Sunday, October 18, 2020

The Intruder Within (1981)

aka The Lucifer Rig

Jake Nevins (Chad Everett) is nominally heading up the drilling operations on an oil rig somewhere close to Antarctica. In truth, his company has sent in young geologist Scott (Joseph Bottoms) a couple of weeks after drilling started with instructions for Nevins to basically do whatever the guy says. What he says, while mostly locked away in cabin and makeshift lab, is to keep on drilling, as fast and as deep as possible.

That insistence on doing things the fastest way has turned out to be rather dangerous, obviously, making the roughnecks tired and accident-prone. Why, one of them even has prophetic (spoiler?) nightmares how they are all going to die. Things become even less great after a couple of replacement crew members – among them Colette Beaudroux (Jennifer Warren) who will be our co-lead of the day – have arrived. Some peculiar animal looking a lot like a low budget version of an Alien chestburster is coming up through the drilling, killing the guy with the death dreams, only to be dispatched by the quick-thinking Colette with a flare gun. There are also some small, egg-like objects coming up Scott is rather interested in, and before you can say, “uh oh”, the first member of the crew is infected with something nasty and begins to act rather aggressively and inhuman.

We all know where this is going, but at least, we do have a trio of competent working class people in form of Colette, Scott and roughneck Mark (Rockne Tarkington) to take care of business.

As far as “Alien, but on/in someplace else” movies go, Peter Carter’s (the director of the wonderful backwoods survival horror Rituals) ABC TV movie is a surprisingly fine film. Sure, the monster suit is a bit cheap, though it does still look rather creepy thanks to the well applied teachings of the skinned animal school of monster design, and the film does tend to cut away from things a non-TV movie would linger on for a bit, but it is a great example of how to get around these kinds of constrictions and get to the meat of the sub-genre one is working in.

If the effects budget doesn’t reach further than two rubber monsters and a suit neatly designed but still best seen from afar, then why not use a couple of actors looking pale and creepy and moving faster yet still stiffer than anybody else around them once they are biologically taken over? If you can’t show as much as a movie not made for TV, why not use the old route of shadows on the wall and implications, and make the handful of scenes when it’s affordable to show something count? Plus, in some moments, like the implied rape scene, the less is more approach does do the film a world of good, showing exactly as much as is necessary without leaving the borders of good taste behind. And even though one might argue that leaving the borders of good taste behind is one of the points of certain kinds of horror, it really isn’t one here. Rather, there’s the shadow of the aesthetic values (though not the complex thematic concerns) of something like a Val Lewton production at work here, which is a great aesthetic direction to take in a TV movie of the time this was made.

These more shadowy scenes (one of ‘em, the shadows on the wall birth scene, enhanced with Bava colours) work particularly well because they stand in direct contrast to Carter’s otherwise very naturalistic style. The outside scenes seem to be shot on a real oil rig, and the director is particularly apt at making this feel like a real, living workplace under rather extreme conditions, making the encroachment of the threat that will increasingly come by night particularly effective through contrast.

The Intruder Within really is a surprisingly effective little film that makes virtues out of all of its nominal weaknesses.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Three Films Make A Post: They Hunt...They Feed...They Kill...You're Next!

Contamination .7 aka The Crawlers aka Troll 3 (1993): Illegally dumped nuclear waste has turned the flora in some podunk town carnivorous, and now our leafy ex-friends use their prehensile roots to get at those nice mammal juices; the nuclear plant responsible obviously does everything in their power to hush things up. That description is pretty much the most fun you’ll get out of this late period Joe D’Amato epic.

It’s no surprise that this doesn’t work as a proper movie on account of a total lack of tension, a tedious script and horrible dialogue – that’s what you expect from this phase of D’Amato’s work after all - but it’s also no fun at all, lacking the craziness, weirdness and crassness you hope for from D’Amato. There’s simply little of interest going on here. The only thing which might cause a smile is how little D’Amato (or whoever truly did the final cut) seems to have cared if an actor flubbed a line, or two actors lines in the same damn scene, leading to an amount of stammering of mumblecore-like dimensions.

Devil Rider! (1991): On the other hand, I still found the D’Amato film mildly more watchable than this regionally produced direct to video slasher about an undead(?) cowboy terrorising what he defines as his own private territory. He’s also laughing a lot, in the sort of manner a three year old kid wouldn’t buy as “evil”, likes to talk nonsense, dresses in light colours and doesn’t even ride a black horse, making for one of the least impressive looking killers in a slasher I’ve seen. And really, there’s a reason the killers in slashers generally don’t use guns.

Apart from the crap killer, there’s terrible acting of the sort that still manages to be boring, terrible dialogue that only seldom becomes funny, and zero suspense – and all of it presented with all the gusto of a lame horse.

Demon Warrior (1988): Which actually leaves yet another regionally produced slasher, this one made in Texas by Frank Patterson, with the crown of the most watchable movie in this entry. Here, it’s not an undead/immortal cowboy doing the killings, but a Native American demon warrior returning every ten years to some patch of woods stolen by white people, following a curse. But don’t worry, there’s also a good Native American around who wants to end the curse and just might help some of the cabin spam walking around to survive.

This one wins most of its reasonable entertainment value from basic competent characterisation and dialogue, vaguely atmospheric direction and a decent control of pacing, all things you can’t expect from slashers from the late 80s. Hell, even the acting is serviceable, and while nobody’s death will break an audience’s heart, there’s at least as visible attempt made to have discernible characters slaughtered by the killer. The film’s also proof that while guns don’t work with the slasher formula, bow and arrow do reasonably well.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Past Misdeeds: The Casebook of Eddie Brewer (2012)

This is a re-run with only the slightest of edits, so please don’t ask me what the heck I was thinking when I wrote any given entry into this section.

Warning: there are one or two rather mild spoilers ahead

Eddie Brewer (Ian Brooker, an actor whose screen credits only seem to consist of a few bit parts, which looks preposterously unfair in context of his performance here) is a rather old-fashioned kind of paranormal investigator. He works alone, mistrusts the whole EXTREME Ghost Hunters approach as much as he does the professional sceptics, and clearly abhors mediums; in fact, even though he has encountered strange phenomena quite often, he doesn’t necessarily even believe in spirits as such.

Despite his friendly curmudgeonly nature (with an edge of sadness connected to the burning death of his wife decades ago), Eddie has agreed to be accompanied by the documentary crew of a culture TV channel for a bit. The investigator clearly thinks they are doing some friendly puff piece, so it will come as a bit of surprise to him when he’ll learn that their plans also involve a group of modern style ghost hunters and capital-s sceptic Susan Kovac (Louise Paris) with whom he has clashed before.

Mainly, Eddie is concerned with two cases right now. One involves some poltergeist type occurrences surrounding a young girl named Lucy Blakewell (Erin Connolly), phenomena which started out harmlessly enough but that by the time Eddie appears at the scene have become quite disturbing to Lucy’s mother (Bella Hamblin). And after all, how unthreatening can a phenomenon be that is connected to Lucy’s imaginary friend, when said friend calls itself after the clown Grimaldi?

Eddie’s second case concerns some odd happenings in Rookery House, a historical yet run-down building owned by the local council that’s being - rather haphazardly it seems - renovated. Particularly the building’s cellar appears to be a veritable hotbed of weird occurrences. In fact, Eddie will have encounters there that will be closer than any he’d ever expected.

During the course of the cases, Eddie will also learn that there just might be a connection between them, that if you look into an abyss, the abyss just might look back at you, and that you really don’t want to waltz into certain cellars with a horde of people in tow.

Expectations are a wonderful thing, particularly if you go into a film like Andrew Spencer’s The Casebook of Eddie Brewer expecting another paranormal investigation POV horror film (I still can’t believe this is now an actual horror sub-sub-genre with more films in it than the Nazi zombie film) as I did, only to be delighted by what the film then turns out to be.

Formally, The Casebook isn’t a pure POV/found footage film at all. Most of the film does consist of the material the fictional TV crew is shooting but whenever things happen when and where having a camera around would be improbable, or when the paranormal activity is playing around with the camera while Eddie experiences something horrifying - which just happen to be scenes much more effectively staged without the POV camera style – it changes to a more traditional filmmaking language, with many a well-composed (and moodily-lit) shot. Trained against acknowledging the improbabilities of the POV conceit as I - and probably other viewers of the type who haven’t grown to loathe it - now am, I would have expected to find this changing approach jarring, but Spencer uses it so effectively, naturally, and logically, the shifts in viewpoint seem to be organic parts of the film that wouldn’t make any sense done differently.

That’s not the only highly impressive aspect of a film clearly made on the tightest of budgets, the kind of production where half of the people involved take on three or four roles behind the camera. The sound design is particularly worth mentioning, with various creepy noises taking the place of visible special effects, though the latter do come into play when appropriate, generally to good effect, unless you just need to see something explode, or want very explicit gore. In that case, however, this won’t be a film to make you happy anyway.

It’s not as if The Casebook were coy about the supernatural, though. There’s no dragging of feet in the script, and an absolute willingness to show the audience creepy and disturbing things, unless – and I love it when a film has the brains to know the difference – it is more creepy not to show something, and instead to suggest it. The film also does right by some other pretty difficult elements of horror, namely the so often tedious and annoying battle between believers and sceptics. The film is always clear that its sympathies (at least in the context of the plot) lie with Eddie’s approach to the supernatural, but it anchors these sympathies in Eddie’s characterisation instead of trying to convert the audience or preach at it, or even worse annoy with the bizarre holier than thou attitude of something like The Conjuring (a film as inferior to this one, by the way, as its budget is higher). In fact, professional sceptic Kovac doesn’t seem to be looked down upon because she doesn’t believe but because she’s an asshole about it, which goes for the Extreme Ghost Hunters! from the other side as well.

