Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Stagecoach (1966)

Nearly everyone reading this (hi, Mum!) will know the plot of this one, though not this version of it, so to keep matters short: a diverse group of travellers on a stagecoach to Cheyenne – saloon girl Dallas (Ann-Margret), alcoholic Doctor Boone (Bing Crosby), Marshal Wilcox (Van Heflin), comic relief whiskey salesman Peacock (Red Buttons), Southern-born gambler Hatfield (Mike Conners), pregnant cavalry captain’s wife Lucy Mallory (Stefanie Powers), banker with a case full of stolen money Gatewood (Robert Cummings), coach driver Buck (Slim Pickens) and eventually outlaw-with-a-cause Ringo Kid (Alex Cord) – have to survive natural and human dangers. Which is the sort of thing that happens travelling during one of the endless wars between the US military and the pre-colonial native population.

Though, to put that right in front, the film really isn’t interested at all in any more modern view on these wars or on the Lakota as a people, using both as forces of nature that endanger and kill anybody coming too close. So if this traditional approach bothers you too much, you’ll not be happy with the movie; but then you’ll probably not be happy with much of the canon of US Westerns.

Speaking of canon, this is indeed a remake of one of the great, canonical classics of its genre (probably Hollywood cinema as a whole), John Ford’s Stagecoach. Remaking this sort of certified masterpiece is a bit of a fool’s errant, the kind of endeavour seldom bound to earn praise from critics or audiences (though the latter may have been more tolerant in the home video-less times when this was made). It’s also somewhat arrogant. However, at least in my view, Gordon Douglas was a genre director who was not actually a lesser filmmaker than Ford. As a matter of fact, if I had to choose to between both, I’d most probably go with Douglas as my preferred director. But then, I do prefer working filmmakers like Douglas who still managed to develop a voice of their own to professional crafters of masterpieces like Ford. Though I have taken a decade or so to watch enough of Douglas’s films to truly appreciate him as more than a guy who just happened to make a lot of good Westerns and my favourite US giant monster movie. All of which does not mean I don’t appreciate quite a few of Ford’s films (and his original Stagecoach is surely one of the great Westerns).

Much of this is simply a matter of taste, Douglas lacking certain things that can drive me to distraction with Ford: as a rule, Douglas’s movies tend to be less socially conservative, feeling more genuinely concerned with the outsiders of society, and less beholden to a nostalgia which can sometimes become cloying in Ford, particularly connected to a kind of sentimentality that simply does not work for me. Though the original Stagecoach is one of Ford’s least conservative movies in some regards, particularly the ending. Douglas also does not generally delve as deeply into the abyss of odious comic relief as Ford, usually relaxing the tension in his films in ways more based on the simple joys of human companionship, though the film at hand does indeed feature the Peacock/Boone combo doing some comic relieving.

Which indeed he does a lot in his version of Stagecoach, in between often genuinely wonderful scenes in which the characters reveal or discover their true natures in their shared encounters with danger. Interestingly, most of the characters are better than the world or they themselves believe to be, finding strength and dignity in the business of survival, most of them looking to stay their better versions in the future. There are exceptions of course: Gatewood learns exactly nothing about himself or the world, and – alas, quite realistically – Crosby’s alcoholic doctor sobers up quite heroically in the moment of greatest need but is back to the bottle immediately afterwards.

But then, Crosby’s sobering up is a great moment anyway. The actor shifting from humorous alcoholic wreck to a rather wise man about his business is staged and played with great dramatic and emotional heft that’s further strengthened exactly by the fact he has been part of the comic relief – though a more complicated one than his partner – until now. Crosby, not exactly an actor I’d expect this sort of performance from (I generally prefer him as a crooner and in musicals), does play the alcoholic very well indeed, suggesting the man buried under the bottle even in his silliest scenes.

As a whole, Douglas’s cast is pretty fantastic, in individual moments as well as in their interplay, all giving performances a step above their usual quality, which is saying quite something in a lot of these cases. Ann-Margret is heartbreakingly beautiful and intense at this stage in her career before starting to border on camp caricature, and really seems to embody the confusion of a young woman who already has seen quite a bit of crap in her time. Now, she is confronted with the roles she is allowed by society to play, none of whom seems to fit very well, and finds an opening to something happier (because this is a kind film at heart). Alex Cord, never much of an actor, brings something awkward, but also simple, straightforward and honest to Ringo that doesn’t feel as much as a performance but like watching a guy finding the thing he is best at; that not much in this line came afterwards for the actor is a bit of a shame, but so it goes.

Visually, Stagecoach ‘66 is just as excellent as it is in its character work. Douglas uses the much enhanced technical possibilities he had compared to the original to their fullest, staging stagecoach sequences and sometimes surprisingly brutal violence (particularly in a film that seems not at all influenced by the budding revisionist tendencies in Western, nor by what the Italians started doing) Ford simply couldn’t have realized at the time when he made the original, adding action and stunts that are often incredibly exciting and intense, as well as varied in their approach. Action and characters do tend to feed into each other rather wonderfully, as well, really turning this not just into my favourite version of Stagecoach but into one of my favourite US Westerns.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

In short: Sator (2019)

A handful of characters we will eventually realize are a family live separately in some deep and dark, desolate Appalachian forest and mountain snowscape. Talk and thoughts when the characters meet tend to turn to a figure named Sator that has apparently been in contact with – or hounding – the family since the time of their grandmother (June Peterson, the actual grandmother of the director, who indeed spoke with an entity she called Sator during schizophrenic episodes) who talks about something that only ever feels dreadful and horrifying as if it were her guardian angel.

Mental states become increasingly frayed as Sator’s influence seems to grow; rituals are committed; things end very badly indeed.

Jordan Graham’s Sator is a film that is bound to divide any given audience. If you go in insisting on a clear and obvious narrative throughline, contemporary ideas about streamlined pacing or even just a clear adherence to what are becoming the rules of folk horror, this might very well be a film that’ll simply infuriate you, or at least bore you to tears.

I felt pretty much in awe of Sator watching it, basically hypnotized by its use of slowness, its thick and deep mood of dread, desperation and doom (so thick it’ll turn anyone into Stan Lee, apparently), the seemingly random but actually deeply meaningful shifts in style. Parts of the film look and feel as if you were watching a very weird family documentary (which you sort of do at that point), others have an indie horror style sense of the poetry of long lingering shots of dark and lonely places. It’s beautiful if you have the patience for it, coming to a point where the presentation of a ritual through a movie feels as if it were part of the ritual itself, putting the viewer in the position of a witness to something that probably should not be witnessed at all. Thanks to the actual family connections of the tale to its director, the film is also deeply personal, turning something that must have caused deep rifts in an actual family into a thing of myth and awe, always avoiding the temptation to turn this into some kind of afterschool special.

