Sunday, November 30, 2008

In short: Blood Castle (1970)

(Il Castello Dalle Porte Di Fuoco, as the film is originally titled, should not be confused with Blood Castle made in 1972 or the other Blood Castle made another year later, nor of course with Castle of Blood.)

Ivanna Rakowsky (Erna Schürer) comes to a small town in Eastern Europe to work for Janos Dalmar (Carlos Quiney), the local Baron. The townsfolk are not pleased with their Baron. They believe he and his hounds are responsible for a series of murders of young women. It would sound a lot like the usual babbling of superstitious peasants, if not for the rather problematic fact that each of the young women had an affair with Janos before her demise.

When Ivanna arrives at the castle to take her new position as a chemist, she steps into a Gothic soap opera. Her employer is at times charming and soft, at other times abrasive, while the household's chief servant Olga (Cristiana Galloni) is homicidally jealous; the maid Cristiana (Agostina Belli) is also in love with the Baron.

Given this heated atmosphere, I wasn't at all surprised to learn that Ivanna is to help Janos continue his recently deceased brother's research into "matter regeneration". The baron seems to think that successful research could even be used to revive his brother, whose body rests in a bubbling fluid in the lab.

It does not take long for Ivanna to fall in love with the completely irresistible Janos, overlooking little problems like the murders, or the locked part of the castle nobody is allowed to enter, or that she spent her first night in the castle naked and bound to a rack while someone lovingly fondled her body and admonished her to stay pure.

What oh what might just be the secret of it all?


Blood Castle certainly isn't one of the better Italian Gothics (can I blame the Spanish influence into the production?). One problem is the pedestrian and terribly unoriginal script - although the last third of the film has some amusing Freudian elements; another one a direction seriously lacking in flair. Director Jose Luis Merino was one of those typical Spanish and Italian (he worked in both countries) filmmakers who had to dabble in each genre a little, without achieving much of artistic merit or entertainment value. Still, it is surprising to find a film taking just about every cliche there is in the Gothic handbook (and adding lots of mild nakedness), but stealing none of the genre's visual trademarks. Were the coloured lights and the fog machine broken?

Yet having said this, I must still admit I had a certain amount of fun watching Blood Castle. There was always another cliche to mark on the checklist, while the last third threw around some gloriously bad ideas a better director could have used to produce a more than decent film.


Saturday, November 29, 2008

Purana Mandir (1984)

Curses! The Singh family could tell you about curses, if the head of their family wouldn't be so damn stuck up. Their troubles began when one of the their ancestors, a thakur (those are always trouble one way or the other) helped track down a nearly demonic sorcerer, rapist, child-murderer, grave-robber and corpse-eater (we are unfortunately not told what he thinks about kittens) named Saamri (Ajay Agarwal). It's not a big surprise that the good thakur knew only one answer to this charming list of crimes: death by beheading. Saamri didn't have much appreciation for capital punishment and cursed the Singh family terribly: each woman of the family, be she part of it by blood or by marriage, will die as soon as she gives birth to her first child until one day Saamri himself shall rise and end the Singh family line forever.

The thakur was less than amused. But he had a theory: If he put the demon's head into a chest hidden in his palace and put Shiva's trident on top, and hid his body at the local temple, there would surely be no resurrection. Pro-tip: If the local priest tells you that burning is the preferrable method to get rid of the remains, listen to him. Those guys not only know Cure Serious Wounds spells, but are also experts in demon recycling.

Alas, the thakur went with his method and so helped perpetuate the curse.

In modern times, Suman Singh (Arti Gupta, dressed in the most astonishing combinations of 80s headwear I ever had the misfortune to behold) wants to marry her supremely creepy, leering stalker-boyfriend Sanjay (Mohnish Bahl, let's not talk about him any further), but her dad (Pradeep Kumar) is strictly against it. (And honestly, I wouldn't blame him for it even without the curse.)

The young lovers think it's the class difference between them that lets Daddy sic his red waiter uniforms wearing henchmen on Sanjay. In truth, the old man has seen what the curse did to his wife, but is for some reason unwilling to tell anyone the truth.

There will be quite a bit of "Nahiiiiin" screaming and melodrama before he finally changes his mind and the young lovers decide on the solution to their problem: birth control. No, wait, that would be reasonable, so instead they pack Sanjay's friend Anand (Puneet Issar, mostly shirtless and mustachioed - I loved him) and his girlfriend into a red chevy impala and drive to the old palace to somehow solve the problem by having the friends act as if they are on holiday and Sanjay flirting with a local village girl - only to get information of course.

You can probably guess that this isn't the brightest idea, but if it leads to phenomena like moving eyes in a picture, giant bodyless ghostheads, headless ghost-bodies, Anand doing Chiba-fu when fighting against local tribals (who very much act like Hollywood Indians crossed with burning-torch-mob villagers), another chase between a coach and a car and finally the resurrection of Saamri himself, I am not going to complain.


I watched Purana Mandir thanks to the magic of the Internet together with Beth of Beth loves Bollywood whose review of the film you shouldn't miss. In contrast to Beth, I prefer Bandh Darwaza, the other film by the glorious Ramsay Brothers on Mondo Macabro's Bollywood Horror Collection Vol. 1 (and where, dear Mondo Macabro, is volume 2?) over it, but both films are very close in spirit. That starts with the similar monster make-up and does not end with the unfair chase scene. The biggest differences between the two films are Purana Mandir's ill-conceived comic relief sub-plot with Jagdeep and (poor) Rajendranath that stops the film dead in his tracks with a disturbingly unfunny riff on Sholay and The Good, The Bad And The Ugly and the fact that it stops for a breather a little too often.

Fortunately, the film is still a very fine piece of breathless Bollywood pulp horror with many elements to recommend it.

There are for example the nice, blue-green-red lighted locations and sets that look very much as if Mario Bava's less talented but very enthusiastic Indian twin brother had designed them. I would not want to live in a palace this foggy.

Or the musical numbers that are usually not all that well picturized but feature unforgettable sights like a belly-dancing disco aztec princess or the least seductive dance of seduction this side of Bandh Darwaza.

Speaking of the musical numbers, the best of them comes at the least expected moment. The locals are going to sacrifice our heroes to appease Saamri, the poor darlings are already bound and the knives are at their throats, when the tribals suddenly break out into the most carefree and chipper song and dance number imaginable. There is even torch juggling! I really can't conceive of what the Ramsays thought there, but it's definitely one of the supreme moments of psychotronic film I have had the pleasure to witness.

And how could I not mention my new personal hero Anand again, another proof of the mustachio theory of manliness? Not only does he help his friend Sanjay selflessly, he is also one of the greatest ass-kickers of India, his fighting style a combination of Bruce Lee and Sonny Chiba's breathing in Street Fighter. He even does the two-fingered eye-poke!

Is it any wonder that his girlfriend dreams up a dubious but hilarious nearly-sex scene when she watches him work out!?

Now add to all this Saamri's favorite killing technique - staring really hard at his opponent until the victim's eyes turn white and start to bleed (clear shades of Lucio Fulci here) and a silly but fun final fight that throws logic out of the window for a nice little burning and trident stabbing and you have a recipe for good clean fun with a deep moral message about the necessity to burn undead abominations dead.

The Ramsay's direction style is raw (some would say primitive) and direct. Subtlety is not one of their strengths, even for Bollywood film makers, yet the film achieves what it sets out to do by mercilessly pummeling the viewer with classical masala elements, pulp action and the pulp version of gothic horror (see the steadicam of evil!), leaving me breathless with happy giggling. Problems only appear when the film slows down a little - especially the middle part has some real moments of drag, which are fortunately forgotten as soon as Anand pummels someone again.

It is truly difficult to understand how I could live without films like this for so long.


