Sunday, October 17, 2021

Bloody Sect (1982)

Original title: Secta siniestra

The relationship of Helen (Emma Quer) and ex-mercenary Frederick (Carlos Martos) does not stand under a happy star. Their first trouble starts when Frederick’s mad wife, whom he keeps, as is tradition, hidden in the attic, pokes his eyes out when she finds him and Helen in the aftermath of sex. There must be some divorce and marriage business going on afterwards, for the Mad Wife ends up in an asylum with what will turn out to be very bad security while Helen swears never to leave Frederick. No word of criticism towards the treatment of wife number one is uttered, obviously. Why, she’s even wild for having a child with the guy. Reader, she married him, and so on.

Alas/fortunately, Frederick has some sperm trouble and will never be able to fulfil his wife’s wish there. Eventually, they decide to try artificial insemination. As luck will have it, they end up in a fertility clinic that has been infiltrated by the not at all suspicious members of an inept Satanist sect. So, Helen is soon carrying the Anti-Christ.

Being pregnant with the son of Leonard Satan (at least his sect minions call him Leonard) has its drawbacks: there are particularly violent mood swings, a hunger for raw flesh, really nasty, though curiously symmetrically applied, rashes on Helen’s face, and regular bouts of terrible pain. On the plus side, Helen really doesn’t seem to get any larger at all with Satan Jr. No pillows were budgeted for the production, apparently. Also not great is that the trio of cultists we encounter have a terrible tendency to make their own work very difficult indeed, killing people by strangulation, with adorable fake bats or just with telekinesis for the tiniest reasons, really making themselves rather obvious. Admittedly, they do manage to keep Helen and Frederick isolated and under the control of one Sister Margaret (Concha Valero) for a time, and get a handful of murders in.

But eventually, they will also turn out to be the kind of cult who can be beaten by a little boy and a blind guy, a cult worshipping a baby Anti-Christ who melts when encountering a random cross-shaped object ten meters or so away.

To state the obvious, when talking about Ignacio F. Iquino’s Bloody Sect, one really needs to wear one’s psychotronic glasses to stay in the proper frame of mind to appreciate the film. Iquino’s direction is flavourless and without any sense of mood. Every single scene is lit absurdly brightly. Our director also seems not to have realized how bad his actors and his effects are, nor did he have any plan to work against any of these tiny little problems.

So everyone’s insane mugging is staged with flat acceptance, suggesting that in Iquino’s Spain, wild eye-rolling, pantomimic facial expressions and wild shouting are indeed the way human beings communicate. This leads to a very peculiar mood where characters’ actions aren’t just illogically scripted but where their general insanity, their willingness to shrug off even the greatest weirdness, as well as the plot’s complete lack of common (or other) sense are treated as if they were the most quotidian things imaginable. Incompetent but insanely over-murderous Satanists whose appearance is generally accompanied by wind coming from nowhere and red light, mad women in the attic, and the cutest fake bats that were ever meant to suck a blind man’s blood, the film seems to say, are just not that strange in its world.

This does of course not a conventionally good film make (one might even suggest the actual filmmaking here is pretty dire), but to my jaded eyes, Bloody Sect’s insistence on filming utter weirdness as drily as possible turns it into a rather special little film. And special beats good, not just in October.

Saturday, October 16, 2021

In short: Scream and Scream Again (1970)

A serial killer stalks the clubs of London, listening to funky tunes and luring attractive young women into his sports car to drain their blood. Plodding Detective Superintendent Bellaver (Alfred Marks) is on the case but police procedure is little help against the weirder aspects of the case. Perhaps young assistant medical examiner Dr Sorel (Christopher Matthews) will be of more use.

At the same time, we regularly pop in with a man trapped in some kind of medical facility who loses one of his extremities after the other. We also spend a little time in an unnamed Eastern European country where things are rather more fascist than communist. Here, we witness how one Konratz (Marshall Jones) kills his way to the top with his evil version of the Vulcan nerve pinch.

Eventually, these plot lines…well, actually, no, they don’t really converge, and only a very polite viewer will not call Konratz’s sudden appearance in London in the final act utter, pointless and awkward bullcrap.

I understand that this Amicus production directed by Gordon Hessler has found some admirers over time, but I have no idea what’s to admire here: the slow pacing of what should be a potboiler? The decision to slow things down even further by the film’s constant changing between totally disconnected plotlines? The inability of the script (by Christopher Wicking) to actually unite any of it? The total randomness of what will go for an explanation of what’s going on in the end?

Though one might call the film’s chutzpah even calling itself a film admirable. There’s really no connective tissue to any of what we see at all, things just happen for no reason, Peter Cushing pops in for a scene, Christopher Lee and Vincent Price for three, connections are insinuated but don’t make any kind of sense. It’s all very much like a dream – not an interesting one, alas, but just a crap assortment of random nonsense that’s not even interesting to look at.

Friday, October 15, 2021

(Un)funky Friday: The Halloween Playlist Edition

Because six hours of spooky (and not so spooky) music curated by the purveyor of this humble blog are exactly what is called for during the best season of the year.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

The Monster of the Opera (1964)

aka The Vampire of the Opera

Original title: Il mostro dell’opera

Sandro (Marco Mariani) the somewhat hyperactive director of a modern dance troupe has finally found the right place to make his dream project come true. It’s a long-abandoned old theatre that comes with a caretaker who only speaks in dire warnings and insinuations. Obviously, the place is supposed to be cursed. So there surely isn’t a vampire running around behind the scenes just waiting to get his teeth into Sandro’s prima ballerina (or however you call the position in modern dance) Giulia (Barbara Hawards) and whoever else takes his fancy.

Apparently, Gilulia is somehow connected with the vampire’s great love who doomed him to his bloodsucking existence, and the rather strange events he begins inflicting on the dancers are part of some plan for eternally recurring vengeance. Well, either that, or he really likes to poke underdressed women with a humungous pitchfork.

The Monster of the Opera was directed by Renato Polselli. Given that he also brought us The Ballerina and the Vampire, a film not containing any ballerinas but quite a bit of dancing, it’s pretty clear that the man had a genuine interest in putting some (or a lot of) dancing into his gothic horror movies, an interest clearly going above and beyond the opportunity female dancers lend the exploitative mindset to put women in outfits you’d otherwise never get away with. Unlike the earlier ballerina movie, being a sleaze genuinely seems to be only the tiniest part of Polselli’s motive for all the dancing – rather, this appears to be a genuine attempt to use modern dance as a part of the horror business.

I’m not sure I’d quite call it a successful attempt. Particularly in the film’s early stages, there seems to be an overabundance of dance numbers, not all of which are terribly well integrated into the plot, and the heavy lifting for the horror parts of the film is done elsewhere. Namely, right at the start of the film, in an exceptionally nightmare-like, heavily expressionist vision/dream sequence Julia and the caretaker seem to share (the film keeps it somewhat ambiguous) that isn’t just incredible to look at as something that feels like a refugee from some fantastic lost masterpiece of expressionist silent horror filmmaking, all built out of shadow, over cranked and undercranked camera work and images taken directly out of one’s nightmares but which also prefigures the strange mood and nightmare logic the film will take on in its third act, after all the dance numbers and the lounging of half-naked 60s hotties is done with, and the very early 60s portrayal of artistic people being energetic is through.