What impresses me most about Spencer’s film aren’t any of these fine and indeed impressive elements, though, but rather how well it builds up a feeling of dread, beginning in a wry, friendly and even comedic tone that slowly shifts as the more disturbing parts of the plot unfold. At first, the hints of things to come only break the film’s seemingly laid back flow a little, but like Eddie’s nerves, the tone becomes increasingly brittle until even what starts out as a scene making fun of a broadly acted medium can turn frightening at a moment’s notice. Brooker, as the actor who is in most of the film’s scenes, sells this change of mood and his character very well. In his performance, there’s a certain edge to Eddie’s character from the beginning, yet the edge is counteracted by a feeling of basic, no-nonsense (in the polite British way, not the American one) decency. Until, that is, one of the film’s central horrors occurs, and the wonder and calm that are part of Eddie’s character shift into fear and utter horror. It’s quite the thing to watch.

Not coincidentally, as the whole of The Casebook of Eddie Brewer is.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

In short: The Ninth (2019)

Original title: Devyataya

The late 19th Century, Petersburg. A serial killer murders women, using occult symbols in his bloody practice, seemingly working some kind of ritual. Policeman Sergey Rostov (Evgeniy Tsyganov), a man characterised by the improbable combination of a deep sense of responsibility and a death wish, investigates with the help of his underling Ganin (Dmitriy Lysenkov). A pentagram painted on an egg (hard-boiled, if you need to know) the killer has replaced the newest victim’s heart with sees Rostov looking for an occult expert. The occult researcher Golitsyn (Yuri Kolokolnikov), not really purposefully, points Rostov in the direction of British spirit medium Olivia Reed (Daisy Head, doing some pretty fun scenery-chewing), who has a successful Petersburg run with her very showy and theatrical spiritist revue, including an awesome/absurd costume.

At first, Rostov isn’t at all impressed with Olivia. She’s clearly faking a lot of her supposed powers, but she does indeed have visions that just might point Rostov in the direction of the killer. There’s a closer connection to the case, too, for the masked mystery maniac does use a ritual taken from a grimoire he has stolen from Olivia.

Nikolai Khomeriki’s The Ninth fits snugly into the realm of those high budget movies mixing traditional mystery, adventure movie tropes and a smaller or larger degree of supernatural business that makes these films nice fits for the Halloween season; it’s the same sort of thing you find in Guy Ritchie’s version of Sherlock Holmes or Tsui Hark’s version of Detective Dee, just with less genius thinker and martial arts.

I do have a large place in my heart for this sort of film, seeing as it mixes some of the bits of popular cultures the world round I enjoy the most. The Ninth isn’t as fun as the first Ritchie Holmes, nor as breathtaking as Hark’s Dee films, but Khomeriki and his scriptwriters (apparently this is based on a comic written by Marina and Sergei Dyachenko, who are rather wonderful novelists) are pretty good at transplanting the genre tropes into Russia. Petersburg in the late 19th Century is an excellent place to set this kind of tale, too, with its extreme contrasts between the rich and the poor, its imperial grandeur, and some damn fine architecture for a film to use. Sense of place, even if it is not a naturalistic portrayal of a place, goes a long way with me.

On the level of plotting and direction, the film is competent but not spectacular. The characters are moved through the set pieces well enough, and Khomeriki certainly makes things look slick, so it’s difficult not to feel entertained by the mix of light horror and action. From time to time, I would have wished for the film to do something a little bit cleverer than it strictly needed to or something more off-beat, but it always stays good popcorn cinema.

Which is never meant as any kind of damning criticism from me. As experience shows, even if some people can’t seem to see that because they are distracted holding their noses at something meant only to entertain, it’s not actually terribly easy to make this sort of film well, just ask DC. The Ninth, on the other hand, entertains me just fine.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

The Ghost of the Hunchback (1965)

aka Devil’s Pit

Original title: 怪談せむし男

Yoshie (Yuko Kusunoki) finds that a nightmare about the death of her husband comes true on her awakening. Of course, he has been spending the last years as an incurably insane patient of his own father (Takeshi Kato, I believe, which is the best I can do with the credits situation of the film), and by older horror movie rules, this means he’s physically less than fit, too. The situation doesn’t improve for Yoshie in any case: during the funeral service, she hears a terrible creaking noise from her husband’s coffin, and on opening it, finds his teeth gnashed around the stem of a chrysanthemum; during the cremation, she believes to hear him scream. And right afterwards, a lawyer (Kazuo Kato) gives her the key to a villa her husband owned she never knew about. Apparently, he started on his way to screaming insanity while staying there, she is informed.

On what appears to be the same or at leas the very next day, Yoshie visits the “villa”, a place that turns out to be an improbably creepy western-style mansion in the middle of nowhere, whose only inhabitant now is a hunchbacked keeper (Ko Nishimura) with various disquieting habits, of which a tendency to appear and disappear without a sound is only the beginning. Soon, the hunchback tells Yoshie that the last time he saw her husband, he was grasping the naked corpse of a woman, but all attempts by her to get some straight, sensible information beyond creepy insinuations out of the man go nowhere. She is soon enough distracted by various frightening phenomena anyway: doors open and close without reason, an improbable wind seems to blow through parts of the building, and disembodied voices scream.

Yoshie has invited reinforcements for her stay in the house, but things only become more intense once her husband’s sleazy father – whose first step right after the cremation of his soon will be to try and bully Yoshie into a marriage with himself –, the husband’s niece Kazuko (Yoko Hayama) – apart from Yoshie the only innocent here – and the father’s younger subordinate doctor arrive. Rather a lot of murder and madness are waiting for absolutely everyone, innocent and guilty alike.

For quite some time, the Japanese version of Hajime Sato’s (also the director of Golden Bat and Goke, so clearly getting my vote) was supposed to have been lost, with only an Italian dub of the film floating around. By now, there’s a decent version of the Japanese original available to those interested, with – rather difficult – subtitles based on the Italian dub. So now there’s hope to perhaps sometimes get some sort of true Blu-ray version of what I believe to be a true classic.

The film was clearly inspired by Italian gothic horror (and given the Italian dub version, gave the favour right back) but sometimes also seems to prefigure that arm of the giallo influenced by the crueller arm of classic land house mysteries. At least, this is most certainly a film full of perfectly abhorrent bourgeois and upper class people who seem to have no morals whatsoever. The dead husband’s father is the most obvious example of the type, with his early designs on his daughter-in-law (whom he spied on having sex with his son through a peephole when she visited him in the hospital, too), the character of a rapist sleaze, and a background as Japanese medical war criminal.

While he might be the worst of the bunch, only Yoshie and Kazuko are innocent – or at the very least likeable – while everyone else is a grasping schemer who really deserves to be ripped apart by the film’s supernatural forces. Of course, this being a film about the Japanese kind of curse, the innocents aren’t going to be spared, either, the film ending on a series of pretty astonishing scenes that aren’t just ruthless but utterly without mercy towards any of the characters. Even the one whose body is the tool through which the film’s central curse does its work is a victim, of course, caught up and used by forces he has no defence against whatsoever. So expect a very early version of the most depressing 70s downer ending you can imagine going in.

The early parts of the film are pure gothic, Sato creating a dense mood of the macabre out of deep contrasts between light and darkness, so many Dutch angles the mansion might actually be situated in the Netherlands, a couple of scenes borrowed (cough) from Robert Wise’s The Haunting, and some many noises and screams. On the way to the finale we’ll also encounter an intense séance by an actual wandering shamanistic medium (which ends very badly for the medium, but why should she have it better than anyone else here?), encounter scenes that turn the sexual subtext running through much of gothic horror into text in a way only a Japanese movie could get away with quite this extremely in the mid-60s, and find characters dying in horrible ways again and again.

Sato’s as great at the more explicit moments of the film as he his at the subtle mood building, the ero guro, and the subtly macabre, so the last act of the film turns into an incredibly intense series of horrible events, the mood becoming outright hysterical before things end very badly indeed for everyone. It’s really fantastic, and suggests itself as a hidden connection between the Gothic and the more nihilistic and brutal horror that would come to dominate the 70s the world around.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

In short: #ALIVE (2020)

Original title: #살아있다 (#sal-a-iss-da)

I think I’ve already mentioned that I’ve grown a bit tired of zombie/infected outbreak movies. Why, things have gotten so bad, I didn’t even like the much praised Train to Busan. Though my problem with that one was all that rather embarrassing and hilariously ineffective emotional manipulation that had me in tears of laughter come the climax.

So I wasn’t terribly interest in this South Korean Netflix production directed and written by Cho Il-hyeong with Yoo Ah-in as a survivor whose videogaming shut in tendencies are pretty helpful for once. Turns out I was wrong again, for the film’s actually well-made (okay, that’s basically a given in a movie from South Korea), effective and fun. It also doesn’t desperately try to milk one’s tear ducts as if they were cow udders, coming by its actual emotional beats the honest way, through careful characterisation, and an intimate presentation of our protagonist’s desperate situation. While the zombie and action sequences are fun and well done, the film’s core is in its presentation of loneliness and quiet desperation, the way it feels when the world around you slowly falls apart, and a few too many of your hopes are crushed. But the film’s also great at the more positive things, the sudden large importance of small hopes and achievements, and the life-saving heft of human companionship, as seen when the film introduces its other protagonist, as played by Park Shin-hye.

