Saturday, December 31, 2011

Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968)

Peter, the brother of antiques dealer Robert Manning (Mark Eden), disappears while trawling the British countryside for merchandise. The last note and package Robert receives of him point to a small town in the middle of nowhere. Because Robert's a go-getter, he doesn't do boring stuff like going to the police with his problem but follows his best clue - the letter head of a J.D. Morley (Christopher Lee) Peter's last missive was written on. When confronted, Morley insists he hasn't ever heard or seen anything of Peter, but because the letter truly was written on his paper, he takes Robert on as a sort of house guest, giving the man ample time to romance his niece Eve (Virginia Wetherell), make the acquaintance of an eminent expert on witchcraft (Boris Karloff) and take in the local colour in form of a festival celebrating the death of the witch Lavinia Morley (Barbara Steele) in the 17th century.

The longer Robert stays at the house, the more peculiar things get. Soon, the antiques dealer has dreams of Lavinia in blue body paint wearing a fetching Bollywood Satanist costume and being served by the members of what must be the most peculiar gay S&M club. Lavinia's trying to convince our hero to sign his name in a big, black book. One can't help but assume that a) it wouldn't be a very good idea to sign and that b) these dreams have a base in a very real witch cult in town.

Will Robert discover the truth before he chokes on his own smugness? Who is better, Karloff or Lee? Karloff, obviously.

Curse of the Crimson Altar has something of a bad reputation as a film doing a special sort of violence to the works of H.P. Lovecraft, but since it doesn't even mention the author's name in the titles and sure as hell doesn't have more to do with his work than borrowing a few names and a very vague plot thread that has been changed so much as to become generic, I can't get all that riled up about it. I prefer to see the movie as yet another attempt of an old British geezer (in this case nearly seventy years old director Vernon Sewell working for Trigon) to get at some of that sweet psychedelic zeitgeist money by updating 30s horror movie ideas and concepts with pretty colours, a hilarious party scene and some of the more ridiculous Satanist rituals imaginable.

Needless to say, as a horror movie - old-style or not - Curse is an utter failure, and there's really no need for me to actually get into what's wrong with it in this regard at all; let's just say "everything" and leave it at that.

However, as it is often the case with movies as full of failure as this one, Curse possesses quite a few charms which make it impossible (well, for me at least) not to keep a small place in one's heart reserved for it. This is, after all, a movie that features Barbara Steele (alas, never interacting with Karloff or Lee) keeping her dignity and even some sort of allure in a get-up so silly it could star in its own comedy show; a movie that shows an elderly, ill, wheelchair-bound Boris Karloff stealing every scene he's in with charisma and style, relegating Christopher Lee to a mere stooge whenever they are on screen together; a movie that might have no clue how to be a modern (for 1969) or an old-fashioned horror film, but really tries hard to put all the most cheesy aspects of both on screen. In short, this is a movie you can only hate if you have no heart and no appreciation for the beauty of utter failure.


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

It is the season

for my usual holiday break. Time to grow new tentacles and eat my favourite cultists. Normal service will resume January 31st.

If you (yes YOU) want to talk to me in the meantime, I'll still be on Twitter as @houseinrlyeh and reachable under the usual email.

Happy Holidays to everyone who wants them, and don't forget:

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In short: Halloween Night (1988)

aka Hack-O-Lantern

A Halloween pumpkin delivering Satanist barn sect high priest only known as Grandpa (Hy Pyke) - well, the members of his cult may call him by a different name, but the film ain't tellin' - decides that the time has finally come to fully induct his grandson and son (Gramps did some Satanist hypnosis to his daughter on her wedding day, you see; also, yuck) Tommy (Gregory Scott Cummins) into the fold of EVIL. Tommy is already most of the way there, seeing as he's already of age but still seems to live in a garage with a floor full of unwashed clothing, listens to hair metal, dreams hair metal music videos (no, really), and is a bit violent.

Clearly, either Tommy or Gramps or some random Satanist or Tommy's understandably neurotic mother is the perfect suspect when October 31st and especially the Halloween party of Tommy's sister are disrupted by a handful of murders committed by someone wearing the barn Satanists' favourite garb and a devil mask. Not that anyone notices or cares for much of the film's running time.

If you know Halloween Night's director Jag Mundhra at all, then it's probably as a drab director of drab softcore movies. Looking at his filmography, though, it becomes clear that Mundhra was perfectly willing to direct whatever kind of exploitation people were willing to pay him for (full disclosure: I don't know about the quality or nature of his Bollywood films).

Not that Halloween Night is lacking in softcore parts. In fact, the film does statistically feature one boob ever 6.7 minutes, ending up with a breast count near infinity. On the down side, this amount of gratuitous nudity is so gratuitous that it does at times seem to leave little room for other things one might look for in a horror film, like tension, horror, or (dare I even suggest this?) suspense.

This problem is further heightened by all the other weird crap Mundhra fills the time between breasts and sometimes kills: there's the already mentioned music video Tommy dreams up, an appearance by another, even worse band, (alas the least explicit) sex scene on a grave, an appearance by the worst comedian imaginable doing some shtick about nudie magazines (if Mundhra can't show breasts for a second, he can at least let somebody talk about them), etc. and so on. It's like in one of these late career Santo movies just that there are no nightclubs (those cost too much, I assume) and much more nudity.