Habit (1997)

Sam (Larry Fessenden) is going through a hard time: His father first disappeared, then died, he is a borderline alcoholic and his girlfriend Liza (Heather Woodbury) has left him for a kind of trial separation.

When he meets Anna (Meredith Snaider) at a Halloween party it is lust on first sight. Anna likes to be mysterious. She does not talk much about her past nor her present. Actually, there is not much she and Sam do talk about. Instead they have sex.

Which would certainly a nice thing for Sam, if not for Anna's special kink: she bites Sam and sucks his blood. At first this just feeds Sam's obsession with Anna even more, but when his health and his grip on reality slowly deteriorate and his friends start to look at him funny, he gets strange ideas about this lover who hates garlic, does not eat and is never around during daylight.

The problem with obsessions is that it is hard to get rid of them.


Larry Fessenden is an interesting case. A true independent filmmaker with a very personal style and very individual themes, he has made his home inside the horror genre while using the aesthetics of independent filmmaking that have come down from John Cassavates. As it goes with artists who trade in bastardized forms, Fessenden tends to sit between the chairs. He's too much of a horror filmer for parts of the art house crowd and too much of an art house director for some horror fans. He does not seem to care much, though.

Habit is a kind of remake of a film he made fifteen years earlier, made basically with the same core cast. I'd like to compare the two films, but I haven't seen the earlier version, so I'll just go with the theory that Fessenden must have had a reason to film it again.

Fessenden's decision to play the lead role himself suggests an auto-biographic reading of the film's story about addiction, obsession and self-destruction (and it seemed quite obvious to me that Anna is exactly what Sam is looking for - his own special way of an easy way out).

I wouldn't be impressed if the vampirism in the film only worked as a metaphor - a trap art house directors using non-realist elements step into all too often - but the supernatural here is metaphor and fictional reality at once, making for a fascinating and balanced way to look at a very imbalanced life.

Visually, Habit is a beautiful example of the classic hand-camera and guerilla location shooting style, which is a very effective way to give everything a semblance of reality.

Hyper-realism is a style the acting goes for too. This and the 1982 version are the only movie acting credits for most of the actors (with Fessenden himself as a big exception), yet a certain amateurishness in the performances just helps to keep up the film's mood. Well, if you ignore Aaron Beall whose reading of Sam's best friend Nick is false all the way through.

What is most fascinating about the film for me is something completely different though. It is Fessenden's eye for the little gestures of his characters that makes the film more than a nice little distraction, as well as the story he does not tell, yet that is barely visible in the cracks and crevices of what we are shown.


Friday, November 28, 2008

Conqueror of Atlantis (1965)

Hercules (Kirk Morris, this time dubbed into Heracles, which makes sense) is the victim of a shipwreck. Fortunate as he is, he washes up on a desert beach, right in front of beautiful princess Virna (Luciana Gilli). Obviously she can't take her eyes off the mostly naked male beauty before her and promptly falls in love with Herc as does he with her - at least as much as he is able to, having by my count had about 123 girlfriends before her. It doesn't seem to matter much anyway. She has to get to her father's camp, while Hercules should better trot into the other direction. All the longing glances let the two forget things like giving Hercules water and food to help him survive a walk through the desert, but don't fear for him. This is the kind of desert people routinely cross in broad daylight without water or shelter, as we'll see throughout the rest of the film. After Virna and her entourage are already gone, our hero finds a ring belonging to the princess lying in the sand, so he starts to wander through the desert after her caravan. He finds a group of nomads under attack by bandits instead. Being Hercules, he of course helps the nomads fight off their attackers.

His new friends take him to their leader Karr (Andrea Scotti) and after some male bonding procedures no tent can survive (damn, is there a homoerotic subtext here!?) the two become fast friends.

Another bandit attack, during which Herc shows a surprising amount of tactical acumen, and Karr tells the sad tale of his peace-loving people, who are regularly attacked by the men of evil nomad king Assour (Mahmoud El-Sabbaa). Assour is of course Virna's father.

Hercules (after showing un-American insight into the uselessness of torture) promises Karr that he'll take care of Assour.

A visit to Assour is rather fruitful - his attacks are revenge for supposed raids by Karr, raids that only leave dead bodies and stolen gold in their wake.

When Assour, Karr and Hercules finally understand that this is just a plan by a different enemy to keep them separated, said enemy attacks. If Assour and Karr had just talked with each other before. Or had sent each other messages...

The true enemy of the desert people are the Atlanteans, the last survivors of Atlantis, now residing in an underground city on top of a volcano.

The Atlanteans are in dire need of a queen and Virna looks fit enough for the job, so they kidnap her. Hercules and Karr pursue them and stumble into a Flash Gordon serial: The golden skinned men in the blue rompers who kidnapped Virna aren't exactly Atlanteans. They are instead the reanimated and gold-plated corpses of asphyxiated desert nomads, whom the only surviving male Atlantean Ramir (Piero Lulli), obviously the twin brother of Ming the Merciless, uses as mindless slaves.

The Atlanteans have a problem, you see: They are immortal, yet there aren't many of them left - besides Ramir, there is only the queen and barely a dozen female "warriors" with psychedelically coloured whigs. Personally, I wouldn't try to solve my population problem by kidnapping another queen, but what do I know about things like that.

Many (or competent) they are not, but they have great plans. They want to build an army of Golden Phantoms (the official name of the gold-skinned guys) to CONQUER THE WORLD!

A devious plan that would probably succeed if not for Hercules. Or Ramir's hobby to show prisoners around his lab and explain his fantastic contraptions, like a blaster (which Hercules will later put to good use), a machine that robs people of their will or gives it back again (which Hercules will later put to good use) and a machine that regulates the gas streams of the volcano (which Hercules will later - you get the gist).

Before the movie is over the excited viewer will experience many things, including: Feats of strength! Men fighting golden phantoms with the large iron ball and chains that they use like bolas! The explosive truth about cities build over volcanoes! The fact that Atlanteans lose their immortality when they fall in love (because it's forbidden and they get shot afterwards)! Daring escapes! A cackling mad scientist! And more!


Young Alfonso Brescia doesn't disappoint. As we all should know, Brescia would later go on to film a few mad and/or dadaist SF films and invent the SF porn genre and has a big place in my heart as one of the great holy fools of cinema.

At the point in his career when he made Conqueror of Atlantis he seems to have been still rather sane. Someone with my lowered expectations regarding logic can't help but call the plot here sensible, even logical, as if Brescia had actually tried to make a film that does make a certain amount of sense. Well, if you are able to overlook a few pesky things, like the dubious intelligence of the bad guys, or the bizarre nature of their culture or their plans, but really, who cares about those things when there is a wonderful lab to look at, and women wearing, um, things and undead cyborgs with golden skin dressed like toddlers and soldiers who use spears when they could use blasters. And so on and so on. Which is my longwinded way of saying that the script is absolutely awesome in its wrongheadedness and that the pulpy nonchalance with which it switches from peplum in the desert into Flash Gordon mode is a true joy to behold.

What else can I say about a Brescia film I have not already said elsewhere? The editing is either grotesquely inept or brilliant: There are important transitions missing and everything seems to move just outside the normal way time and space work. There are actors, some of them even seem to have an idea what they are supposed to be doing. Kirk Morris makes a fine Flash Hercules, even if the does not let him throw any pillars around and Piero Lulli knows what's important when playing an evil genius: Ranting, cackling and ominously staring into the camera.

Conqueror of Atlantis is a fine film when you want to relive some of the beauties of classic serials, or if you want to start your education in the works of maestro Brescia, but don't want to dive into the headier stuff at once. Or if you want to have an exceedingly fun time.


Yeah, meme, but no


via dfordoom



Thursday, November 27, 2008

American brethren! Merry Small-Pox Blanket Day to you all!