Then, the film actually makes pretty brilliant use of the dancing as part of the plot, too, trapping the dancers on stage via invisible walls, threatening them to dance or get sucked dry or pitchforked by the vampire, and suggesting nothing so much as the mediaeval dancing sickness to the viewer, turning what was once sexy-ish and a bit exhausting truly macabre, and deeply strange in feel.

Which is more than enough reason to power through one dance number too many during the first two acts, and makes this a rather interesting example of various attempts to transplant Italian gothic horror into modern times.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Cut and Run (1984)

Original title: Inferno in diretta

After stumbling upon the aftermath of a very violent massacre committed on members of a drug smuggling gang, TV reporter Fran Hudson (Lisa Blount) and her buddy and cameraman Mark Ludman (Leonard Mann) are put on the track of a curious drug war that seems to go on all around the United States as well as (somewhere in) South America.

Clues soon lead to one Colonel Horne (Richard Lynch) who supposedly died at Jonestown, and the missing son of an executive in Fran’s TV network,  and to an unnamed part of South America, so off to (some part of) South America our heroes fly. There, they’ll have to evade the soft attentions of crazy people and the cult of native warriors who are somehow (the film never explains) under Horne’s sway. Awkward attempts at Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now quotes happen. Michael Berryman does his wild Berryman thing, so there’s quite a bit of gore, too.

Fortunately for the softer stomachs and hearts in the audience, Ruggero Deodato’s Cut and Run – at least in the rather gory cut I’ve watched – does not follow the trail blazed by the director’s masterpiece of making any viewer feel like shit Cannibal Apocalypse and contains very little footage of animals getting tortured to squick the viewer out. Since the film fuses Italian jungle action and elements of the cannibal movie, Deodato obviously and cleverly having deduced that cannibals alone don’t cut it anymore at this point, there is some sexual violence and quite a load of implied racism to get through, though not double the amount than in each genre alone, at least.

It also has to to be said that Deodato’s use of sexual violence here very clearly isn’t meant to turn a viewer on, but rather part of the director’s typical project (at least in this part of his career) of putting us off of humanity altogether while still doing what is expected by an exploitation movie. To my eyes, one of the things that makes Deodato’s movies from this period – which pretty much ends around this point in his filmography - rather more interesting than a lot of its genre siblings is how clearly the guy means his general hatred of Western complacity and how earnestly he tries to shock his audience out of it. Which can lead to a film like Cannibal Holocaust only few people will want to watch a second time even when they are – as I am – sympathetic to the director and his project, or one like the film at hand that’s not fun enough to really work as an exploitation movie, but not unpleasant enough to make you (well, me, at least) feel really bad.

On the exploitation and horror front, there are – if you find a version of the film not cut to hell – some rather creative gore bits to watch, as well as small parts for Karen Black, John Steiner (who really goes to pieces for his part) and other genre favourites. There’s generally enough of a good bad time that it’s a reasonably enjoyable film to watch if you’re into this sort of thing like I am (and anyone who isn’t will already have closed this tab a couple of paragraphs earlier), particularly since Deodato isn’t bad at all at pacing the film’s more extreme moments with the inevitable slow parts. I also approve of Richard Lynch doing a Marlon Brando impression for a bit, as well as the completely pointless attempts at exploiting Jonestown for additional shock value.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

In short: A Child’s Voice (1978)

The golden age of radio in the UK. The excellently named Ainsley Rupert Macreadie (T.P. McKenna) writes and narrates serialized ghost stories on a nightly radio program that closes out the daily programming schedule. Things turn rather spooky in real life when he starts to tell the story of a little boy and stage magician’s assistant who disappears under curious circumstances. After the first episode, a child calls Macreadie on the phone, asking him, in words very close to ones the little boy in Macreadie’s story uses to not continue with the tale. Macreadie does continue; things do not go well for him.

This short film from Ireland directed by Kieran Hickey is very much made in the spirit and style of the BBC’s Ghost Stories for Christmas. Clearly, something was in the air on the isles at this time. This is a lovely little film that makes all the right decisions to create a thick, decidedly creepy atmosphere out of a lot of shadows in a couple of very small rooms, sound design that at times might as well have come from the Radiophonic Workshop, and an unhurried (which is code for “slow, but purposefully so”) pace that understands that it’s much easier to let the uncanny enter after you’ve prepared your audience properly for it. And, because this was clearly made with my tastes in mind, it really is the uncanny, so no complete explanations are ever forthcoming, and the whole truth about what is happening here is left as undisclosed as the end of the story Macreadie is beginning to tell will be.

McKenna’s lead performance is lovely, making the character neither too pompous nor too nice. In a very clever touch, the film adds Valentine Dyall’s well-oiled voice as a narrator, so the story about a man telling ghost stories on the radio is told to us by a man who did indeed tell ghost stories on the radio, an extra frisson in a wonderfully effective tale that uses the spookiness of certain kinds of technology, like the telephone and the radio in their early years, the liminality of the disembodied voice, to great effect.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Madhouse (1974)

Paul Toombes (Vincent Price) has built a nice career in Hollywood for himself by starring in a series of horror films in which he plays one Doctor Death, as written by his close friend, the former actor Herbert Flay (Peter Cushing). When Paul’s fiancée is murdered by someone wearing his Doctor Death costume, most of the world, including himself, is pretty sure he is indeed the man responsible.

After years spent institutionalized, and some time of private seclusion, Flay has convinced Toombes to return to acting and the role of Doctor Death in a British TV show produced by the despicable (so, very much a classic producer type) Oliver Quayle (Robert Quarry, squeezing much slime out of a not terribly deeply written part). Paul is really doing this in the name of friendship for Flay. For his friend seems to have hit on hard times financially and, as we will learn after a while, privately with a rather arachnid situation concerning his wife Faye (Adrienne Corri).

Things do go wrong very quickly, for someone dressed as Doctor Death begins to kill off various people Paul meets (sorry, Linda Hayden!), while our protagonist’s public behaviour becomes increasingly erratic. Which is what happens to a guy who isn’t too sure if he is actually committing a series brutal murders.

This AIP and Amicus co-production directed by Jim Clark does have a pretty bad reputation, so I found myself positively surprised by the film when I finally got around to watching it, after literal decades. Sure, it’s not at all on the level of comparable Price vehicles like the lovely Doctor Phibes films or Theatre of Blood, but more often than not, this is a rather delightful bit of meta horror. It is perhaps not as deep as one would like, and sometimes a bit ploddingly paced, but otherwise, I find very little to dislike here.