I also admire the film’s willingness to underplay its more tragic elements, treating them with dignity instead as a way to make its audience feel something (damn it!). Which of course is the best way to actually make an audience feel something.

Really, by now, basically everyone can film a generic zombie movie sequence or ten and call them a movie. The difficulty is in getting the human elements of such a story right, and that’s what #ALIVE does best.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Blood Symbol (1992)

College student Tracy (Micheline Richard) is having a bit of a bad time. As if being plagued by nightmares about robed figures and sacrifice, and being the girlfriend of the incredibly boring Steve (co-director Maurice Devereaux) weren’t bad enough, there’s also a creepy guy (Richard Labelle) in black who looks a lot like a giallo killer stalking her, disappearing mysteriously whenever she tries to point him out to anyone. Let’s not even talk about the disembodied voices speaking or shouting her name, the invisible powers drawn to her for poltergeist-style shenanigans or the fact that there’s already one girl from her school missing, and we the audience know the disappearing girl has been ritually sacrificed.

Eventually, Tracy will figure out that all of this has to do with something called the Cult of the Blood Symbol, a century old cult looking for “chosen ones” born with an invisible mark of Satan to sacrifice so they can gain immortality by drinking their blood. The cult is supposed to be long gone, but one member does indeed remain – immortality can be pretty useful there - and she’s clearly one of the chosen.

Shot over the course of more than half a decade, losing its lead actress to the old artistic differences after half of the film was in the can so that she had to be replaced by a stand-in that was only shot from afar, and being awkwardly dubbed with barely synched voices, this film by pretty wonderful indie director Michael Devereaux and Tony Morello should by all rights not work at all. In practice, it’s as great a film as could possibly have been made under these circumstances, finding the French-Canadian version of that spot of stylish irrationality and irreality the supernatural arm of the giallo and other European horror films from the 70s and the 80s (and yes, some American films too) liked to inhabit. Though there’s also time for some visual homages to Carpenter’s Halloween - which in its turn is unthinkable without the giallo even if its visual stylisation was of a different kind from the Italian school.

Of course, given the production situation, some of the film is awkward. The dialogue is stiff enough as it is without the non-performances in the pretty horrible dubbing (which is the sort of thing that can happen when you have to shoot without sound) but for every moment of awkwardness, there are three of wonderful visual imagination, from self-made dolly shots to surreal dream sequences in black and white, editing (also by Devereaux) that slips between montage and pure, controlled weirdness, and a camera that races and glides whenever possible. The directors have a great eye for the creepy side moment, too: my particular favourite are the swings on a playground starting to asynchronously swing by themselves when Tracy passes by, our heroine seeing but ignoring them. All of this may be derivative, but it’s derivative of a specific aesthetic and mood of – mostly – European horror filmmaking instead of being a commercial rip-off, and as such more like a love letter to style of horror filmmaking than an attempt to cash-in on one’s budgetary betters.

Which works wonderfully on me as someone who loves 70s European horror and its predecessors and successors; Blood Symbol’s rough edges and its near absence of a traditional narrative really seem to be unimportant or even simply beside the point. The point is to recreate an aesthetic and the moods that come with it through whatever methods the filmmakers can come up with, and as such, the film’s a complete success.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Three Films Make A Post: A family like no other

Spookers (2017): Florian Habicht’s documentary about what is apparently “the most successful scare park in the Southern hemisphere”, family run and populated by performers who have become a wonderful family by choice themselves, is in large parts a love letter to the concept of the family of choice that is so important to most of the broken and the bent among us; it’s also a love letter to strangeness, to people letting out those parts of themselves they have to hide in real life, and being accepted as they are. As a horror fan, I also can’t help but love the film’s many shots of visitors of the place being joyfully scared, glowing with freed emotions.

The filmmakers have a lot of fun of engaging with their subjects in a playful and human way, sharing into their outlet and companionship in a way that seems particular lovely right now and right here, giving a film about a group of people scaring the bejeezus out of others an air of the humane and the hopeful.

Blood of Dracula (1957): This AIP production about the resident (female!) mad scientist at a boarding school turning the new girl into a were-vampire to somehow end the nuclear arms race (I use the word “mad” for a reason) as directed by Herbert L. “I Was a Teenage Frankenstein” Strock is one of the more enjoyable ones from the 50s not touched by the hands of Corman. At least, Strock knows how to pace things properly, structuring things economically.

The script has a decent grip on how a teenage girl after the loss of her mother, and cursed with a father who marries a gold digger only six weeks later, might act and feel, the vampire bit really expressing the return of the things 50s society wants a girl to repress, which is more than you can expect of a late 50s monster movie.

See No Evil (1971): Directed by Richard Fleischer and written by the great Brian Clemens, this is an excellent early 70s thriller about a recently blinded (in a riding accident) character played by Mia Farrow returning to her family’s country home for a spell, only to find herself beset by someone who will turn out to be much worse than your typical stalker. Farrow’s performance adds some spine to her patented victim shtick, so it’s a bit of disappointment she isn’t really saving herself in the end, but the film’s so tightly made, this sort of theoretical problem only comes to mind afterwards. While actually watching the film, I found myself far too involved in excellently built suspense sequences – some of which are truly horrifying in conception, like the one in which Farrow discovers she has been sleeping in a house full of the corpses of her loved ones – to bother about this sort of thing.

Friday, October 9, 2020

Past Misdeeds: Masks (2011)

This is a re-run with only the slightest of edits, so please don’t ask me what the heck I was thinking when I wrote any given entry into this section.

Young would-be actress Stella (Susen Ermich) seems to have gotten as far as natural talent and looks can bring her in her dreamt-of career, which is to say, not very far. So when she is pointed in the direction of the Matteusz Gdula School for Acting, she decides to give it a try.

What Stella doesn't know about the school and its now-dead founder is that Gdula's very own acting Method led to a number of violent deaths in the 70s. Officially, the school doesn't teach Gdula's Method anymore, and is now only the usual shark tank of bitchy young actors and actresses.

However, something weird is going on in the school's supposedly closed-down annex, the place where Gdula once held his cultish acting classes. Stella's classmate Cecile (Julita Witt), to whom she finds herself drawn, likes to hint at private lessons taking place in the annex, lessons still following Gdula's esoteric Method. These lessons leave Cecile a much better actress but also with traces of bodily and mental abuse, until she one day just disappears.

Afterwards, Stella is invited to take Cecile's place and be taught Gdula's Method. All she needs to do is take the risk and let herself be isolated in the annex for weeks at a time. Madness and violence, but perhaps also the truth about what happened to Cecile, await her.

I wasn't much of a fan of Andreas Marschall's Tears of Kali but had quite a bit of hope for his future projects, because most of what I disliked about that movie had to do with elements caused by the problems of seat-of-your-pants filmmaking rather than lack of talent in the people involved. As far as I've read, Masks budgetary situation wasn't all that much better (making genre films in Germany is difficult, and making a horror movie that isn't exclusively a gore fest even more so, it seems), but this time around, the result of Marschall's struggles turned out to be much more convincing.

Masks is a film aesthetically highly indebted to 70s giallos, particularly Dario Argento's Suspiria, using cheaper modern digital technology to create a similar look and feel of photography, as well as sharing concepts of narrative structure, and music highly reminiscent of that era.In fact, at times Masks' ability to emulate the look and feel of a 70s giallo becomes downright creepy.

There is, of course, always a risk turning your movie into a pure retro effort when you keep as close to the style of a different era as Masks does. Certainly, the film at hand doesn't do itself much of a service by having a first act with a structure, down to the composition of some scenes, just too identical to that of Suspiria. However, the longer Marschall's film goes on, the more it becomes one of these films that use the style of an earlier era in a way belonging very much to themselves and the era they were made in - an approach comparable to Beyond the Black Rainbow and Berberian Sound Studio, though not quite on the same level as those films.

Like Argento's best, Masks is a film saying all it has to say via its visual aesthetics - subtext (in this case circling the way early abuse of young girls can put them on the road of helping self-perpetuate that abuse, the dangers of looking too deeply into oneself, and the way older men might prey on younger women's weaknesses), narrative, and plot all are part of the film's visible surfaces. They are not so much subservient to the film's looks as so deeply entwined with them it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to see any element here standing separate from the next. It's a rather wonderful example of what we could dub "style as substance" filmmaking.

The solution to Masks' plot is one that might look rather silly on paper, and which in practice has little to do with the way the real world works but it is also one that befits the fever dream/fairy-tale/weird psychology mood of the film. It certainly makes complete sense as part of Stella's character arc, as well as the rules the film has established about itself. This insistence on following an internal logic that treats the movie as a world of its own with rules of its own that may or may not have anything in common with logic as we generally understand it rather than as a surface reproduction of the world we live in, is of course exactly the thing that drives a certain type of viewer away from the giallo and assorted, predominantly European - though some local horror movies from the US certainly share the concept - film genres. This (ill)logic of symbols and the unreal is, of course, exactly what draws me to the genre and films like Masks standing in this different tradition of what a horror film is supposed to be and do, or rather, of what a horror film can be and do apart from showing us interesting ways for young attractive people to die in. Not that Masks, or other films of its type, have anything against being creative in the latter regard, of course; killing off young characters for fun and aesthetic profit is part of their style too, and Masks has its own share of aestheticized carnage to present.