There is something genuinely haunting about Sator, a quality that is certainly caused by very thought-through and careful filmmaking (the film is making so much out of a miniscule budget, it’s nearly unbelievable), yet still feels like it were part of some sort of folk magic, letting the viewer commune with the sort of things Man Wasn’t Meant to Know (hi, HPL!). Not to get coarse, but it’s impressive as fuck.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Una rata en la oscuridad (1979)

Warning: there will be spoilers, because there are some late movie revelations I simply cannot ignore completely

Sisters Josefina (Ana Luisa Peluffo) and Sonia (Anaís de Melo) have managed to buy a surprisingly spacious and classy house for suspiciously little money. As every viewer of horror movies will expect, the house does turn out to be haunted. At first, Sonia is in the centre of the various strange happenings that seem to emanate from the portrait painting of a somewhat intense looking woman found in the living room. These phenomena seem to travel with a single rat that makes uncommonly loud noises. In part, it’s the usual mix of poltergeist style phenomena and strange noises, but the haunting also slowly begins to influence the sisters’ personalities, turning Sonia first languid than aggressive through the magic of what is apparently pretty mind blowing ghost sex.

Fans of Mexican genre movies will probably know Una rata’s director Alfredo Salazar more as a screen writer than as a director. The ten movies he directed are small fry to the more than sixty he wrote from the 50s on. The film at hand does suggest a bit of a pet project, seeing how Salazar does his best to avoid the general shoddiness of late 70s Mexican genre films. However, pet project or not, it has to be said that some of the sleaze is too on the nose to be helpful for the film, and the acting tends to be too broad even for a film as consciously strange as this one gets.

The budget is obviously low, so complicated camera set-ups, extras or simply too many locations and sets are out, yet the film takes palpable care to use what little it has as best as possible. Salazar often manages to create a dream-like and truly strange mood on the cheap with the (I believe at least partially needle-dropped, most definitely genius) synth soundtrack, clever single camera set-ups, and slightly illogical plotting. It’s a film full of decisions like portraying a character’s ghost induced orgasm via a modern dance number in woozy white, the sort of idea that’s a bit absurd, a lot strange, and really rather brilliant. If that sounds a little like an Italian horror movie, I’d be very surprised if Salazar hadn’t been influenced by his colleagues from across the pond, or just inspired to go all out for the dreamlike and the peculiar by some very heavy food.

Also pretty strange are the film’s sexual politics. At first, the whole ghost sex angle does feel a lot like some of the good old (bad) lesbian panic angle. However, the big plot twist - as well as the explanation for why the camera is generally positioned so not to show the face of the sexing ghost, apart from this adding to the peculiar mood of the whole affair - is that the ghost is a transvestite (or a cross dresser), apparently an entity using the house as some sort of honey trap to seduce and murder people. In fact, I’m not even sure our villain is supposed to be a supernatural entity – the ending’s simply to weird to make the kind of sense that’ll lead anyone to logical conclusions about their nature. If this makes Una rata’s sexual politics better or worse, I honestly have no idea. It certainly adds another parallel to Italian horror movie obsessions and makes things more peculiar. What – if anything – Salazar actually means by any of it, I’m not able to parse.

In any case, if you’d like your weird European-style horror to come from Mexico instead for once, and enjoy being confused and mildly weirded out, Una rata en la oscuridad is most probably going to be a fine film for you.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Three Films Make A Post: Carrol Jo Hummer--A working man who's had enough!

White Line Fever (1975): I know that this film by Jonathan Kaplan about an independent trucker played by Jan-Michael Vincent taking on the long-haul version of The Man has quite a few admirers. However, for me, the mix of traditional trucker exploitation, hicksploitation humour and earnest working class “Organize!” doesn’t really quite come together. Taken alone, every given scene is a perfectly fine example of its given genre, together, they result in a film of wildly fluctuating tone and uneven pacing that really would have needed to decide where it wants to put its emphasis.

Kill Me Again (1989): This is the first of now quality TV director John Dahl’s neo noirs after his time as a music video director, a series of films that would lead to at least two absolute classics of the genre. For its first two acts, this is nearly on its way to that status as well. Dahl uses his slick and polished style and the desert sun to perfectly replace the play of shadow and light of the classical noir, letting his characters go through variations of classic tropes that get enough of a twist to feel new. Val Kilmer (before he apparently started to believe that the main job of an actor is to sabotage the movie he is in), his then wife Joanne Whalley and Michael Madsen fit into this surface bright noir world perfectly.

Alas, the film breaks down nearly completely in the final act, with too many implausibilities even for a noir, and a bad case of random plot twist syndrome.

The Dry (2020): While I respect it and its approach, I can’t say I really enjoyed Robert Connolly’s adaptation of Jane Harper’s novel as much as I’d have liked too. There’s certainly a great sense of the dry Australian outback it takes place in on display, and the film also makes the book’s flashback structure flow much more organically than its source.

But for my tastes, the film is a bit too distanced from the crime(s) and the people at its heart, using a clinical look on its characters and their travails that makes it difficult to empathise with them, packing little emotional heft despite being about things of great emotional weight.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

In short: The Score (2001)

Aging thief Nick (Robert De Niro), looking at retirement to be with his younger girlfriend (Angela Bassett) and manage his ill-gotten jazz club is going on one last, risky, heist together with an ableist newbie (Edward Norton) who has ingratiated himself with the thief’s main contact (Marlon Brando). Said contact will turn out to have problems of his own beyond looking as unhealthy as early 00s Brando. Still, nothing you won’t see coming a mile or two away occurs.

The whole affair looks and feels a lot as if director Frank Oz was really trying to make a Michael Mann movie, but failing, ending up with the artistic ambitions and slickness of Mann’s style and none of the intelligence and depth these things are supposed to stand in service of, and which make the difference between artistic ambitions and simple pretentiousness.

The script (with four people credited for story and screenplay, which is seldom a good sign in the sort of major mainstream movie where this means there were probably ten writers involved) lacks any nuance, any sense for the telling detail, that could drag the obvious clichés in more interesting directions, leaving the actors to go through the motions. And sure, De Niro and Norton going through the motions is not exactly boring to watch, but it’s also a painful underuse of their talents.

The script has other flaws: the motive for the final – and so obvious it’s not a spoiler – betrayal is underprepared even though the film’s about half an hour too long for what it is, the pacing’s off (a cardinal sin in this genre), and I don’t even want to know who thought having Norton go undercover as a “retard” (that’s a quote) was anything but an idea to make a viewer cringe.

Despite the flaws, it’s still a watchable film, even though it is only the kind of watchability that comes with a cast and crew made up out of experienced professionals doing their jobs professionally.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Death Hunt (1981)

The early 1930s, Canada, the Yukon territory. A trapper named Albert Johnson (Charles Bronson) has just returned to the area to reclaim a way of life he followed before he became a spy in World War I (and did whatever guys like he do after that). When he sees local influential asshole Hazel (Ed Lauter) attempt to kill his own dog because it was losing a dog fight, he intervenes, making Hazel and his gang of violent cronies his bitter enemies. Hazel does his best to escalate things when it turns out that Johnson isn’t one to be easily killed by the likes of him, eventually managing to set the – very unwilling and generally tired – local Mountie Millen (Lee Marvin), his partner Sundog (Carl Weathers) and newly arrived rookie Mountie Alvin (Andrew Stevens, quite some time before he became one of the kings of Skinemax) against the trapper.