Price is certainly putting – as was his wont – a lot of energy into his part, portraying Toombes as a bit of an unluckier version of himself, providing nervy energy, big emotions, and a truly frightening shouty mouth, while also keeping the guy sympathetic and likeable.

One might have wished for a bit more of Cushing on screen, but what’s there is as perfectly delivered as always. Plus, there’s a pretty incredible moment I won’t spoil even when talking about a movie nearly fifty years old that’s all Cushing’s right at the end of the movie, a moment silly, darkly funny, perfectly macabre and oh so well delivered. And really, as a fan of both Cushing and Price, it is a great joy to see both of them interact at all.

There are a handful of truly great moments like that very last scene sprinkled through the whole of the film, usually mixing that dark humour, a grotesque or macabre idea, and a tinge of melancholy with perfectly appropriate overacting by Price or Corri.

If I wanted to criticize anything, it’s that Clark (who is much better known as an editor) is rather too workmanlike a director for the material at hand. Certainly, someone with a bit more verve and style behind the camera could have made even more out of the sense of melancholia for things lost that has turned grotesque for quite a few characters, and could probably have given the murder set pieces a bit more weight and dynamics. However, that’s what stands between Madhouse being a great entry into the Price canon instead of merely being a good and interesting one, and so feels like a bit of a non-complaint.

Saturday, October 9, 2021

Three Films Make A Post: A Tasty Horror Film!

The Meateater (1979): This tale of a family reopening an abandoned cinema and having to cope with the mild carnage the crazy person who dwells there like the Phantom of the Cinema causes, is an at times dreary affair, the sort of low budget business where actors barely seem to be able to remember their lines, much less deliver them well, and where things stop and start randomly. From time to time, David Burton Morris’s film drifts into more interesting directions, when (the man was a film student, after all) the Phantom of the Opera gets quoted pretty directly, expressionism rears its shadowy head, or a shot really hits the right mood of desolation and the decay of something (or someone) beloved. These moments don’t make up much of the movie, alas, so it needs a certain person in a certain mood to fight through the dreary rest of the film.

Nightbooks (2021): Whereas this Netflix family horror production directed by David Yarovesky is professionally made and acted throughout. It’s a nice enough film, if a bit too desperate to make its moral very very clear (because American filmmakers do tend to think all children are stupid, I assume). There are some creative and fun moments, the production design does find the point of child friendly gothic unreality very well indeed. There is, in short, very little to complain about here, if the grown-up viewer doesn’t go into the film expecting their world view to be realigned by watching it. Plus, the kid actors aren’t bad, and Krysten Ritter seems to have a very good time doing her evil witch with interesting fashion sense bit.

Chompy & The Girls (2021): My highlight of this post is this slightly less family friendly horror comedy by Skye Braband, in which a very late father-daughter first meeting soon turns into a joint fight against a gentleman with a very large mouth, a propensity to eat little girls, and eventually the voice of Udo Kier. Braband manages nicely to balance the increasing weirdness of their plot with some traditional US indie style family business, and various jokes that actually happen to be funny. The latter is of course not always a given in indie horror comedies. Add to this how well Steve Marvel and Christy St. John turn their flawed newly-found father-daughter duo likeable and fun to simply see interact, and enjoy yourselves thoroughly.

Thursday, October 7, 2021

In short: We Need to Do Something (2021)

During a tornado warning, a family – mother Diane (Vinessa Shaw), father Robert (Pat Healy), teenage daughter Melissa (Sierra McCormick) and younger son Bobby (John James Cronin) – shelter from the storm in their big bathroom. In this sort of situation, family tensions do tend to escalate. It certainly isn’t helping that mom and dad are in one of those she cheats/he’s a prick kind of moments in their relationship, nor that Melissa seems particularly desperate about the health of her girlfriend Amy (Lisette Alexis). However, there’s worse things than being huddled up together with people one is supposed to get along with but doesn’t: quickly, the family are locked in by a fallen tree. They find themselves stranded in their bathroom for much longer than they reasonably should be, long enough that cannibalism might become something to talk about. It seems there’s something worse going on than a storm and its aftermath, with some thing sneaking around the periphery. And what’s with the flashbacks Melissa has to her teen romance with Amy?

If you wanted to be facetious, you might say Sean King O’Grady’s We Need to Do Something (with an excellent script by Max Booth III based on his own novella) is the best horror film about a family locked into their own bathroom ever made, a new highlight in bathroom films, even. However, the film has rather a lot more going for it than just this set-up, and turns out to be a bit of a tour de force through family problems, witchcraft, guilt, and what may or may not be a Weird apocalypse.

Tonally, there’s certainly a very dark, sardonic sense of humour on display, something that’s twisted and wry at the same time. The humour is never used as comic relief, but rather the opposite, a way to intensify and escalate the family catastrophe on display, as well as a method to help turn the circumstances our protagonists encounter stranger and more discomforting. There’s a finely drawn sense of ever increasing doom surrounding the family, the sense of forces from the outside pushing them just long and hard enough to tease out their inner weaknesses and lies, yet also twisting them and making them larger and less familiar than they should be.

The acting ensemble really gets into the very specific tone needed, grounding the increasing derangement on display in something that feels natural and real (not necessarily pleasant and easy, of course), so that the film’s stranger moments hit all the harder.

We Need to Do Something is, apparently, one of those films particularly not for everyone. I suspect its tone simply will not work for everyone (which seems perfectly alright to me), nor will its approach to ambiguity and resolutions make everybody happy. Me, I felt rather at home here, or as at home as the circumstances portrayed allow.

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum (2018)

Original title: 곤지암

Warning: the EMF activity meter shows “spoilers ahead”!

The merry crew of YouTube ghost hunting channel Horror Times has a great coup planned: a live stream from one of the most haunted locations in South Korea, the dilapidated Gonjiam Psychiatric Hospital (which is an actual place with an appropriately dark history over here in the real world). There, the team – plus three young women as guests, because nobody likes a sausage fest – will try to wake the local ghost population and attempt to open the door of the mysterious room 402, which supposedly leads to death and doom for anyone attempting it.

Things do indeed become very spooky. The séance used to awaken the spirits has rather too good results, and things proceed from there accordingly. Of course, the early spirit manifestations are faked by the three core members of the ghost hunters; but soon enough, the real supernatural rears its rather murderous head.

At first, this South Korean movie by Jeong Beom-sik feels rather a lot like just another POV horror movie about ghost hunters actually encountering what they are trying to make money from. But where many (though not all) films of this type tend to be amateurish and awkward in production and structure, Gonjiam’s script (as written by Jeong and Park Sang-min) very quickly shows itself to be very tight and effective, going through the minimal necessary character bits and shots of young people farting around efficiently. Where too many films of this type spend half of their running time getting their boring characters to the place of their demise, the film at hand knows what its audience has come to see and gets through preliminaries in a quarter of an hour or so. From then on, things flow rather wonderfully: plot reveals come earlier and hit much better than usual, and the spooky bits start early and escalate quickly. Comparing a film’s narrative to a clockwork doesn’t always sound like a compliment, but when the clockwork runs as well as it does here, it is a good way to praise the sheer craftsmanship of the approach.

