Monday, August 31, 2009

Music Monday: No Rock'n'Roll Fun Edition

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Sunday, August 30, 2009

Exterminators of the Year 3000 (1983)

We are in Post-Apocalyptica again. Judicious use of atom bombs has destroyed the ozone layer completely and turned the Earth into a dried-up wasteland where roaming bands of would-be punks called exterminators duke it out against each other. How fortunate for them that there's no lack of petrol.

One remnant of civilization still remains, though, in the form of a bunch of people living in caves and using their own private waterhole to help their greenhouse plants grow. But these people have troubles of their own. Their well will dry up any day now, leaving them ill prepared for survival.

At least they know where to find more water. Trouble is, the water source is hidden in the territory controlled by a gangleader called Crazy Bull (Fernando Bilbao), who isn't really someone you could start up diplomatic relations with or even meet without getting killed and probably eaten. Thus, the first man trying to reach the water hasn't returned yet. The cave dwellers decide to send out a second badly armed group to get the precious liquid, but a run in with Crazy Bull's men leaves only the child Tommy (Luca Venantini) and his pet hamster (presumably called Boo) alive.

So Tommy, in his annoying kenny-like way, decides to get to the water on his own. On his way, he falls in with the local more assholish semi-Mad Max, Alien (Robert Iannucci). Alien's not trustworthy at all, but at least he is an enemy of Crazy Bull, since he stole Bull's favorite super car, The Exterminator.

Not that Alien was able to keep the thing. He has learned the hard way that you shouldn't leave your car unlocked - not even in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

On their way to the water source, Tommy and Alien have various silly adventures and meet interesting people like the ex-astronaut/now mechanic Papillon (Luigi Pigozzi/Alan Collins hamming it up beautifully) and Alien's ex-girlfriend, the honest thief Trash (Alicia Moro).

Giuliano Carnimeo's Exterminators starts out with half an hour of nearly non-stop post-apocalyptic carnival car stunt driving and assorted fighting, and at that point contains already more of it than 90 percent of Italian Mad Max imitations. One would expect that the well of fun would then start to dry up (see what I did there?) and the rest of the film would consist of copious amounts of people stumbling through the desert while a synthesizer gently bleeps.

One would expect wrongly. Exterminators is one of the handful of films of its genre which know what to do when no cars are exploding, which is to say, it starts to throw silly pieces of whimsy at the viewer, not with the gesture of someone doing world building, but with the gentle, laconic enthusiasm of someone really getting into that pulp SF thing. The film isn't getting especially insane, instead, Carnimeo opts for charm and consciously used humor to present the ideas that are wildly stuffed into the script. Surprisingly enough, it works, and my inner twelve year old was having the time of his life with bionic arms, ex-astronauts and mutant guys in robes.

Technically, the film is mostly alright. Nobody would call Carnimeo a stylish director (I hope), but his no frills way of filming does fit the film's dry tone (oh my god, I did it again) rather nicely. The acting is mostly neutral, with dear old Pigozzi and Fernando Bilbao doing some fine overacting and everyone else mostly making shifty eyes and/or screaming nonsense (the script was co-written by Dardano Sacchetti, after all).

One last thing besides being a whole lot of fun that  Exterminators does right is the production design. Everything is either dusty and scavenged looking or delightfully retro-futuristic, most probably because most of the props and costumes were in fact scavenged from the sets of other films.

All in all, that's more than enough to make me happy.


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Saturday, August 29, 2009

In short: Gakidama (1985)

aka The Tastiest Flesh

aka Demon Within

A newspaper sends a writer and a photographer with a special talent for shooting the really weird stuff into the woods to get a picture of a will-o'-the-wisp reported to appear there. The thing actually does appears, obviously lured in by the tasty treats the two have hung into the trees to attract it. During the photo action, the thing transforms into a worm and stealthily sneaks into the writer's ear.

The next three months of his life, he doesn't do much more than to eat and eat, and then eat some more, until he falls into a comatose sleep from which he - to the shock of his wife - only awakes when a gremlin-esque creature (here called a "ghoul") escapes through his mouth. Fortunately a strange man with a face mask is there to catch the little beast; unfortunately he let's the bugger escape without telling the couple about it.

In the following weeks, the writer will learn that he has now developed an addiction to eating the (cooked) flesh of these ghouls and his wife will have to cope with a classic zuni doll situation which can only end in pregnancy.

"Oh those wacky Japanese etc etc" are words that of course do apply here, as they do all too often where my movie watching politics are concerned. Apart from this - what we call "the obvious" - Gakidama is 54 minutes packed full of weird, blackly comical fun, with some slightly gross moments and more off-kilter ideas than most of us could use up in a two hour film.

That the photography is very nice and the main monster is a charming latex muppet seems somehow beside the point when you're talking about a short film that has the bizarre exuberance of a Kazuo Umezu manga, but there you go: the film's photography is in fact quite excellent and the muppet cute in a very toothy way.

It's all cobbled together from disparate elements most friends of genre films will recognize without my help, yet its Frankensteinian construction has a beauty all of its own. Just don't ask for explanations or a logic that isn't emotional and (at least partly) thematic. You won't get any, because the film has already jumped to the next idea, without looking back. And why shouldn't it?


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Friday, August 28, 2009

On WTF: Mirageman (2007)

Who says you need Hollywood money to make a good superhero movie? Not I.

Learn what I do say about the Chilean film Mirageman in my review on WTF-Film.

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Thursday, August 27, 2009

In short: The Dark Power (1985)

John "Foureagles" Cody (Robert Bushyhead) has been guarding the place called Totem Hill for a long time. The Native American is convinced that the hill is the resting place of a group of evil Toltecs that somehow made their way far north into the US and that said evil Toltecs still like to rise and do what evil Toltecs do if not held bound by his rituals.

Too bad that the man dies before he can make his testament and give his hill to a group of "mystics" we'll never get to see. So instead, his son David (Tony Shaw) inherits the place and does the obvious, namely rent his father's old place out as a dorm for female college students.

Soon, a quartet of comedy zombie Toltecs rises and raises quite a stink. What a stroke of luck that the typical modern sorority girl knows how to treat a zombie and that Cody's old friend, the local forest ranger Girard (whipwielding hero of many a poverty row western Lash LaRue), still knows how to wield his magic whip. When he's not flirting with a reporter who could be his great granddaughter.

Oh my. The Dark Power is once again one of those films that would lead most sane people to questions like "What is this? Why am I watching this? Am I insane?". Fortunately, I have never been one with much of a hold on sanity, so I just look at a film like this and sigh wistfully.

So nothing except boring college student shenanigans happens for most of the film? There's more bad acting than in any soap opera you'd care to mention? Lash LaRue is by far the best actor? The jokes in this horror comedy aren't funny at all? Sexy Grandpa LaRue makes you uncomfortable? As does action hero smack talking Lash? I can take it!