It is very impressive how consequently Marschall is able to keep the mood of Masks so continuously strange, with only a handful of moments where the film's state as a self-contained world breaks down a little. From time to time, one actor in a minor role (the main cast is very impressive for a group of actors with mostly only single credit in their filmographies) isn't quite good enough to keep the mood up, the soundtrack by Sebastian Levermann and Nils Weise sounds a bit too much like Goblin, or the fake 70s hair in the documentary about Gdula's class of 1973 looks only like fake movie hair, but for the most part, there are no seams showing in Masks at all.

This leaves Masks as a wonderful example of its style, as well as one of the handful of German horror films made in the last decades that actually give me hope for genre films coming from my native country.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

In short: Alone (2020)

Warning: there are mild spoilers ahead!

After her husband has committed suicide, Jessica (Jules Willcox) has decided to escape her feelings of guilt and grief by moving to the other side of the USA. She’s making the move on her own, carting a U-Haul trailer around country roads and lonely streets.

Apart from the emotional pain, things start out okay enough on her travels, but a strange and dangerous encounter with another car does leave her a bit insecure and understandably nervous. Something that’s not going to get better once she starts meeting the driver (Marc Menchaca) of this car again and again, as if he were stalking her. Which he will indeed turn out to do, eventually kidnapping Jessica for a bit of emotional torture in his cabin in the wilderness, with the promise of eventual death.

Jessica manages to escape though, and now has to find her way to safety through forest wilderness, with little but the clothes on her back, followed by her kidnapper.

I was a bit disappointed by the last eight years or so of director Jack Hyams’s output, when he left behind low budget movies for the greener pastures of TV and particularly streaming series work. It’s not his fault I really don’t need another (or two) zombie apocalypse shows in my life, obviously.

Alone isn’t a return to highly weird and awesome action movies like the fourth Universal Soldier film, but a thriller working from a script (by Mattias Olsson) that is built from very well-known blocks. However, despite certainly not being in the market for originality prices, this is still a very strong film. The script’s sequence of chases and escapes is very tightly arranged, written with sharp focus on what makes a situation threatening as well as an eye for the telling quotidian detail that makes a thriller situation feel less constructed than it by rights should feel. The characterisation of Jessica as a woman burdened by grief and a feeling of terrible guilt is sharp and tight too. Hyams’s careful direction, Willcox’s wonderfully emotionally controlled performance and the script’s attention to the right details, really come together to make Jessica believable as well as easy to root for.

Menchaca’s performance, on the other hand, is wonderfully creepy without turning his character into some mythological being. The film treats its serial killer as a human being, as terrible a one as he is, actually making him more threatening through his fallibility than many a movie about the superhumanly competent variation of the serial killer manages.

Hyams, it turns out, is as great a director of this sort of horror thriller as he is of crazier action stuff, using his experience with action scenes whenever it is appropriate, but spending just as much of his energy on creating a threatening – and generally unpleasantly wet – mood through landscape, and on assisting his performers.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Notturno con grida (1981)

Ten years ago, rich guy Christian (Franco Molè) disappeared from his home under very mysterious circumstances. Everyone else in the household suffering some sort of physical damage as well as memory loss, so nobody knows what happened to him or if he is indeed still alive. The household members got the opportunity for a lot of bitter lawsuits out of it, so there was a silver lining to the affair.

The day after the film takes place will be the day when Christian can finally be declared dead, and his family commemorates the day that’ll leave his widow Eileen (Martine Brochard) stinking rich by a séance to clear up what happened to Christian, mirroring the night just before whatever happened to him took place. Brigitte (Mara Maryl), the wife of Christian’s brother Paul (house favourite Luciano Pigozzi aka Alan Collins), repeats her role as a medium she also had ten years ago. The séance is dramatic but rather inconclusive, Christian breaking off speaking through Brigitte exactly at the moment when he’s going to name the killer. Oh well.

So, everyone make their way to an excursion into the woods where they plan to build some bungalows. In the party are Eileen, Brigitte (who is either the dumbest woman alive or very good at pretending, something the other characters seem to ponder a lot, often loudly and in her presence), Paul (a former priest with some proper former priest secrets), the surveyor Sheena (Gioia Scola) and Eileen’s bodyguard and fiancée Gerard (Gerardo Amato). Of course, there are a bunch of secrets and lies between these characters, which come out sooner or later: for example, Paul once “took advantage” (as the film has it) of Eileen in the confessional when she was just fifteen, also talking her into marrying his brother in the hopes she would murder Christian and split the money with him; Gerard plans to murder Eileen once they are married for a while and take up with Sheena; Brigitte may or may not have been raped or have had an affair with Christian, and so on, and so forth. Really, it’s your typical rich family in a giallo.

As if all of these secrets, lies, and dubious moral backbones weren’t enough to motivate a bloodbath, the group is also beset by curious phenomena: a seemingly invisible early bird owl attacks, visions are had, memories relived, and so on. Eventually, their car disappears and the group can’t find their way out of the woods anymore, running in circles even if they clearly aren’t. And then there’s the invisible force that attacks them…

Ernesto Gastaldi was one of the more important writers of Italian genre movies during the 60s and 70s, writing giallos, peplums, Gothic horror films, or whatever else the market wanted. He only had a handful of stints in the director’s chair, though, this being one of them, the directing duties here shared with Vittorio Salerno, who isn’t as omnipresent or interesting as Gastaldi was.

As it stands, Notturno con grida is nearly a lost film, with a pretty drenched looking VHS source and fan made subtitles – which I am very thankful for – the best version of the film available right now, which is a bit of a shame, really, though not exactly surprising. After all, the film was clearly shot on the very cheap, even for the Italian movie industry of the early 80s, with only a handful of actors, a cheap “living room of the rich” set for the séance as well as the handful of flashbacks, a patch of woods and basically no special effects you can’t produce by moving your camera suggestively standing in for production values.

All of which to me suggests the kind of project someone working in the movie business could make on the side beside paying projects, asking some acquaintances (or in the case of Mara Maryl, his wife) to help out. So a bit of a labour of love. To me, at least, it truly feels like a labour of love, too, like a very experienced filmmaker using some of the ideas he couldn’t quite sell anyone with money on. There are some stand-bys from typical Gastaldi scripts on screen, of course. Especially the group of nasty but very fun rich people that make up the cast are a dime a dozen in his scripts as well as many another giallos, though they would more typically bump each other off than encounter the supernatural that’ll punish them for their sins as happens here. However, the dialogue for these dicks and dickettes in other movies doesn’t usually show off Gastaldi’s classical education as well these here do. Particularly our former priest is full of quotations and philosophical musings quite befitting a film that is beholden to the conventions of traditional tales of the supernatural. Something that, needless to say, is bound to endear a film to me.

But I also simply enjoy how much Gastaldi and Salerno make out of the little they’ve got here, getting fun and interesting performances out of their actors, and creating an effective eerie mood out of basically nothing – and mostly in daylight to boot. There’s just such a fine sense of the strange running through the film as a whole that it’s an easy recommendation for anyone who likes Italian genre cinema of Gastaldi’s period, or simply appreciates a good tale of people getting lost in the woods, pursued by something worse than a bear.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

In short: The Monster Club (1981)

Horror author R. Chetwynd-Hayes (disappointingly not Chetwynd-Hayes himself, but at least he’s played by John Carradine) offers a an ailing stranger (Vincent Price) whatever he may need. Turns out the guy’s a vampire called Eramus, who is very thankful for the spontaneous blood donation. He does leave the man alive, though. Because Eramus is a big fan of the writer and feels he owes him something, he takes him to a club visited exclusively by monsters. Between bouts of painful comedy and full musical New Wave-y numbers, the writer gets told three stories.

But, unlike with other horror anthology movies, I’m not going to talk about them in any detail, for if you inflict these lame ducks of stories on yourself, you do at least deserve to get a pained surprise out of them. Which is pretty much the best you can hope for, for the film wastes the considerable talents of many of the people involved in it very efficiently.

The Monster Club is sometimes treated as the last of the Amicus horror anthologies but since it isn’t an actual Amicus production, I find it better to treat it as some sort of sad epilogue made after the fact that pretty clearly suggests the time of the somewhat gentle horror anthology in the Amicus style was over when this was made. That it had to be some of the old Amicus talent – producer Milton Subotsky, director Roy Ward Baker, various actors – doing another Chetwynd-Hayes anthology to deliver this unwanted proof is rather sad.

In this context, I can’t even bring myself to make jokes about the film’s numerous failings – which still makes me funnier than the film’s jokes are – but let’s at least list some of them. There’s the terrible inclusion of the musical numbers in what feels like a desperate attempt at selling a soundtrack album nobody asked for that has no point, fits Ward Baker’s generally old-fashioned direction style not at all, and sucks the bits of interest out of the film the tediously told stories themselves couldn’t quite destroy. The film also shows a terrible fascination with the worst part of Chetwynd-Hayes as a writer: charting the various ways in which monsters might mate and giving the products idiotic names, categorizing things that can only suffer from too much categorization, as if the man were his own August Derleth. Even for someone like me who does enjoy a bit of hokeyness in his horror, this is just too much.