Obviously, giving these problems, Halloween Night fails as a narrative just about as hard as it could. On the other hand, if you have your mind set on watching an often random assortment of very 80s slasher movie clichés spiced up with a bit of cardboard Satanism, you've come to the right place. From Hy Pyke's hysterically histrionic performance as Grandpa Satanist to the painful dialogue, the film features everything you could wish for when in search for a bit of 80s cheese. Not to reiterate the point too often, but this is a film where a guy dreams a music video, Satanists meet in a barn to not have sex, and the killer prepares one of his murders by first making his victim's corset a bit tighter than she probably wanted - it's barely even a film, but by Satan, it's stupid enough for half a dozen others. And I mean that as a compliment.


Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Corpse Eaters (1974)

"How did this nice dead young man supposedly mauled by a bear really die?" asks a cynical mortician.

Well, that nice young man was one member of a quartet of thirty-something teenagers looking for a wild time by breaking into a crypt and playfully invoking Satan. Clearly, that's not the thing to do in a horror movie, and so our heroes are attacked by a bunch of zombies. Three make it out, but the so-called bear victim does not survive his following visit to the hospital.

You think he might become a zombie himself and eat a mortician or two?

Canada in the 70s is not quite as famous for its idiosyncratic independent horror movies produced for a regional market as its southern neighbour, but Corpse Eaters (as well as some other films I've seen) proves that the same spirit of individual (and glorious) weirdness could strike the more polite country too.

If you're familiar with this style of filmmaking, you'll not be surprised to hear that the film at hand is far from anything which could be called a "good" movie; in fact, I wouldn't blame anyone for calling it a horrible one. This is, after all, a film barely an hour long that wastes the first twenty-five minutes of its running time on scenes of a mortician driving and driving through a cemetery while he's holding a cynical and completely irrelevant monologue, our quartet of non-teenagers having painful fun to equally painful rock music, and a sex scene, before anything that could be called a plot begins.

For the initiated, that first half hour is already full of wonders - scenes that are staged in the least effective manner (personal favourite: a short dialogue between the back of someone's head and a face invisible thanks to the shadow thrown by a door - it's like instant and completely unconscious art cinema), intercutting of scenes never ever meant to be intercut until things just dissolve into a mess of unconnected pictures, a plot that neither starts nor moves but just is - or rather isn't. It's all beautiful, and, before and after the acid rock starts, accompanied by pretty insane synth warbling.

And that's before the - surprisingly creepy looking - pale dusty zombies appear and start a disconnected feeling, and oh-so-weirdly edited, slow-motion attack which culminates in what might be the longest gut munching scene I've ever seen in a zombie movie, though its length is made problematic to measure by its being intercut with the survivors' car driving away, and driving away, and driving away.

This phase of the movie seems to be the product of a mind who has seen all of zombie cinema 1974 had to offer, wants badly to imitate its greatest moments (therefore the epic gut-munching), but hasn't the faintest idea how to realize this ambition on a technical level. As is sometimes the case, this total cluelessness in regards to how horror is properly done leads the film on the road to actual effectiveness as a horror movie by the sheer power of weirdness, at least for ten minutes or so. It is as if the execution of the zombie attack scenes (and a dream sequence) were so peculiar and strange that these scenes can't help but become disquieting like the long lingering look of a possibly psychotic stranger. It's truly beautiful stuff, at least if you're willing and able to see beauty in films like Tony Malanowski's Night of Horror, or in Manos - The Hands of Fate.

Corpse Eaters is a bit more professionally made than these anti-classics, but it has the same air of being a window into either somebody else's quietly skewed mind or into a dimension populated by people for whom it makes sense to produce a film that just ignores large parts of the common language of film and puts wobbling cameras and loving close-ups of weird looking people in its place.

For my tastes, finding a film like this (or more precisely learning of its existence by reading an awesome sounding and true write-up on the venerable Bleeding Skull, as was the case here) that turns moments of boredom and incompetence into beauty and awe (I'm not kidding, if you need to ask) beats watching most canonical classics - even those I like - by miles. Not to sound even more pretentious than I usually do when I talk about films like Corpse Eaters (that's a sentence I love to have written), but it, and its brethren in spirit, are expressions of some of the best humanity has to offer. Let's call it "soul" (without "a").

And I didn't even mention Corpse Eater's own version of the good old Horror Horn - it's a buzzing noise accompanied by a shot of a nearly bald guy just about to vomit. The best thing about it? It's clearly not meant as a joke.


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Sunday, December 11, 2011

In short: Der Hexer (1964)

aka The Mysterious Magician

aka The Wizard

aka The Ringer

A group of human traffickers of the usual societal make-up in an Edgar Wallace adaptation - a lawyer, a fake priest, etc. - using a very Edgar Wallace human trafficking plan with the usual home for criminal young women and a home-made submarine make a capital mistake when they kill the sister of Arthur Milton, the vigilante known as "Der Hexer" (I'd translate that as "The Warlock", clearly not "The Wizard"). Once Milton hears of his sister's death, he and his wife (Margot Trooger) fly in from their exile in Australia, and they're not just coming for the burial.