I can even feel kind of amused by it, especially when out of the mire of nonsense that make up this thing suddenly enticing shapes arise (and I don't mean the badly done zombies, or the naked sorority girls) and try to form some sort of anti-racist message. Not that they succeed, but the effort really is endearing, as is the obvious love the film has for LaRue (even if some people might call it misguided).

To be honest, nothing about The Dark Power works as it's supposed to do, yet its constant efforts at being funny, or an ode to Lash, or just plain competent are as sweet as can be.


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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Hands of Blood (1974)

aka Stepsisters

A small town in Texas. Diana (Bond Gideon) returns home to live with her stepsister Norma (Sharyn Talbert) and Norma's husband Thorpe (Hal Fletcher) after a stint in Dallas hasn't turned out too well for her.

Norma and Thorpe really hate each other's guts. Thorpe mostly seems to have married Norma for her land, yet is irrationally jealous of her supposed affairs with random men, while Norma leaves out no possibility when it comes to berating her husband. Thorpe wants Norma to sell the mansion they are living in, because the oil on the grounds whose existence he's trying to keep a secret from her in vain should make quite a fine profit for him to buy more whiskey from, but Norma doesn't want to. She even (and how shocking is that!) refuses his marital right to intercourse!

What can a real Texan example of manliness like Thorpe do? Oh, yes, start an affair with Diana by trying to rape her and then try to talk her into helping her to murder her stepsister in a plan that can only work in a state where killing your wife when she's in bed with another man is no big deal at all, which Texas seems to be - hopefully only in the mind of the script writer.

Alas, Thorpe has bit off more than he can chew. There is another killer making his rounds and he has already killed and hidden away another lover of Diana's and this other killer has quite different plans from our would-be wife killer.

Hands of Blood is another one of those films I absolutely wouldn't recommend to anyone with "normal" tastes, yet that I nonetheless find quite compelling.

It's certainly not a "good" film - the script is limp, the acting amateurish and mostly more than a little off, the sound recorded so badly that it's often difficult to understand what anyone's talking about and director Perry Tong obviously doesn't know what he's doing.

But it is exactly the combination of these factors with some lucky breaks in form of moody rural decay (Texas style) and beautiful early 70s film grain that make the film worth the time spent on it.

The script has a randomness about it which makes the predictable thriller plot more interesting than it should be. You never know in which way the film will get its plot beats wrong, and I was absolutely delighted by the sudden jolt caused by the few times it gets them right. There's also a wonderfully strange little country ditty that explains the plot right at the end of the movie, just in case you couldn't follow.

The same can be said about the acting - it's all wrong, but it is wrong in unpredictable and fascinating  ways. It's as if you are watching people trying to imitate an alien imitation of the way people act in real life.

But best of all - and chiefly responsible for the film's magic - is Tong's direction. He is using weird angles, subjective camera, illogical editing. He is framing the important parts of his scenes somewhere in the background. If you'd let him, he'd probably even sing and dance for you, all in a desperate attempt to keep his film as far away from being static or normal as possible.

And it is true that much of this just doesn't work, or just makes scenes that should be simple obtuse and hardly to follow instead, that it breaks most rules of good filmmaking for no discernible reason.

But it also creates something special and very dear to my heart, not a tight and clever thriller ("a good film"), instead a film that is more like a state of mind you as the viewer can share with the people making it for a little while; or a world of its own - a little like Texas, yet much more like a dream-state Tong is gracious enough to pull us into for a moment or two.

There are a few times during Hands of Blood's running time when Tong's frankly absurd style and the basic acid rock (courtesy of one Sandy Pinkard) that makes up about half of the soundtrack combine and transform what should be a shabby backyard low budget film into about the closest thing to transcendence I know. If that's not what filmmaking is all about, I don't know what.


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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

In short: The Lone Runner (1986)

Somewhere, at some inexplicable point in time, a bunch of rather dull people live in a desert.

Various tribes - let's call them the Poor People, the Bedouins and the Sand People - roam the desert around something that could be meant to be a town (or not). A man called the Summer King (Donal Hudson) rules over the place (or not) peacefully enough, while Garrett the Lone Runner (Miles O'Keeffe and his magical hair, mostly riding and not running) rides through the desert looking heroic, righting wrongs (or not) etc.

One day the Summer King's daughter Analisa (Savina Gersak) is kidnapped by the Bedouins.

The whole kidnapping business is just a ploy thought up by the Summer King's confidante Emerick (Michael Aronin) to get at the thousand diamonds (and the film is pretty adamant about that number) his boss has stashed away. I'm pretty sure those diamonds will be of use in the desert.

Of course, rescuing kidnapped women falls under Garrett's job description, and he'll have quite a bit of rescuing and re-rescuing to do, because he might be great at pulling a damsel out of distress, but he's just crap at keeping said damsel un-kidnapped.

The desert dwellers don't make his job any easier. The Sand People, lead by a certain Skorm (John Steiner), also want a piece of the diamonds and are willing to do the most fiendish evil cackling to get what they want.

Well, that was slightly underwhelming, yet puzzling. The Lone Runner is usually called a post-apocalypse film with horses standing in for cars, but I'm not completely convinced that it is supposed to take place after a global catastrophe. Knowing how Italian genre films use history, this might as well be meant to take place in 19th century Tunisia, or the time and place when Maciste met Zorro.

Unfortunately, thinking about this is the most fun I had with the film. It's just not all that interesting to watch people ride through a indifferently shot desert while one of the more boring synthesizer soundtracks in Italian film history noodles away in the background.

Points of interest between all the riding are few and far between. O'Keeffe moves his facial muscles at least once, John Steiner plays his baddie as Adam Ant on crack and some of the fight scenes are somewhat competently done. You could also add O'Keeffe's use of a crossbow with exploding bolts and the homemade laser the Sand People use to the mildly awesome.Alas, director Ruggero Deodato never heard of the word "awesome" and does everything in his power to make even these flourishes rather slow and boring.

I'm not asking for much in Italian post-apocalypse (or not) action films from the 80s, but a film needs to show a little effort, either by being insane or enthusiastic or both.

What Deodato delivers instead is a desert of wasted opportunities.


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Monday, August 24, 2009

Music Monday: Lenny's Got A Translator Edition

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Sunday, August 23, 2009

Death Rides A Horse (1967)

A group of bandits attacks a small family farm to get at the wagon full of money that is kept there for the night.

The bandits don't just kill the guards, though, they quite senselessly slaughter the family and burn down their farm. One of the killers takes pity on the smallest boy and hides him from his partners. The child hasn't seen the face of his savior, nor many of the faces of the others, but he has seen some distinguishing marks on each of them, and he doesn't look like he's ever going to forget them. The only physical trace the men leave behind is a peculiarly formed spur.

Fifteen years later, the boy, whose name turns out to be Bill, has grown into John Phillip Law, and the way he trains with his guns and never seems to take his eyes off of them shows that vengeance is the only thing he is living for. Alas, the last fifteen years have never brought any of his family's killers close to him. Bill is sure they are still out there, somewhere, but he doesn't know where to look for them.

