out of a glowing hole in the ceiling, and a four-faced buddha shoots beams of light at the main creature, which goes up in flames, falls out of a window and explodes two cars. All of which sounds rather more like what you’d expect from a Buddhist exorcism if you’ve seen enough of these movies. The film also has a fantastic horror movie bullshit ending so pointlessly cruel and absurd, it’s hard not to love it.

Saturday, June 11, 2022

Three Documentaries Make A Post: For these are the lands of my forefathers. And these are the dances of my ancestors.

Way of the Morris (2011): Despite the tagline – which is for once used in the film – this documentary directed Rob Curry and Tim Plester is not made for that clientele, but rather a very personal exploration of Morris Dance that is interested in the dance as a rural, social, working class phenomenon that’s clearly also deeply personal for one of the filmmakers. There is some diving into the history of Morris dancing, but it, too is focused on the local and the personal connection between today’s Adderbury Morris dancers, the hard cut World War I meant for many folk traditions, as well as unexpected connections to the folk revival.

It’s often a genuinely beautiful film that’s all about community as a web of personal connections.

The Gleaners and I: Two Years Later aka Les glaneurs et la glaneuse… deux ans après (2002): Keeping with documentary filmmaking deeply informed by personal connections between people – and a great, unpathetic sense for human kindness – Agnès Varda returns to some of the subjects of her utterly brilliant The Gleaners and I. If you’re of the complaining type, you’ll probably mutter that she doesn’t add anything truly new with her return to the subjects of the first film. However, there’s such an emotionally true sense of life passing and people changing in Varda’s re-encounters with these people, it’s not really a criticism I see applying. Rather, I see Varda insisting that these people, mostly poor, disenfranchised or a little too weird for polite society are worth engaging with seriously, worth being looked at not with the the eye of the social worker (nothing against social workers) but with one that truly faces them eye to eye.

Tales of the Uncanny (2020): Coming out of the same bubble of Severin films also responsible for the incredible, deeply exciting, folk horror documentary Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched (2021) – a film desperately in need of a German distributor – this isn’t directed by Kier-La Janisse (who does appear as a talking head) but by David Gregory. It’s about the long and pretty exciting history of the horror anthology movie, with a particular emphasis on Amicus. As a Corona lockdown project, this doesn’t go quite as deep as I would have wished – while there are dozens of talking heads, there’s a bit too much vague gushing about the general awesomeness of any given movie for my tastes. Also disappointing is the complete lack of any mention of the long series of Filipino, Hong Kong and Thai series of anthology movies like the “Shake, Rattle and Roll”  or “Troublesome Night” series.

On the plus side, there’s also a lot of very insightful commentary (Ernest R. Dickerson talking about Bava alone would be worth the price of admission). The use of archive footage and film clips is also very well realized, often juxtaposing talking head and footage in incisive and clever ways while also finding a genuinely exciting approach to presenting the films talked about.

Thursday, June 9, 2022

In short: Studio 666 (2022)

Their subtly named manager Jeremy Shill (Jeff Garlin) really, really needs The Foo Fighters (indeed playing themselves) to make a hit record again. But, this being their tenth musical epic, inspiration is not too easily come by. So how about moving into a creepy mansion for a couple of weeks to produce their new record there? The Place may have a bit of a dark past full of murder and unpleasant occult rituals, but that’s just all the more Rock'n'Roll, right?

At first, Dave Grohl is not hit with inspiration (the idea that anybody else in the band might come up with a riff isn’t even brought up), even though he gets a great drum sound. Inspiration doesn’t even hit when the band’s favourite roadie dies in a curious accident (no sad song for him, apparently), or when Dave’s new nightmares begin to become rather interesting. Not even trying to rip off Lionel Ritchie gets him more than a cameo by the guy.

Things change when Dave descends into a hidden cellar and finds some tapes made by the legendary band Dream Widow, right next to satanic paraphernalia and a sacrificed raccoon (sorry, Rocket). The tapes are so good, Dave gets possessed by an evil, murderous force and now feels driven to get his band to perfect a basically endless song, which will also open the gates to hell, yada yada.

The history of rock bands in movies will not have to be rewritten, even though BJ McDonnell’s (also the director of various Slayer videos as well as of the terrible Hatchet 3) Foo Fighters vehicle is certainly on the more entertaining side of its particular genre. At least it never gets boring, which is more than you can say about many a music or horror comedy.