Which does lead to the main criticism one could raise against Gonjiam, namely its lack of depth. Despite some nods towards the shadowier periods of South Korea’s history via its choice of haunted spot, there’s very little interest on display to say anything at all here - apart from “don’t screw with ghosts” I suppose – adding this to the group of horror movies that really only ever want to be a spooky good time for their audiences. However, the film is so brilliant at simply being said spooky good time, timing every creepy little and big shock perfectly, using every trick in the horror book so effectively, that criticising it for not also having Big Important Things to say simply seems to be beside the point and churlish.

The film shows considerable breadth when it comes to the shaping of its spooky goings-on, too, going from classic suspense set-ups and moments, over very folkloric inspired ghosts to the sort of spatial weirdness I typically find irresistible in a movie, shaping all of this into a real machine of increasing tension. Little of this is original, rather it’s the sort of thing where you can see the sources for nearly every single element, but still feel yourself dragged inexorably through increasingly great set pieces, mentally praising the filmmakers for their good taste in borrowing instead of criticising them for it.

Because this is a film about a group of people who actually planned their little ghost hunting jaunt beforehand, the POV angle is never used as an excuse for things to look a bit crap: there are a lot of cameras involved (not all of them held by mortal hands, it turns out), and nobody confuses them with salt shakers, so Jeong has free hand to stage his scenes like in any proper movie, using the POV basics as a sign of authenticity and to make things more intense for his audience.

Speaking of authenticity, Gonjiam has learned a bit from the books of the great carnival hawkers of our genre too, and so, as I’ve already mentioned uses a real run-down asylum for its backstory. Because the owners really did not care for a horror movie about their ruin coming to the cinemas (there was apparently even a law suit involved to keep the film off the screens), the film was shot elsewhere. Supposedly, the filmmakers then recreated as much of the actual building’s floorplan as possible for the filming. Which may demonstrate a deep belief in authenticity, or filmmakers who really know the kind of talk that’ll sell tickets. In any case, William Castle would have been proud.

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

In short: Winterbeast (1992)

Life near an apparently much-used mountain lodge gets a bit dangerous when possessed totem poles, zombie-things, and the little sibling of the Giant Claw begin murdering tourists and locals, thanks to a Native American curse. Or demons. Or something. Fortunately, Sergeant Bill Whitman (Tim R. Morgan) and Forest Ranger Stillman (Mike Magri) are on the case and/or having a lot of nice little chats full of non-sequiturs, doing their best to fight the Winterbeast. Which of the monsters is this mysterious titular entity, I’m not quite sure. Probably the pseudo-giant with the demon rubber mask?

Winterbeast, directed by Christopher Thies, really is quite the thing. A regional Massachusetts-made artefact shot piecemeal over the course of several years during the 80s, it takes place in one of our neighbouring dimensions, where all rooms are about toilet-sized and there exist no filmic techniques to suggest anything about where anyone or anything acts or stands or runs in relation to anything or anyone else. Unless, of course, it’s an interior shot, where people are usually shoved so close together in the frame, one tends to expect they’re just about to start kissing. Which they don’t: instead, there’s a lot of very peculiar dialogue, sometimes in synch with lip movements, sometimes not, that manages to go into a lot of things in excruciating detail, without ever quite reaching what we humans describe as “sense”.

This, however isn’t the slow and boring kind of weird, no budget films: while the film’s first half mostly consists out of these awkward dialogue scenes, they are strangely interesting, always weird enough to suggest there might be something interesting or mind-blowing discussed, and curiously detailed – very much as if all of this indeed made some kind of sense in the minds of the filmmakers. And that’s before things really start to come together in the second half, when the sporadic effects sequences from the first turn into a barrage of cheap and cheerful stop motion monsters of indeterminate size that have the ability to wreak havoc without ever visibly touching anyone or anything. Obviously, Giant Claw jr. is my favourite among them, even though it’s not as big as a battleship, and rather as big as a chicken coop (or perhaps two chicken coops). There’s also an absolutely adorable chestburster rip-off that would probably turn Charles Band green with envy. Hats off to a final action sequence that’s so awkwardly edited, the relations between time and space are clearly going completely out of whack after an hour or so of the strain the film has already put on our continuum.

But wait, there’s more! Winterbeast also features what may very well be the greatest operatic mad scene in cinema, involving a cheerful ditty, a (otherwise very shouty) man wearing a clown mask and a dangerous jacket doing a long and awkward dance, a plastic Halloween pumpkin and a desiccated chestburster victim in an armchair. Also, spontaneous combustion.

If that’s not enough to tickle anyone’s fancy, the spirit of Halloween has truly left this world.

Sunday, October 3, 2021

Spectre (1977)

(This is based on the film’s longer UK cut with a bit of nudity and more sleaze that never made it to NBC at the time, for obvious reasons)

Former top criminologist turned occult detective William Sebastian (Robert Culp) calls his estranged former friend and associate, alcoholic sleazebag and medical doctor “Ham” Hamilton (Gig Young) for help in his newest case. He really needs a doctor, too, for somebody is regularly using magic to pierce his heart, leaving him not in ideal fighting shape. Ham doesn’t really believe in anything occult, and the men’s parting of ways some time ago might have had something to do with their difference in opinion. Ham is beginning to change his mind when Sebastian’s witch assistant Lilith (Majel Barrett) gives him a draught that causes an instant aversion to alcohol, and even more so when an oversexed succubus version of Sebastian’s client, one Anitra Cyon (Ann Bell) appears and tries to seduce our hero into what looks a lot like an erection based heart attack to me, or as much as a TV movie from 1977 can suggest that. But don’t worry, hitting her with the right page in an occult tome does get rid of her nicely.

After that business is through, we finally learn what the real Anitry Cyon wants from Sebastian and Ham: find out if she’s assuming right and her decadent brother Geoffrey (James Villiers) has indeed been possessed by EVIL, and when necessary, kill him. So off to Great Britain our heroes jet, piloted by Anitra’s other brother Mitri (John Hurt) who may or may not already be under a malevolent influence himself. There are further attempts on our heroes’ lives and virtue (such as it is), of course, action archaeology happens, and exposition tells of the time when druids and Christian priests teamed up to imprison Asmodeus.

This pretty incredible artefact directed by Clive Donner is another of the many attempts of Gene Roddenberry to make a successful non-Star Trek TV show, this time around with British money. I’m not surprised Spectre never made it to series, because it is absolutely bonkers. What we have here is a mix of a Dennis Wheatley style occult thriller minus Wheatley’s actual ideas about occultism (though fortunately also minus his unpleasant politics) with the toned down “sexy” fantasies of a middle-aged guy with very peculiar interests who never left the swinger party mindset behind, paired with the sort of random crap you put in your movie not because it is a good idea to use it, but because you think it is absolutely awesome.