Because Johnson is a very dangerous man when riled, and a master at survival in dangerous circumstances, things escalate into a huge manhunt that makes the national news, making any idea of a peaceful solution nearly ridiculous.

Peter R. Hunt’s Northern Death Hunt is a wonderful film, basically doing nothing whatsoever that could destroy its balance, and doing very many things very right indeed.

The character work is strong throughout: Hunt makes excellent use of those elements of Bronson’s external stoicism that can suggest a combination of compassion and stubbornness when used properly (and Bronson clearly liked to do that when a film gave him the chance, and so applied himself fully in these situations instead of going through the motions of being Bronson), showing all the complexities of the character despite him only having a handful of dialogue scenes.

This ability to work via the body language of veteran actors also produces quite a resonant relationship between Marvin and Bronson despite them never meeting between glances through binoculars. Of course, these two are constructed as very parallel characters, decent men of violence who see their ways of life coming to an end, and not liking the replacement at all. It’s not that the film is getting all melancholy about the great times of frontier barbarism, mind you: it’s clear that nearly everyone populating these last spaces ruled by the old ways is a violent thug of some kind, cruel and callous; the film’s just as clear about the fact that the new ways of living coming up North now are not really any less terrible – they just like to pretend they are.

The film works wonderfully as a grim adventure movie with quite a few great set pieces, atmospherically filmed. The environmental dangers of snow and ice are ever-present, and, the film seems to suggest, are outward symbols of everyone’s mental states, which generally aren’t terribly healthy. The film takes some rather clever detours when it puts its mind to it, using tropes of the Western and revisionist Western but giving them interesting little twists to turn characters more human. Somewhat surprisingly, but certainly fitting in this context, for a film whose view on human nature seems to be rather cynical as a whole, Death Hunt shows a decided tendency to give every single side character (all played by wonderful character actors) something to be beyond their premeditated genre role, even fleshing out some of Hazel’s shithead henchmen as if they were proper human beings. The most impressive thing is not just that Hunt had the immense ambition to add all this humanity to his icy chase movie, it’s that he managed to do this while keeping the film ticking away like clockwork, ending up with a film that’s sprawling when thought about, but which feels tight and focussed while you watch it.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

In short: Collateral (2004)

If nothing else, this Michael Mann joint about a taxi driver (Jamie Foxx) becoming the unwilling chauffeur and unlikely fall guy for a professional killer (Tom Cruise) on a five stop murder tour of police informers through LA does prove that good direction and excellent acting is absolutely all that is needed to turn a bizarre, overconstructed and deeply implausible script into a highly engaging movie.

The film’s plot is a melange of improbable happenstance and stupid plans by supposed “professionals” that would make quite a few giallos look completely realistic. However, as with the giallo, realism and believability really aren’t the point here. Instead, Mann creates a world out of his patented amassing of plausible feeling details (which are often total hogwash in actual reality, but no matter) and a visual style that goes all in for a very digital look when that wasn’t a thing most serious directors who could afford any better tried, where all the theoretical nonsense makes total emotional and thematic sense in practice. Because it’s all in a day’s work for Mann even on a bad day, he squeezes in quite a few fantastic action and suspense scenes into the cracks of his the tale of a man losing all of his illusions and finding strength through it, starring Los Angeles by night as the perfect metaphor for the modern world. Going by the critical consensus of the time, he also made pretty much everyone watching happy with it.

While Mann is working his magic, he not only gets the expectedly great performances out of Foxx, Jada Pinkett Smith and Mark Ruffalo (doing the most Michael Mann movie cop character imaginable), but also a less awkward performance out of Cruise than most directors get when asking him to act instead of to star. In these cases, the problem usually isn’t that Cruise isn’t trying but that he’s trying so visibly to rise to the occasion, ironically seeming to lack the self-confidence to really be in the role instead of playing it. Here, there’s still a bit of the stiffness this often produces, but there are many scenes where Cruise actually nails the character in a natural and fluent way.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Come True (2020)

Sarah (Julia Sarah Stone) is in a state of being something of a half-runaway. Sneaking into her home from time to time when she knows her mother isn’t there to cop some food or a shower, she sleeps in the bedroom of what seems to be her only friend at school when she’s lucky, and outside when she’s not. The film never really outright says what kind of abuse she’s avoiding, but it can’t be pretty.

Giving her precarious state outside of school, it looks like a bit of a godsend to the teenager when she sees an advert for a sleep study, that’ll get her a bit of money as well as quite a few nights in a very safe environment. Or what should be a safe environment, for as it turns out, this isn’t quite a typical sleep study. For some reason, the subjects of the study seem to share the exact same nightmares, nightmares that seems to increasingly trickle into their waking lives, until Sarah gets into mortal danger.

If nothing else, Anthony Scott Burns’s Come True is certainly the best film in the small horror sub-genre of contemporary films fascinated with sleep experiments (still waiting on a Russian movie about that sort of thing, obviously) and/or sleep paralysis.

Kidding aside, the film’s at the very least a minor gem (I’d argue a major one), shot in a style somewhat evoking early to middle period Cronenberg - like quite a few films have done in the last couple of years - through a certain visually expressed coldness. It’s – again like most of its stylistic brethren – not a simple stylistic derivative, for Burns shows quite bit more compassion for Sarah’s suffering, physical and metaphysical, than you’d get from Cronenberg and uses the distancing effect coming with the style to avoid sentimentality, but not sentiment.

The clinical style is also very useful when it comes to presenting the – brilliantly conceived yet budget-consciously minimalist – effects of the abnatural on the world and the characters. The film’s seeming objectivity makes most of its horror set pieces very convincing indeed. Most of the horror feels very much of a piece with that objectivity, presenting the influx of the irrational in a very rational manner, which is an uncommon approach for dream-based movies – which do tend to the consciously surreal – and turns out to be very effective indeed in Burns’s hands.

Some of the concepts the script (by Burns and Daniel Weissenberger) uses are rather wonderful indeed, certainly again suggesting the shadow of Cronenberg, but also of the more science fictional arm of weird fiction, and the fusion of that into creepypasta. There’s a very well developed sense of strangeness running through the film, yet a strangeness that doesn’t seem random but coherent and logical in the same way systems of the occult can feel coherent and logical even though they are irrational.

There are flaws here, of course. Most obviously, there’s a really ill-advised as well as unconvincing romance to suffer through that feels painfully tacked on and rather inadvertently uncomfortable. On the plus side, the ending of the romance does provide the film with one of its most haunting images in the end, so it’s not completely useless.