The musicians make for fun and likeable non-actors, with Grohl having the most to do and showing the most actual competence as an actor. Everybody else if pretty awkward, but they are awkward in a fun manner. There’s also a huge, likable sense of self-irony running through the affair. Thus potential for egomania this sort of project can’t help but suggest is nicely undermined by how many of the jokes are on our resident rock stars.

About a third of the jokes are even genuinely funny, which isn’t a bad quota for a movie that throws out half a dozen a minute. Add to that the fun gore effects, and you’ll find me revisiting this one more often than Kiss: Phantom of the Park (see also, egomania).

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

From a Whisper to a Scream (1987)

aka The Offspring

Librarian and Southern small town historian Julian White (Vincent Price) gets a surprise visit by a journalist (Susan Tyrrell) who wants to interview him about his niece Katherine (Martine Bestwick). Katherine has just been executed for a string of murders she committed, and since she grew up under Julian’s care, he’s rather expected to have some insight into her state of mind.

What the old gent actually does is start onto a series of short tales to explain that the town of Oldfield where all of this takes place is and has been home to a cornucopia of murders and depravity, so Katherine’s case should come as no surprise.

Of course, this being a horror anthology, these tales are its segments.

The first tale, “Stanley” concerns the misadventures of mild-mannered and repressed grocer Stanley (Clu Gulager). At home, he is taking care if his ailing sister Eileen (Miriam Byrd-Nethery) who radiates incestuous intensity – at least she seems to be really into passive-aggressively dominating her brother. On his grocer job, Stanley is pining after his boss lady, Grace (Megan McFarland). He even manages to go on a date with her, but when she rebukes him, he murders her and later does the necrophiliac thing. Which really will have some rather unexpected results nine months later.

The second segment, “On the Run”, follows ne'er-do-well Jesse Hardwick (Terry Kiser), who has incensed a couple of rather brutal gangsters, as well as his girlfriend. Chased into a swamp and shot, Jesse regains consciousness in the care of an older black man named Felder Evans (Harry Caesar), a hoodoo practitioner. Sniffing around Felder’s cabin, Jesse finds out that his host must be at least two-hundred years old. He presses Felder to teach him the trick to this sort of longevity. The old man does agree at first, yet Jesse’s generally shitty disposition does sour their relationship rather violently. Which, obviously, isn’t a great idea.

Tale number three, “Lovecraft’s Traveling Amusements” (disappointingly enough not featuring any Lovecraftian content) concerns the tragic romance of the titular carnival’s glass eater, Steven (Ron Brooks) and local beauty Amaryllis (Didi Lanier). Unfortunately, this is no normal travelling carnival but one belonging to a witch (Rosalind Cash) – only going by Snakewoman – who grants her various carnies (all with a problematic past) carny super powers and shelter in return for her dominance over them, and perhaps a bit of mutilation. As you can imagine, her glass eater attempting to run off with a girl does rather displease the woman.

Finally, we have “Four Soldiers”, wherein a group of Union soldiers under the brutal, drunken leadership of Sgt. Gallen (Cameron Mitchell), encounter a group of war orphans – most of them demonstrating scars of war themselves – dwelling in a dilapidated mansion. The children manage to take the men prisoner, as per the rules set by the mysterious “Magistrate” they say they serve. Children being children, they do like to play games with their captives.

As directed by Jeff Burr (who would of course later go on to Charles Band’s Full Moon Pictures as well as specialize in horror sequels of dubious renown yet not always dubious quality) and written by Burr, Darin Scott (whom you might know as writer and producer of the brilliant Tales from the Hood among other things), Mike Malone, and C. Courtney Joyner (another future Band alumni), From a Whisper to a Scream is a pretty wild and gruesome bit of US Southern horror.

In mood and style and it marries EC horror – nearly a given in US horror anthologies – with Southern Gothic, leaning on the pulp gruesomeness of the former instead of the somewhat more subtle and elegant ways of Southern Gothic, where terrible fucked-up shit happens, but usually does so with a pretence of civility. This one rather feels mad like a wild dog, aggressively leaning into the most gruesome elements of the material, cutting away the politeness and ambiguity that to me seems as much part of your typical Southern Gothic piece as are incest, necrophilia and the horrors of slavery and what came after. As an approach this makes perfect sense for a horror movie from the 80s, of course, and not just commercially. While this never feels like a movie seeing it as its main goal to hammer home a political point, it really does put a lot of effort into portraying its American South as a place with a history literally drenched in blood, and suggests this as the worst possible influence on the people living there.