As a serious horror film the result is of course pretty terrible, but it’s also ridiculously fun to watch, having given up all restraint that could turn it into a proper movie and replaced it with the mandate to just make as much absurd fun, and quite a bit embarrassing stuff, up as possible. So of course Sir Geoffrey proves his decadence by only employing young, female servants who try way too hard to be sexy; of course his sister dresses like the old maid in a 30s comedy; of course one of the main characters turns out to be Asmodeus and looks a lot like a bluish Klingon when uncovered. Of course there’s a particularly awkwardly staged satanic orgy with dancing bad and half-hearted even by the standards of bad movie satanic orgies (one hopes real-life ones are a bit more enthusiastic, because this really doesn’t cut it as a seduction to evil). There’s an evil sort of ape person costume; things feel evil to the touch; Asmodeus lives by rather complicated rules; Gordon Jackson wears demon make-up; more “how we get rid of demons” nonsense that makes not a lick of sense than one could possibly hope for is expounded upon, and so much more.

The film’s tone wavers between embarrassing – just cringe through the unbelievable scene with Ham and the three maids trying to “seduce” him and ask yourself how many people must have thought this was an idea that needed to be put to film – and utterly hysterical, Culp, Young, Hurt and Villiers hamming it up in each and every way possible. I am usually not much of a fan of Culp and find him rather bland and affectless, but clearly, if he wanted, he could take bites out of scenery so large, Vincent Price must have been jealous; it’s the only correct acting decision to take in this particular movie, too, for playing any of this straight would simply ruin the film by dragging it back to Earth from whichever planet Roddenberry was on at the time.

Saturday, October 2, 2021

In short: Asih (2018)

1980. Eight-months pregnant Puspita (Citra Kirana), her husband Andi (Darius Sinathrya) and Andi’s mother (Marini) have moved to the country. Alas, the house belongs to the territory of the kuntinalak Asih (Shareefa Daanish), of future Danur fame, and we all know that Asih has a bit of a thing about children, even the not yet born. So the young couple is going to have to cope with some rather hefty supernatural troubles that won’t simply be resolved with the proper disposal of a placenta (though they will try that).

There’s really no reason why the Conjuring movies should have all the fun with spin-off prequels about some of their ghosts and ghoulies, particularly when the Danur-movies, from which this spins off, seem to have commercial clout in their native Indonesia comparable to the US advertorials for a couple of horrible charlatans.

Not looking at the commercial side of the business, I’m not sure the world exactly needed Awi Suryadi’s prequel to its universe’s mainline films. The Danur movies (as directed by Suryadi) themselves aren’t always the deepest horror movies, but they are consistently fun and interesting, sometimes even inventive. The first Asih isn’t quite so good. From time to time, Suryadi manages to find his usual flair for mood-building and the ability to turn clichés into a fun set-piece or two, but at least half of this not exactly long movie feels a bit too much like a creative team dragging their feet. There really isn’t enough material on screen to make for a full movie, and nothing we learn about our titular kuntilanak’s backstory changes all that much about what we know from the first Danur, making much of the film at hand simply feel rather too slight for comfort, particularly since it shows little interest in doing much with the more interesting elements about our victim family.

Thursday, September 30, 2021

In short: The Misfits (2021)

A bunch of, well, misfits on a Robin Hood trip (Nick Cannon, Jamie Chung, Rami Jaber and Mike Angelo) attempt to rope experienced conman Richard Pace (Pierce Brosnan) into their newest project of stealing terrorist gold. Even though his archenemy Schultz (Tim Roth) is involved with the terrorists, Pace is rather reticent doing anything for no monetary gain. Fortunately he changes his mind when he learns that his estranged do-gooder daughter Hope (Hermione Corfield) is part of the gang. So, after more than half an hour of feet dragging, a heist does eventually ensue.

Poor old Renny Harlin’s newest movie The Misfits has some major problems. Harlin himself isn’t one of them – while this isn’t one of his more interesting and stylish directing jobs, he does his best to get picture postcard shots of Dubai, Pierce Brosnan and the two or three fast cars that were in the budget.

Alas, he has to work from a terrible script by Kurt Wimmer and Robert Henny (who both have written some terrible films in their time, with a couple of decent ones sprinkled in) that seems to have little idea on how to properly structure and pace a heist movie. Sure, as with nearly every heist film made in the last decade or so, the Fast and Furious films have clearly become structural models, so one can’t go into a film like this expecting old school heist movie beats, but if you aim for being a big fat action heist movie with cars, you actually need to deliver the action early and often and find a way to sandwich the character work in-between. The Misfits seems to have been made in the belief that such a thing is easy, and so of course drags when it should move and moves when it should take a breather. It certainly doesn’t help that the film can’t actually afford big set pieces, and is simply not clever enough to then come up with clever ones it can actually afford.

Instead, there’s quite a bit of absolutely terrible comedy, drab character work, and a heist without tension with “twists” you can at best shrug about.

There’s also the little problem that an ensemble movie like this actually needs a fully capable ensemble: while Brosnan is certainly not unwilling to work, he also seems rather too conscious he is slumming. Chung and Corfield are perfectly decent presences throughout, at least. Roth – the villain with the most screen time and theoretically a great actor for this sort of material -seems too bored to do much whatsoever, and Cannon’s performance is simply terrible, not just because he has to deliver most of the “funny” lines (though that certainly isn’t helping). Angelo and Jaber for their parts are just kinda there, doing nothing any man-shaped piece of cardboard couldn’t do just as well. All of which makes it rather difficult to root for or against anyone here.

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

The Cloning of Clifford Swimmer (1974)

Clifford Swimmer (Peter Haskell in a wonderfully punchable performance) is the living embodiment of all the shittiest bits of 70s masculinity: he’s egotistical, self-serving, and much dumber than he clearly believes to be. He’s also emotionally abusive towards his wife Janet (Sheree North), undermining her wherever and however he can; obviously, his little stepson Todd (Lace Kerwin) does not fare any better. At least Cliff seems not to use physical violence on the both of them, for whatever that’s worth under the circumstances.

Despite his humongous ego and even bigger mouth, Swimmer is also a bit of a loser in his job, where his only real success seems to be that he’s having an affair with his assistant Madeline (Sharon Farrell). Though even she’s getting rather impatient with his unwillingness to commit. Why anyone would want to be chained to this asshole is anybody’s guess, there. Though, to be fair again, she is his chosen squeeze in his one day plan of just running away, buying a boat in the Caribbean and living the lazy life there, which is more thought than his family gets.