Inspector Higgins (Joachim Fuchsberger) does his damndest to catch the traffickers and the vigilante, but even with the help of retired Inspector Warren (Siegfried Lowitz, unconvincingly aged by dying his hair white), Higgins is always one step behind the gangsters and two steps behind Milton who goes about avenging his sister with some enthusiasm. Things would be easier for the two Inspectors if they at least knew how Milton looked, but as it stands, he could be anyone, like, for example, the kleptomaniac comic relief butler (Eddi Arent) or the Australian writer James Wesby (Heinz Drache) with his tendency for always being exactly where Higgins or The Warlock are.

Alfred Vohrer's Der Hexer has always been a favourite among German fans of the Rialto Wallace cycle, yet I can't help but disagree with them emphatically. Sure, the film is decently made on a technical level (though it is not difficult for a movie to look better than your average German movie of this era), and concerns itself with some of the plot elements many of the Wallace films obsess about - the home for difficult young women lead by a shady or fake priest, a genius vigilante, mysterious people from equally mysterious Australia. However, the film is also inordinately in love with particularly unfunny comedy that is disrupting the film as soon as some of its pulp action threatens to become actually fun. Apart from the usual antics by Schürenberg and Arent (that are actually funny in some of the other films, but not here), there's also a lot of humour of the unpleasant "aren't women dumb? - but look at their legs!" type. The film wastes way too much time on jokes about Higgins's brain-dead girlfriend stereotype that haven't been funny when they were invented back in the stone age, and sure weren't funny anymore in 1964.

As I already mentioned, Der Hexer isn't too bad visually, but Vohrer never achieves the creative mix of the stiff German melodrama, weird pop stylings, noir influence and home-made Gothic he does best. There are a few scenes of good, dynamically edited pulp action, and the camera sure isn't nailed down, yet that's as far as Der Hexer ever comes. This aspect of the movie is just too routine to make it worth wading through the "humour" for.


Saturday, December 10, 2011

On WTF: Magic of the Universe (1986)

If your days are darkened by movies that just make too much sense, if most films' love of reason depresses you, then it's time to read my words about Magic of the Universe, a movie about an evil witch with a pulsating head and an enormous posse of freaks (including a monster band and a thing with a magic TV as its belly). You can thank me later.


Thursday, December 8, 2011

In short: Rage of the Yeti (2011)

Billionaire Mills (actor turned director of this thing David Hewlett in a series of smug cameos) hires a bunch of idiots (actor names redacted to protect the guilty) to rescue another bunch of idiots (names also redacted) who got into trouble trying to steal an old Chinese codex from a Canadian Arctic island.

The book came to the island via the wreck of British ship carrying crap the Chinese emperor didn't care for and so loaded off onto the British (no, really, that's the backstory). Alas, besides the book, there was also a group of Yeti on the ship (yup, they were other crap the Emperor didn't care for). The creatures survived the wreck and have somehow managed to eke out a living from the barren wasteland they were stranded on, so that their descendants can now threaten - and hopefully eat - both bunches of idiots.

As if being dumb and having Yeti trouble weren't enough, our heroes also have to cope with traitors working for another billionaire in dire need of a codex among them, as well as the fact that their own billionaire wants his own life yeti once he realizes those are available.

I think I may have made my general position about the SyFy [sic] Channel's movie productions already clear. I have probably used terms like "crap", "not fun", "not funny", "lazy writing", "certainly not as clever as it thinks it is" and "painfully bad CG effects" when I did, so colour me somewhat surprised when I realized that I was kinda-sorta okay with this one.

Sure, Rage of the Yeti's script has all the originality and depth of something put together during the course of thirty minutes (and probably put down on a paper napkin), but unlike a lot of other SyFy movies I've seen, it's decently paced - for once in one of these films, we actually start in medias res and don't really stop for long until it is over -, and shows a sense of fun. Sometimes, that sense of fun goes a bit too much in the direction of the loathsome "we know this is crap, but it's all, like, ironic, man" I still blame on Wes Craven's Scream movies, but more often than not, the film gives the impression of being written by people doing their best to throw cool shit on screen because they actually want to entertain their audience with a decent monster movie, instead of promising things they aren't then willing to deliver.

David Hewlett's direction is basically okay. He doesn't have much of a visual imagination, his action direction is pretty pedestrian, and he seems to have a thing for his own - and other people's - feet that reminds me disturbingly of Doris Wishman, but there's not much truly wrong with anything he does. Well, except for the foot thing. This puts Hewlett above most of the directors (except for Tibor Takacs) slaving away for SyFy, and about on par with your typical point-and-shooter, so I'm not going to complain.

Rage of the Yeti's major downside are clearly its special effects, with the expected boring and ugly monster design (what's with the teeth?), as well as the usual lack of physicality of everything on display. I am, however, willing to overlook crappy effects in a film like this that is working hard at wringing some excitement out of them, for that is all I ever ask of a low budget monster movie.