That changes when Ryan (Lee van Cleef) comes to town. Ryan has spent the last fifteen years in prison, betrayed by the same people who killed Bill's parents. For some reason (and what might that be?), the first place he visits when coming to town are the graves of Bill's parents.

Ryan doesn't even have to look very hard for his former friends like Bill does, no, his first night in town two gunmen try to kill him in his sleep. Of course, he is played by van Cleef and therefore not in the habit of letting himself getting killed that easily. Ryan now knows very well where he has to go, and leaves behind two corpses wearing quite peculiarly shaped spurs.

When Bill sees the spurs, he rides off in pursuit of the older man, convinced that Ryan can lead him to his objects of vengeance. Ryan himself doesn't want a partner in his endeavors and manages to leave the angry young man behind without a horse. This is not the last time one or the other of the men does this, but they always end up helping each other out in the end, even though Ryan's idea of vengeance on his "friends" consists in getting money out of them.

One doesn't get the impression that he minds too much when they are getting killed, though.

Bill and Ryan really need each others help, too, because the bandits have become well situated in various communities, with lots of henchmen and unsavory plans.

I'd like to put Death Rides A Horse into the larger context of its director's Giulio Petroni's work, alas I have seen nothing else by him, and the Internet's not exactly full of deep essays about his body of work.

Fortunately enough, the film is an excellent Spaghetti Western even without such context.

Its plot does sound like an Italian Western by the numbers, but its execution elevates the generic to the archetypal and mythical with an effortlessness you don't see all that often.

Sometimes - usually when I have drunk too much Green Tea - I like to try and see films not as worlds made from moving pictures, but as rhythm made visual. Death Rides A Horse is perfectly easy to watch - or rather feel - that way, with its sense of perpetual forward motion and its fantastic, yet weird Morricone music. The music is really very important here. It is at once a typical Morricone soundtrack, rhythmic and minimalist and always dancing with the things we see on screen (or is it just making them dance?), but it's also always threatening to drift into the atonal and weird, as if what we witness on screen is of such mythical proportions that there's no other way to react to it than to leave musical structures behind.

Petroni's direction is often brilliant, eschewing dialogue whenever possible, preferring a telling hand movement of Van Cleef or Law's merciless, empty gaze to reams of dialogue. The viewer knows the character archetypes here anyway; there's truly no need for explanations, and what human depths are needed are better provided through physical acting, camera placement and movement than words.

This tactic could backfire badly with less capable actors in the lead, but Van Cleef and Law are both doing perfect work here. Looking at Van Cleef's body of work this is not all that surprising, but Law isn't the type I would have expected to be all that great in a Western. I tend to be wrong frighteningly often, though, and Law really steps up to Van Cleef's presence here and even provides his hate-driven character with an underlying sense of compassion.

The film is structured rather episodically, I wouldn't however call its structure "loose" - it's more as if the film's forward motion started out in more than one place, yet inevitably (and there is true capital-I Inevitability on display here) finds its end in the same place.

What we have here seems to me like a perfect Spaghetti Western, just slightly below the quality of the best films of the three Sergios, yet also a little less cynical, angry and hurt than much of the output of those three is. The latter is no point against Petroni's film. Sometimes it's good to have a film with a belief in compassion.


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Saturday, August 22, 2009

In short: The Manitou (1978)

One day, Karen Tandy (Susan Strasberg) discovers a strange growth on the back of her neck. It is growing at an inexplicable rate, much faster than Karen's doctors are able to understand. What's even more strange - the growth doesn't seem to be a tumor but a fetus.

There's nothing strange that couldn't be cut away with a scalpel, of course, but the first try at cutting the thing off ends with Karen murmuring something in Hollywood Injunese and poor Dr. Hughes (Jon Cedar) cutting into his own hands.

Karen had at this point already gotten back in (very close) contact with her ex Harry Erskine (Tony Curtis), a professional tarot reader and wearer of fake facial hair. Harry's next tarot session with one of his elderly clients ends with the old woman murmuring the same Hollywood Injunese words, levitating along a hallway and falling to death down a flight of stairs.

While Karen lies unconscious in her hospital bed, Harry does a little research on their problem. A séance and a visit with guest star Burgess Meredith later, he is convinced that Karen is possessed by the spirit of an ancient Hollywood Injun medicine man trying to get reborn through a nice female neck.

Logically minded as he is, Harry seeks out the shaman John Singing Rock (Michael Ansara) and talks the man into helping him to fight the dead medicine man. All is set up for an awesome duel of occult powers in Dr. Hughes hightech hospital.

One of the great mysteries in my career as an observer of the weird, the crappy and the outright insane has always been the question: why did people give William Girdler money? The Manitou doesn't really answer that question, but deepens it to "why did people give a director as talentless as William Girdler money to adapt a book written by as terrible a hack as Graham Masterton?".

I certainly don't know the answer to that one, grasshopper. Well, at least the film's an entertaining catastrophe, full of the sort of bullshit everyone should love.

Of course, The Manitou suffers from every problem it could possibly suffer from - there's absurdly bad acting from Strasberg, alternating bored and scenery-chewing acting from Curtis, a script in total ignorance of actual Native American culture and reality, Girdler's "let's point the camera at it and wait" style of directing, puzzling dialogue, etc.

The first hour is also more than just a little boring, but at about the hour mark something strange happens - the idiocy and the silliness turns from boring to fun, the cliched stupidity turns into creative stupidity until we are bombarded with awesome stuff like the evil ancient midget bodybuilder form the evil spirit takes and a scene in which a naked Susan Strasberg floats on a hospital bed in space and shoots laser beams at Yog-Sothoth while meteorites whoosh in the direction of the camera.

The latter is one of those pictures that will stay with me for the rest of my life, at least I hope that it will, forever being an irrefutable proof of the genius of humanity.


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Friday, August 21, 2009

On WTF: Mahakaal (1988/1993)

On WTF! It's the Ramsay Brothers! It's a Nightmare on Elm Street rip-off! It's pure ecstasy!

(Yeah, this is what happens when they let me out of my cage to watch a Ramsay Brothers film and write about it)


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Thursday, August 20, 2009

Well, 119 years are a reason to smile



In short: Neko Ramen Taisho (2008)

aka Pussy Soup

The cat (puppet) Jeff III has had a hard life until now. Brought up by his cruel father, Jeff II, to become a popular cat idol just like dad (and presumably Jeff I), poor Jeff hasn't the necessary cuteness that it takes to get through life in showbiz.

Jobless and rejected by his father after a very bad performance in a commercial, the cat decides to get a decent job. But all his promising career choices go to waste. Work as a sushi chef turns out to be impossible for someone addicted to fish, while nobody wants to be operated on by a surgeon who is also a cat. After his taxi driving job doesn't pay off either - surprisingly, passengers don't appreciate it when you try to run over rats - the desperate Jeff wants to drown himself to end his ordeal, but is saved by a gruff yet kindly ramen cook.

The master teaches Jeff the art of ramen cooking, and soon our hero has a small but fine noodle bar on the outskirts of Tokyo. All could be well, if not for his rather evil father who is trying to lay Jeff's life to waste by opening a new, flashy ramen place nearly next door.