This should be the traditional film for this day's merriment (warning: not for the weak of stomach or the stomach stuffed full of turkey):


Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Dr. Zovek & Blue Demon en La Invasion De Los Muertos (1973)

A meteorite crashes down somewhere in Mexico! No! This isn't a meteorite! It's a spherical thingy from outer space that makes sizzling noises!

A father daughter/pair of not clearer defined scientists goes to investigate some old ruins in the mountains and/or the crashed thingy. Since this is a Mexican film, they'll need the help of an expert. Alas, no luchador is available, so they rope in Doctor (as the titles say) or Professor (as the dialogue and Internet sources say) Zovek, a famous escape artist who is also a proficient martial artist and expert in mystical prophecies. Also, he's really good at running away.

The last talent will be of invaluable help in the future, when the sphere turns the dead into zombies, who do kid-friendly (no gut-munching, sorry) zombie things, like shambling, shambling and wrestling with people who don't run away fast enough. They also have a weird proclivity towards the stealing of cars and helicopters.

Fortunately, conflict-averse Zovek isn't the only hero on the case. Blue Demon himself sits in a cellar/secret lab and analyzes the situation for people we've never seen before and will never see again. In his time with Santo, Blue has not only learned amazing facts about UFOs and the dissection of corpses, but also that it is much better to let someone else do the heavy lifting and just sweep down in the last few minutes to grab the glory. This would be a great plan, if not for Zovek's amazing abilities. Oh, Blue also has his own "comical" side kick now and I gotta say, this man knows how treat them! If Blue isn't just treating the man as if he wasn't there, he tells him to shut up or (even better) to shut up or Blue himself will shut him up. Thank you, Blue!

When his appearance on the scene of the action can't be avoided any longer, Blue wrestles a big black guy and a wolfman. No, I don't know where those guys come from. At the same time Zovek kills the alien sphere with a conveniently located utility pole. The end.


This might just be the case of a film with a much more interesting background story than the thing itself is.

Zovek was a real life escape artist and somewhat of a star in Mexico at the time. After our old friends, Senores Cardonas junior and senior, had made the first film of a projected series of Santo-esque proportions, they at once started out on the next film with their new superstar, his complete lack of talent or charisma notwithstanding. Unfortunately he died after completing about half of a film (and this is half of a film by standards of the not necessarily filler free films of the Cardonasses). Obviously, no good cheapskate producer could let this much material go to waste, so they did the best thing that was financial possible. They engaged beloved luchador Blue Demon for about two days of shooting, the first one consisting of Blue Demon boring us to tears by talking, talking and talking in his lab like a living encyclopedia of useless knowledge, while the second gifted the film with a fight scene having nothing whatsoever to do with the rest of the film.

Or, let's be honest, what the regular watcher of late period lucha epics tends to call a film. See Zovek! See Zovek run! See Zovek climb! See Zovek look mystical (that is, rather constipated)! Also, see a few other people walk around! See zombies shamble!

Now I must admit I wasn't as bored as I make it sound. The casting of Blue Demon as scientific mastermind does have something and I must admit and one or two of the zombie scenes could be called atmospheric when you squint. Also, the film has zombies in it.

Highly recommended if you're like me and want some day be able to say: "I have seen all Mexican wrestler movies there are. Plus all Mexican escape artist movies, and the crossovers."


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

In short: ESPy (1974)

The Cold War world is balancing on the edge of destruction: Trouble is brewing in the small Eastern European country of Baltonia (lying right next to Latveria and not all that far from Qraq, I surmise). But don't fear, the UN is on the case! A peace conference is to begin shortly, its protection lying in the hands of a very special secret organization: ESPy, a collection of exceedingly stupid and incompetent people mostly from Japan. Mother Nature gave them psychic powers to make up for their lack of other abilities, though, so not all hope is lost.

Unfortunately, the cleverly named Brotherhood of Evil Mutants anti-ESPy under the leadership of Tomisaburo Wakayama himself is planning to eradicate humanity by causing World War III. It's so easy: They just have to murder the Prime Minister of Baltonia, which will inevitably throw the world into turmoil, even though both superpowers know that this is their plan! Wakayama-sensei, you're a genius!

Will the main agents of ESPy, Tamura (Hiroshi Fujioka, Kamen Raider himself), Miki (Masao Kusakari, bad actor, great dresser) and Maria (Yuki Kaoru, has breasts, gets kidnapped and hypnotized into a "sexy" dance with a Big Evil Black Man) and their psychic talents powered by LOVE (in Miki's and Maria's case for each other, in Tamura's the love between him and his hyper-intelligent dog Caesar) save the day?

Poor Jun Fukuda! Nobody loves his films (including me), but ESPy is nearly enough of a silly fun time to change one's mind. If not for far too many scenes of people moping and some giggleworthy melodrama, this would be a very recommended Japanese look at the Eurospy genre, with less women but more telekinetic duels.

Even in this state, one can have some fun with things like a tongue ripping by our racist main hero, the hypnotic earrings of doom, Tomisaburo Wakayama's fascinating technique of overacting without moving, Caesar the dog intellectual, explodo-guns, old masters coming back from the mountains, more death traps than in Shakal's lair and much more - all taking place in exotic locales like Swiss, Turkey and Paris-without-Eiffel-Tower, filmed exclusively on the cloudiest days of the year.

What's not to like?

Monday, November 24, 2008

Santo versus the Clones

Did you know that the great man with the silver mask starred after his death in a five part cartoon serial?

Me neither!

And Now the Screaming Starts has the scoop and the YouTube links.


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Sunday, November 23, 2008

Coroner Creek (1948)

A stagecoach is robbed by a group of renegade Apaches led by a mysterious white man (George Macready) who does not like witnesses a single bit. So he not only kills all the passengers, but later his gang as well.

Chris Denning (Randolph Scott), a man whose past we know nothing of and whose motives we'll learn just at the end of the movie, tries hard to track down the killer. His only clues are a spotty description and some assumptions about the habits of his prey which turn out to be exactly on the mark.

That's more than enough to keep someone with enough hatred going. After months, Denning finally finds his man. He now goes under the name of Younger Miles and has bought himself quite a position in the fine community of Coroner Creek as the owner of the biggest ranch in the area. Miles has also bought himself a trophy wife in Abbie (Barbara Reed) who is so unlucky in their marriage she has become an alcoholic and his own sheriff (Edgar Buchanan) - incidentally also Abbie's father.

Denning's not the man to just walk up to Miles and shoot him. The hatred has opened a rich vein of cruelty in a basically decent, even nice, man and he decides to first make Miles lose control before he seeks a direct confrontation. He finds a fine way to go about this without even looking for it - Della Harms (Sally Eilers), the owner of the other big ranch in Coroner Creek, and Miles are fighting a low-level war for control which Della is losing. Not surprising, since the female farm owner isn't a schemer without a conscience but a group of gunfighters like Miles.

She desperately needs a new foreman for her farm and Denning is just the man to do the job.

The path to Denning's vengeance is of course paved with the corpses of a lot of other people. Not even the love of hotel owner Kate Hardison (Margeruite Chapman, a competent, intelligent woman in a Western!) can convince Denning to just let the past and whatever Miles has done to him rest.


Coroner Creek is an excellent B-Western whose only real weakness lies in the direction of Ray Enright. It's not that Enright was a bad or sloppy director, he just was more of a craftsman than an artist and has to live with the comparison with someone like Budd Boetticher whose string of darkened films with Randolph Scott are some of the best the genre has to offer.

But I am a little unfair here - Enright might not have been visually inventive, yet it's obvious that he knew a good script and a good actor when he saw them and more or less kept out of their ways to let them do their thing.