Some of the acting also feels a little off, with some of the actors in minor roles making peculiar decisions in their line readings as well as in their body language. Though, given the very peculiar and sudden double twist ending of the film, this might very well have been a purposeful decision from the filmmakers; it does certainly add to the strangeness of mood that increases the longer the film goes on.

Not at all awkward is Stone’s performance. As a matter of fact, it’s rather on the riveting side, carrying the film over its more implausible or distanced moments with its humanity, and keeping this as far away from the sort of horror film where you can’t wait to see the characters die as possible.

That all of this clearly has been realized on a minor budget is a little wonder indeed, turning Come True into quite the surprise for this jaded viewer of movies concerning sleep experiments and sleep paralysis.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Three Films Make A Post: The hunter becomes the hunted.

Enhanced (2019): By now, quite a few low budget filmmakers have realized that they may not be able to keep up on the spectacle of contemporary superhero cinema, but they sure as hell can use superhero tropes when focussing on comparatively low power sets and street level plots. Like at least half of these films, James Mark’s Canadian example of the type Enhanced is clearly taking its cues from the X-Men, with (mostly) innocent superpowered beings hunted by the government.

The resulting movie is a lot of fun for my tastes. It makes good use of the fantastical elements it can afford, presents some choice comic book science, and comes up with a handful of very nice, small-scale action scenes with more than decent choreography and direction. Leads Alanna Bale and George Tchortov comport themselves well in and outside of the action, too, so there’s a fun time to be had here.

Deep Cover (1992): Bill Duke’s (who is probably much better known for his character actor work than directing despite his copious direction credits on TV and in the movies) movie about a black cop played by Laurence Fishburne when we still called him Larry going undercover as a drug dealer (and partnering with Jeff Goldblum) packs a lot of style (one can certainly be sure that Duke watched Miami Vice and learned all the right lessons from the show), quite a bit of creative wildness, comments about being a black man in the 90s and a generally acerbic attitude towards 90s drug capitalism as well as the war on drugs into all the best-loved tropes you expect from a film in this genre.

With the help of Fishburne, Goldblum and a generally wonderful cast, Duke makes a film that manages to be genuinely intelligent under the cheap thrills, delivers these thrills in the best possible way, and really convinces anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear that he should have been one of the great crime movie directors after this, instead of the travelling craftsman he became. (No shame in being one of those, naturally).

In the Cut (2003): Also pretty fantastic is this hazy and moody erotic psychological thriller by the great Jane Campion, who never let her feminism stop her to get deep into the less easily stomached and judged areas of sexuality, desire and lust, and indeed found much useful for feminism to explore there. This is very much a film of a hazy yet tactile mood, interested in all kinds of liminal spaces – between characters, between feelings, between glances, between waking and sleep, between lust and caution, and of course (this being Campion) between touches. The film is pretty giallo-esque in its eroticism, as well as in the deep implausibility of its thriller plot; just as it is with most other great giallos, that implausibility really isn’t the point, though.

Of course, this being a Campion movie, we also get to watch some great performances, not just by Meg Ryan going brilliantly against her America’s Sweetheart thing with ease but also by house favourites Mark Ruffalo, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Nick Damici (of all people to encounter in a Campion movie).

Thursday, April 8, 2021

In short: The Children (2008)

A Christmas vacation in the snowy countryside with family and their respective offspring must have sounded like a good idea at the time for the characters in this movie. These people clearly haven’t seen as many indie movies about family meetings in – comparatively, this does take place in the UK – isolated spaces that turn into various kinds of psychological torture as I have. But then, these little family tensions do turn out not to be the biggest problems anyone will have, for the dear little ones seem to catch some sort of bug that turns them first apathetic, strange(r than children are anyway, so it’s perfectly believable the grown-ups don’t notice the danger of the situation) and eventually murderous. They also do seem to know a lot about the fine details of parental psychology as well as have had an internal crash course in murder physics.

While there is by now a number of infected-style horror movies in which children become rather nasty, and there has of course been a line of evil kid movies since at least the 50s, going as far with children as perpetrators or victims as you’d do with grown-ups is still something of a taboo in horror films, leaving much of the evil children of horror somewhat classier than many of their grown-up colleagues infected with demons or, as in the case of this film by Tom Shankland, a post-28 Days Later not-zombie virus.

There’s no classy reticence in Shankland’s film, however. Instead there’s a truly vicious yet also disturbingly child-like note to the killer kids here, their behaviour and attacks feeling unpleasantly believable and disquieting even to this childless viewer. I don’t want to imagine what some parents might make of it.

That sense of ruthlessness/viciousness/rawness really is the main thing the film has going for it after it has spent some time building the characters and their – only somewhat strained – relationships. That’s not because The Children is a stupid film, or a one trick pony, but because it is very effectively focussed on creating a mood of desperation and doom, efficiently dragging the audience into sharing the characters’ horrible situation on a raw emotional level.

The film uses a lot of tricks to never let the audience forget that these are indeed children, using their smallness and physical fragility in nearly every scene, and going for kills that turn perfectly typical strange kid behaviour threatening and violent.

In general, The Children tries to go for its audience’s jugular, using fast cuts, loud noises and some wonderfully horrible kid screeching and keening to stress a viewer out; and all that while using nary a typical jump scare. It’s too bad that Shankland hasn’t done much movie work after this, though he was involved in quite a bit of worthwhile series work for TV streaming.

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Slugs (1988)

Original title: Slugs, Muerte Viscosa

aka Slugs: The Movie

A lot of people, and I mean a lot of people die curious, icky, violent deaths in a US small town. We the audience know the deaths are caused by a humungous horde of mutated, flesh-eating slugs, but the authorities don’t. Well, heroic health official Mike Brady (Michael Garfield) figures it out relatively quickly, but he walks into a Mayor of Amity/German COVID policy situation where neither said mayor nor the police are going to be any help at all, or worse. Mike does team up with a British slugologist and the head of the city’s sanitation department in a sort of coalition of the people who really keep a place running.

Slugs, based on a novel by trash horror expert Shaun Hutson (that’s where the “The Movie” comes from) was directed by Spanish bizarro movie expert Juan Piquer Simón. His Pieces is often treated as one of those perfect, “it’s so bad, it’s good” movies, but never really did much for me but bore; on the other hand, he is also the director of the transcendentally weird and wonderful Supersonic Man.

The curious thing about Simón, a guy whose projects nearly always sound psychotronic in a way that doesn’t suggest slickness, is that he was clearly a talented director, with a good sense of pacing and editing rhythms and at the very least a solid grasp of the craftsmanship aspects of filmmaking. He just tended to apply his talents to movies with scripts going from the bizarre to the outright crazy, and often on budgets so clearly insufficient, even attempting to make these movies has a whiff of the heroic or Ancient Greek style hubris.