That's the sort of problem only a TV cook off can solve.

Yeah, Minoru Kawasaki is at it again, making another comedy in the spirit of his Calamari Wrestler and Executive Koala, just with even more dubious looking dolls.

It is in fact so much in the spirit of those earlier films that one could be tempted to decry a certain lack of originality in the new film. But then one would be the kind of person who complains that a film about a ramen cooking cat isn't novel enough, or, as we here call 'em, a twat.

The viewer's enjoyment of the whole affair probably depends on her ability to find the type of parody that nearly emulates its sources funny. If you like the clichés of Japanese pop culture targeted here at least a little, you'll probably have some decent fun, if not, you are way outside of the film's target range and will probably just stare at the screen in befuddlement.

If, on the other hand, you're like me and have read and enjoyed one bread baking or cooking manga or the other, Neko Ramen Taisho comes recommended. Unless you don't like ramen.


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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Hantu (2007)

As we all know, hiking and camping are some of the most dangerous activities known to Man. Case in point are the adventures of a quintet of young Indonesians pictured here.

Pushed along by hiking enthusiast Gal (Oka Antara), the young people are planning to visit a rather mysterious mountain lake, and nothing is going to stop them.

So the locals are eating living snakes? No problem. The only person willing to drive them up the mountain for a reasonable price is the village alcoholic? Ho hum. The village alcoholic changes his mind when he remembers where exactly they are driving and throws them off his truck? Oh well, let's just hike normally, then. Oh look, there's a creepy guy and a dilapidated shack close to the edge of the forest? Let's follow the creepy one's directions.

When they finally pitch camp in the fog-shrouded woods, even their enthusiasm starts to fade a little. It doesn't help much that there's a jealousy side-story between Gal, his girlfriend Rinjani (Dhea Ananda) and Ray (Dwi Andhika), Rinjani's best friend and biggest fan.

That's the sort of problem which tends to fade somewhat when the local wood ghost takes exemption to its visitors and starts to spook around. The thing knows some neat ghostly tricks, including the sudden river poke and a method to lure Rinjani deeper into the woods that's never going to be explained to us.

The rest of the friends realize the girl's absence the next morning and find her crying and exhausted on a clearing. There follows more manly posturing by Gal and Ray, until Rinjani does a little "I am possessed" number and disappears again.

This of course isn't the end of the spooky going-ons.

Hantu starts out rather impressive. The characters are on the more likeable side of the freshmeat that typically trundles innocently into the realm of the supernatural, the actors seem fine enough in their young and pretty ways and the promise of their sure doom doesn't sound completely deserved.

Director Adrianto Sinaga delivers some fine nature shots, and friends of shots of foggy, wet woods in cinema will be cackling with delight for a lot of the film's running time.

Alas, pretty woods and actors alone are seldom enough for a successful horror film. Unfortunately, it's the fright scenes where the film falls down rather limply. On paper, most of the big fright set pieces sound promising, but Sinaga's not too good at setting them up effectively. He may avoid my old enemies the jump cut and the whoosh cut, but a weird hand for positioning the camera always in exactly the wrong place to evoke any feeling of dread makes much of the proceedings rather uninteresting. Instead, the way the shots are set up emphasize the silliness of a movie that consists mostly of five people running through the woods screaming (often for no particular reason). The handful of scenes which have a certain amount of creepiness impress in spite of Sinaga's efforts and not because of them.

I don't want to come down too hard on the film, though. The basic ideas are sound and the script tries very hard for a character-based version of horror and for a mix of the international language of teen horror and with more specific Indonesian feeling. I don't think it really succeeds at that, but the direction Hantu is going for is sound and interesting. With just a bit more sense for creepy mood this could be quite a film.

It was certainly well worth watching once for me, especially in context of the sort of crap that isn't even trying to be coherent or effective I usually inflict upon myself.

Also, I really like dark and wet woods.


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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

In short: Night of the Demon (1980)

The sole survivor of a bigfoot related catastrophe (BRC) relates his story to some authority figures.

He and a bunch of his students went out into the deep American wilderness to find out about the fate of one girl's father. The old man was probably arm-ripped to death by bigfoot!

Of course, they get themselves stranded on some kind of wooded island (I guess) where a certain Crazy Wanda (only here: girl who was raped by a bigfoot!) rocks crazily in her rocking chair.

From time to time, the boss man of the expedition tells tales of people getting killed by the big B in one gruesome fashion or the other. The expedition has a run in with a bigfoot worshipping cult. It gets disjointed. Bigfoot attacks. Crazy Wanda flashbacks. More stories. Bigfoot kills 'em all except for one whose face he cooks. The authority figures declare our narrator to be CRIMINALLY INSANE! The End!

Oh, this obscurity is rather terrible, but in a good, entertaining way. It is obviously just someone's attempt to cash in on the dying bigfoot craze by mixing it with early "extreme" horror, yet it is so much more.

Seldom will you witness more hilarious death scenes. It's very difficult for me to decide which one is the most noteworthy. Is it the one where B throws his victim like a professional hammer thrower? The infamous penis ripping? Or is it the scene where our hero does whatever it is he does to the two girl scouts? It's a laugh a minute.

If this still sounds to classy for your tastes (and it would be for mine), just add the fantastically bad acting that just starts with "Oh my god"s delivered in the bored tone of someone asking for another piece of pizza.

Equally funny is the bigfoot costume itself. Not a looker to begin with, it seems to have lost a lot of irreplaceable hair during the shooting of the film and truly deserves the often thrown around description "ratty".

A big thank you from my side goes out to one time director James C. Wasson, without whose absurdly contrived but equally characterless direction this wouldn't be half as much fun as it is.


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Monday, August 17, 2009

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Terror In A Texas Town (1958)

While the name of the little town Prairie in Texas shows a distinct lack of imagination, what is going on in it is has certain aspects of a fever dream.

Once a peaceful place, Prairie is now on the brink of the special brand of lawlessness the laws of capitalism bring. A certain McNeill (Sebastian Cabot) has somehow finagled himself into possession of the land grants for most of the outlying farms around town, never mind that the so-called squatters have been living there for decades. Now, McNeill wouldn't like to be called unnecessarily cruel, so he pays off the farmers to make them leave and lets his men burn down a farm or two if their owners aren't compliant.

That's not enough to get rid of the core of the local farmers, especially the Swedish immigrant Hansen (Ted Stanhope) and his friend and neighbor Pepe Mirada (Eugene Martin), so McNeill decides that it's necessary to make an example out of someone.

He hires an old acquaintance, the run-down gunman Johnny Crale (Ned Young) to do the deed. Crale himself is at the end of his own line. Psychotic, bitter and nearly made obsolete by the the changing times, he obviously sees McNeill's job as a last chance, but as a last chance to what is never really clear. It could be dying, or it could be getting rich, and I don't think Crale himself knows. The gunman is traveling with his girlfriend Molly (Carol Kelly), who loves him as much as she hates him and herself and would like nothing more than see her man give up on the outlaw business once and for all, but he is never going to listen to her.