And that they did. I shouldn't have to say much about Randolph Scott, seeing that the man was one of the most perfect Western actors on the face of the planet. His portrayal of Chris Denning is note perfect - he is at once a man capable of great compassion yet also capable of despicable cruelty. Scott is rather frightening in some scenes - the scene in which he breaks the trigger finger of one of Miles' goons who earlier did the same to him and the one in which he uses another one of them as a human shield against his boss (who of course shoots anyway) are moments you won't forget soon, if only for the intensity in Scott's gaze.

The rest of the actors does their job equally well putting to rest the bizarre notion of "Western equals bad acting" some people are still supposed to have. Macready's sociopath now gunning for social approval and Marguerite Chapman's woman who can take care of business (the film does not disapprove of this!) do especially fine work.

As the plot description already made clear, this is a rather less naive Western than some might be used to and quite progressive in its notion that vengeance and violence are not necessarily a good answer to violence, a film clearsighted enough to be interested in the effect justified hatred has on the person doing the hating. On the other hand, Kenneth Gamet's script isn't so cynical as to deny the existence of positive human traits as some Spaghetti Westerns would later do.

There is just the last fifteen seconds of the movie for the modern viewer to cope with, a so obvious "make the world all right again for the censor" ending that I can't help but imagine everybody behind the camera smirking cynically, rather like Clint Eastwood in Leone's Dollar trilogy.

If you are at all interested in the American Western in its (often more interesting) B-movie version, this is nearly as good a movie to start with as the films of Andre de Toth or Budd Boetticher.


Saturday, November 22, 2008

Revolver (1973)

Vito Cipriani (Oliver Reed), an ex-cop, is now working as the vice governor of a prison in Milan.

He has recently married Anna (Agostina Belli) and both are mentally still in their honeymoon period. So it is no surprise that it hits Cipriani hard when his wife is suddenly kidnapped. The kidnappers don't take long to make contact with him. Their proposition is simple, either Cipriani somehow makes the escape of the small time crook Milo Ruiz (Fabio Testi) possible, or Anna dies.

At first, Cipriani does his best to beat the identity of the man's secretive benefactors out of Ruiz, but the criminal is either an extremely good liar under duress (believe me, you do not want to kidnap Oliver Reed's wife) or just doesn't know who would want him freed.

Cipriani doesn't dare to go to the police without any clues to the identity of his wife's kidnappers, and so hasn't any other choice than help Ruiz escape.

The ex-cop is no fool - he hangs on to Ruiz as his only means to get his wife back. Unfortunately the kidnapper's aren't as professional as their boss would like them to be, or Cipriani's involvement in the affair would end here, with the criminal in their hands and Anna back home. Alas, they don't bring her.

Various action set pieces lead Cipriani and a rather relaxed Ruiz to France where both men must agree on a truce if they want to survive the affair they have stumbled into, an affair that turns out to be much more difficult and a lot more political than the men ever could have expected.


Revolver begins as a very tight cop movie with less time for self-righteous speeches and more sympathy for the criminals than usual. Just when you think you have it figured out as an extremely slick if not very original variation on typical buddy movie tropes, the film throws you a curveball and goes and turns itself into a pessimistic early 70s conspiracy thriller of the highest caliber. The ending of the film is frightening in its consequence - the best in people is just another angle to be used against them; there is no escape from the system, while even the price it pays you for selling out in the end turns out to be just another kind of lie.

Of course some nice bits of stunt-writing and a pessimistic view on society and human nature don't necessarily make for a good film. Fortunately, Revolver has a lot more to offer, for example a driving soundtrack by Ennio Morricone and very solid English dubbing with Oliver Reed doing his own voice work (and I wouldn't be surprised at all if he had rewritten some of his dialogue - you usually don't hear such sensible use of the word "fuck" in Italian dub-jobs; that Reed, he knew how to curse).

Sergio Sollima's direction is something of a revelation - I knew his qualities from his Spaghetti Westerns, but in my experience most Italian genre directors have two, at best three genres they are really good at (unless we are talking about people like Bianchi - that's more a case of having different degrees of suckitude in different genres), and there was just no guarantee of police movie/conspiracy thriller being one of Sollima's strong ones. I like to be wrong in cases like this.

Sollima does an incredible job of keeping the tempo of the film high, while at the same time moving effortlessly from the action to character moments in a way that should make most of the hacks in the action genre cry.

The main actors are also doing a terrific job. Naturally, Reed does his shouty bits and chews some scenery, but has his acting ticks well under control this time, turning himself into a bundle of spit, intensity, barely controlled violence and plain desperation. This kind of acting often brings the danger of just stomping over the other actors with it. Somehow, Testi holds his ground with a much more laid back portrayal of the rather sympathetic crook who in the end turns out to have a much stronger conviction to truth than Reed's man of the law.

This is as highly recommended as possible.


In short: Submission (1969)

What a nice pair Vicky (Jennifer Welles) and Barry (Gary Judis) are. She's a rather child-like/regressed submissive with a highly sexualized fixation on chocolate (see her crawl towards the beautiful, beautiful candy bar!) while he's a dominant sadist moonlighting as a rapist. Together they smuggle themselves into the households of older rich women to...well, you got me here. Be kinky? Steal their money? I certainly don't know. What I do know is that Vicky's not really happy with their arrangement any more since one of their little adventures ended with their victim's death.

Will their new endeavor be any more successful.


Submission (directed by Allen Savage, which does sound like a pseudonym to me) belongs on the artsy side of late 60s exploitation. The plot is of course mostly an excuse to show us lots and lots of softcore sex scenes, but it would be rather unfair to complain about them - most of them are rather erotic in their own weird ways, and none of them is boring. What plot there is nearly bursts with strange psychology and stranger kinks, all taken as seriously as possible.

The film did have a rather hypnotic effect on me, which I mostly ascribe to three elements: Firstly, the absolutely swell black and white photography that (if you are able to ignore a few moments of "hello cameraman" and a few bottoms of crew members where they don't belong) would be just as home in a less disreputable art house film.

Secondly, the artful interplay between the (improvised, I think) psychedelia soundtrack and the editing and camerawork that is as ambitious as it gets.

And thirdly, the solid to good acting without which the pairing of the weird (pray tell, which scenes are flashbacks and which ones fantasies?) with the obviously totally earnest would not be as wondrous as it is.

The word trippy does come to mind.


Friday, November 21, 2008

The magical web psychoanalyzing machine

also known as Typealyzer decrees that the writer of this blog belongs to the following personality type:

INTP - The Thinkers

The logical and analytical type. They are especially attuned to difficult creative and intellectual challenges and always look for something more complex to dig into. They are great at finding subtle connections between things and imagine far-reaching implications.
They enjoy working with complex things using a lot of concepts and imaginative models of reality. Since they are not very good at seeing and understanding the needs of other people, they might come across as arrogant, impatient and insensitive to people that need some time to understand what they are talking about.


The writer of this blog was not available for further comment, as he is much too busy thinking. Also, the people, he hatesss them, my precioussss.


(Via just about everyone)


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Thursday, November 20, 2008

In short: H.P. Lovecraft's The Dunwich Horror and Other Stories (2007)

One of the more frustrating aspects of the world of DVD publications is the strict unwillingness of Japanese distributors to put English subtitles onto their overprized disks. Because I am a sucker for understanding the films I watch, I mostly avoid these DVDs.

This I couldn't miss though: A claymation version of The Dunwich Horror, The Picture In The House and The Festival, directed by Ryo Shinagawa, with art by Shohei Yamashita and music by revered avantgarde and indie musician and producer Jim O'Rourke.

To my delight, the films stick close enough to Lovecraft's stories that the missing subtitles aren't much of a problem - at least not for those who know the originals. The films avoid dialogue most of the time. What explanations are needed are provided through off-screen monologue. Shinagawa trusts in the animation itself to provide most of what the viewer needs to know, though.

Talking about animation is a little misleading here as we are talking about clay-made puppets and dioramas that aren't moving much, if at all. The camera is the only element that really moves a lot.