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Wednesday, December 7, 2011

In short: The Edgar Wallace Mystery Theatre - The Man Who Was Nobody (1960)

The German Rialto movies were of course not the only Edgar Wallace adaptations made during the 60s. In Wallace's home the UK, Merton Park Studios produced a ton of short b-movies (in the initial sense of the word) between 1960 and 1965, of which The Man Who Was Nobody is an early example.

I have to say, though, that this is hardly playing in the same league as the Rialto movies. Sure, the plot is Wallace-typically overcomplicated, but the British production side-lines the pulp elements and the plain, over-excited weirdness the German Wallace movies loved to play up as much as possible until The Man is only ever another mystery movie without much to excite one.

It sure doesn't help the movie much that its director Montgomery Tully - who always was good at making a perfectly entertaining set-up boring - does not seem to believe in doing even the slightest thing that may be of visual interest to anyone. Though the camera isn't nailed down, it might as well be for all the non-excitement Tully's going for.

The Man isn't a total loss, though, for it thankfully features a very surprising element for a Wallace adaptation - an early 60s hip female private detective as its main hero. Even better, said heroine Marjorie Stedman is played by Hazel Court. Court seems to have quite a bit of fun with her role; she's certainly doing her best making a lot of rather boring and trite scenes of not very exciting adventures in talking to less than exciting people at least look somewhat glamorous and exciting. It's probably not enough to save the film for anyone who doesn't know and admire the actress from Corman's Poe adaptations, but Court fans like me will certainly enjoy seeing her associate with beatniks and be the only actor in the film who actually seems to be alive.


Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The House (2007)

Original title: Baan phii sing

(Not to be confused with the army of other movies of the same title)

Warning: even though I'm not spelling out the film's main plot twist, I'll discuss is concretely enough to possibly spoil it for some; obviously, if you think the mere mention of plot twists is a spoiler, please don't read reviews of anything, ever.

Thai TV journalist Chalini (Intira Charoenpura) - usually called "Nee" - is investigating the story of young (but not very young looking) doctor Vasan's (Worapong Nimwijtr) murder of his girlfriend. Her enquiries eventually lead Nee to the house - part of a housing program of the hospital the doctor worked in - Vasan lived and killed in. Despite the dire, syrup-y blood rich, warnings of a female ghost to not enter it, and the less freaky warnings of the place's caretaker, Nee still does enter, only to meet with visions of more dread, doom and murder and a fainting spell there. What a stroke of luck that her boyfriend, the slightly sleazy lawyer Nuanchavee (Chutcha Rujinanon) - called "Nuan" - is in the area to distract the caretaker and so is able to rescue her from the house when she doesn't come back.

For a lot of people, Nee's experiences with the supernatural until now would be quite enough to keep them from poking their noses into the murder case any further, but our heroine is of a much more persistent type. That persistence pays off well when the journalist finds out that Vasan is not the first doctor living in the house who killed his spouse or girlfriend. It's as if something dwelling in the house is out to perpetuate its own pain by reliving it through others.

While Nee is researching, her relationship with Nuan becomes increasingly strained. The couple never seems to have completely talked through Nuan's problems with Nee having a job, her not wanting to become pregnant right now and her not being much of a housewife (don't you like her already?), but what once was a point of contention now angers Nuan to the point of violence. Add to that a bunch of burned ghosts angrily whispering in his ears, trying to convince the lawyer Nee is cheating on him and has to die for that, and you might assume history is bound to repeat itself again.

Monthon Arayangkoon's The House is a bit of a frustrating effort. It's not a bad movie by any definition of the word: too slickly and effectively does the director work around an obviously low budget - at least until an ill-advised CGI sequence in the movie's finale that I'll just let slide because I may not like its execution but do like its concept; too clear are the film's ambitions at consciously using the opportunities its kind of ghost story offers to talk about things like the divides and the distrust that can grow in a relationship which doesn't really face important differences in outlook between the partners (with a pinch of "beginnings of abusive relationships" thrown in); too knowingly - sometimes even elegantly - does Arayangkoon use the standard tropes and shocks of post-Ringu Asian horror cinema; too decent is the work of the actors.

All these elements should add up to a movie that is interesting and good, probably even one well on its way to excellence, but (isn't there always a "but" with me?) The House falters when it goes the well-trodden route of the "plot twist at the beginning of the final act". Conceptually, The House's plot twist is a rather good one, seeing as it is based on subverting gender expectations (though one could also interpret it as a rather nasty jab at the belief in the equality of men and women - I don't read it that way), and does make sense in the context of the movie's plot, which is more than I can say about a lot of final act plot twists in horror films. Alas, the twist's execution leaves something to be desired, because The House only begins to emphasize the subjectivity of what it shows us after the twist has already been played out, and shows a few things that only work as red herrings but not as an organic part of the movie once the audience knows what's really going on.

Instead of the feeling of shock and the satisfaction of a well-constructed lie it goes for (I do like playfulness of that sort in my writing, when it works), The House's twist produced mild annoyance that the film had been lying to me all this time - which is a sure-fire way to destroy immersion exactly at the point when a movie should want its audience as deeply immersed in its world as possible.