Crale kills Hansen without much trouble. The old man tries to defend himself with the harpoon he used in his earlier life as a whaler, but to no avail. Without Crale's knowledge, there were witnesses to the murder. Mirada and his little son have seen everything. They have also found out why it is that McNeill is willing to pay people off instead of just driving them away - there's oil on the land!

Mirada's pregnant wife convinces him to keep his mouth shut about everything he has seen. She prefers to have a living father for her baby.

A week or so later, Hansen's son George (Sterling Hayden) arrives in town. He's just coming to visit his father, but when he hears of the old man's death, and sees how little the sheriff - who is of course owned by McNeill - or the other locals do about the murder, he decides to stay. At first, the inquiries of the somewhat slow seeming stranger don't lead to much, yet his stubbornness and honesty do finally lead him on the right track. McNeill tries to pay him off, but he could as well try to stop a train with his little finger.

In the end, there will be another duel between harpoon and gun.

In an earlier review, I called Joseph H. Lewis a director who had obvious talent, but didn't manage to use that talent well enough to actually make completely satisfying movies with it. After seeing Terror In A Texas Town, his last film, I have to take that back.

Based on a pseudonymous screenplay by the black-listed Dalton Trumbo, Terror is as good as a film in the B-Western sub-genre of the High-Noon-alike gets. As someone who is less than enthusiastic about the original, I'd even say it surpasses High Noon effortlessly. But I would say that, wouldn't I?

Terror removes the whininess and the loud moralizing inherent in the High Noon formula and replaces them with characterization of surprising depth. It's not just that the characters are psychologically sound, which is certainly nice and all, but also potentially boring, it's that they all are highly interesting, dragging some of the more beloved cardboard character types of the Western into the third dimension. The lack of moralizing here is just exceptional, giving a sympathetic view not only of the film's hero, but also of the sadistic monster that is Crale and the Western's favorite victim, "the fallen woman".

Additionally there's the human and decidedly non-racist portrayal of non-Anglo Americans, usually characters at best degraded to comic relief or ignored. You could start to believe America was built by a bunch of immigrants.

All of this is made even better by the fact how just plain peculiar the film dares to be, in small plot details like Crale's non-metaphorical iron fist as well as in bigger ways like its deconstruction of the High Noon formula that is less trying to be cynical than to put the emphasis on the character types who usually don't have a voice.

On the visual side, Lewis applies every camera trick he can afford, using everything from close-up shots of sweating people that prefigure the Spaghetti Western to unusual camera positions to make his film a slightly disorienting experience - at least seen in context of a more typical American B-Western style.

For once, everyone in the cast seems to be in on the sort of film they are doing, and acts as if his or her life depended on it. You could probably criticize Sterling Hayden's Swedish accent, but I don't think that's of too much importance for the big picture.

"The big picture" being this: Terror In A Texas Town is a brilliant, one of a kind film.


Friday, August 14, 2009

Three Films Make A Post Meets A Brooklyn Gorilla

La Hora Fria aka The Dark Hour [sic] (2006): A tiny group of survivors huddles together in a bunker in a world destroyed by a terrible war. Zombie-like infected and stranger things roam around and the usual post-apocalyptic stuff happens, until everything comes to a not stupid, but somewhat useless twist ending.

This Spanish movie may be derivative of every semi-serious post-apocalypse film ever made, but it is well enough executed, and solidly acted, which makes it a bit better than the sub-genre's average. Of course, with a little more courage to stray from the well-trodden path, this could have been great instead of solid.


The Kindred (1987): How much pleasure one can take away from this rather slow and boring thing about a scientist without any character to speak of and his similarly "interesting" team coming to grips (in a monster killing sense) with the fact that his dead mother has used his genes in a dubious hybridization experiment probably depends on how inclined one is to drudge through plodding scenes of nothing at all happening to get to about ten minutes of fun. Of course, the fun does consist of a big tentacle monster, Amanda Pays turning into a Deep One, a wee tentacle monster hiding itself away in a water melon and the words "and you call yourself a scientist.". It's just too bad that you could cut half of the film without changing more about it than its running time.

For the truly perverse, there's also Rod Steiger collecting a pay check.


Mole (2001): I'm usually pretty hard on contemporary backyard horror filmmaking, but I found this one about a reporter, her cameraman and an Internet "expert" on the New York subway stumbling through some dark, decayed tunnels looking for a story about the homeless living there to be a pretty decent film.

The acting's mostly serviceable, the locations are dark, damp and smelly looking and the director/writers (one of whom - Anthony Savini - seems to have quite a body of work as assistant cameraman) are clever enough to know that urban decay is the star of their show. The ending doesn't work as well as it must have looked on paper, but at least its trying to be poignant.


Thursday, August 13, 2009

In short: Tiyanaks (2007)

A bunch (A horde? A busfull? What is the right terminology here?) of college students are on their way to an Easter retreat.

Of course their bus breaks down in the middle of the jungle, at least half a day from civilization and far from their initial destination.

At least there's a house nearby to spend the night in, even if the religious nut and her little son living there aren't all that enthusiastic about their new guests. The lady of the house has good reasons to not want strangers in her vicinity, though, because the jungle around her house is infested with tiyanaks.

Tiyanaks in general are the dead bodies of unchristened babies come back to life to do evil. These special group has grown up a bit since then and is now living the wild killer child lifestyle, unless they need to transform into their elemental rubber suit and CGI forms to do a little flying or climbing.

As you can probably imagine, monsters and college students meet and develop a certain amount of dislike for each other.

Now this is an awful bunch of silly fun. Tiyanaks isn't something for the more thoughtful moments in life - allright, it's rather dumb - but as a modern variation on the 80s monster movie style this is perfectly entertaining, full of genre-mandatory ultra generic characters yet also full of scenes that mix the extremely generic with the local and very specific (did you, my non-Catholic friends, know that monsters are more dangerous around Easter on account of that God guy being dead then?) to fine effect and enough small details that show that director Mark A. Reyes put an effort into thinking his small, cheap horror romp through.

I'm an easy mark, I know, but make a film about a monster that can be killed by baptizing it, and you'll find my atheist soul cackling with glee and delight. Give the female lead a background in archery just to set up a singly, gloriously silly scene with her bow, a bottle of holy water and a monster, and I'll sing your praises.

As much as I love me some ghosts, it's also just nice to see a contemporary Filipino horror movie that is not about the usual assortment of long-haired female and blue-skinned child ghosts and milks other folk beliefs with as much enthusiasm as this one does.


Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Silent Action (1975)

aka La polizia accusa: il servizio segreto uccide

A small yet strange series of deaths of people working for the Ministry of Defense and the military hits Italy. Since all of the deaths seem to be accidental or suicides, no alarm bells start to ring anywhere. That's a problem, because the deaths are in fact murders and we the viewers the only witnesses.