Slugs, curiously enough, is one of the man’s less impoverished films, providing Simón many an opportunity to show off his filmmaking skills. It’s just that he’s demonstrating them on a film about killer slugs full of insane set pieces that make little sense but are also unutterably awesome, presenting a series of gore gags that start out absurd and become increasingly freakish. This is a film that puts a scene of an elderly gardener cutting off his own arm because the slugs have snuck into his gardening gloves and are eating his hand (which somehow ends in an exploding greenhouse, but one has to see that one to believe) relatively early as something of a sign post things are going to become weirder still. And indeed, the film’s not lying, that’s nothing, for it soon reaches the point where a gentleman who accidentally ate a hacked up slug in a salad gets his head melted by the parasitic worms living inside snails. And Slugs is still not going to stop there. Will it be any surprise in this context to mention that the heroic way our heroic health official and co manage to save the day also seems to blow up most of the sets of the town the whole thing has taken place in?

It’s pretty incredible. Simón seldom stops for a breather between the slug attacks or variations on animal attack movie tropes turned absurd by the fact everyone’s trying to deny an infestation of killer slugs (who will bite your finger if you present it) caused by poisonous waste event though people are dying in droves and heads are imploding into wormy mush in restaurants. But then, the town this takes place in seems to be situated in Spain as well as the US, depending on which country any given scene was shot in, so I’m not too surprised everybody’s a bit confused.

The effects are not as unpleasant as they may sound, but go for a kind of wondrously fake gloopiness instead of the naturalistic gross-out, turning this gory killer slug movie into a charmer of a film.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

In short: Orca (1977)

After an encounter with an orca whale, Irish fisherman in Newfoundland Nolan (Richard Harris) decides to catch one of these lovely mammals to sell it to a marine park. The project goes very wrong indeed when Nolan becomes responsible for the death of a pregnant orca and her little orca foetus. Her mate clearly has seen a couple or ten revenge flicks and, after a bit of crying, uses his superior intelligence and physique to make Nolan’s life a living hell before it will eventually kill him.

Michael Anderson’s Orca is the kind of nature strikes back movie one really can’t imagine having been produced by anyone but Dino De Laurentiis, and really shows all the hallmarks of the guy’s admirable willingness to throw money and talent at idiotic projects. The script’s (credited to Sergio Donati and producer Luciano Vincenzoni) attempts at making a vengeance flick where the vigilante is a whale are as bizarre as you’d expect, with mind-boggling moments like that shot that looks rather a lot like a crying orca eye and all sorts of additional nonsense.

In good old Dino tradition, this is packaged into a wonderfully looking film, with beautiful surface and underwater photography by J. Barry Herron and Ted Moore, a score by Ennio Morricone (that does indeed include what I can only interpret as a love theme for two whales), and a pretty great cast. Richard Harris is of course soused and very Irish, Charlotte Rampling tries to trump the general weirdness of proceedings by doubling the intensity of every single line reading (I’m particularly fond of her hilariously dramatic exposition bomb in form of a university lecture), Will Sampson provides the mandatory Native American whale wisdom that saves exactly nobody, and the rest of the cast do their best with what they are given.

The thing with Orca is, if you are willing and able to either buy into its set-up emotionally or at least can accept it, shrugging, it can be a highly entertaining film, full of suspense scenes you haven’t quite seen staged this way before, as well as some moments – particularly in the Arctic last act – breathing a nice atmosphere of doom. It’s also a film against all reason convinced of its deep emotional resonance, the sort of thing that’s at once a bit admirable and embarrassing, and certainly never the kind of film you’re bound to forget, which goes a long way with me.

Sunday, April 4, 2021

The Creature Called Man (1970)

Original title: Jaga wa hashitta

The dictator of a fictional Asian country the subtitles dub “Southnesia” (still better than DC Comics’s Quraq) has managed to flee from the enraged revolution that toppled his government. He’s bound for the USA to build a government in exile (and most probably to milk money from the CIA tit for his own re-coup). However, because his flight was organized by a big Japanese corporation (and because he used a lot of Japanese soldiers who couldn’t get enough of the killing after World War II in the coup that initially brought him to power), his first port of call is Japan.

Because the Japanese police apparently has a “don’t shoot first” policy, his superiors encourage top cop and former Olympic shooter Toda (Yuzo Kayama) to officially step down, and unofficially become their very own killer of the killers the revolutionaries have most certainly sent after the dictator. Outfitted with a souped up VW Beetle (!) and a Mauser – a gun a lot of Japanese movies of this kind really adore - with a silencer, Toda certainly is a force of murder to be reckoned with when it comes to the revolutionaries. However, there’s also a true professional killer involved - Kujo (Jiro Tamiya). Ironically, Kujo was hired by the same company that brought the dictator out after the new government agreed to honour some arms deals of the old guy. But then, the film not so subtly argues, as long as money’s to be made on other people’s suffering, big corporations don’t care too much for yesterday’s business partners.

Toda and Kujo descend into one of those classical duels between killers. During the course of the film, the professional killer regains parts of his humanity through a complicated – and baggaged with some dubious consent business because this is a 70s Japanese movie about manly men who are too weak to take no for an answer – relationship to a woman (Nancy Sommers), while the policeman loses most of the innocence he still had.

At first, Kiyoshi Nishimura’s The Creature Called Man seems to treat the political, moral and emotional background for its pretty wonderful action sequences in a style akin to contemporary men’s adventure manga like Golgo-13 (still waiting on a decent movie adaptation, by the way) – as a mere backdrop that may ground proceedings at a particular place and time but is pretty much interchangeable.

In truth, the film’s just comparatively subtle early on, taking its time to present Toda and Kujo as admirable men of violence with no pesky emotional attachments and no politics who are really good at their jobs. Which, incidentally, seems to be the way these two define themselves in front of their respective mirrors.

Only once the film has shown the audience how these men see themselves and explain their actions to themselves does it start to show us the small hypocrisies and the potentials for change in their behaviour, deconstructing Toda’s stoic willingness to kill for a cause that isn’t his own (or really, anyone’s but the dictator’s) until he eventually even accidentally murders an innocent without consequences, and reconstructing Kujo as a human being through something that doesn’t even start as an act of kindness but still turns into one. Much of this seems to prefigure the emotional interests and arcs common to Hong Kong’s later heroic bloodshed films, and I wouldn’t at all be surprised if this specific film as well as some of its late movie aesthetic choices were a conscious influence on John Woo or Tsui Hark.

Politically, the film becomes acerbic towards all good causes that eventually only cause loss of innocent life (with a brutal nod towards all the hot wars driven by the cold one), and is not always quietly disgusted by all those ways suffering can be turned into profit or real violence fetishized, as shown by a translator and evilcorp assistant played by Mariko Kaga.

All of this is embedded into a cracking good early 70s Toho action movie full of excellently staged – and increasingly big – action that always keeps the personal level of Toda and Kujo in mind too. The inevitable final showdown between the two – of course after a friendly chat – turns a simple warehouse showdown into a crescendo of slow motion, brutal jazz, and one of the best timed moment of absolute silence I have had the pleasure to encounter in this sort of scene, providing an appropriately epic feel to the climax of a film that aims and hits much higher than it at first appears to.