Once pulled out of the movie this way, I found myself too distanced from the finale to care as much about it as the film wanted me too, still seeing and appreciating parts of its emotional point, but not feeling these points as I was supposed to.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Unnamable II: The Statement of Randolph Carter (1993)

Despite having been made five years later, The Unnamable II begins right where The Unnamable ended. The bodies of the Unnamable's victims are recovered by the police, and the female lead and Howard (Charles Klausmeyer) are hospitalized, the former never to be seen again (I blame non-Euclidean geometry). However, as the expository ghost of Winthrop - aka the guy responsible for the monster whom you might remember possessing a tree in part one - helpfully explains to Howard, the monster problem is not solved, for his roots might be able to hold the-monster-who-is-also-his-daughter, but they can't and won't kill her/it even though the Fate of the World™ is at stake.

Fortunately, Randolph Carter (Mark Kinsey Stephenson) still has the Necronomicon and is not afraid to use it. Together with Professor of Folklore (I think) Warren (John Rhys-Davies), Randolph mounts an expedition into the tunnels below the Winthrop house. There they do find a pretty sprightly yet still rooted monster. Because of some hand-waving QUANTUM SCIENCE(!), our heroes realize that the monster does actually consist of two separate halves existing in the same place in space and time. Or something. One of the halves is Winthrop's daughter Alyda, and the other a demon (shouldn't that be a creature from the Outer Dark?).

Clearly, the best thing to do with the couple is to inject Alyda with insulin so that the demon thinks she's dying, wait until the demon leaves, and then save Alyda's life with the magic of sugar cubes! Would you believe that Alyda turns out to be a very naked young woman (Maria Ford) of understandably dubious mental faculties who falls for Carter head over heels, and that the demon (a rubber-suited Julie Strain) does not return where it came for but kills a bunch of people to get her host back?

Only some random pages of the Necronomicon (that will turn out to be utterly useless) and a trusty chair can save our heroes.

I did not get along too well with Jean-Paul Ouellette's first Unnamable movie, which I thought was a rather boring, but at least not hopeless, example of the late 80s Young People Running Through A Dark House movie. I wouldn't exactly call its sequel a good movie, yet Unnamable II is at least a major improvement on the first film on all fronts in so far as it is still a silly monster movie with a lot of running around in dark buildings, but it's now a silly monster movie with a lot of running around in dark buildings that actually manages to be somewhat fun. Plus, the running takes place in more than one building - there's even running in a library! (Don't do that in real life, kids!)

Unnamable II does even work a bit better as a Lovecraft adaptation. It's not that it's actually Lovecraftian, yet it does at least feature the right jargon for some of the time, drops the proper names and might even be onto something fitting into Lovecraft's cosmology with its quantum physics angle (if the script only knew what "quantum physics" actually are); that's surely not enough to make the old gent's more easily annoyed fans happy, but I'm quite pleased with Ouellette's efforts.

As you might imagine after reading the plot, the film's script is no great shakes. It suffers from a meandering structure and an unfortunate tendency to include quite a few scenes of particularly awkward humour, some of which is based on Alyda being played by softcore actress (whose bodily assets are - in a very puritanical and not very exploitation movie appropriate manner - hidden by a judiciously applied wig) Maria Ford but having the mental development of a child. It's the sort of thing that could make the more morally upright viewer a bit uncomfortable in her skin. As someone not quite as upright, I'm fortunately not able to take the film seriously enough to be scandalized by little things like that. This is, after all, a movie where the unnamable, bullet-resistant evil is conquered by the power of a very normal chair.

On the more positive side, I probably should mention a small cameo by David Warner and the somewhat longer appearance of John Rhys-Davies doing a pretty funny example of his special brand of avuncular scenery-chewing. Stephenson has improved quite a bit since the first movie, losing some of the stiffness of his performance and gaining not exactly believability, but the sort of artificiality that works well in this sort of thing.

It's easy to criticize The Unnamable II for its manifold flaws, but I found it just as easy to be rather charmed and entertained by them and it, as well as by the good-natured way it goes about being a monster movie about a girl in a monster suit doing what people in monster suits have done since time immemorial.


Saturday, December 3, 2011

On WTF: The Invisible Man vs. The Human Fly (1957)

Original title: Tomei Ningen To Hae Otoko

WATCH astonishing DEEDS of super SCIENCE! Witness the DEATH REIGN of the HUMAN FLY! THRILL to the heroic adventures of THE INVISIBLE MAN!

Only in this week's column on WTF-Film!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

In short: Alternative 3 (1977)

While making a reportage about the brain drain of scientific minds from Britain, the team of UK's Anglia TV's Science Report stumbles upon a series of suspicious disappearances of highly qualified people. The investigation leads the journalists onto the trail of a grand conspiracy among international governments that at once tries to hide the truth about climate change and the coming inhospitability of Earth for human life and their solution to the problem: cart off a few chosen ones to the moon and a terraformed Mars.

Obviously, the Apollo program was only devised to distract the populace from what's actually going on, and if that doesn't work, there are clearly other steps the conspiracy is willing to take to keep things on Earth calm.