However, because it is the 70s, even macho shitheels like Swimmer go to a therapist. As it turns out, Dr Laszlo (Keene Curtis) moonlights as a mad scientist and thinks this particular patient is just the man he could use for an experiment in cloning, so Swimmer could run off and leave his family none the wiser with a clone taking his place. As it happens, the clone has parts of Swimmer’s memories and personality, but also shows all the kindness and sense the original must have lost ages ago, the kind of a guy a family could learn to love. Of course, continuing his shitty streak, Original Swimmer does leave his better version and family in debt to a loan shark he uses to actually finance his running away; and the Caribbean life doesn’t turn out to great either, because Swimmer’s taking himself with him wherever he goes.

This ABC TV movie was part of a late night series of cheaply produced films under the “The Wide World of Mystery” umbrella. The line was clearly budgeted quite a bit lower than your Movie of the Weeks at the time, and so TV cameras and a handful of studio sets is all the film at hand has to work with. Director Lela Swift does her best with what she’s got, but then, she directed quite a bit of TV in this budget bracket, like a lot of “Dark Shadows” episodes for Dan Curtis, so she was probably used to suffering, and had experience with making do, and so manages to make the film as visually appealing as she could under the circumstances.

So the film’s actual star has to be the script by George Lefferts. It’s a weird concoction, really, a mixture of an angry critique of a very specific type of 70s male shithead with a bit of low budget science fiction and a couple of noir tropes treated seriously. It’s not the most surprising thing you’ll ever encounter, but like Swift’s direction, Lefferts’ script is crafted well enough to work, particularly when the very decent acting ensemble get their fingers on it. Things are also just weird enough to be fun, elements like the wonderful dead pan junk science and the film’s non sequitur twist ending suggesting a certain degree of irony from the filmmakers that’s never getting in the way of the things they try to treat seriously, namely the portrait of a shitty man in decline.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

In short: Run Coyote Run (1987)

A Interpol agent with psychic powers (Renee Harmon) is looking for the killers of her sister. Her investigation – which mostly consists of hanging around various places in California and having psychic flashes to other movies – is in turns hindered by her grumpy old man boss, mob goons (one of whom is also a biker preacher with a hankering for a TV ministry), voices from the off, and others. What others? The film ain’t telling, that’s for sure, and trying to figure it out will turn you into a Lovecraft protagonist.

Anyone approaching this particular case of filmmaking should keep in mind as a safety measure: do not try to understand, just let it flow over you. I did, and I’ve got the headache to prove it.

This is a long lost product of the frightening creative partnership between James “Don’t Go in the Woods…Alone!!! Bryan and Renee “Frozen Scream” Harmon. Clearly, these two bonded on their shared hatred for logic and common sense, and boy does the film show. This is at once a sequel to and a remake of the duo’s Lady Streetfighter (obviously not to be confused with Sister Streetfighter with Etsuko Shihomi) in which Harmon plays the sister of that film’s main character, as well as said main character herself in the multitude of scenes taken from it. Because that’s not enough to turn this into the true sort of patchwork movie this is going for, there are also three or four other movies with Bryan and/or Harmon involvement used as sources for non-flashback parts of the movie. Consequently, there’s a strip joint in the film that is at once situated in the late 70s and the late 80s worlds of highly impoverished sets; Harmon ages and de-ages in rapid succession; a climactic fight scene pretends that dressing up two guys in the new footage similarly to two completely different looking guys from old footage will make it possible to just cut two bad fights together to form one ultra-bad one; the soundtrack contains pearls like a joke synth version of a certain spaghetti western theme, as well as what I can only call an assortment of random stuff.

There’s so much of this high effort low effort nonsense involved in the film, you have to ask yourself if there wasn’t an easier way to make a movie than to cut bits and pieces of new footage and scenes from half a dozen other films together and pretend it’s a narrative (there are even plot twists which make as little sense as anything else in here, of course). Only Doctor Frankenstein can understand.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Dead of Winter (1987)

The luck of struggling actress/waitress Julie Rose (Mary Steenburgen) finally seem to turn. Her newest audition with the friendly Mr Murray (Roddy McDowell) goes swimmingly. Apparently, the lead actress of the project Mr Murray’s clients are shooting has very suddenly left the film, and they are basically searching for a lookalike who can take on the job as quickly as possible. Julie very much does look alike, apparently.

There’s only a screentest with the director somewhere in a mansion in the cold middle of nowhere in Canada to go through before fame and fortune come around. Once our heroine has arrived at said mansion, things with the director, one Joseph Lewis (Jan Rubes) go rather well too. That is, until Julie finds herself drugged and minus one finger. It’s not in the service of extreme method acting either, but part of an overcomplicated blackmail plot in which Murray and Lewis want to use Julie as a pawn, with rather dubious chances of survival for her afterwards.

A melodramatic and rather dark and intense thriller like Dead of Winter isn’t exactly the first thing that comes to mind when I think about director Arthur Penn. However, the man clearly knew his way around this genre as well as most others he was working in, so this turns out to be a rather great time.

Despite what many a filmmaker working this particular mine seems to believe, this style of very constructed, twisty and implausible thriller is not terribly easy to make. It’s not enough to simply throw plot twists at your audience while the music gets very loud and to quote Hitchcock, badly. For this subtype of the thriller – which often at least borders on horror – to grab a viewer, a director really needs to pull out all the stops and create as intense and emotional a mood as possible, undermining the sceptical viewer’s ability to and interest in thinking the plot through as much as possible, instead manipulating us into buying into a heightened intensity of feelings and excitement; it’s very much the same approach you’d take in an action movie, a romantic comedy or a horror film, for the most part.

Penn does so wonderfully, pulling Julie into a series of paranoid set pieces that sometimes become pleasantly surreal at the edges, never really giving her – or the audience – the time or space to breathe and think things through. This way, implausible twists seem to fit perfectly into the film’s very own reality, the film’s moments of ruthless brutality feel absolutely logical, and the viewer is as much pulled into the narrative’s flow as are its characters.

There’s quite a bit of actual mood building as well as thematic work via gothic and domestic suspense tropes here too. So Julie does not just have to fight two pretty crazy men, but also the willingness of authority figures to buy into “hysterical woman” clichés (as real world authority figures, alas, love to do as well), while moving through the spaces of a very traditional (and very effectively filmed) old dark house in the middle of snowy nowhere. Interestingly enough, it’s not cool calculation as much as Julie’s ability to act just as crazy and brutal as her captors that saves her day here, the film perhaps ever so slightly suggesting that a woman losing her shit under the circumstances at hand and using just as bizarre ploys as her enemies may be just the most natural reaction and healthiest reaction to the proceedings, rather than “hysteria”.

Steenburgen sells all of this wonderfully, working with a fine understanding of how and when she needs to escalate to more extreme emotions, but never letting us forget the very basic human core of Julie. Whereas McDowall and Rubes really dive into moments of wonderful scenery chewing, both actors finding the point where this makes them creepy instead of ridiculous, which isn’t always – well, practically never - a given with McDowall in my experience.

So Dead of Winter turns out to be a particularly fine example of its style, barely stepping a foot wrong.