The actors are mostly wasted; the mugging contest between Carradine and Price is theoretically the film’s best feature, but the writing’s so terrible (script by Edward and Valeria Abraham), even the indefatigable Price seems to barely contain embarrassed giggles.

Well, at least somebody got some laughs out of this.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

The Appointment (1981)

After an intro sequence in which a twelve year old girl hears strange, mocking voices in the woods and is suddenly dragged away, never to be seen again, the film comes to a point in time three years later.

The family of Ian (Edward Woodward), Dianna (Jane Merrow) and their fourteen year old daughter Joanne (Samantha Weysom) seem in a happy place. They are rich and apparently happy, Joanne going to a private/public (please delete the appropriate word depending on the country you live in) school where she is groomed as a budding star violinist.

There’s something not quite typical in the relationship between Ian and Joanne, though, for there’s some very Freudian thing going on concerning Joanne’s budding womanhood, the closeness between the two, and Ian’s clear inability, perhaps unwillingness, to build useful emotional borders. So it is not a complete surprise that Joanne takes news that Ian won’t be able to come to a concert that is inordinately important to her the next day because he has to drive a day or so to an important judicial hearing, very badly indeed.

Joanne’s mood – or is it perhaps something else? - seems to infect the house’s other inhabitants that night. Both Ian and Dianne have strange dreams about cars and travels, and some rather more symbolic things, all of which are imbued with an air of dread. Alas, they do not meet in the morning before Ian has to go on his road trip, so they can’t realize the most disturbing thing about these dreams: that they have both been dreaming the same dreams.

Needless to say, Ian’s trip is not going to go terribly well.

If ever I saw a horror movie not made for every horror fan, this one, directed as well as written by the mysterious Lindsey C. Vickers, is it. It’s not just that The Appointment is a slow film, very fond of visual symbolism, it’s how much it insists on staying ambiguous and letting the audience figure out their own version of what’s going on by interpretation and an act (well, rather a lot of acts) of filling in the blanks, while still having a clear idea of its own what’s going on in it. Seen in the wrong mood, or by someone who just doesn’t like films working exclusively via hints and moods – really, it’s as if this were a case of Slow Horror come thirty years too early – this would be properly infuriating stuff, as obnoxious and annoying as a YouTube personality to me (I’m showing my age here, sorry, YouTube personalities).

If you have a general appreciation for this sort of thing, though, The Appointment might very well be your new favourite secret gem. At first, the film is built to keep even a sympathetic viewer pretty unsure about what they are actually watching here: the Freudian family business is certainly easily enough parsable, but what does that have to do with the film’s intro, or with the camera’s tendency to linger unnervingly on certain quotidian details, either loading them with meaning in the process or hinting on some hidden or future importance. Yet slowly, things come together, the film’s stylistic choices, be they visually, on the acting side (well, Weysom isn’t actually good at all, but her approach is so weird it fits the film perfectly), or a score that wavers between dramatic somewhat modernist classical and sporadic synth noises, not exactly explaining the film but giving the impression of the viewer being in the hand of filmmakers who know what they are doing very well indeed.

For me, the film reaches a near magical intensity in the long scenes of Ian’s and Dianne’s very bad night, full of shots of the camera slowly gliding over sleeping faces while nothing outwardly happens, intercut with dreams full of symbols and things that could be symbols but feel like premonitions of the most dreadful kind. After this night, the film keeps up its quiet intensity without ever letting up. Simple sentences, movements and gestures seem – and indeed are – loaded with hidden, second meanings, and there’s a feeling of doom and dread running through proceedings until the end. An end that also shows how good Vickers is at portraying things that aren’t metaphorically loaded anymore but have actual physical impact.

The final scenes also suggest that we have indeed been watching something of folk horror film, the black dog motive (and some of its folkloric meaning), the suggested idea of terrible kind of sympathetic magic, and the importance of a patch of woods all resonating with that particular genre. 

Saturday, October 3, 2020

In short: A Game of Death (1945)

Famous hunter and writer Don Rainsford (John Loder) finds himself stranded on an island belonging to passionate hunter and fan Erich Kreiger (Edgar Barrier). Curiously enough, there are a couple of other survivors from a different shipwreck there, too, the Trowbridge siblings Ellen (Audrey Long) and Robert (Russell Wade). The former seems to harbour some terrible suspicions about what their host is up to; the latter is too drunk to notice, one supposes.

Indeed, there’s something very wrong going on here, for Kreiger has prepared his island for maximum shipwreck efficiency in the classic wreckers tradition, so he can later hunt the survivors (who must by his logic be the fittest, following his very badly mangled understanding of Darwin) down for sport.

If you’re an innocent soul and believe the pointless remake to be a product of out times, you will be surprised to hear that this is RKO’s pointless remake (or second adaptation of the story that film was based on) of The Most Dangerous Game. Though it was at least made at a time when not nearly every film ever made that didn’t go up in smoke was available somewhere, somehow for anyone to see.

Despite having been directed by the great Robert Wise, this is certainly not at all on the level of his best work, nor of the original film. Too often, the film lacks in visual imagination, apart from a couple of the kind of moody shots Wise probably couldn’t not include in anything he filmed. Why, even his terrible Star Trek movie at the end of his career has its moments. But I digress.

In the good old tradition of the pointless remake as a genre, there’s very little here that actually changes the older film for the better or the more interesting. A couple of nuances shift to better fit the politics of the time, so the mad hunter isn’t a Russian but a German anymore (which would probably have played even better two or three years earlier), Ellen has slightly more to do, and so on. But mostly, this is a film that seems to be tailor-made to have its audience wish for the earlier, better movie with its much larger spirit and focus. 

Friday, October 2, 2020

Past Misdeeds: The Crone (2013)

This is a re-run with only the slightest of edits, so please don’t ask me what the heck I was thinking when I wrote any given entry into this section.

Original title: Kosoku baba

The two less popular members of the idol group Jersey Girls, Nanami and Mayuko, hate their group’s very own star (if you want to use that word in the kind of bottom-feeder entertainment world these girls are working in) Ayane with a degree of passion - at the very least enough to let out their hatred in the kind of physical "pranks" that can't be described as friendly anymore.

As if this weren't unpleasant enough, the newest episode of their TV show sees the girls visiting an empty, supposedly haunted, nursing home. Alas, the haunting is more than just a supposed one, and soon Ayane, who was the first to enter the building, is plagued by the titular crone, a ghost that doesn't just delight in a lot of fast skittering but also brings with her the dubious pleasures of decay, age, and physical abuse. Even though Ayane is the first to suffer, the curious curse eventually reaches out for all three of the girls, as well as to their handler and the show's director. More ghostly skittering and physical ickiness abound.

Idol-culture based horror has become a bit of a thing in Japanese low budget horror in the last couple of years, and it's easy to see why: a production can hire idols instead of “real” actors, which probably comes quite a bit cheaper, it can latch onto whatever fan base said idols possess, and when in doubt, nobody involved has to do too much acting.

Surprisingly enough, the idol actresses involved in this part of another attempt to re-light the J-horror fire, Honoka Miki, Shiori Kitayama and Kaoru Goto, aren't playing themselves, and are giving perfectly decent performances, not only when it comes to screaming but also in the slightly heightened awkwardness of the idoling (that's the verb, right?) they bring to the movie. That's all you can ask of young women in their late teens with little actual acting experience, and really all The Crone needs; it even gives one hope for a future for these actresses as actresses.

While The Crone is clearly a very cheap production - just look at the Crone make-up to realize how cheap - made in very limited shooting time, director and scriptwriter Eisuke Naito does some interesting things with what he has to work with. This is a film where all the different, and increasingly freaky, ways the supernatural shows itself are actually connected to plot and theme, with nothing happening that isn't textual or subtextual part of the horrors of the helplessness of the aged, physical abuse and decay. In this context, making the film's protagonists idols, living symbols of an unhealthy obsession with youth and physical perfection if ever there were one, seems particularly clever, not just because the girls are logical figures of hate for the film's specific ghost but also, the film seems to suggest, because the kind of objectification inherent in idol culture is entwined with the hatred for the old and their physical imperfections like a Siamese twin.

Naito's film is really surprisingly resonant in this way, demonstrating a willingness to be a bit deeper than your typical cheap spook-fest usually shows, as well as suggesting a director possessing an ability to actually see his ideas through to the end. There's a good sense for contemporary anxieties underlying the proceedings, perhaps even a bit of absolutely appropriate hysteria, which is more than I can say about much praised films like The Conjuring that never seem interested in anything but the shocks without ever having an idea what the shocks are supposed to be there for.

The Crone's comparative intellectual depth is helpful in other regards, too, for as a mere horror show, the film isn't quite as effective as you'd wish for, or rather, it is professional and often imaginative when it comes to its supernatural affairs, but it is seldom scary, nor does it induce the kind of breathlessness an audience should sometimes feel in an effective horror film. I'm not sure the film is even trying to scare its audience as much as it wants to transport it into a world of increasing strangeness while keeping inside the lines of the themes it has chosen. More often than not, The Crone succeeded with this for me, in part certainly because I expected rather something more in the vein of the last two direct-to-DVD Ju-on movies, or of whatever the last Ring movie was supposed to be. While Naito's film doesn't necessarily succeed in all it sets out to do, there's a lot to say for a film and a director who at the very least seem to care about what they are doing.