Alternative 3 is a fine demonstration of the fact that the fake documentary is not a filmic form invented in this century. Initially meant to be an April Fool's joke but only broadcast in June 1977, this episode of the actual science show Science Report recommends itself to friends of conspiracy theories by virtue of a well-constructed conspiracy that is - as is only fair and proper for something in a science show - on the more sensible side of conspiracy theories and avoids all the alien abduction and grey reptiloids eating our fear business, instead opting for something´more based in actual scientific ideas going around at the time, like proper Science Fiction.

Apart from the quality of its construction and an air of objectiveness that fits the documentary format nicely, Alternative 3 also succeeds surprisingly well as a TV movie. I wouldn't have expected people with a background in journalism instead of fiction to be quite so adept at simple yet effective dramaturgical and directorial tricks as the makers of the movie are, but there's a nice sense of escalation throughout the script as well as some really clever uses of the documentary format. The film even uses different formats of footage to create verisimilitude as well as the proper mood. The latter is further enhanced with the help of a soundtrack by Brian Eno which sets a fitting ambience for the story the film presents. Eno's presence and the obvious care the film takes with little details demonstrate how much love has gone into it - there's nothing half-assed about what should be a throw-away episode; in fact, I'd be glad if more of the found footage movies booming right now would take an approach this careful and loving.

Having congratulated it on it's verisimilitude, I'm still a bit surprised that Alternative 3's conspiracy theory seems to have become the basis for some actual conspiracy theories. There are even some people who think the show is an actual documentary only pretending to be a fake, even though it should be pretty obvious to anyone who has ever seen a movie how much what happens on screen is carefully staged. And let's not even start on the actors clearly acting.

But that's crackpots for you.


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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Three Films Make A Post: A Shriek You Will Remember In Your Frightmares!

Super 8 (2011): So, we've now reached a point where filmmakers are making nostalgic films about films that had a nostalgic view of childhood, and get these films produced by the people whose films they are nostalgic about. While I will always disagree with the Spielbergian position on childhood as a precious and magical time for everyone, J.J. Abrams' film sells the concept much better than the guy whose work he so obviously adores, mostly because Abram is much better at acknowledging the parts of childhood that aren't bicycles and unicorns. Plus, the film has a very satisfying monster and - even in a happy end - does understand that life is messy and complicated more than anything Spielberg himself ever did.

Mimic - The Director's Cut (1997): This cut does not turn a flawed yet good monster movie into a masterpiece, but it excises some of the Weinstein cut's least effective moments (second unit material much hated by director Guillermo del Toro, it seems), and manages to add a bit more humanity to its characters through the slightest of additions. There's also a much more visible subtext about the concept of motherhood in there now, that avoids much of what usually is annoying when male directors try their hands at commenting on the theme.

Additionally, Del Toro's audio commentary tells a great filmmaking horror story of the sort that makes one wonder how Miramax ever managed to put out a decent movie.

Ghastly (2011): The directorial debut of South Korean Ko Seo-jin may not have a single original idea in its head (or script) and may be about as subtle as a sledgehammer yet it is a tight little spook show that never pulls any of its punches and doesn't overstay its welcome. There are a few too many dream sequences in it for my tastes, though.

It's just another film about a possessed/evil child and hacked off body parts, but it's still perfectly entertaining.


Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Assignment Naschy: A Dragonfly For Each Corpse (1974)

Original title: Una libélula para cada muerto

A black-garbed and red-trousered killer strolls around Milan, killing addicts, prostitutes and lovers of kinky sex, leaving an artificial dragonfly with each corpse. To prove himself after a never explained case that went spectacularly bad, sadistic, mean-spirited cigar-chomping Inspector Paolo Scaporella (Paul Naschy) is put on the case. Scaporella - whom the film first shows threatening a flasher with death the next time he sees him - seems not too excited about the prospect, for he thinks the victims are getting exactly what they deserve. But it's a job, right?

Scaporella's actual investigation plays out with him not doing much for a while, except getting his wife Silvana (Erika Blanc), who is clearly the brains of the marriage, interested in the case and using a dinner party to a) learn that the dragonfly is a Chaldean symbol to mark "degenerates" and b) put a friendly gay fashion designer to finding out who made the special button he found with one of the victims. The latter will - quite unlike anything Scaporella is going to do - be important later on, but until the film reaches that point, it's scenes and scenes of our "hero" walking around chomping on his cigar, getting pascha-ed by his wife and beaten up by nazi bikers while following up clues that won't actually be important later on. Once the audience really has enough of that, the killings finally reach the inspector's friends from that all important dinner party. There's just enough time for Silvana getting close to the truth and herself in danger before Scaporella understands what's going on.

Directed by Paul Naschy's frequent collaborator León Klimovsky, Dragonfly is the duo's attempt at fusing the Italian giallo and the Italian cop movie by combining both genre's worst traits into a single, meandering piece of reactionary boredom.