Despite this lack of speed and movement, all three shorts are highly effective. Yamashita's design style with its crooked angles and asymmetrical faces is perfect for the mood of decay and wrongness the stories need; the lack of movement seems not so much the product of technical deficiencies as based in the dread of what effect movements could have.

The look of the brilliantly designed monsters makes this dread astonishingly real.

O'Rourke's soundtrack with its contemplative guitars and even harmonica is far away from typical horror film music, yet a keen sense of dynamic and subtle changes in tempo make it indispensable for the films' effect.

The whole venture captures a truly weird mood in a way one seldom experiences as a viewer. I even think the old gent himself would approve.


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Deadly Spawn (1983)

A meteorite crashes down to Earth somewhere in the US countryside. Two investigating campers have obviously never seen The Blob and are rather surprised when the meteorite-inhabiting alien monster they'd otherwise expected sees them as a rather enticing snack after a long journey.

Afterwards the thing crawls through the open basement window of a nearby family home. Basements are fine breeding grounds, so the monster develops into a whole family of monsters in the time of a few hours.

The creeping and crawling things have found a nearly perfect new home - there still are plenty of walking and talking snacks left, and when the alien family gets too large, the children can always go and crash a vegetarian party, which is defined as a party where only vegetarians are eaten.

Yet the house has a rather unfortunate flaw in the shape of Charles (Charles George Hildebrandt, son of the Tim Hildebrandt, who also produced), fan of monster movies and future special effects wizard and/or Una Bomber. Charles is the sort of young person who does not take kindly to someone eating his mother as well as the sort of young person who gets very creative when it comes to the punishment of such acts.


The Deadly Spawn was produced on a shoestring budget, with an amateur cast and crew and without the benefit of state of the art equipment. Usually films like this turn out like the terrible Direct-to-DVD abominations that are shambling through the world's video stores, always on the look-out for new viewer brains. Somehow director Douglas McKeown and his crew were able to avoid the pitfalls of crappy acting, a crappy script and crappy gore effects and produced a very fine labor of love.

Obviously, a film like this has its flaws: The acting is amateurish, but we are talking enthusiastic and talented amateurs who seem to love what they're doing here, not some dweebs the director lured in with the promise of a can of beer.

McKeown's direction is somewhat raw while still providing some inspired moments in the monster scenes.  It looks like the work of someone with a deep love of classic horror and science fiction films who was actually able to understand enough of the technical aspects of what he saw in them to put it to good use.

Even more impressive are the excellent monster and gore effects that don't have to fear the comparison with those in much more costly productions of their time.

Yet what is best about the movie is its aura of enthusiasm for and commitment to MAKING A REAL MONSTER MOVIE, as if this was the greatest thing a person could achieve (and I'm not sure I disagree with the sentiment). Despite the gore The Deadly Spawn also has an aura of innocence which keeps it even more in the same spirit as the classics.

Everything in it happens with a sense of fun and joy I can't help but find infectious.


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Sunday, November 16, 2008

Specters (1987)

The vagaries of archeology are a well-known theme of modern horror. Take the work of Professor Lasky (Donald Pleasance) as an example: Excavations in the catacomb system below Rome lead him to the exciting discovery of an up to this point undiscovered part of the necropolis. It seems to have been sealead off from the rest of the tunnels for some reason. Lasky thinks this tomb is part of the legend about bloodthirsty pagan deities that are resting inside of the catacombs, cut off from sustenance by their own former worshippers.

Might it be possible that Lasky's excavations are awakening an Ancient Evil? Well, to be fair, the Evil is already starting to make itself known before the Professor even unseals the tomb. Typical demonic manifestations like strange lights, fog, exploding champagne bottles and ghastly wind in closed spaces are breaking through from the underground, even costing a life or two. Especially Lasky's assistant Marcus (John Pepper) and his girlfriend singer/actress Alice (Trine Michelsen) are haunted by strange occurrences that start to seem rather minor when the thing down in the tomb starts to take corporeal form and slaughters the archeologists one by one.


Specters is a minor but fine Italian horror film that mostly works through mood and a very long built-up that turns out to be a lot more interesting and effective than the thing it is building up to.

The first hour is a nice enough example of some of the virtues that make Italian horror fun: A sense of rhythm, color and very neat sets, as well as a very appropriate disregard for those pesky things called coherence or logic. The final third of the film is less effective - for the gore hound it lacks in tempo and exploding guts, while the friend of more subtle charms will find the usual slaughter just a little bit boring. Until it comes to the obvious (and of course nonsensical) end, that is.

At that point the film has already earned itself a lot of slack through the atmospheric parts before, though, and it still has a few neat moments to offer. When was the last time you saw a film in which someone dies of looking evil in the eye(s)?

While lighting, camera work and synthie droning are of the highest Italian standard, the acting isn't much to talk about here. Most of the actors are there - no more and no less. Only Donald Pleasance gives an expectedly good performance; from time to time I could even talk myself into seeing psychological nuance in his character.

The devil suit is a rather dire looking thing - there is a reason why we are mostly seeing its hands and a lot of coloured fog when it appears.

All in all Specters is far from being a masterpiece, but as a friend of cheap and terrible films, one should be able to appreciate its finer points.


Arkham Tales

Weird Fiction web zines and web magazines are a rather problematic thing. Although you can always find some hidden story pearls, too often "inspired by" or "in the tradition of" the Weird Tale in truth means "bad pastiches of the works of far superior authors".

All the more surprised am I by the high quality standards of the new free PDF magazine Arkham Tales whose stories are clearly in the tradition of the classic Weird Tale, but are just as clearly based in respect for themes and methods of the classic writers of the Weird instead of slavish copying of all the worst aspects of their works.

I highly recommend going to the magazine's site and reading through it.


Saturday, November 15, 2008

Natas: The Reflection (1983)

In the wacky world of American local filmmaking (the guilty state this time: Arizona) not even someone like star reporter Steve (Randy Mulkey) is save from being laid off. Just as he is about to get his big breakthrough in proving the truth of a Native American myth, his editor fires him. The man lost his patience with Steve's obsession with a story that never seems to get written in spite of the reporter spending more than a year on it. (I have to say, some editors are more patient than others).

Persistent Steve is not taken aback too much: close as he is to the truth, not even the unwillingness of his puffy-haired girlfriend Terry (Pat Bolt) to tolerate his weird interests any longer is able to stop him. Really, if he can tolerate her hair, what's so bad about a little obsession about an immortal shaman (109 years old Nino Cochise, as he is billed) who is supposed to show the Chosen One the way to the tower of Natas (hello, Johnny Alucard!) where the devil imprisons the souls of the people who belong in limbo? The Chosen One's job is to prevent the horned one from keeping the souls for a full hundred years, because this would open the gates of hell and let the devil drag those souls down with him.

With the help of a scientist we'll never see again, Steve is able to locate the shaman Smohalla. Smohalla repeats the story of the tower again for us, in case we have forgotten it in the past five minutes, and shows the intrepid reporter the right way, not without giving him a defensive amulet and an oh-so-cryptic "riddle" Steve-o has a disturbingly hard time figuring out.

Off he goes on his Chosen Path and stumbles into a desert ghost town. Steve's not that perturbed when he finds the local saloon populated by flour-faced people in dusty western garb, even though they all speak with silly vocoder voices. He's only getting antsy when the so-called "ghost town zombies" (who are rather generic undead than zombies, whatever the film may say) put him into jail over the weekend to have a nice hanging on Monday.

Fortunately for our hero, the shaman (who is even more patient with the stupid than Steve's editor) comes to his rescue, magics the jail door open and even leaves him a nice magical mirror in the desert.