The Roman cop Solmi (Luc Merenda) is as unsuspecting as anyone else, until he is starting to investigate the death of the private detective Chiarotti. Chiarotti's death is murder all right - his head has been bashed in with a fire poker. It's just all a little strange. Why is a mere detective as rich as Chiarotti was? Solmi soon finds a prostitute (Delia Boccardo) who must have been present when the detective was killed, but she nearly dies in a murder attempt that's made to look like a suicide. She can't tell Solmi much anyway. That Chiarotti was having an argument with a man and was killed by the man is pretty much all she knows. Useful descriptions are not forthcoming.

For DA Mannino (Mel Ferrer), the girl is still the main suspect in the case, whatever Solmi may think about her physical fitness to kill the victim with a few poker strikes and the psychological absurdity of the theory.

The case gets more interesting when a man gets arrested while breaking into Chiarotti's villa and stealing a single hidden piece of tape with the voice of a dead general declining to cooperate with a man named Rienzi. Even more interesting is the fact that the burglar claims to work for the Secret Service.

Solmi diligently asks the Secret Service what's up, but their Captain Sperli (Tomas Milian) denies everything, as spies are wont to do, but is still interested in talking to the burglar and hearing what's on the tape. When Solmi and Sperli get to the tape, it turns out to have been erased.

This is of course not the last time in the film that Solmi's witnesses are killed or kidnapped or someone who must be pretty close to the investigation interferes with it, but once his sense of justice is awakened, Solmi can't be dissuaded to leave the case be.

People know and love Silent Action's director Sergio Martino mostly for his Giallos, but as a working commercial director, he of course did his time in whatever genre was the flavor of the day, how fitting or unfitting his talents might have been.

Silent Action combines the Italian cop movie with the conspiracy thriller arm of the spy movie, both genres Martino's talents are surprisingly fitting for. The director was always an excellent craftsman, using every bit of technique he could afford to keep his films entertaining. If you ask me, the emphasis on "keeping his films entertaining" is the main difference between him and Bava or Argento who were more artfully minded and willing to use their visual talents to push their films in other, more experimental directions not every audience would be able or willing to follow all of the time. While I love both Bava's and Argento's films, I can't say that I blame Martino for "just" trying to make perfectly great genre films.

In the case of Silent Action, Martino was quite successful. After a somewhat slow start, the film picks up tempo until its plot is ticking along at a joyous pace. I read complaints about a certain lack of action in the movie, but that lack of action only exists in comparison with a handful of Italian cop movies that just don't need as much time to build their plot as a conspiracy thriller does and in the minds of people with severe ADD - on planet reality, there is plenty of chases and shoot-outs to admire, and while Martino as an action director is no Enzo G. Castellari, he is still pretty damn good.

"Pretty damn good" is also a fitting description for Luc Merenda's performance. Merenda usually is the Italian cop movie guy people forget when listing their top five actors in the genre (I blame the lack of a moustache, the moustacheless niche already filled by Fabio Testi), but he really is no slouch. His Solvi is a rather interesting variation on the cop movie hero - besides the lack of a moustache, he is less prone to long, reactionary rants about the evils of modern society and the beauty of the police state and shows a certain restraint in the use of unnecessary violence. Why, it even takes an hour until he starts to torture someone, and even then he's downright subtle about it. This of course makes his character surprisingly believable as someone actually interested in justice and not a vigilante as most of the dubious heroes of police movies often are. This time, the cop hero is actually someone to root for, giving the typical 70s conspiracy film ending (and if someone thinks that this counts as a spoiler, I just can't help it) a bit of weight even though the conspiracy itself isn't all that memorable.

All in all, it's a very fine film that balances the need for action and the need for investigation scenes as effortlessly as Martino is able to decide when to use his hand camera and when a long tracking shot.


Tuesday, August 11, 2009

In short: The Occupant (1984)

aka The Tenant

Canadian Chinese grad student Angie (Sally Yeh) comes to Hong Kong to study Chinese superstitions. Her budget for her trip isn't much to speak of, and so she's quite happy that she's able to get a ridiculously cheap furnished apartment instead of an overpriced hotel room.

There's a good reason for her new place's low prize, though - it is haunted. What begins harmless enough with a little table moving and ghostly singing rises to threats of ghostly possession. The ghost of singer Lisa Law (Mak Git-Man) seems obsessed with repeating the murder suicide that cost her life through Angie.

Fortunately two creepy stalker guys - the cop Valentino (Chow Yun-Fat) and the "funny" used car dealer Hansome Wong (Raymond Wong) - have fallen in love with Angie and are willing to help her out with her problem. Valentino even has an ex-cop friend (Lo Lieh) turned priest who can do a little exorcising.

The Occupant is an early work in the long and complicated career of director Ronny Yu. It's more a comedy than a horror film, but it doesn't succeed all that well as either horror or comedy.

The comedy bits are less inane and slapsticky than typical for Hong Kong comedies, so they should be easier to stomach for someone with as little tolerance for these things as I have, but what is on screen often just isn't all that funny. I mean, making fun of Raymond Wong's character can only get us that far.

The horror part of the film on the other hand isn't very exciting either. The usual child-friendly ghosting is present, but fails to excite or interest much.

Still, watching it isn't all that painful an experience. There's nothing really bad about the film, the problem is that there isn't anything really good about it either, leading to a film that's just somehow there to while away 90 minutes without making much of an impression.


Sunday, August 9, 2009

There is only links!

ITEM! The philosophical journal has made its fourth volume downloadable as one of those fancy PDFs. If you can take a little jargon, go hither and read the words of people with names like Mieville, Ligotti and Houellebecq talk about horror. Swanky!


ITEM! In the world of the independent video game, Annie Carlson & Brian Mitsoda (both formerly of Obsidian) are doing their own thing now in the form of a zombie apocalypse survival RPG! Which certainly is a mouth full, and also quite exactly something I very much want to play right now. Exciting!


ITEM! Keeping with the video games, SPAG editor Jimmy Maher has graced us with a piece of IF (that's the fancy word for text adventure) based on a rather excellent Call of Cthulhu scenario. The King of Shreds and Patches features certain Elisabethan playwrights, Doctor John Dee, the plague and the King in Yellow, and while some of the puzzles are a little long-winded, the whole experience is quite wonderful (and free). It's also full of the thematic and narrative kinks most dear to my heart. Kinky!


ITEM! The great Caitlin R. Kiernan has a new book out, called The Red Tree. It is (that word again) excellent and takes everything I always loved about weird fiction and drags it into the 21st century. She has also stuffed her website full of enticing pieces of evidence regarding the titular tree. Machenesque!


ITEM! Another site full of free legal music downloads has reared its head in the form of Musicians get paid out of the site's ad revenue (some money also goes to charity), so it's recommended you keep your adblockers off for once, and enjoy stumbling upon new music. Musical!