Saturday, April 3, 2021

Three Films Make A Post: There are no partners in crime

The Invisible Guardian aka El guardián invisible (2017): For a time, Fernando González Molina’s serial killer procedural seems a decent enough entry into this particular genre, with some spectacularly moody shots of corpses in foggy and wet woods as its visual main attraction. The longer the film goes on, the more it goes off the rails, the family connections between the investigating police inspector and the case bringing out a lot of screeching melodrama that’s simply not well enough written or staged to evoke the emotions it so desperately wants to. The procedural bit becomes increasingly ridiculous too – this is the sort of film where our heroine cop is surprised and disgusted she can’t continue a case where her own sister is the main suspect, and the film agrees with bombastic nonsense on the soundtrack. For some reasons that may very well be clearer in the books this is based on, the film also shoehorns in a supernatural element that really has no place in the plot as it is whatsoever, as if the filmmakers were just adding random stuff to the already slow and ponderous thing.

Sentinelle (2021): A French soldier with PTSD sent home to now patrol public places with a loaded assault rifle (a thing that looks absolutely insane from my cultural perspective, and can only be bound to feel everyone less secure) gets violently upset at the rich guy who rapes and nearly murders her sister. Because she’s played by Olga Kurylenko, there’s a lot of scowling and actorly intensity before the outbreak of violence. Director Julien Leclerq seems genuinely interested in his main character’s inner life, so Kurylenko has much opportunity for a not original but pleasantly nuanced portrayal; that she’s also a good action actress certainly helps the Netflix film considerably.

Creature with the Atom Brain (1955): The main surprise about this Columbia cheapie directed by Edward L. Cahn is how thoroughly enjoyable it still is. A gangster uses the nuclear zombie (this seems to be part of the lineage leading directly to the Romero-style zombie, see also Cahn’s own later Invisible Invaders) creation method of a Nazi scientist for vengeance, with later plans for world domination. Mad science and evil gangster speeches are made! The hero’s intensely 50s home life is shoved into our helpless faces (it’s called horror for a reason)! Zombies with clever minimalist make-up attack in genuinely well-staged sequences that do their utmost to get around the tiny budget!

I have no idea what else I could ask of a movie like this.

Friday, April 2, 2021

Imagine the “Theme From Shaft” Here

If you’re like me, you probably have fantasized about a movie featuring a blaxploitation protagonist doing the good work of the psychic detective. I still can’t help you with the movie, but Edward M. Erdelac’s story collection “Conquer” (here’s a link to my local version of Amazon, you know how to use yours), concerning the adventures of the titular private eye with an eye for the weird, has you covered in book form.

Pleasantly, the stories don’t just coast by on the neat idea of “Shaft meets Carnacki” and Erdelac’s expert use of the pulp toolbox but do some fun conceptual work on its basic concept, adding some interesting ideas about how magic works in Conquer’s world, as well as demonstrating a fine eye for the interplay between the weird and the book’s 70’s setting.

With all its love for the period it is set in and inspired by, this is very much a book written in our time, so it does show a rather more inclusive and empathetic spirit than you might expect. Consequently, characters like the drag queens in one of the tales are treated much more dignified than you’d see in any blaxploitation flick. The book is, obviously, all the better for it.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

In short: Kingdom of the Spiders (1977)

What starts with the mysterious death of the prize calf belonging to farmer Walter Colby (house favourite Woody Strode) quickly turns out to be the spiderpocalypse in a rural US small town. Apparently, humanity’s love for nuking insects with poison has killed off the main food sources of spiders. Tarantulas have moved habitats and have developed new and rather exciting habits, now swarming together instead avoiding each other, making tactical strikes, and killing humans.

Will local vet Rack Hansen (William Shatner) and quickly called-in arachnologist Diane Ashley (Tiffany Bolling) solve the little spider problem, or will they waste valuable time on a romance so horrible, even 50s monster movie romances may suddenly feel swoon-worthy to a viewer?

Well, they certainly will do the latter, but stuntman turned director John “Bud” Cardos’s Kingdom of the Spiders doesn’t seem to put much stock into their efforts of fighting off those pesky arachnids in more than skirmishes anyway. This is a 70s animal attack movie, after all, so chances of winning out against an angry nature are slim to non-existent. Which, even more so from today’s perspective, seems like the proper way to treat these things. This of course doesn’t make the bizarre “romance” between people who’d rather kill each other than fuck in real life more believable or less squirm-inducing to watch, but it does explain it as an attempt (emphasis on “attempt”) to make us sad to see humanity go. Even if the result may very well lead to the opposite.

Though, to be fair, the rest of the character work is good enough. Cardos clearly puts effort into making the audience care for the characters, at least enough not to want to see them get eaten by spiders.

The first act is a little slow for my tastes, but the small town apocalyptic business in the rest of the movie does make up for it rather well, with the effectively shot panic in the spider-infested streets of the town late in the movie and the final, absurd yet utterly awesome, shots of the film being particular favourites of mine.

Tonally, Kingdom is a very 70s movie, having a rather bleak outlook on humanity’s place in the world even while keeping inside of the lines drawn by silly monster movies (that’s a good thing) and clearly having a lot of fun with all the tropes this suggests. Apparently, not even William Shatner (here in a comparatively controlled mood) can save us all.

Before the Shat fails, Cardos sets quite a bit of unobtrusively fine filmmaking in front of the audience, the film pretty much having all the visual and stylistic hallmarks of the sort of lived-in US 70s film that looks less carefully made than it actually is. It’s the filmmaking version of classic working class values, and it’ll make you happy (or unhappy, if you prefer humanity to tarantulas) just fine without making a lot of fuss about how good it is at what it does. Doesn’t mean it isn’t good at it, obviously.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

The Sun Above, Death Below (1968)

Original title: Sogeki

Toru (Yuzo Kayama) is your typical movie professional killer: competent, emotionless on the outside, and a natural born loner. He also has performance problems in bed, the act of killing apparently giving him a feeling nothing else can compare to.

This changes somewhat when he encounters professional model Akiko (Ruriko Asaoka). It’s love (or something like it) on first sight, the just as lonely and lonesome Akiko recognizing a kindred spirit in him, and he in her. Even the sex is going to work out between the two, eventually. Akiko’s obsession with catching a huge New Guinean butterfly fits so perfectly with Toru’s own mental bizarrerie, the couple can dream about going to New Guinea so she can catch her super butterfly and he can shoot all kinds of birds dead (seriously).

The film could turn into a very weird romance movie about people who fantasize (well, I say, fantasize, but as the film plays it, this might very well be actually happening) about donning “New Guinean” garb as interpreted by a racist and brownface and going on a drum and dancing session in their hotel room. However, the killer’s newest job of helping some yakuza acquaintances murdering a whole gold smuggling ring soon finds him hunted by the best killer of some probably rather irate Chinese gold smugglers, which is certainly good for his shooting and adrenaline kink, but perhaps not terribly great for anyone’s health.