Steve returns home, with the mirror finally able to prove the truth of his story to Terry (whom I'd like to tell about a bridge I have for sale). She seems to be working in some kind of department for renting out useless killing fodder, so the next day she, Steve-the-not-very-bright and the fodder return to the ghost town to do who knows what.

After having some fun with letting lizards appear out of a can of peaches, Satan (Do you get the difficult riddle? Do you!? Well, then you are not the Chosen One!) decides to turn the movie into a very boring slasher and lets his undead minions loose on the fodder.


Oh Natas, why do you let me down? What begins as a silly, but entertaining fantasy film using local myth to create an off-kilter atmosphere gets terribly bogged down in all the bad slasher clichés in its middle part. Would you believe having sex is not a good idea in a film like this? Well, you wouldn't believe people wanting to have sex (or lying giggling on the ground) just after they found a dead friend either, so it does fit somewhat. What is most irritating about the slasher part of the film is how it wastes a perfectly good ghost town (and there aren't enough films taking place in ghost towns anyway) on some of the most useless excuses for suspense imaginable. That the "zombies" suddenly look like undead muppets instead of the weird shadows of the past they were before doesn't make this part of the film easier to take.

The ending suddenly turns into something as cheap but original as the beginning was, charming with a godawful devil costume and special effects of Godfrey Ho standard. I imagine at this point the less enduring (or stupid) part of the audience has already fallen asleep. I'm not sure if I envy them or not.


Thursday, November 13, 2008


houseinrlyeh's Dewey Decimal Section:
850 Italian, Romanian & related literatures
houseinrlyeh = 851959482558 = 851+959+482+558 = 2850

800 Literature

Literature, criticism, analysis of classic writing and mythology.

What it says about you:
You're a global, worldly person who wants to make a big impact with your actions. You have a lot to tell people and you're good at making unique observations about everyday experiences. You can notice and remember details that other people think aren't important.
Find your Dewey Decimal Section at



In short: The Legend of the Red Dragon (2006)

A yakuza group in Osaka has a problem it can't handle. A motorcycle helmet wearing, sword wielding serial killer slaughters its members left and right.

Had these guys seen more movies, they'd probably know that the seemingly mild mannered coffee shop waitress Yui (Yu Misaki) is the murderous sword master, taking vengeance for her murdered father.

Even Yui's love for a young yakuza can't change her mind.


As far as Japanese Direct To DVD action films go, this is a good one. Its budget was probably lower than the catering costs for a mainstream production and shooting on digital lets even the best production design look like crap, but this is certainly a more ambitious film than many of its kind.

Most characters get a few nice psychological flourishes, the plot is very traditional, but does make sense. Even direction and acting have moments of quality. I suspect quite a bit of respect for and knowledge of the yakuza films of the 70s in director Toru Ichikawa's background; the film's problems are of a budgetary nature, and that's the sort of problem I am always more than willing to ignore.


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

In short: Unholy (2007)

Hope (Siri Baruc), a seemingly happy young woman, commits suicide on her birthday right in front of her mother Martha (Adrienne Barbeau!).

Martha can neither accept nor understand her daughter's death. With the help of her son (Nicholas Brendon!, also involved as a producer) she begins to ask seek answers to her many questions. It doesn't need much probing until they find themselves stepping into tinfoil hat world, where a dead Nazi occult scientist working secretly for the US government (or is he?) tries to find the (and I quote the film) "Unholy Trinity" of time travel, invisibility and mind control, using people like her daughter for his experiments.

But now that she knows too much, whom can Martha trust anymore? Her neighbor? Her son? Herself?


Many people seem to have their problems with this film, some of them related to not understanding the plot, to which I can only say that this is not a problem caused by the film, but rather by the lack of certain qualities in the viewer. Others seem to think the movie's not all that believable.

I can relate to the latter problem, though I have found the method of dragging my unbelief out of bed, shooting it and then burying it in the cellar of my brain to work quite wonderfully against it.

After doing that, one suddenly finds a fine little low budget film with ambitions, clever ideas and an entertaining amount of weirdness.

The acting is especially interesting (and for once in a film like this quite good): while Barbeau and Brendon are playing their roles in a straight realist mode, the rest of the actors practices conscious overacting which amplifies the weirdness factor beautifully.

Once you ignore the plausibility question, the film's plot leads to a neat and consequent conclusion. All questions are answered, everything makes sense inside the rules the film has established - what more can you ask for?

Recommended to everyone who is not afraid to suspend poor old battered disbelief for some time and/or who likes conspiracy theories for their sheer madness rather than their supposed truth.


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Day of the Outlaw (1959)

The film takes place at the beginning of winter in the Old West, in a very small frontier town in Wyoming, right at the End of Trails (I think the mythical qualities of the snowy landscape warrant the use of a mythical term the film itself also uses, although probably without the capitalization). For years, the place has been dominated by the rancher Blaise Starrett (Robert Ryan, mixing the mythical dimensions of his character and the way it feels being an actual human being in an incredible performance), who is mainly responsible for the relative peace and stability in the region - he "cleaned" the place with his own gun, more or less.

But in the last year or two, farmers have begun to settle in the place, bringing with them a different notion of civilization and law as well as fences that make Starrett's life more difficult (and in his worldview presumably less free) than it used to be.

Matters aren't helped by the fact Starrett had an affair with Helen Crane (Tina Louise), the wife of the farmers' spokesman Hal Crane (Alan Marshall). She ended the affair and decided to stay with her husband, but seems to love both men, if in different ways. Starrett definitely still loves her and knows he can't have her as long as her husband is alive, giving him one more reason to want to see Crane dead, even if he never would admit this to himself.

Everybody knows that Crane hasn't got a chance in hell in a gunfight against Starrett. The showdown between the rivals comes unexpectedly fast. Or would come, if a gang of bandits wouldn't ride into town right when the shooting is about to start and turn the film into something quite different from what the beginning made me expect.

The bandits have no trouble in disarming the surprised townies - after all, the few armed men around (and the town is so small one has trouble calling it one) were lining up in the saloon to kill each other.

These bandits are of the unpleasant type that would later become dominant in the Spaghetti Western, sadistic maniacs who are more interested in the maiming and raping, but less in the pillaging part of their jobs. Still, they only plan on staying for a day to rest and find treatment for their leader "Captain" Bruhn (Burl Ives, in another great performance, seeming at once sympathetic and the cruel bastard who can keep the kind of men he employs in check), who was wounded in their last business excursion.

Bruhn knows very well that his men are maniacs and keeps them in line by pure force of will. Unfortunately he's so badly wounded the town's only doctor - a veterinarian - doesn't give him much time anymore.

What follows are some of the things you might expect, yet played out with the emphasis not on the moments and concepts you might expect. Starrett and Crane, for example, are not slowly growing to be friends, instead some very subtly done scenes between Starrett and Helen let him take a look at his motives for hating her husband so much and, as the film puts it "not liking what I see".

As already mentioned, much praise has to go to the actors who, while Ryan and Ives are especially impressive, all do some excellent work in showing their inner life more through small gestures than through dialogue.

It is of course quite possible that none of those gestures had made it into the film without director Andre De Toth, whose Western are products of a technically very proficient director without the kind of showoffishness that puts itself before the movie. Day of the Outlaw is a very strictly composed film, full of quiet and slow beauty and a passion that shows itself especially when not much seems to be happening on screen. There is a method to show the psychological dimension of occurrences through the rhythms of editing and the way the camera moves or sometimes doesn't move and De Toth seems to me to be one of this method's main protagonists in the Western movie, showing a confidence in his approach that leaves me in something like awe.

Over the whole running time, I didn't see anything on screen that wasn't supposed to be as I saw it. I don't use the word "perfection", unless I describe something as "perfectly awful", but Day of the Outlaw puts me on the brink of using it.