I also found the film's moments of body horror quite effective, scenes clearly more in the tradition of the grotesque that runs through a lot of Japanese art than in that of David Cronenberg, and all the stronger for it (sorry, Mr Cronenberg).

Visually, the film is shot in a style closer to Japanese horror of the late 90s and early 2000s with a limited colour scheme that is neither based on blue nor on yellow, and a look that can't quite hide its low budget but which does suggest actual thought has been put into things like composition, blocking, and camera work that isn't plain boring. You could call it retro, or you could call it an attempt to shoot a film not looking like a reality TV show; I'd certainly go for the latter.

Having said all this, I probably need to emphasise that The Crone isn't the kind of film that will resonate with everyone as much as it does with me, for make no mistake, while all the rather delightful subtext is in there, this still is a very basic, very cheap piece of low budget horror in plot and structure. It just smuggles quite a bit of contraband into your brain if you let it.

Thursday, October 1, 2020

In short: Darkness Visible (2019)

Like every year, the best month of the year (even this year) is going to be all horror all of the time around here, replacing the “all horror two thirds of the time” normalcy. So let’s get to it.

Artist Ronnie (Jez Deol) has grown up in London, raised by his single mom after she left her native India following the kind of issues with her family that leave a woman never wanting to speak with any member of said family again. Ronnie’s an artist, though he usually prefers buildings to canvas. One night, he falls into something of a trance state, creating a piece suggestive of an India he knows about as much about as any English person whose parents weren’t from there initially. When he shows it to his mother, she reacts disturbed, but doesn’t really tell him why.

Perhaps half a day later, a cousin from Kolkata contacts Ronnie through his mother’s cell to tell him that his mother was run over by a car there and is now in a coma. A completely flabbergasted Ronnie flies off to India, where he will find rather a lot of truths he’d better not have learned, become a suspect in a serial killer case, and find his worldview shattered.

Neil Biswas’s Darkness Rising is an interesting first feature-length effort, nearly always atmospheric, and often incisive and telling when it comes to small details that’s let down by a script (by Biswas himself and Ben Hervey) that somewhat loses control in a final act that’s praying much too heavily on the altar of the Gods of the Plot Twist. It’s another one of those affairs where certain twists make quite a few earlier scenes in the movie pointless and illogical, like a bad retcon in a superhero universe. Though, to be fair, Biswas still manages to end on something of a high note of a downer ending that does make sense with the things we’ve learned before, and seems fitting, if not terribly deserved for a character who is the poster child for bad things happening to perfectly alright people.

Until the final act, there are a couple of too convenient moments in the plot, but nothing that Biswas’s direction can’t gloss over very nicely. On the more important front of creating a mood of slight doom and inducing much confused estrangement in our protagonist, the film’s golden, though, the director using Ronnie’s position as a stranger to India by culture even though everyone looking at him sees him as Indian by heritage to turn the world around him strange too, without exoticising India in an awkward way.

In fact, the small details of scenes of Ronnie relating to his newly met family and elements of Indian culture are very important to the effect of the film’s supernatural elements, something that feels like lived experience grounding the stranger elements.

It’s a grounding that’s a great fit for a film that, at its core, seems be about the horror of heritage, not just the heritage people ascribe to one, or the elements of it one chooses to take on or to reject, but those things nobody has control over; perhaps those things one realizes one really rather wouldn’t have learned about in the first place. Home’s not always what it’s cracked up to be.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Plunder of the Sun (1953)

American insurance man (that’s what he says, anyway) Al Colby (Glenn Ford) has somehow found himself stranded in Havana, Cuba, running short on funds for anything but alcohol. So, despite knowing better and playing hard to get, he agrees to be hired by a shady guy in wheelchair named Thomas Berrien (Francis L. Sullivan) who travels with his own private nurse Anna Luz (Patricia Medina) for a bit of smuggling. Colby’s supposed to transport a small package to Mexico. Said package turns out to contain three manuscript pages pointing the way to the lost treasures of the Zapotecs, so not surprisingly, there are rather a lot of characters much shadier than Berrien or Colby after it. Ana Luz isn’t terribly trustworthy either.

Once Berrien inevitably dies, it’s Colby who has to deal with all of them, for he decides that his deal with Berrien has expired through the man’s death, and it’s his choice what’s going to happen with the loot now.

John Farrow’s Plunder of the Sun is a pretty great little movie, freely mixing elements of the noir with those of the (post-)colonialist adventure movie but giving some surprising twists to various genre tropes.

Take as an example the two female characters in the film, Ana Luz and self-declared “tramp” Julie Barnes (Diana Lynn). In most films from the 50s, one of them would be the classical good girl, the other either the femme fatal helping Colby on his way to an inevitable doom for her own gain or the damaged girl dying for him and releasing him into the good girl’s arm. Here, both women lie to Colby and betray him to a degree, but both of them also eventually join with him for more than their personal gain, both having complicated motivations not exclusively centred around the film’s protagonist. Julie, who – badly – uses a desperate kind of sexuality to get what she wants certainly follows the standard femme fatale mode more closely, yet the film argues that this is an assumed role she has to free herself from to become an actual person, and even lets her do this without feeling the need to kill her as some form of punishment. And in Luz’s case, most of her morally dubious acts spring from a feeling of obligation to someone else, the sort of honourable motivation for bad deeds usually reserved for men in this kind of film. In the end, she’ll end up as Colby’s romantic partner as well his future partner in adventure, this being the rare film of its time where a happy end doesn’t mean domesticity. And the hero riding into the sunset with a Mexican (well, as played by someone of British and Spanish decent) woman isn’t exactly the sort of thing common in 50s cinema.

Colby himself is an interesting variation on the noir and hardboiled adventure protagonist, too. Ruthless to the point of cruelty like the genres demand, he also has a heavy moral streak, trying to bully Julie into cleaning up her act out of what feels like a combination of embarrassment (she’s really not terribly good at being a bad girl) and human concern expressed through the rude trappings of 50s manhood, and going through the whole film of adventure, violence and betrayal for monetary gain, but following his own moral rules doing so. So he doesn’t want to sell the treasure illegally or really get the money the various other shady interest groups offer him but is exclusively aiming to get the reward money the Mexican government would pay for the archaeological finds he hopes to make through the manuscripts. Again, treating the local government as the rightful owners of archaeological finds is not a line of thought found often in films about white guys looking for the treasure of brown or black people (hell, even museums and archaeologists in the real world didn’t), yet the film uses it so matter of factly as it were.

Apart from these interesting elements, Plunder of the Sun is simply a very fine example of its genres, Farrow getting as much of the grim noir mood out of sun-drenched ruins in Mexico as he does of nightly shadows; but then, what’s more noir than pre-Invasion Mesoamerican religious practices (apart from Spanish conquistadors, of course)? Farrow certainly knows how to build a suspense scene out of these elements, too.

As a whole, this is a wonderfully economical film, packing a noir-complicated plot, half a dozen three-dimensional characters (most of them rather memorable) and a couple of dubious lectures about the Zapotecs, as well as a more than decent amount of scenes of Glenn Ford getting hit in the head, into eighty minutes. I wouldn’t know what more to ask of a movie.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

In short: Northern Pursuit (1943)

After an overcomplicated set-up for it all in a first act that never seems to even want to end, Mountie Steve Wagner (Errol Flynn) attempts to go undercover with – Bavarian, going by the predominant accents - Nazis who have some sort of dastardly plan in the Northern wilds of Canada. Alas, the Nazis – specifically their especially evil leader Hugo von Keller (Helmut Dantine) - don’t believe the way too convenient series of betrayals our hero and his bosses have created to lure them, and secure his cooperation in getting them through the wilderness alive by taking his fiancé Laura McBain (Julie Bishop) hostage. But he’s still played by Errol Flynn, so…

Apparently, William Faulkner did some uncredited writing work on this one, even if it is rather hard to imagine and even more difficult to notice. Going by what ended up on screen, the film must have gone through the 40s version of production hell, leading to a sometimes painfully uneven script whose first act set-ups feel strained and contrived and will become completely unnecessary rather sooner than later anyway.

The film markedly improves once Flynn and the comic book Nazis (this is not a complaint) get together in the great white north, director Raoul Walsh creating tensions between the various grades of evil of the Nazis and their helpers, the way they use a couple of First Nation people whose male part actually believes the lovers of Aryan purity will treat his people better than the Canadians do (who were, don’t get me wrong, treating his people horribly indeed), and Wagner’s attempts at somehow thwarting the Nazis while protecting - pleasantly plucky – Laura’s life. And kudos to a film from ‘43 for at least hinting at the possibility someone might collaborate with the Nazis because he’s treated badly by their enemies.

Walsh, while clearly, not working at his full powers of imagination but very much in hired hand mode, does still create some nice action set-pieces in the final act, with a genuinely dangerous looking ski chase and some climactic business in an airplane alone worth the price of entry. Flynn’s charming and manly without being macho, the Nazis are evil, the character actors do their stuff – there’s really very little to complain here beyond the bad spy movie first act, if you take the film for what it is.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

The Grey Fox (1982)

After more than three decades in prison, gentlemanly – even the Pinkertons said so! – stage coach robber Bill Miner (Richard Farnsworth) is released right into the new Twentieth Century. There aren’t any more stage coaches to rob, so Bill tries his best to live the straight life from now on. It just seems to be that the civilian life is a bit of a sham that leaves some important part of Bill – something nearly mythical looking for freedom on his own terms - unsatisfied. However, a viewing of The Great Train Robbery (which seems to miss the film’s timeline for a couple of years, but what the heck) inspires Bill, so he goes off to Canada to become the country’s first train robber. He’s still polite and really not in the business of killing anyone, but his first attempt goes wrong thanks to less than great partner material.