Helping in this effort is some really rather great low budget filmmaking by Burr, who drenches nearly every frame in fecundity and sweat, and lingers on the decaying locations with a lot of wicked enthusiasm and quite a bit of style.

I also can’t help but admire From a Whisper’s absolute willingness to go into creepy, gruesome and pleasantly uncomfortable places and really go there. Even though this isn’t a gore fest – I suspect mostly because it couldn’t afford to be – this is not a film cutting to black politely. There’s a real, admirable, pulp energy and ruthlessness running through all of the film’s segments, as well as a wonderful, and wonderfully gruesome, sense of imagination.

Thanks to the curious economics of anthology horror – where getting a great actor for five affordable days can be enough to shoot a segment – and some great casting choices, there’s also at least one really great performance in every segment. Price is of course the international treasure we know and love, but there’s also Gulager’s go-for-broke outing as Stanley, Harry Caesar’s calm and off-handed warlock, Rosalind Cash’s grand, horrible, villainess. Hell, even Cameron Mitchell puts obvious effort into creating a man of very specific vileness here, instead of coasting by on drinks and general professionalism.

So, to me, this is one of the great underrated anthology films.

Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Some thoughts about The Northman (2022)

Robert Eggers’s insanely ambitious trip into the world of biggest budget cinema in form of a trippy, high production value Norse vengeance movie that actually convinces me that Alexander Skarsgård can do more than be the hot Scandinavian is really quite the film. It is also, alas, one of those perfectly splendid films I only have a couple of vaguely insightful things to say about, even under my customarily loose definition of “insight”.

Which may have rather a lot to do with how much Eggers does here by aesthetics alone: making a film that as once has the air of an authentic saga (at least the Icelandic ones I’ve read), criticises the very toxically masculine bent these things – as well as its none-Norse themed brethren vengeance movies – tend to have, yet also accepting and respecting how its lead finds religious-spiritual fulfilment in the act of vengeance. Eggers is so much on fire here, even the sort of ambiguity about the reality of the supernatural elements this includes, which would usually annoy me to no end in any movie, becomes fitting and simply works. Sure, the magic here is probably only a result of Amleth’s (and yes, there’s rather a lot of Shakespeare in here, if you care to look from the right angle) state of mind, his ecstatic-shamanistic-pagan religion, and drugs, but it is also absolutely real for him and everyone else in the movie, which makes the question of its objective reality inside the fictitious world of the movie pretty much irrelevant for the characters in it.

I found myself particularly excited by the strong mythic pull of the whole affair, Eggers’s ability to turn what would be cheesy, campy psychedelia in the wrong hands, into something that feels absolutely true to the inner world of the characters. And since one of the film’s main thrusts is its insistence on the inner world and the outer world of any given character bleeding into each other to actually create the world as a concept they inhabit, it’s simply true to the characters’ world as something more intense than history (or the idea of historical accuracy). To me, this feels rather a lot as if Eggers were applying Werner Herzog’s ideas about Poetic Truth the great director uses for his documentaries to narrative cinema; and doing it as well as anybody ever did.

Sunday, June 5, 2022

The Dark (1979)

aka The Mutilator

Los Angeles. A mysterious killer stalks the streets at night, ripping heads off, or vaporizing people and/or heads with laser beam eyes.

Roy Warner (William Devane), man slaughterer turned writer and father of the latest victim is rather disappointed in the police work concerning the case and kinda-sorta starts an investigation of his own. For about half of the time, this investigation consists of following the police and staring angrily at them. One can understand this behaviour, however, for Detectives Mooney (Richard Jaeckel) and Bresler (Biff – seriously - Elliot) have investigation techniques very much their own: they love to complain about the press, the public, their moms as well as yours, while looking around confused about why nobody takes them seriously. Mooney also just loves to antagonize everybody he meets while showing not on iota of empathy or understanding: witnesses, victims, reporters, fathers of decapitated girls – you name someone, he’s an asshole to them; Bresler for his part eats, and eats, and then eats some more. Yes, of course donut jokes are involved.