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Love - Infinity = Zero (1994)

aka Love - Zero = Infinity

An ex school teacher/TV writer (Takeshi Ito) has lost everything with the death or flight (the film is not clear about this, and Ito's character tells different stories to different people) of his girlfriend. He has drifted from the province to Tokyo and spends his days without any real human contact, just walking the streets. When he can't stand his feelings of disconnectedness anymore, he starts to become what he himself calls an "Observer of Unidentified Followed Objects", that is, he picks people at random and follows them, getting as close to being human again as seems possible for him.

One of this expeditions leads them to the scrap yard where two late teenagers spend their time, shooting up with each other's blood to somehow connect. Those two will in time start to follow him around.

One day, the man just collapses. After he gets out of hospital, with an HIV diagnosis to follow, one of the doctors who treated him contacts him on the street and asks him to follow his wife (Kiyomi Ito), a woman walking through Tokyo as aimlessly as the wanderer himself, dressed in black clothes, hiding behind black sunglasses. The doctor tells the wanderer that his wife (also a physician) has been treated with an experimental form of steroids to combat some heavy allergies, but that she has now become addicted to the stuff. He fears that the treatment has also disturbed her sanity and wants someone to watch over her. The wanderer has no problems with the job, in fact, he had already seen the woman and started to obsess about her and is glad to now have a reason for doing what he would have done anyway.

She soon realizes that someone is watching her, though, and the two deeply alienated people begin an obsessive relationship - or as close to a relationship as these two people can come by following each other and fucking.

He starts to suspects that she is the person who's going around Tokyo, killing people  and sucking their blood, but he's looking for death anyway.

Love - Infinity's director Hisayasu Sato is somewhat infamous for the intensity and violence of his pinku, but this one's not all that extreme in the ways of gore (there is none) and sex, instead it is extreme in an unrepentant and fascinated bleakness.

More than one scene here reminds of a specifically urban, Japanese brother of David Cronenberg, with the same interest in bodily and mental extremes and the same disinterest in judging them.

Sato's point of view is possibly even more clinical than Cronenberg's - he is showing what is happening without pre-loading it with any of the emotions we as viewers are supposed to have while watching, declining to make moral judgements for us. At the same time, Sato's style does everything to remind us that we are watching, not participating, distancing us so that a clear and clean identification with any of the characters becomes difficult, if not impossible. Of course, being unable to relate to others emotionally is also the problem the film's characters have, so one could argue that the distance leads in a strange way to a deep emphatic understanding of the characters.

Another part of the film's thematic reach is AIDS, or the way the illness transforms sex - if paid for the last possibility of connection for the emotionally unconnected - from a way to touch into another way to kill yourself. The film's characters would probably argue that killing yourself isn't such a bad thing to do if death leads you to a connection with someone or something.

And as if all this wouldn't be enough to make for an exceptionally bleak film, there's still Tokyo to ruin you. Here, Tokyo is not the gleaming, futuristic megalopolis, but the cold and shabby side streets that usually lie just on the other side of the gleaming, glamorous ones, a place where nobody ever looks anyone into the eye.


Saturday, August 8, 2009

In short: Mary, Mary, Bloody Mary (1975)

Mary (Cristina Ferrare) is an American painter living and working in Mexico. When she's not painting her slightly disturbing paintings or dodging the advances of her lesbian gallerist Greta (Helena Rojo), she sneaks around, drugs strangers (mostly men) and drinks their blood. Her last victim wasn't such a swell choice, though. The man was working for the American government, so now it's not only a local police man (Enrique Lucero) with a stick and a bad temper trying to solve her murders, but also an "Inspector from the FBI" (Arthur Hansel), whatever that might be.

At about the same time, Mary meets the spectacularly innocent drifter Ben (David Young). They fall in love and could have a nice life - after all, the cops aren't very bright and Mary's victims total strangers to her - if not for Mary's propensity to get especially blood-thirsty when emotionally disturbed which will cost poor Greta her life.

And one shouldn't forget the strange masked and black-gloved man (John Carradine's stunt double, sometimes even John Carradine himself) whose diet has a lot in common with Mary's and who starts to follow her around with ominous intent.

Mary may have been directed by Juan Lopez Moctezuma, the man who made the screamingly mad and nonsensical Alucarda, but if you are hoping for a similarly hysterical piece you will be disappointed.

This film has much more in common with a slightly costlier version of the deliberately paced, weird and bizarrely clever independent US horror of the 70s. Neither Mary the film nor Mary the character are in much of a rush to reach any goal or plot point directly, instead a large part of the movie consists of building mood through potent nature shots and Cristina Ferrare's weird sort of charisma and being quite circumspect about anything else. Which turns out to be not a bad directorial decision, since what little plot is there is, isn't as Interesting as Ferrare or nature.

Now (and stop me if you've heard this song from me before), I wouldn't call Ferrare a great actress, not even a great bad actress, but she has the strange, zoned out kind of allure you can often find in actresses and actors in films of this type. Her weaknesses don't come into play much. The rest of the actors is just somehow there - nobody's doing a bad job, yet nobody else is truly memorable.

Moctezuma as a director is pretty good at this mood building thing and pretty bad at a well-paced plot. Of course, you shouldn't go into 70s low budget horror with expectations of the latter, so I was not disappointed by the lack of narrative flow.

There's more than enough to keep one interested here. A slightly detached mood, some fine things to look at, two or three suspenseful scenes, a handful of neat ideas, John Carradine being an evil action hero and a classically 70s horror ending are really more than I'd need to recommend a movie.


Thursday, August 6, 2009

In short: Hitch Hike (1977)

aka The Naked Prey

Walter (Franco Nero) and Eve (Corinne Clery) Mancini have a less than stellar marriage. He's an alcoholic low-life journalist and she is the disillusioned daughter of his boss and the only thing that keeps them together besides copious amounts of mutual hatred is sex.

Especially for Eve emotional disgust and sexual pleasure seem to be things that just go together.

The charming couple is just trying to get back to LA after an unpleasant camping trip somewhere in the American South-West (looking very much like the Italian country-side), when they pick up a hitch-hiker standing by the side of the road.

As this is a movie, this turns out to be not the brightest idea. Adam Konitz (David Hess) - the hitch-hiker - is on the run from the police and some dubious friends of his while carrying a suitcase full of dollars. Adam is also violently psychotic. At first, the thug wants to use the pair as a cover or - if necessary - hostages to get over the border, but when he learns that Walter is a journalist he gets it into his head that someone really should write a book about his life.

That's just the beginning of one of the many cat and mouse games that will go on between the characters.

Hitch Hike's director Pasquale Festa Campanile was mostly specialized in comedies, often sex comedies, and so his successes or failures usually fall outside of my fields of expertise. As a cynical thriller Hitch Hike is a highly interesting aberration in his body of work.

Campanile does "thriller" a little differently from the way the genre is usually handled. Films of the genre usually stand or fall with a tension based on tightness and density, while Hitch Hike is loosely structured liked a road movie. That the film still works excellently can be explained by a handful of things, the first among them Campanile's hand for great photography and editing, followed by some excellent acting jobs by all three main actors and a script that actually knows how to surprise while keeping its characters believable enough.