Sunday, November 9, 2008

Book Reports: Margo Lanagan, Black Juice

It seems like there are quite a lot of people in the contemporary SF & Fantasy scene who aren't willing to read even a single word of Young Adult literature. I can somewhat empathize: People have their dignity and reading books that are explicitly not marketed to oneself can seem kind of undignified. But if you ask me, then it is a lot more undignified to ignore books just because they were explicitly not written for or marketed to oneself. I'm a somewhat old-fashioned kind of guy, so the first question I ask myself when confronted with a book is not "Did the author write this for me?" but rather "Is it any good?".

Which leads me to Margo Lanagan's Black Juice, a YA story collection by the Australian author and (I think still) two-times World Fantasy Award winner that is more than just "good". The stories contain a few elements I have found to be typical of much of the YA I have read (which isn't that high a number): especially mostly young protagonists and a strong emphasis on the process of growing-up. In that sense, they aren't written for me, or weren't written for me if I believed the process of growing-up would actually end completely and had also lost all interest in what happens in other people's heads.

Fortunately I don't and I haven't, and so am rather nicely prepared to appreciate the finer qualities of Lanagan's writing. These aren't stories about how nice and friendly childhood and young adulthood are; Lanagan seems more interested in the sadness and the difficulties of life, without being so much in love with being dark that she ignores hope or love or the possibility of things actually getting better some day.

Most of the stories in the book are products of the sort of worldbuilding I admire the most - worldbuilding through suggestion, with trust in the reader's ability to think and understand. Lanagan mostly achieves an even more difficult goal: writing stories with fantastical elements that work equally well as metaphors and taken as "real" parts of the fictional world.

I'm quite awed by the language of the stories, perfectly believable voices whose sometimes slightly strange diction makes them come alive even more.

But what hits me most (and some of these stories really hit) is the rhythmic quality of the language, the way the words transport more than just their surface meaning. It's what is sometimes called art.


Saturday, November 8, 2008

In short: Curse of the Cannibal Confederates (1982)

Now this is a choice piece of crap. US regional filmmaking at its most frightening. You probably know what that means: No camera movement that I know of, "acting" that cries out for its own special kind of award (watch "Sarah" scream every single one of her lines; or "Kiyomi" whine each of hers) and plotting that would rather like to be called plodding are only the greatest of this film's many charms.

After forty-four minutes of six bickering nincompoops traipsing through a wood (they are on a hunting and camping trip, you see), the hunters and hunterettes are attacked by very dead confederate soldiers who are still pissed off about the civil war. Well, they were tortured to death by the evil union soldiers (yes, the film is from Maryland, why do you ask?), so they do have a point.

And are these zombies ever beautiful! Not only do their uniforms look, well, like bad Halloween costumes, they also show a puzzling love for wearing lumberjack shirts underneath. The horde also is very multi-zombie-racial: You've got your run of the mill mime make-up zombies, your cheap Halloween mask zombies and even a few "let's put some of this stuff from Mum's cupboard to good use" zombies, all working hand in hand to munch a few guts. The shamblers really need the teamwork, too. Seldom have I seen a group of living dead people that is worse at killing the living - effective biting doesn't seem to be their forte, which is not that surprising in the Halloween mask zombies who just can't move their mouths, but a little disconcerting coming from the others.

But when they finally kill some humans we're treated to an absolutely epic gut-munching scene. It goes on for ten? twenty? minutes and is full of the most interesting knowledge about human anatomy. I honestly didn't know I had so many fascinating things inside of me. Say, are those...sausages? Garlic? You should cook that stuff.

These zombies are also very, very loud when they're munching - some of their munch-sounds are absolutely priceless.

I nearly forgot to mention another interesting feature you'll see in these zombies: Explosive heads! There's none of that mere splattering of goop you know from other zombies. No, the beautiful creatures here have heads that are exploding just like firecrackers - one could even suspect there are firecrackers in barely head-like paper cones used to simulate exploding heads, but I'm sure that is merely a conspiracy theory I developed to conquer the traumata of my childhood.

So yeah, this is a treat.

In short: The Irrefutable Truth About Demons (2000)

Some day someone will make a good film about Black Magic in an urban environment (let's ignore The 7th Victim for the sake of the argument). This tale of an anthropologist and hobby debunker of religions (played badly by Karl Urban) whose soul is lusted after by a bunch of satanists who look like they have escaped from an Italian Mad Max rip-off unfortunately isn't that film. The acting's just too bad, the script too scrappy and illogical and the magic too badly developed and thought through (whatever became of the concept of research?) to make this more than ninety minutes of barely interesting trash.

There are a few better scenes in here, but I wouldn't have expected writer/director Glenn Standring to go on to make the rather excellent vampire/alternative history tale of Perfect Creature.

Just goes to show what I know.


Rather excellent

Former Sleater Kinney member Carrie Brownstein has been blogging for NPR for some time now, and her posts are usually well worth reading.

Her newest text is a perfect example of how I like my music writing. It also concerns my very favorite band.


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Sparrow (2008)

Kei (Simon Yam), Bo (Lam Ka Tung), Sak (Law Wing Cheong) and Mac (Kenneth Cheung) are a team of pickpockets in Hong Kong. They're not the kind of hardened squinting criminals one usually meets in the films I watch; they're rather modern and urban variations on the charming rogue archetype, getting by through dexterity and wit instead of violence.

If you ignore the bickering of people who spend way too much time with one another, the quartet leads a rather charmed life. Their carefreeness ends when a mysterious woman (Kelly Lin) "accidentally" encounters each of them, leaving the sort of impression one usually expresses through rather idiotic grinning.

Cynical people could think she is setting the gang up for some sort of trap. And she is, in a way, but not in the way you would expect.

To say more about the plot would be a cruel thing to do, so I'll just leave it at that.


Don't get me wrong: I may be very much in love with the films of Johnnie To, but I would never steep so low as to say he is unable to make a bad movie; perhaps even two. This is definitely not one of those, though. In fact, I'd call it one of To's best films, leading to the logical conclusion that Sparrow is one of the best films I know.

Sparrow is a comedy, at least if your definition of comedy does include films that are not made to make you laugh out loud, but rather to make you smile with joy, perhaps even a little glee; films that have a lightness in touch and outlook without ignoring the existence of darkness, instead letting the hoary old cliché about there being no light without darkness and so on and so on look downright deep.

Sparrow really does work some magic on the most cynical of hearts (mine) and it looks oh so very easy how it does this.

There's a sense of rhythm to every gliding movement of the camera and every step of the actors that - combined with the brilliant score by Fred Avril & Xavier Jamaux (who are also responsible for the soundtrack of To's Mad Detective) - nearly turns the film into a musical.

I expected Yam to suddenly break into song or slowly start to dance in more than one scene and could never shake the feeling that the film itself wanted to transform into a musical (or a bird) any minute now. A French musical to be more specific; a French musical made by a former Nouvelle Vague director to be even more specific. Or what the film calls a sparrow.

The acting is of course great. You should know most faces from many other of To's films, an ensemble of actors most directors should be jealous of.

Does the film have any flaws? I am honestly not sure. As an experience it left me kind of drunk, kind of exhilarated, both no states of mind useful for the search for errors, flaws, mistakes, pimples or rashes.

And you know what? I don't know many better things to say about a work of art than "I don't care if it has flaws.". It's a little like with people you love.


Friday, November 7, 2008

Buy a life!

Independent game/flash/comic artist Edmund McMillen sells a CD containing his whole artistic output of the last ten years for $10.

If I had the money right now, I'd run and buy it at once.

Skeptical? Look at the trailer!

Now go buy!


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Taken (2008)

Bryan (Liam Neeson) is a retired CIA covert operative now living in LA to get closer to his estranged daughter Kim (Maggie Grace; whose supposed to be seventeen is movie-magically looks a lot younger than in Lost) after years of ignoring her.