Hiromichi Horikawa’s Sun Above is quite the film. It was clearly influenced by a horde of other movies about professional killers and very consciously presents many a nod to other films from the sub-genre. It harbours a particular affinity towards Branded to Kill, seeing as they both are Japanese movies turning a deep fascination with the psycho-sexual elements of violence into moments of the surreal and the bizarre, not to mention the butterflies.

Horikawa isn’t going as all out all the time as Seijun Suzuki does, tending to play the action scenes straighter, and not adding quite as many peculiar subversions into every single scene, clearly trying to not alienate completely an audience that came to watch movie star Kayama in a straightforward hitman thriller. So about half of the film is a relatively standard, excellently shot and staged crime movie; the other half either includes bizarre elements or gets up to semi-psychedelic freak-outs. That hotel scene that may or may not be a fantasy is the most obvious example, but there’s also a sex scene that uses documentary shots of black people in deeply problematic ways together with extreme close-ups of skin, psychedelic effects, classical European imagery and ends on a little chat about Icarus. Going by the film’s Camus-quoting ending, it’s all in the service of a very particular interpretation of existentialism. However, it is just as easy – and much more entertaining - to read Death Above as a movie about obsessions and kink, mainly for and about a holy trinity of guns, sex and death (where the middle part is only possible in close connection to the other two), with a side-line in butterflies and the dubious objectification of black bodies, overloading all of these elements with an intensity that you can read as subversive, deconstructive, bizarre, or just plain silly.

Me, I’m going with all of the above, raising my eyebrow at some of the philosophy (which may or may not be made worse – or better for that matter - by not always elegantly translated subtitles) and the racial bits, giggling and gasping at Horikawa’s general aesthetic daring, enjoying the weirdness as well as the straightforward excellence of the more conventional parts of the film, while mentally applauding a cast able to inhabit the film’s world as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

In short: The Doberman Gang (1972)

Supposed criminal mastermind Eddie (Byron Mabe), is deeply disappointed with the way his last bank robbing plan worked out. According to Eddie, it’s always going wrong because humans are fallible. If only he had robots to do his robbing for him.

Instead of robots, he eventually stumbles upon the idea of using dogs, Dobermans to be precise, to do his banking business for him. Which might suggest his earlier plans failed not because the flawed state of humanity, but because he’s an idiot. As the rest of the film will demonstrate, there’s that as well has his inherent dickish inability to treat his human gang properly, always thinking himself to be a great psychological manipulator but really not getting the simplest thing about people right.

Director Byron Chudnow really must have liked Dobermans, for this is only the first of three films about dogs getting roped into robbery. I do understand the attraction of the idea at least in part, for the dogs are certainly much more convincing actors here than most of their human colleagues. Well, at least Julie Parrish playing Eddie’s underpaid moll is on their level.

As far as heist movies go, you have to admire the merry absurdity of The Doberman Gang, Chudnow taking his basic idea as seriously as he can get away with. The film does take place in a pretty absurd world too, where people only notice half a dozen Dobermans strolling into a bank once they start robbing it; bonus points here to the extras doing various, perfectly appropriate “WTF!?” expressions once the robbery gets on its way.

It’s not all silly gold here, though, for whenever there’s no dog action, the viewer has to cope with some pretty bland heist movie tropes staged just as blandly. A situation that is certainly not improved by Mabe’s performance as Eddie. Alas, he lacks the charisma, the charm and the viciousness of your typical dog, and is certainly not the material a mastermind even in a semi-comedic heist movie should be made of.

Chudnow’s direction only truly comes to life when he’s shooting the animals, the rest of the action is staged indifferently, with little sense for the intricacies of human interactions and their dramatic portrayal. The best he seems to be able to do is milk the film’s horrible and painfully catchy title song until we can get back to the doggy business.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Someone’s Watching Me! (1978)

Following what appears to have been a very bad break-up, live TV director Leigh Michaels (Lauren Hutton) moves from New York to LA, even before she has found a new job. She is clearly going to land on her feet, though, her obvious competence winning her a new position very quickly. Emotionally, her weird sense of humour and her tendency to speak to herself a lot seem to ground her considerably.

All could be well, if not for an ever increasing campaign of phone terror by someone who must actually have some sort of inside knowledge of her life. He’s also sending her objects – among them a telescope – supposedly as parts of some kind of contest to win a European vacation. The audience learns much sooner than Leigh that her caller is a pretty creative stalker who even bugs her living room, and manipulates the electronics in her apartment. The man may also very well be responsible for the death of other women, so our increasingly frightened and angry heroine is in actual physical danger apart from the damage caused by the emotional abuse. As always (at least in the movies), the police is of little help, but Leigh’s new boyfriend, the philosopher(!) Paul (David Birney) is of use, as is Leigh’s assistant Sophie (Adrienne Barbeau).

John Carpenter directed and wrote this NBC TV movie the same year as Halloween – and before that TV Elvis thing – and at times, one can indeed notice that, even though DP Robert Hauser is no Dean Cundey. But then, who is? There are quite a few shots that are set up in a manner very typical for Carpenter at this stage in his career, making some relatively standard suspense scenes rather more interesting than you’d expect without going overboard or blowing the technical possibilities of a TV production.

Apart from early Carpenter, the director predominantly does Hitchcock here. Some scenes, particularly the late business with Leigh breaking into the stalker’s apartment while being watched by Sophie through the telescope, are direct variations on scenes from Hitchcock, and there are so many nods in that direction here, poor Howard Hawks was probably getting jealous. It’s good, tense, suspenseful Hitchcock worship, so there’s no reason to complain.

Of course, no Hitchcock movie would have a heroine like Leigh, who is highly competent in her job without being snarled at by the film for it, a bit weird in a manner the film is clearly enamoured by, and tough even when she has reached her breaking point. So, while Paul is allowed to be somewhat helpful, it’s Leigh’s business to dispatch of the stalker/killer in the end, fighting her own fight because the men around her are pretty much useless in it.

The film consistently puts the stalker into the context of rather a lot of shitty men around our heroine, Leigh having to cope with a horn dog colleague who doesn’t understand the word no, and clearly having experienced enough crap of that kind in her life, she deals with these things with an exasperated toughness, pretending she’s not as angry about sexism as she has every right to be, but still shutting it down whenever she encounters it. Hutton does very well with the role (one can’t help but imagine her having some experience with quite a few of Leigh’s troubles herself), making our heroine very likeable and relatable even for guys like me who don’t have to run this particular kind of gauntlet. Carpenter’s script does a lot of little things in the background to build up a contrast between the way some men – worst among them obviously the stalker and killer – treat her, and the way Leigh actually is, not just showing her competence at her job, but also – without comment – showing her doing all kinds of manual things, working electronical equipment, putting together the telescope, and so on.