So we get the silly mystery full of holes and the loosely structured plot typical of the giallo without much of the genre's visual panache; we get the cop film's hatred of everything and everyone who is different without much of its hatred for large-scale corruption, its often conflicted view of its cop heroes or its exciting action scenes.

Naschy's Scaporella is clearly set-up to be the shining hero of the piece. Yes, the audience is supposed to admire a guy who lets a wounded gangster he's going to arrest crawl to his car on his wounded leg, and who only sees "degenerates" deserving of death in addicts, prostitutes and people who like utterly innocent things like threesomes and necrophiliac role-play. If you see a clear opportunity for the film to explore some rather interesting points about how close its supposed hero and its villain are, then you're a lot cleverer than Naschy's script - like he does with everything potentially interesting in it, Naschy decides not to explore that aspect to put in another scene of himself being shirtless, as if you couldn't combine these things perfectly in some sexposition if you wanted to.

Another of the film's problems is that its ideas of what's "degenerate", and its way of showing them off is painfully behind what the Italians did and unpleasantly reactionary. Where even the most suspect giallos are so gleeful in their depiction of sex and depravity (or "depravity") that it's usually impossible to tell if they are in awe of or looking down on it (I usually suspect them to do both at once), Dragonfly really is so little into that sort of thing that it shows nearly none of it in an interesting way, leaving me neither shocked by the depths of human depravity as I'm clearly supposed to be, nor titillated as I'd have liked to be.

But even if you ignore these problems and flaws, Dragonfly just plain doesn't work as a mystery or a crime film. I could live with the ridiculousness of the set-up, but Naschy the writer is not someone able to produce the tightness of script that would be the only thing able to save the film. It's all wandering around and Naschy showing off how awesome he is without ever actually being awesome. Our supposed hero really comes off as a particularly dense bully who should listen to his wife more (even when she calls that thinking he never does "women's intuition"), stumbling through a case that's just not all that interesting.


Sunday, November 27, 2011

Prokletinja (1975)

Most of Prokletinja's story is told via flashbacks starting during the inquest about the death of a man that is held in his shack somewhere out in the wilderness. The man - who like everyone else in the movie is nameless - had come to the place following rumours of a "Damned Thing", something invisible roaming the wilderness. He became increasingly obsessed with the thing, discussing its philosophical implications and the shattering of his beliefs it caused with a journalist he was friends with, until he finally was killed by it.

For pretty obvious political reasons, what with the notorious negativity and lack of "scientific reason" in the genre, there wasn't much horror produced in countries east of the Iron Curtain. Sometimes, however, as the slow dripping of fan-subbed TV productions from 1970s Yugoslavia suggests, filmmakers did have a bit of leeway to turn towards the darker side of the fantastic.

Prokletinja is director, screenwriter and actor Branko Plesa's (who is also playing the man holding the inquest) version of Ambrose Bierce's short story The Damned Thing. It's an hour-long TV movie, so Plesa probably did not have many resources to work with, but he does make fine use of what he had, namely the black and white (at least in the version I saw; I'm not sure if the film was actually shot in black and white) cinematography of Milorad Markovic and a darkly dramatic soundtrack by Stanko Terzic.

Terzic's soundtrack is predominantly used to impress the presence of the damned thing on the audience. There are a bit of fog, some growling and some moving bushes later on in the movie, for large parts of it, however, only the soundtrack, the expressions on the actors' faces and the threatening undertone of Markovic's nature shots are what create the monster in our minds. If you're an imaginative sort like I am, this method should work well for the movie and you, following the old adage that the most frightful things you can see in a horror movie are those things you don't see.

Plesa is more interested in the philosophical implications and in the world-view shattering dread the creature causes the film's main character anyway. As it stands, the Damned Thing's mere existence puts in doubt the nameless dweller in the wilderness's formerly scientific and orderly view of life, and suggests to him that the order of nature and mankind's position in it he believed in are just plain wrong. Worse, he may not like at all what he thinks has to take the place of the things he did believe in.

Aesthetically, Prokletinja rather reminds me of an arty Spaghetti Western turned Weird West (actually, I'm not sure if the actor's clothing are supposed to suggest the early 18th century US or Yugoslavia - it's not that important for the film at hand, I think, but I'd go with the former if I had to) Gothic horror. There are a lot of close-up shots of hairy, dirty-faced and obviously very poor men staring at a point beside the camera, and a dry, somewhat cynical humour of the type the Spaghetti Western genre and Ambrose Bierce shared; at other times, weirdly effective slowly swirling camera movement and slow-motion shots of animals that suggest the main character's new, horrific view of nature remind of something one of the Sergios might have shot in an especially philosophical mood.

If you like your obscure horror movies with a philosophical bend (and therefore more in tune with the classic weird tale as with modern ideas of horror), Prokletinja is a film to search out. It also makes me pretty curious about some of the other TV movies Plesa directed during the 70s. Hopefully, some daring fansubber will enlighten us about them one day (I sure don't think we'll ever get to see official releases of movies like these).


Saturday, November 26, 2011

In short: Prayer Beads (2004)

A woman and her imaginary children take bitter vengeance on the friend who slept with her husband. A vending machine in the country is the source of a very special soft drink. A doctor takes a drug that lets him see the worms and tentacles that are really inside of people. A creepy anime character fulfils wishes in a variation of the story of the monkey's paw. Two elderly espers hunt down and explode the killer of their granddaughter.