Turns out, picking up a random weirdo alcoholic Shorty (Wayne Robson) works out better eventually. Most of the film takes place after that pair’s biggish first score, when they lie low as miners supposedly working for Bill’s old acquaintance Jack Budd (Ken Pogue). During this time Bill does start to appreciate the quiet life, also thanks to his finding love with feminist leftist photographer Kate (Jackie Burroughs), with a spirit as free and as opposed to societal rules as how one is supposed to live one’s as his own. The police and the Pinkertons (boo-hiss), are still on his trail, so the peaceful life after the criminal career might be just a pipe dream.

Phillip Borsos’s The Grey Fox is a very fine film, framing Bill’s restless nature as a form of romanticism circling around unexpressed ideas of freedom and independence with a certain, also unexpressed in words, somewhat self-destructive streak, like a less lethal case of one of those artists who believe that they need to suffer for their art and do their best to create their own suffering, or a revolutionary who hasn’t yet grown bitter and cynical.

Bitterness and cynicism seem to be completely inimical to the man’s nature, Bill treating everything and everyone with politeness, interest, and some kind of glint or twinkle (depending on the situation) in his eye, the epitome of the movie bandit who can’t stop his robbing because he doesn’t quite want to grow up; at least not in the same way as most everyone around him tells him to. Which is why his romance with Kate is so fitting, for she, in her own different way, has also rejected what society demands of a grown-up of her age and gender, never marrying, having her own business, hoping and fighting for change in the world for the better against hope.

Borsos doesn’t seem terribly interested in the film’s plot as anything more than a reason for his characters to move, taking a leisurely, sometimes companionably humorous, stroll with Bill through his surroundings until the inevitable end that doesn’t turn out to be quite as inevitable. On the way, we circle around never quite expressed – because they are better demonstrated less abstractly -  ideas of freedom, responsibility, community and friendship, and see some beautifully photographed landscapes, without things ever becoming idyllic. The film sees and shows various injustices of early 20th Century Canada, presenting people like Bill, Kate, or even the local policeman Fernie (Timothy Webber), whom Bill befriends, as a quiet hope for ways out of misery.

Apart from its director’s eye for very pretty shots, as well as the very specific evocation of a time and place, the film lives on some wonderful performances. Farnsworth plays the part with the twinkling eyes of a man who has decided not to take on the parts of manhood he dislikes and keeps a little of the boy alive in himself, but also projects the melancholia of a man out of time, making Bill understandable and personable even though he never truly explains himself. The rest of the cast follow suit, giving the tale a warmth completely divorced from the kitsch it could easily have descended into.

For if The Grey Fox proves anything, it’s that you can evoke human warmth without falling into kitsch.

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Three Films Make A Post: They Beat Him, Shot Him, Framed Him For Murder-But They Couldn't Stop Him From Busting The BLACK OAK CONSPIRACY

Black Oak Conspiracy (1977): Well, really, it isn’t – as usual – as exciting as the tagline promises. Rather, this is a very middle of the road example of hicksploitation, avoiding the weirdness of the more interesting films in the genre, or politics of any kind. In combination with the pretty low exploitational values the film has in the sex and violence stakes, this gives the whole affair a pretty bland feel, despite a perfectly okay lead in Jesse Vint (playing a guy who calls himself Jingo Johnson, so there’s that, at least), perfectly decent direction by Bob Kelljan, a perfectly decent script, and whatever else you can give that sort of adjective.

It’s just not a terribly exciting film.

Mørke aka Murk (2005): This Danish thriller by Jannik Johansen about a man (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) who begins to believe the widower (Nicolas Bro) of his sister might be a serial marrier and killer of handicapped women with a suicidal past is very much a thriller in the French mould a la Chabrol. So it moves very slowly indeed, taking the utmost interest in drawing a complicated character portrait of its protagonist, but eventually coming up to a suspense finale that’s highly engaging and dramatic exactly because the film has put so much care and thought into the work of creating its central characters. Ambiguities about suicidal ideations, the various forms of guilt in survivors, the bereft, and the terminally sad abound, but the film’s darkness never quite becomes hopeless, suggesting ways out of all kinds of misery without having to stretch into the unbelievable.

The Alien Girl aka Chuzhaya (2010): This Russian crime movie with more than just a small neo-noir influence directed by Anton Bormatov on the other hand does have a pretty nasty streak, avoiding not a tiniest bit of the shittiness of character you’ll probably find in real world gangsters but still making a viewer care at least a little about these clearly doomed fools by also not denying them the softer and more human parts everybody will inevitably have. The film also does a couple of interesting things with Natalya Romanycheva’s femme fatale, giving her more ambiguity as usual while also making her just as doomed as everyone around her, suggesting a world where everyone is corrupt, corrupts others, and so can’t help but end badly, for even the wins you achieve by betrayal are only very temporary.

Friday, September 25, 2020

Past Misdeeds: Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (2012)

aka Universal Soldier IV

This is a re-run with only the slightest of edits, so please don’t ask me what the heck I was thinking when I wrote any given entry into this section.

Even after the positive buzz by people whose opinions I respect, I did expect this new addition to the Universal Soldier franchise to be at best a decent bit of cheap-o US action cinema with one or two hints that director John Hyams has seen Apocalypse Now in it. However, what I actually got was so much more.

This is another movie with themes quite close to the spirit of Philip K. Dick. One should probably wish filmmakers to be inspired by more contemporary SF too, but then I'm already happy when filmmakers read anything at all. It's an amnesiac's (Scott Adkins, stuntman/martial artist turned actually rather good actor) attempt to understand why a certain Luc Devereaux (Jean-Claude Van Damme at his most disquieting) brutally murdered his wife and kid during a home invasion, and his subsequent quest to take vengeance. This rather typical plotline is permanently enhanced and deconstructed by twists, turns, and ideas concerning the nature of our hero, free will, the uses of memory, and the killing of fathers/gods, all told in a visual style that reminded me most of Beyond the Black Rainbow and Driver (films this one does actually see eye to eye with) in the way it suggests wrongness and disturbed subjectivity with every colour and framing choice.

The whole film has the feel of a paranoid's nightmare full of bleak colours, grimy instead of adrenaline-pushing violence, and a feeling of claustrophobia - all not exactly things you'd expect in an US action movie belonging to a mildly successful franchise that generally always avoided to actually delve into the thematic mire of conspiracy theory and identity horror its basic ideas are so ideally suited to. Reckoning, on the other hand, delves in without ever looking back, pulling the part of its audience willing to go into nasty and confusing places with it, and leaving the kind of people who need to have the plot explained to them afterwards behind on the IMDB where they belong.

It's not only Hyams's ambition to go where Universal Soldier hasn't gone before I admire here, it's that he actually fulfils it, making one of the most off-beat and unexpectedly disturbing action films with a side-line in existential horror I've ever seen.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

In short: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1959)

Czech puppet animation pioneer Jirí Trnka’s free adaptation of William Shakespeare’s play (if anyone should need the plot to this one, please make your way across the Internet to various deposits of literature free of that pesky copyright) is the sort of film that leaves me in two very different minds.

On one hand, this is an aesthetic masterpiece, with some beautifully crafted puppets full of exquisite detail, moving in a light and delicate manner through backgrounds of inspired – and again exquisitely and meaningfully detailed – artistry. The film is also directed with much more taste and art than just going for filming what would amount to stages (as would have been much more typical in this style of animation at the time), providing life and further elegant movement via the camera, bringing everything to poetic life. A life also bathed in astonishing colours, Trnka clearly understanding use and meaning of colour to create an unreal mood.

It is all utterly beautiful to look at, showing so much grace and style the film’s main problem (aka the other hand) seems nearly preposterous. You see, while the English language version seems to feature dialogue, the Czech language print I saw replaces the words of that totally obscure and barely literate Shakespeare guy with an off-screen narrator who never stops telling what the film shows. Seriously, it’s such a bizarre decision, I can’t help but think the film would have been better off with having neither dialogue nor that narrator. Anyone interested in the film knows the material anyway, and if you as an artist are dead set against using the words of Shakespeare (or rather his Czech translators), you might as well be consequent.

How much the loss of Shakespeare’s words in this Shakespeare adaptation will bother any given viewer is of course, as it always is, a matter of taste – there are after all more than enough films using them which still don’t amount to much. I found myself mostly flabbergasted by the decision, spending nearly as much time wondering about it as I did entranced by the beautiful pictures.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

World Gone Wild (1988)

 Fifty years after a nuclear war meant the end of the world as we knew it, what is left of it is suffering from the fact that all survivors are apparently either murderously crazy or total goofballs. Oh, and there’s no water anywhere, either.