I guess this would be a lot easier if his job experience hadn't made him a bit paranoid. He's nearly freaking out when he hears that Kim (can it be a coincidence she shares the name of the useless-except-for-being-kidnapped character from 24?) is planning on travelling to that hotbed of danger, Baghdad Paris, but caves in after some time.

Of course our primitive continent turns out to be just as dangerous as the professional killer from the country with the much higher rate of violent crime prophesized and Kim and the friend she's travelling with are promptly kidnapped after their arrival. They are the victims of a not-very-bright gang of Albanian human traffickers that specializes in kidnapping foreign tourists in Paris and turning them into prostitutes. Kidnapping those young women who are going to be missed the most and can cause international pressure to be put on the local law enforcement has worked out perfectly fine for them, of course.

At least until Bryan arrives and turns Paris into his own private warzone. Neither the corrupt French authorities (I am rather surprised that this is actually a French film) nor lots and lots of thugs can stop him from getting his daughter back.


I wouldn't have expected Liam Neeson to be such a great action movie actor. It turns out he is the real secret weapon of the film and soon helped me forget the very stupid set-up for all the death and destruction. Neeson is of course not a martial artist, instead he's a real actor who is able to give Bryan a little more depth than the script provides, making him one of the more frightening anti-heroes of his type, all barely controlled rage and intensity and completely convincing violence.

Director Pierre Morel should be known through his excellent debut Banlieue 13. Taken isn't as grandly over the top intense and mad as the former film that turned the rather strange art of parcour into a perfect action movie base. This has nothing to do with Morel failing and a lot with Morel being able to make different movies in the same genre - an ability I wish more young directors had. Being less extreme doesn't make the action sequences here any less excellent than those in Banlieue 13, though. Morel goes for a different feel to the action here, something more gritty and theoretically realistic, which of course mostly means that the stunts and fights do look more like people hurting each other and less like dancing - as it should be in a movie with this type of storyline and such a remorseless "hero". Neeson (and his stunt doubles) seem to be game for anything that is thrown at them, giving everything a sheen of believability that is only further strengthened by the sort of old-fashioned sense of camera work and editing that shows more of the action than just a shaking camera.

So, if you like to see Liam Neeson playing something different or want to see a fine contemporary action film from Europe and are willing to suspend your disbelief for the first twenty minutes of a movie, I can highly recommend Taken to you.


Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Whistler (1944)

Earl Conrad (Richard Dix) has been suffering from a severe depression since his wife died in a maritime disaster. He feels so guilty for her death he just wants to die. Well, what better way to kill yourself can there be than hiring a professional killer to murder you?

Shortly after he has arranged the contract through a middleman, he learns that his wife isn't dead at all, but just in Japanese captivity and on her way to be shipped home. Conrad now desperately wants to live, but it's not that easy to call the hit off, for his middleman got himself shot by the police directly after the deal was perfect and the killer (J. Carrol Naish) is not of a very sound mind, either.


The Whistler is the first of six movies based on an Old Time Radio show. The titular character is just the narrator of the piece, although he still gets to do a little whistling.

It is also an early directorial work by William Castle, years before he perfected his matinee cinema formula. The film is another example that shows how underappreciated a director Castle was. His style lacks some of the more obvious flashiness other noir films showed, but Castle shows himself perfectly able to turn a rather pedestrian script and very bland work by his protagonist Richard Dix into a wonderfully effective little thriller. The rest of the cast (especially always dependable J. Carrol Naish as the psychotic killer) does a fine job to let the shady part of life during World War II come to life and the movie doesn't overstay its welcome with a running time of barely an hour.

Very much recommended to friends of suspense movies of the era.


In short: Last of the Badmen (1967)

The weirdly named Kitosch (George Hilton) works as a ranchhand for a certain Don Jaime (Eduardo Fajardo) on a farm close to the Mexican border. His real specialty aren't cows; he rather has a thing for married women. Don Jaime takes this mostly with good cheer and lots of lashings of Kitosch's backside. Kitosch himself seems to be perfectly alright with this kind of treatment. Things change when Don Jaime finds his whipping boy in a, well, let's say problematic situation with the Don's own wife (Pamela Tudor). This time the Don isn't quite as amused by Kitosch's antics, which are for once not what they look like, and decides that branding the cowboy's ass with his brand is a fitting penalty.

After this, Kitosch doesn't really want to stay on the ranch anymore (what a surprise). Alas Don Jaime doesn't take kindly to Kitosch's wish for a change of employer and does his worst to make the man stay.

After some minor cat and mouse games and severe beatings, Kitosch escapes, only to get arrested by the corrupt Sheriff of the next village.

There's a nice rope already waiting for him, when Black Tracy (Frank Wolff) - an infamous bandit and killer - comes to town and has his own little run-in with the Sheriff and his men during which Kitosch saves his life.

A sort of friendship develops between the men and soon both are robbing gold and taking revenge on some friends of Tracy's who once betrayed him.

The longer they are together, the more obvious it becomes (even to the somewhat slow Kitosch) that Tracy is a psychopath, a sadist and an epileptic (which Kitosch finds worse than his friends other problems). Even worse: Tracy is not what I would call a dependable friend.

It doesn't take long until the rather less bloodthirsty Kitosch and Tracy come to blows. In the end, only one of them can survive.


One shouldn't underestimate the ability of a typical Italian journeyman filmmaker like Nando Cicero to make a damn good film when the possibility shows itself.

His direction of Last of the Badmen certainly isn't flashy or all that creative, but he does quite a nice job in letting a well written script do its thing.

An added bonus are the fine performances of Hilton (who is a much more believable gunman than I had expected) and Wolff that really let the film become a fine exploration of moral shades of gray (of course one of the big themes of the Spaghetti Western).


Tuesday, November 4, 2008

In short: Blastfighter (1984)

Ex-cop Tiger (Michael Sopkiw) has just been released from jail. He was kept under lock and key for a slight case of vigilantism: Killing the man who killed a colleague in front of his eyes and then - when Tiger didn't back down - murdered his wife.

His last friend on the force greets Tiger with giving him a new experimental super shotgun (the kind that also shoots grenades) and admonishing him not to use it against the corrupt D.A. who was responsible for his sentence. Puzzled by this type of mixed signals, Tiger decides to retreat to his old backwoods home somewhere in Deliverance County, where great mock country plays on the soundtrack and the locals spend their time with the mass slaughter of animals - they export their victims to the Chinese medicinal market.

Leader of the pack is a certain Wally (Stefano Mignardo), a natural born psychopath and brother of Tiger's old friend/rival Tom (George Eastman). Tiger's taste for slaughter and violence has died down quite a lot over the years and soon Wally (whose taste for slaughter and violence is a big as is accent is fake) and Tiger lock horns. You really can't blame the ex-cop. He mostly just wants to be left alone; he just has a hard time tolerating people fucking with him.

When his daughter Connie (Valentina Forte) arrives to finally get to know a father she hasn't seen in eight years, things seem to take a turn for the better. Another attack by Wally even leads to Tiger backing down and promising Connie to go away to the big city with her.

Alas, Wally and friends don't really care, and after they kill Tiger's cop-friend, Connie's boyfriend and then Connie herself, Tiger gets kind of angry. And they shouldn't have made him angry.


Blastfighter is one of Lamberto Bava's better films and a small classic of Italian action cinema. What stands out in a very solid effort for me is not so much the action as the nice character work. Some of the writing surely is a bit cheesy, but the characters' psychology seems rather sound for a backwoods vengeance flick and the acting is surprisingly effective (if you can ignore the silly accents of the local yokels). Michael Sopkiw is especially good as the sullen loner whom he gives a big enough amount of warmth and humor to actually make you care about him. The scenes between him and Eastman and him and his daughter are giving the action a grounding more action films could use, making the inevitable carnage that much more interesting.