Saturday, September 25, 2021

Three Films Make A Post: Pain Don’t Hurt

Don’t Breathe 2 (2021): I really loved the first Don’t Breathe movie, but this much more violent and body count based sequel directed by the first film’s co-writer Rodo Sayagues (who also co-wrote with the first film’s Fede Alvarez again) is just terrible. Instead of a tight – if not terrible plausible – focussed thriller plot, the only structure here is a series of plot twists that start rather stupid and quickly become so vacuously idiotic, throwing tomatoes at the filmmakers feels like a perfectly civilized reaction to their assumption of a basically braindead audience. Their absurdly misguided decision to turn the first film’s villain into a redemptive anti-hero doesn’t exactly buy them any patience either. On a technical level, many of the scenes here are perfectly capable and competent filmmaking, but that’s really not enough when a script is quite as lazy and stupid as this one.

The Possessed (1977): Though I dislike Jerry Thorpe’s exorcism TV movie quite a bit a well, at least this seems to have been made with the assumption of a non-idiot audience. In fact, the film makes the quite clever choice not to be the TV-lessened version of The Exorcist you’d expect it to be, but clearly aims for more psychological horror. Tonally, it’s often going for psychodrama more than anything else. Alas, the writing’s not really sharp or insightful enough to make this work as a piece of 70s Slow Horror, and as it goes with films which are consciously slow when they don’t succeed, things drag rather painfully. A lack of dramatic flair is a problem, too, leaving this rather too quiet for its own good.

After Pilkington (1987): This product of the BBC’s teleplay culture, written by Simon Gray and directed by Christopher Morahan, starring Bob Peck and Miranda Richardson in two brilliant performances, on the other hand, achieves all of the goals it sets itself remarkably well. It manages to be at once a social satire about midlife crisis and types of educated lonely men and the women they turn real women into in their minds, a comedy that becomes darker in tone and humour the longer things go on, and a thriller with an intense and psychologically fitting climax that is also desperately sad.

It is all these things while also making the feat look easy, direction and script elegantly and precisely shifting modes and tones, leaving the right spaces for the performances.

Friday, September 17, 2021

Another short break

I'm taking another week off from my daily scribblings here to mentally prepare for the best month of the year. Normal service will resume on September, 25th.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

In short: Lady in Black (1958)

Original title: Damen I svart

Private detective couple Kajsa (Annalisa Ericson) and John Hillman (Karl-Arne Holmsten) are going on a long-awaited holiday in the country, supposedly to get away from crime. Too bad they’re going to visit Kaja’s friend Inger von Schilden (Anita Björk), who is in a bit of trouble, and not just because she has an affair with the assistant of her husband Christian (Sven Lindberg). Soon enough, a series of murders start, perhaps committed by the area’s local ghost, the titular Lady in Black. Clues, however, and a lot of them too, point towards Inger as a rather more corporeal suspect, if a very clumsy one.

Of course, the Hillmans investigate, alas assisted by their stuttering odious comic relief assistant Freddy (Nis Hallberg), who has followed them to the country.

This is the first of a commercially quite successful series of films about the detective couple directed by Arne Mattsson.Tonally and formally these are close relations to the Italian proto giallos and the German Edgar Wallace krimis that started up at about the same time. Clearly, something good was in the air in Europe at the time.

As far as I’ve read, Swedish critics never did warm to Mattsson, putting him down for his commercial instincts (a problem well known to German genre directors of the time as well), and, absurdly, even mocked his propensity to, you know, move his camera. Which indeed, he does here, too, stylishly and intelligently, emphasising and deepening character relations with it, something he does with some eccentric but effective framing choices in many a scene as well. Mattsson also puts quite some effort into expressionist/noir plays with shadow and light, which pays off particularly well in the scenes involving the Lady.

The script, as is often the case with films like this, isn’t quite as great as Mattsson’s visual realization. The humour really hasn’t aged terribly well (if it ever was funny at all), the sexy bits are not terribly sexy if you’re not from the 50s, and the melodrama and connected characterisation is sometimes a bit stiff. However, the mystery at the film’s core works rather well in the film’s decidedly non-naturalistic world, and the Hillmans make a fun detective couple. It is particularly nice to see in a film from this era how much Kajsa is actually doing on her own account, and how matter of factly the film treats her as her husband’s equal, something this film does much better than any of the Wallace movies from my native Germany ever managed (or even tried).

Lady in Black is really a wonderful film as a whole, aiming to be a crowd pleaser but doing so stylishly.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

You’ll Like My Mother (1972)

Eight months pregnant Francesca (Patty Duke) comes to a small town in Minnesota to visit the mother of her dead husband. They have never met before, and Francesca’s letters about her husband’s death and her pregnancy have gone unanswered.

The Kinsolving mansion is situated even further out of a rather out of the way town, which is less than ideal in the midst of a Minnesota winter, even if you’re not pregnant like our heroine. Once Francesca has managed to arrived there, she very quickly wishes she hadn’t, for her husband’s mother (Rosemary Murphy) treats her as coldly and horribly as possible, suggesting that Francesca could be any random pregnant woman out for money without exactly saying that. To be fair, she’s just as horrible to her own daughter, Kathleen (Sian Barbara Allen), a “feebleminded” (quoth her mother) young woman, she clearly emotionally abuses on a regular basis. Curiously, Francesca’s husband never mentioned having a sister to her. But then, he also suggested she’d like his mother.

Our heroine really doesn’t need this sort of crap in her life, and would leave at once and most probably never return, if not for the fact that a blizzard hits the place and will make the way back to the bus station completely impossible. As it turns out, for quite some days.

As if being thrown together with an old monster like Mrs Kinsolving wasn’t bad enough, there’s something wrong about the whole situation, perhaps even the house itself: Mrs Kinsolving, a certified nurse, she’ll have you know, is rather happily drugging Francesca whenever possible (for her own good, of course), and confining her to quarters. But there seems to be someone else stalking through the house, too, someone Mrs Kinsolving seems to want to hide and protect, but also to keep away from Francesca.

I know You’ll Like My Mother’s director Lamont Johnson mostly as a TV director, but this seems to be one of his projects that managed to make its way to a cinema premiere. Plot-wise, it is not a million miles away from the sort of thriller you’d have found on TV in this era (or in a Lifetime movie with added self-sabotaging irony and camp today), though some of the film’s more lurid suggestions would certainly have been sanded down for the small screen.

The film is very good at using its very traditional thriller tropes, first isolating Francesca from all help (like the very helpful and surprisingly friendly people in the surrounding area) efficiently and believably, and then slowly heightening the threats surrounding her from the sort of things to make one uneasy and uncomfortable to truly traumatic and threatening. There’s very effective use of our heroine’s initial emotional isolation. All of her expectations of familial and female solidarity are quickly undermined by the sheer shittiness of Mrs Kinsolving’s behaviour.