Well, apart from a little place of car wrecks and a gas station turned into homes known as Lost Wells, where weirdo hippie Ethan (Bruce Dern) benevolently nods off taking mushrooms – he can murder you with a hubcap or a golf club if need be though – and the – perhaps last – schoolteacher Angie (Catherine Mary Stewart) teaches the wisdom of the four books the place has available. That idyll is rudely disturbed by the murder cult – based on the wisdom of Charles Manson, also taken from a book - of one Derek (Adam Ant), who kills a bunch of people and kidnaps those of the young and capable he can gets his hands on, with the promise to return soon enough.

Ethan has clearly seen one of the Magnificent Seven movies (this film’s too American to suggest Kurosawa), so off he and Angie go to the big bad city to hire themselves some guns. After a couple of misadventures, they get together a gang of Ethan’s old pupil George (Michael Paré), a cannibal with a thing for poisonous and venomous animals (Anthony James), the mandatory black guy in a leotard(?) who also happens to be really good at dual-wielding assault rifles (Julius Carry III), a pretty alcoholic cowardly sharpshooter who can’t really shoot (Rick Podell) and leather asshole Hank (Alan Autry). You know how the rest of the film is going to go, though, for a change, a surprising amount of these goons will survive.

If you didn’t know you needed a post-apocalyptic western with a pretty weird sense of humour in your life, your encounter with Lee H. Katzin’s World Gone Wild may surprise you.

Tonally, it’s a weird one, traumatized children, attempted rape, and an off-screen castration not usually sitting next to Bruce Dern goofing off as a post-apocalyptic weirdo, pop culture references and reworked western tropes. Katzin somehow manages to keep things tasteful enough to actually make the movie feel fun rather than unpleasant, mostly because he seems to understand that you can have a lot of divergent elements in your film if you know which ones to mix in any given scene and which one to keep apart. So there’s no joking about the truly grim elements of the film – murder is obviously fair game for jokes, because nobody, me included, cares – and the off-beat and pretty dark humour hits when you do indeed feel like laughing, or at least not feel like a horrible human being for doing so.

It helps that the film’s jokes are not original but genuinely funny, this future having turned into a place where elements of the past are regularly misinterpreted or used in absurd ways. Otherwise, the script clearly has quite a bit of fun with pushing western tropes against post-apocalyptic tropes, characters, situations and worldviews from different genres often mixing in interesting ways. Though, naturally, the morally more upright western usually wins out here in the end. And from time to time, the film’s even doing somewhat surprising things, like killing off the big bad through a character and in a way that’s atypical for both of its main source genres, and also shows a good appreciation of Hendrix doing Star-Spangled Banner.

While the characters are obviously paper thin clichés and walking talking tropes, the actors fill them with a lot of charm and a sense of fun (well, Ant’s creepy instead, but that’s only right and proper), providing just the right amount of goofiness to not make the film too ridiculous too care about. It’s still, pretty ridiculous, though, but in a companionable and pleasantly off-kilter way I found myself charmed by instead of annoyed. And from a guy who generally shies away from media that don’t take themselves seriously (because why should I waste my time with them, then?), that’s a big compliment indeed.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

In short: Armstrong (2017)

Her first night as an EMT does turn out even more difficult than Lauren (Vicky Jeudy) expected. Not only does she have to battle through her troubles as a recovering addict in a stressful situation and has been given the bitter, unsympathetic Eddie (Jason Antoon) as her partner, there are rather less normal troubles ahead of her, too.

On their way to an explosion, Lauren and Eddie nearly run over a man we will soon enough learn to be called Armstrong (Shawn Parsons). Armstrong’s wounded, drifting in and out of consciousness and outfitted with a huge, awkward looking bionic arm. As a matter of fact, Armstrong’s fighting an underground war against a well-organized death cult (with its own paramilitary organization, even!) out to cause the end of the world via earthquakes. Just detonate some nukes over the appropriate fault lines in Los Angeles, and the world is apparently going to end. Armstrong’s gotta know, for he was once one of them.

With the alternative being murdered by said death cult, the EMTs – well, mostly Lauren – find themselves joining in Armstrong’s fight.

Kerry Carlock’s and Nicholas Lund-Ulrich’s Armstrong is a surprisingly decent attempt at making a low budget superhero movie, using no pre-existing comics characters but telling a perfectly fitting low scale but not low rent superhero tale. Despite being a low budget film, this was made by people with copious experience in other roles in film production, so there’s always at least a high degree of professionalism on display. Particularly Lund-Ulrich’s experience with effects work is visible on screen whenever we actually get to see some of the action, and makes things pleasantly convincing (even though Armstrong’s strong arm – groan – looks like plastic).

More often than not, the film stays with the EMTs when Armstrong goes out doing his action hero thing, the filmmakers clearly preferring to have a handful of effects scenes that are great to look at to a dozen unconvincing ones.

Plus, while these characters aren’t exactly new to a genre movie audience as types, spending time with Lauren and Eddie isn’t a bad thing, the script (by the directors and Nick Rufca) grounding their characters in mostly believable problems, capably assisted by actors – particularly Jeudy - willing to put an effort in even when in a small-scale genre film like this.

Seen as a whole, Armstrong is a film obviously made by people clearly very conscious of what they can do on their budget and what not, shifting the narrative perspective in the affordable direction while still hitting the most important street level superhero beats effectively. The ending’s terribly cheesy, of course, but it also does the film’s main character (who isn’t its titular character) justice in a way appropriate to the film’s genre.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Night Visitor (1989)

High school student Billy (Derek Rydall), notorious teenage liar and budding voyeur, is in regular trouble with his teachers for his tardiness and his really very badly constructed and told lies. It’s all harmless teenage stuff, mind you, though Billy’s very uptight history teacher Mr Willard (Alan Garfield) would probably disagree there.

One night, while Billy is watching his new sexy next door neighbour, and prostitute, Lisa (Shannon Tweed) – who sort of encouraged him in this in a very classic type of male teen wishfulfilment in the movies – through the telescope (as you do), he realizes he isn’t watching some kinky sex stuff but rather, that her client, a man wearing robes and mask, has just murdered her. Billy tries to come to the rescue too late, yet still gets into a scuffle with the killer, who loses his mask. It is – gasp! – Mr Willard.

Mr Willard, the audience will learn via some adorable scenes of the domesticity of the crazed evil, and Billy will surmise from facts he’ll snoop out, does live a double life together with his even more insane child-like brother Stanley (Michael J. Pollard), murdering prostitutes and sometimes locking one up in the cellar for play and later ritual murder. Not surprisingly, the two are not just crazy Satanists but also raving misogynists who call their victims “furniture”, like incels born too early.

When Billy tries to convince the police, namely one Captain Crane (Richard Roundtree) and his partner, of the identity of the killer, he gets nowhere. Once poking the nose into a guy’s living room and hearing that a kid makes up lame excuses in school is apparently enough to make an actual investigation unnecessary. So it’s up to Billy and his best friend/soon girlfriend Kelly (Teresa Vander Woude) to catch themselves some Satanists. Which is very difficult indeed, since the Willards know very well what’s going on.

Eventually, Billy will at least be able to talk an old friend of his father’s, the eccentric retired policeman Ron Devereaux (Elliott Gould) into helping in the Satanist-busting project.

Clearly inspired by Fright Night but too individual to become a total rip-off of that much costlier film, Rupert Hitzig’s horror comedy Night Visitor is a nice surprise, the sort of thing you stumble upon when you think you’ve seen every decent horror flick of a given period, custom-made to teach you, in the good tradition of certain Greek philosophers, how little you really know.

Now, I don’t want to oversell the affair: this is a regional horror movie made on limited funds and typical constraints when it comes to the number of sets and locations it can put on screen, but Hitzig is a good enough director to make the most out of what he’s got. While he’s no visual poet, he does know well how to construct basic suspense scenes; from time to time, the film even hits on a genuinely unnerving moment or two. Particularly the scene in which Willard threatens Billy while they are alone in the class room, with Garfield looming behind a hysterical Billy, making threatening gestures until he cuts off two locks of the kid’s luscious 80s hair (which will not be important later on, for the Satanism here doesn’t actually seem to work), is pretty great, and not only because Garfield seems to get a giant kick out of hamming his character up to just the perfect degree. Hitzig really manages to put the power dynamic between the two into action here. There’s also a genuinely disturbing moment between the generally very silly Stanley and the newest victim in the killer duo’s basement, despite the film not going very far in the blood or the sex area.

There is, not surprisingly, much more silliness than actually horrific content in the film, but most of the silly business is very entertaining indeed. Who wouldn’t want to watch a weird Satanic killer brother couple played by these particular actors bicker like kids about murder and Satan? It’s highly entertaining business, Garfield finding the perfect point where he can ham it up extravagantly in the films weirder or sillier moments but still makes a credible threat when it comes to the more serious elements of the film. He, as well as the other more experienced cast members, also do quite a bit to make Rydall look better than he actually is, providing him with the role of the default straight man versus the craziness of the world that really helps play over his weaknesses as an actor. The whole aspect of a kid and his friends against the world also makes the character of Billy much more likeable than he should by all rights be, leaving a theoretically immensely obnoxious guy as a kid simply deserving a break from time to time.


Last but not least, there is, of course, the short but wonderful appearance of Elliott Gould as the film’s Roddy McDowall (which might be one of the weirdest sentences ever written), who is doing exactly what you think Gould will do in this kind of role – making a handful of highly eccentric acting choices that come together not into a mockery of his cheapish surroundings as it would in lesser hands, but add up to a character perfectly fitting the rest of the movie, adding another layer of joy to a surprisingly joyful enterprise of a film.