Today, some people would probably call Carpenter an “angry feminist”, when what he is actually doing is providing Someone’s Watching Me! with a verisimilitude that grounds the thriller business in lived experience, which makes the audience care more for our heroine and helps make an actual thematic argument to boot. Not bad for a little TV movie.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Three Films Make A Post: He's Six Feet Six Inches of Dynamite. She's Crazy. Absolutely Crazy.

La Funeraria aka The Funeral Home aka The Undertaker’s Home (2020): Mauro Iván Ojeda’s Argentinean horror film is about a mortuary business that’s haunted by ghosts the undertaker and his family just have to arrange themselves with as parts of their normal life, until they can’t anymore. It is an interesting mixture of Weird family drama, with relatively typical horror movie beats but also a handful of genuinely original ideas about the nature of life, death and love; a film that takes some very un-generic decisions on what to show and what not to; and a bleak film whose friendlier elements in the climax make it feel even bleaker.

La Tulipe noire aka The Black Tulip (1964): Based on Dumas in title only, Christian-Jaque’s French Revolution-set swashbuckler with Alain Delon playing two very different brothers manages to be a fun blast of a film as befits an entry into its genre on-screen, but also has undertones of surprising bleakness (one can argue, also perfectly in keeping with the genre as it should be) that seem to mirror the nature of its main characters, as well as that of the French Revolution itself. Of course, the old order as represented by the sadistic clowns ruling over the part of the French countryside the film takes place in is the main enemy here, and the film knows what its genre is for and what not too well to be too critical of the Revolution. But thanks to the bitter and cynical of the two twins, there’s also the shade of the bitter and cynical turn the revolution itself would take visible.

Special Delivery (1976): In this film by the often great Paul Wendkos, the plot about a war vet robber’s (Bo Svenson) attempt to get at the loot he had to deposit in a mailbox while on the run from the police, encountering a young divorcee looking for herself (Cybill Shepherd) and finding quite a talent for crime and love, really isn’t the point of the film. Instead, Wendkos uses the single street in LA and a couple of places outside of it to create a microcosm of the nightly side of the city and the encounters our leads have in it, with characters like the would-be motorcycle gang of rapist thugs of a young Jeff Goldblum(!), the local crime boss (Robert Ito), and so on and so forth. It’s rather a lot like a road movie that takes place in only one stop on the way.

Apart from Wendkos direction that makes a lot out of people watching other people from unexpected angles, the film also recommends itself by the great actors. Svenson – not always a favourite of mine – turns a character personable and interesting who could be a simple thug, and Shepherd creates a woman who is at once driven by doubt and insecurity and capable, courageous and determined, while also being charming as hell.

Friday, March 26, 2021

In short: Monster Hunters (2020)

Looking for some missing colleagues, some bad-ass US soldiers under the leadership of one Artemis (Milla Jovovich) drop through a rift in space into a desert full of giant monsters.

It doesn’t take terribly long until Artemis is the last one standing of her team, so it’s lucky for her she meets and eventually – after the usual tensions and miscommunications – teams up with a guy she dubs Hunter (Tony Jaa). There’s more monster fighting, unfunny jokes, and even something akin to a plot for the two to work through eventually.

I know I’m supposed to hate everything Paul W.S. Anderson does, what with all of his films (let’s ignore Event Horizon and that thing with Kurt Russell as early aberrations on the more brainy side, comparatively) being low-brow action, science fiction and horror mash-ups based on video games that aren’t ideally suited to adaptation even at the best of times. His insistence on casting his wife in the lead in every single movie he makes doesn’t make the not hating part easier, given that Jovovich can barely act on the best of days.

However, watching this stint in the playground of Capcom’s Monster Hunter games, I found myself not annoyed by low effort writing (though the script by Anderson himself certainly is nothing to write home about) but started enjoying myself quickly. Watching old Milla, the always lovely Jaa and co fight against various well-realized CG monsters may not be the deepest experience of my movie watching life, but it turns out to be effective popcorn movie fun, with neat monsters, special guest star Ron Perlman, a silly cat person right out of the games, and a well-paced script. Hell, I didn’t even mind Jovovich’s performance here, and found the film’s “so what” shrugging at its source material’s stranger elements pretty charming.

Even better, in this one, Anderson has most of his annoying directorial tics fully under control, not showing even a single scene first backwards in slow motion before repeating it normally, and really giving off the calm, professional directorial air of a guy who has made mid-budget popcorn movies of this type for several decades, and actually knows his business very well indeed; at least this time around.

All of this may not sound like a glowing recommendation, but honestly, Monster Hunter is a fine way to watch people fight giant monsters for hundred minutes or so.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

In short: Whiskey Mountain (1977)

Married couples Bill (Christopher George) and Jamie (Linda Borgeson), and Dan and Diana (Roberta Collins) are going on a treasure hunt for a load of US Civil War era muskets one of the women’s grandfathers has buried somewhere around a place called “Whiskey Mountain”. But hiking gear and dirt bikes won’t be enough when they ignore the curious stuff that begins happening to them. Apparently, if you’re on a hike, and somebody steals your panties, it’s the local marijuana growers trying to warn you off.

Our protagonists are understandably not really getting the hint, so will eventually have to endure rape, death and killing, for the pot growers around a guy named Rudy (John Chandler) play hardball, with optional sadface.

I’m not sure why of all the local exploitation filmmakers available, it’s William Grefé who is getting the comparatively lavish BluRays (though still sourced from pretty damn beat up prints), when there are still actually good films in desperate need of better versions of their films. But then, every film digitized is a film saved from oblivion, so there’s that at least.

Like most of Grefé’s movies I’ve seen, Whiskey Mountain is a workmanlike effort with a couple of scenes that are rather better than that description suggests, but also the director’s usual problems with pacing and tone. The first half of the movie or so drags desperately, the director filling time with dirt biking sequences and pretty decent nature shots while the plot slowly, very slowly, starts rolling, the mysterious threat taking its dear time to actually become threatening. Our character trait-less protagonists (a waste of good acting talent) are really not terribly interesting to spend time with either.

Tonally, things permanently stumble around between 70s grimness, unfunny humour, hicksploitation clichés and moments of actual nastiness – all set to the sounds of the Charlie Daniels Band. The film never settles for long enough on any aspect to make much of an impression.

There are some clever touches buried among the dross, though: Grefé’s decision to portray the inevitable rape sequence in form of polaroids shot by the evil hicks underlaid with their giggling and shouting and some screaming by their victims is actually making that part of the film more uncomfortable to sit through than this sort of thing is anyhow, and certainly makes it pretty impossible to a viewer to side with anyone but the women here (one can imagine the Grefé shouting: “Try to get titillated by that, assholes!”). In less unpleasant moments, I rather enjoyed the completely over the top Old Man (Robert Leslie) our protagonists encounter repeatedly, a guy so crazy, Grefé actually makes a suspense scene out of the question if he’s going to cut our tied up heroes loose or cut their throats.

So there’s that, at least.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

A small break

 I have to take a week or so off from my usual barrage of blogging. Expect new posts around March, 24th.