Interestingly, the film then begins to introduce an increasing, believable and genuine emotional bond between Francesca and Kathleen. Often – and rather surprisingly in a film of this vintage – it even stops treating Kathleen as a plot device and starts treating her as a full, complicated human being the same way it does its three other main characters. In fact, Kathleen turns out to be the most competent and effective character when actual danger for life and limb looms, becoming rather a lot more proactive than you’d expect of anyone with a psychological or mental problem in a film of this vintage. At the same time, Lamont is a capable enough director, and Jo Heims an insightful enough writer, for these more positive and humane elements not to rob the movie of its tension; they just give us all the more reason to root for Francesca and Kathleen.

The performances are fine throughout. Duke walks the line between fragility and resourcefulness very convincing indeed, Allen never slips into caricature, and Rosemary Murphy just happens to give one of the great evil middle-aged woman performances, while not lacking nuance.

That’s rather a lot for this kind of unassuming thriller, and You’ll Like My Mother uses all of it rather well throughout its running time.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

In short: Love Crazy (1941)

Steve (William Powell) and Susan (Myrna Loy) Ireland are a very happily married couple, until their latest wedding anniversary turns into a series of comedic misunderstandings, certainly helped by Steve’s seeming inability to ever just say straightforwardly what the hell is going on. Soon, Susan is convinced Steve is cheating on her with the ex-girlfriend (Patrick Grayson) he dropped to marry her (or the other way round, depending on who you ask) and puts in for a very, very quick divorce. Steve decides his only way out of this trouble is to pretend to be insane, which would delay the divorce long enough for him to explain to Susan what actually happened, eventually. Alas, the man is declared rather more insane than he had hoped for.

I’m sure quite a few elements of this Powell/Loy vehicle directed by Jack Conway would not go over well right now with everyone. Its portrayal of mental illness is certainly, even for a film from its era, on the risible side, cliched and more than just a bit stupid; though, on the plus side, it clearly finds the business and practice of psychiatry just as hilarious as it does the mentally ill. If one isn’t grabbed by outrage by the thought of a film from the early 40s being terribly of its time, one might even suggest the film quietly argues that mental health and “normality” are very much things depending on the perspective of the onlooker. But then, this might indeed be a bit too much to put on a screwball comedy quite as low-brown in the style of its humour as this one is. Then again, when reading as many negative things into movies seems to be a perfectly serviceable critical approach, perhaps I’m allowed the opposite too, from time to time?

I’m generally not a fan of comedy quite this low-brow, but the slapstick timing is often impeccable, especially when Powell is throwing himself bodily into perfectly ridiculous situations, mugging towards Loy whose job here is mostly being the straight woman to Powell’s mania, or to be wonderfully sarcastic. It’s very bread and butter comedy in this sense, but it’s the best bread and butter and town, served with perfect flair.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Gawain and the Green Knight (1973)

Things have calmed down a little too much in the realm of King Arthur (Anthony Sharp), so his knights have become rather unknightly over the years. It’s gotten so bad, the old man invites everyone to a Yule feast he then starts with pointedly denying his knights food and going on the beginning of a kingly old man rant that’ll probably eventually talk about knights and lawns.

Fortunately for everyone involved (including the audience), a mysterious Green Knight (Nigel Green, appropriately enough) appears and challenges the King’s men to a knightly game. He will give anyone willing one free strike with his very own axe, and will only afterwards return a strike in the same manner. After much shuffling of feet and, some awkward stares and another hissy fit from the King, squire Gawain (Murray Head, so the jokes really write themselves with this one) steps forward, gets quickly knighted by his King and proceeds to lop the Green Knight’s head off. Unfortunately, that’s not much of a bother to the Knight, who simply puts his noggin back on. He’s rather impressed by Gawain’s courage, though, and so gives the young man a respite from his own, most probably more lethal head-loss, and postpones the return strike for a year. If Gawain should manage to find the Knight and win against him in a duel during this time, all’s going to be okay. Why, the Knight is even going to send our young hero signs and portents to guide him to wherever Green Knights dwell. Which will mostly mean that Gawain and his squire Humphrey (David Leland) will proceed to wander around England and pop up wherever they hear about someone or something being green (seriously), when in doubt trying to kill them.

It’s not a great approach to questing, I believe, but it does quickly provide Gawain with his very own lady love (Ciaran Madden), an absolute must for the questing knight, and certainly keeps him busy for the year.

As David Lowery will probably tell you, one of the problems when adapting the chivalric romance of Gawain and the Green Knight is that its beguiling set-up that so clearly suggests something about the pagan past haunting Christianity’s ideas about knighthood is quickly followed by the author going - to paraphrase – “and many adventures were had by Gawain, but adventures are boring, so let me just list some of them and then jump ahead in time so we can have a really good talk about the fine points of the chivalric code” and then spending most of the poem not on any dramatically potent stuff about the conflict between honour and humanity but on tedious rules-lawyering.

Which is something no post-medieval audience of any kind outside of very specific academic circles will have any time for, leaving the heavy lifting of the main part of any script using the source to the writers of said script: the job of creating thematic connections and perhaps even a plot and not just a tantalizing set-up.

Alas, in the case of Stephen Weeks’s Gawain and the Green Knight, little of that sort of heavy lifting seems to have been done by Weeks in his guise as writer, nor by his co-writer Philip M. Breen. Sure, there are recurring characters, but otherwise, Gawain’s various adventures feel completely disconnected and have little to do with his quest for the Green Knight; nor does the film put any thought into what its Green Knight actually means, to its world, for Gawain, or thematically. Weeks may have understood that himself, for a decade later, he directed yet another version of the same tale in Sword of the Valiant. Of course, having watched that one in all of its cheesy glory, you will be hard pressed to call it an improvement as an adaptation of the material.

The film at hand’s script problems would be more easily acceptable if most of our hero’s adventures were a little more interesting to watch. In part, this is certainly the fault of the movie’s clearly miniscule budget that leads to costumes often looking as if they were put together from the musty stores of some amateur theatre production. Speaking of production design here feels exceedingly optimistic. The action sequences are equally impoverished, with little flair for staging a swordfight on the cheap. That’s not helped by the director’s curious fixation on fights in which our hero is fighting an enemy on horseback while unhorsed himself, something that could be properly exciting if treated well, but just looks particularly amateurish here even the first time around. By fight number four in this style, it’s just tiresome.

The film’s not a total wash, however: there’s certainly joy to be found in its pompous narrator (who never tells anything that needed telling, of course) and the way the equally pompous and VERY DRAMATIC score by Ron Goodwin starts to feel like some kind of sarcastic commentary on the impoverished miming of people in bad costumes through medieval ruins we witness. Every scene that features the seneschal of Fortinbras or the guy’s son is automatically enhanced by their sheer, maniacal overacting, and a supposedly bereft queen changing her mind from killing the knight who bested her husband to marrying him once she sees Murray Head’s face isn’t too bad either, particularly since nobody involved actually seems to understand this to be funny.

That’s certainly enough to keep me awake and mildly entertained for ninety minutes. Sane peoples’ mileages may very well vary.