Also on the case is up and coming TV anchor Zoe Owens (Cathy Lee Crosby), getting her teeth into the business in hopes of becoming a proper journalist instead of just a pretty face.

The Dark is another among the considerable number of projects that initially involved the great Tobe Hooper as a director. As it goes with Hooper, he soon found himself released of his duties by one of the producers. Depending on whom you ask, because his lunch breaks were too long, or because he got over budget, or, rather more believable, because a cranky producer simply didn’t like his style. Said producer then proceeded to put John “Bud” Cardos on the director’s chair, re-write the script, and probably do terrible things to the final cut as well.

That story, with its typical mix of rumours and angry mutterings by Hollywood people who were working on the same film together saying completely different things about anyone and anything involved in the production, is a lot more entertaining than the movie that came out without Hooper’s name in the credits. Because for some godawful reason what sounds like a cool monster movie that includes a couple of nice places to insert social criticism into Hooper would probably have had a feast day with is turned into a pretty damn boring police procedural. Most of the film consists of Mooney and Bresler doing little and complaining a lot while Bresler leaves food crumbs in every shot, followed by Warner doing very little as well, followed by Zoe having a discussion or three with her boss (Keenan Wynn). Repeat until runtime is full, add some surprisingly well staged monster attacks with a couple of really bad ideas (laser eyes), and a finale in which the hero just needs to touch the monster once with a torch to let it go up in flames.

It’s just painfully boring, includes no character that isn’t a static stock trope, no developments of plot lines or these characters, and really, no actual plot. Scenes that shouldn’t have started in the first place just go on and on and on, the dialogue is generally bad as well as unfun, and pain don’t hurt, because it’s too boring for it.

The only thing that’s actually remarkable – apart from the stalking scenes that really should have been in a better movie – is that the quality of the photography (DP John Morrill) is pretty great throughout in a late 70s/early 80s Dean Cundey sort of way. Alas, too many of the shots done so prettily are focussed on Richard Jaeckel looking constipated.

Saturday, June 4, 2022

Three Films Make A Post: Taking Them One Mishap at a Time.

Accident Man (2018): House favourite Scott Adkins stars in the adaptation of a Pat Mills/Stu Small comic I haven’t read, directed by frequent Adkins collaborator Jesse V. Johnson. Adkins plays a professional killer specialized in murders that look like accidents or suicide. Things go a bit out of control when he learns that his ex-girlfriend (who happens to be pregnant by him, too) is murdered by some colleagues. A whole lot of hand to hand fighting and murdering ensues. The film, typical for the Johnson/Adkins combo, goes for the pop-coloured and cynically humorous, with a load of pretty eccentric characters (played by beloved action movie character actors like Ray Stevenson, Ray Park and Michael Jai White) fighting it out in not always completely serious ways, in between scenes of often genuinely funny one-liners and dialogue that at least sounds of a piece with some of Mills’s writing.

That the action sequences are budget conscious yet also excellently choreographed and genuinely fun is rather par for the course for projects from this particular circle.

Meurtre à Montmartre aka Reproduction interdite (1957): Self-important whiny art dealer Marc Kelber (Paul Frankeur), falls in with a pair of art forgers to pay for stuff like his step son’s (whom he clearly despises) piano lessons. Because everybody is incredibly high-strung, and really bad at planning, things quickly go wrong.

There are moments when Gilles Grangier’s crime movie is visually effective and captivating, but it self-sabotages with a melodramatic streak as wide as the ocean, where everybody’s emotions are always at eleven, and no single character has ever seemed to have learned even the tiniest bit of self-control. Worse, the film clearly wants the viewer to sympathize with Kelber’s plight, but neither makes any effort to provide reasons for empathy, nor makes him interesting.

Run a Crooked Mile (1969): This TV movie by Gene Levitt aims for a twisty take of weird conspiracy (like The Prisoner minus the depth, the surrealism and the look) that’s mostly aimed at a viewer’s suspense glands. This works well for the first half or so, but once our hero (played by the seldom interesting Louis Jourdan) gets conked over the head and wakes up two years later in Switzerland as a polo playing playboy married to the yawn-inducing Elizabeth (Mary Tyler Moore), things become bogged down in exactly the things I’m least interested in: the marriage problems of two painfully flat actors, a conspiracy that seems to be run by complete idiots, and suspense plotting that misses out on the whole “suspense” thing.