The characters are really what holds the film together, the various occurrences in the script slowly revealing different sides to them while keeping explanations for their acts at least to a degree ambiguous.

As a bonus, there's a mostly great, idiosyncratic Ennio Morricone soundtrack. Mostly, because someone found it fit to include something I can only call "the hateful song of hate" and believe me, you won't soon forget that one. Especially since its permanent, Tokyo Drifter-like repetition will really burn it into your brain. But hey, who said everything about a film has to be pleasant?

Hitch Hike does in fact have more unpleasant things going on than just the song. It is sleazy and its perspective on humanity is highly cynical. Yet Campanile treats these elements of the film as classy as you will see in a film featuring David Hess without making it look cowardly or prudish.

When it comes to loose but mean little exploitation thrillers, Hitch Hike is a hidden pearl.


Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Wind Chill (2007)

A college student (Emily Blunt) is going home to Delaware for Christmas. In a moment of spontaneity, she decides to not drive home by bus but look for a ride.

She finds something appropriate on the college's ride board. What at first looks like a stroke of luck soon turns into the ride from hell when she oozes all the warmth and friendliness of the rudest person on Earth and the guy (Ashton Holmes) she is driving with turns out to be a wee bit creepy.

While he takes her on "the scenic route" through the woods in the dark in the middle of nowhere, she starts to realize that he isn't from Delaware at all and has a rather stalkerish interest in her.

That's not going to be her main concern for long, though. Suddenly, a car nearly crashes into theirs, leaving them stranded in the middle of nowhere with an oncoming cold front that would make walking back to the next gas station pretty dangerous. Strange thing about that car, too. It didn't leave any tire tracks.

Even stranger are the ghosts that are starting to appear to the two. It seems as if Very Bad Things have once happened on this stretch of road - the sort of things that like to repeat themselves with catastrophic consequences for anyone living passing by at the wrong time.

I have to admit that I approach contemporary US horror films with a certain trepidation. Too often have I been burned by dilettantish in all the wrong way indie flicks, boring gore fests or godawfully stupid mainstream fare.

But sometimes, good, suspenseful horror still does happen in the USA. I wouldn't necessarily expect it to be directed by Steven Soderbergh's regular assistant director and sometimes producer Gregory Jacobs, and produced by Soderbergh and George Clooney, but if they are happy to ignore their Academy Award baiting ways to make a fine, small film like this, I'm certainly not going to complain.

"Suspenseful" really is the important word here. Wind Chill is more interested in suspense than in being scary or disturbing, a fact which I am sure some people will dislike, but I am not one of them. The important thing to me is that the film is successful at being what it tries to achieve and that is something Wind Chill is.

Jacobs uses claustrophobia, understandable distrust and (happily for this snow lover) snow and cold to built his film's mood slowly but surely, keeping the right plot beats coming at the right time like every good genre filmmaker should. Nothing about this is very original, of course, but it just plain works for the economic 90 minutes running time. It's a very concentrated film with very clear ambitions, obviously made by people who were also very clear about how to achieve this ambition.

The whole "make a suspenseful horror film with only two main characters in claustrophobic whiteness" project could still have failed through the dubious skills of C&W Channel actors in way over their heads, but Blunt and Holmes (not being C&W Channel actors) give note perfect performances that make their not directly inspired character arcs tolerable enough, and their characters sympathetic. It could really give one hope for youngish actors.

Wind Chill is what I like to call a classical B picture - not the sort of film people will seek out in droves or call a work of genius, but the sort of film that will keep you enthralled for two hours if you are able to enjoy something simple and straightforward but not stupid.


Tuesday, August 4, 2009

In short: The White Diamond (2004)

Obviously not to be mixed up with a later documentary film about Kylie Minogue. This one's probably better anyway.

Another documentary film by Werner Herzog. Here, Herzog follows Dr. Graham Dorrington in his plan to explore the rain forest canopy in Guyana in Dorrington's newly developed small airship.

Dorrington is of course one of those obsessive dreamer figures Herzog feels so drawn to, possibly because they are a like a mirror to someone as driven and obsessed as the filmmaker himself seems to be. Dr. Dorrington seems a little more driven than most, haunted as he still is by the death of nature filmer Dieter Plage during a joint film project, yet compelled to fly. And it is the flying itself and not the science that's really important here.

By the wayside, Herzog finds incredible moments of beauty while he himself circles his own obsessions: the divide between humanity and nature, the urge to "gaze into the unknown", and the wisdom and dignity of people who aren't seeing the world as they are supposed to do.


Sunday, August 2, 2009

Mangue Negro (2008)

aka Mud Zombies

The people of a small, impoverished 19th century community (or so I guess going by the weapons people are using) in the Brazilian rainforest has a hard time staying alive. For decades, they have survived on the fish, crabs and oysters the mangroves provided them with, but in the last years there have only been slim pickings.

The bad times are getting worse when Batista (Reginaldo Secundo) stumbles upon a putrefying corpse instead of the crabs he is hunting. The icky thing might look dead, but it moves and bites in a rather sprightly manner. Batista escapes from the attack, but not before he is bitten and scratched by the zombie. We all know where that leads.

Unsurprisingly, the handful of people in the area has to fight a full-grown zombie outbreak. The emotionally stunted Luis (Walderrama Dos Santos) turns out to be the hero of the hour when it becomes necessary to protect the annoyingly useless village beauty Raquel (Kika de Oliveira) from the hungry undead. That's the power of secret infatuation for you!

As far as shot on digital low budget zombie films go, Brazilian Rodrigo Aragao's Mangue Negro is downright classy.

That doesn't mean that the film hasn't some glaring flaws, it just means that it has enough virtues to make at least somewhat up for them.

Most problematic is the director's puzzling decision to cast every woman except Raquel with a man in drag under really atrocious age make-up. It's not too hurtful in the case of Raquel's mother who isn't on screen much and does speak even less, but the local witch and exposition machine Dona Benedita as played by Andre Lobo is just plain annoying. Lobo's inability to understand that his old woman's voice is a terrible abomination is perplexing, Aragao's decision to not just let a man serve the same function in the plot when he hasn't an actress at hand even more so, but hey, what do I know, I just watch this stuff.

Still, even Lobo's best efforts can't ruin the film completely, as can't the less than convincing day for night scenes or the fact that the film's second half just drags badly. There's just too much obvious enthusiasm thrown on screen for me  to be too hard on Mangue Negro.

The first half hour or so is even quite wonderful in the way it uses extreme close-ups and a mood of decay to build up to the zombie action. And the zombies themselves aren't too shabby, either. Well, most of them, that is. As we all know, not every zombie has been created equal and so the zombies here go from thin make-up zombies to silly but cool animatronic creations everyone would be proud of.

Also of note are Aragao's additions to the zombie myth. There is a zombie fish and possibly zombie oysters to gawk at and even (gasp!) the truth about the cure for zombiefication. It's globe-fish gall!

And elderly drag queens and badly dragging last half hour or not, Aragao shows himself to be a creative and promising director, using his obviously limited funds well for most of the time.

Which is really more than you can expect.