These and other stories belong to the Japanese nine-part horror anthology series Prayer Beads. Most of the episodes are written and directed by a certain Masahiro Okano, who also has a "supervised by" credit. Okano seems to exclusively work for Japanese TV, so info about him or what else he did is hard to find on the Western internet. It is pretty clear, though, that he has extensive knowledge of all the horror clichés you'd find in this type of anthology show, and is not ashamed of using them.

The episodes are shot in the somewhat raw and cheap looking style typical of contemporary Japanese TV. Okano and the other directors do their best to use this rawness to give most of the episodes an immediacy that is making it much easier to swallow the sillier of the stories. In a few episodes, there are pretty effective attempts at producing a more dream-like feel and pacing through the magic of weird and fast editing and colour filters, or by going the extra mile and actually creating cheap animation for the anime-themed episode. This sort of thing doesn't let the show's budget look more impressive on screen, but it demonstrates an interest in the details and a willingness to experiment that makes it difficult to argue against a show this visibly putting an extra effort in.

Tonally, Prayer Beads is all over the place. Some episodes are examples of earnest yet weird character psychology-based horror, while others, like the vending machine episode or the mushroom hunt story, seem to exist mostly to set up a rubbery gore gag, which in case of the vending machine story is absolutely worth it. The show isn't at all timid when it comes to the rubbery gore anyhow - generally, Okano seems to belong to the school of Japanese horror that just loves to put improbable explosions of red and gooey stuff on screen, at least as far as the TV budget and TV morals allow.

All in all, Prayer Beads is worth watching. There's nothing sensational or original about the show, but it's clear that its producers have their hearts in the right places and know how to have fun with the traditions of the horror genre.


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Friday, November 25, 2011

Assignment Naschy: El Retorno Del Hombre Lobo (1980)

aka Night of the Werewolf

aka The Craving

aka Return of the Wolfman

As you know, Hungarian countess Elizabeth Bathory (Julia Saly) got in a bit of trouble with the Church for black magic, cannibalism, Satanism and that little thing with bathing in the blood of virgins, leading to the execution of her and her co-satanists and servants. Among those servants was the wolfman Waldemar Daninsky (of course Paul Naschy). Wally wasn't in it for Satan but for reasons of mind control, but clearly, that's not a thing that saves one from death by silver cross through the heart by the loving hands of the Church.

Centuries later, a trio of anthropologists and parapsychologists - Erika (Silvia Aguilar), Karin (Azucena Hernández) and Barbara (Pilar Alcón) - have spent years trying to find the place where Bathory and her servants are buried, and have now finally found it. Little do Karin and Barbara realize that Erika isn't on the side of science(!) anymore but has been converted to the ways of black magic through telepathic contact with the dead and buried Bathory. Consequently, Erika isn't planning on just examining the countess's grave but wants to revive its inhabitant with the help of a magical amulet and the blood of her two friends.

Some undefined space of time before that, while Erika is still killing to get the amulet and the other women are waiting around in Rome, graverobbers have found the crypt of Waldemar. Clearly, a silver cross is too much of a temptation not to steal it for them, even if it is sticking in a corpse's chest, and so the wolfman lives and (oh so tragically, if "tragic" means "without ever doing anything to avoid it") kills again. Together with supposed witch Mircalla (Beatriz Elorrieta) he off-screen-rescues from angry villagers, Wally moves into an abandoned castle close by the ruins and the system of crypts and underground tunnels where Elizabeth is buried, seemingly planning to wait around until a woman comes around who will love him enough to sacrifice herself to kill him.

When the trio of scientists arrives in the area, it fastly becomes clear that Karin is exactly the woman Waldemar has been looking for, but before they can commit double suicide, there are a few other problems for the couple to solve, for Erika manages to bring Bathory back to unlife as a vampire with a taste for creating other female vampires and ambitions for world and wolfman domination. Obviously, there's a wolfman versus vampire women throw-down standing between our heroes and their preferred end.

Even though I still have my problems with various elements of Paul Naschy's creative persona, my fastly growing experience with his body of work has shown the man to be the sort of artist capable and willing to learn from his mistakes, try new things even in the context of a long-running series like the Daninsky films, and improve his weak spots with every film he makes. To my eyes, this sort of passion for improving on previous efforts instead of coasting on their successes deserves much respect.

In El Retorno's case, Naschy is taking the improving pretty far, for the film is a re-working of the man's earlier Noche De Walpurgis, with many of the old film's problems removed and additions made that make the film much more dramatically involved and less random in its feel and structure. Even those of Naschy's weaknesses as a scriptwriter that reappear like bad pennies - namely a tendency to tell in stiffly expository dialogue scenes what he really should be showing - are comparatively reigned in and even make a certain amount of sense this time around. In El Retorno, Naschy isn't showing certain things because they may be important for the plot but are just not very interesting to watch, or are, like the process of Waldemar and Karin falling in love with each other, supposedly so natural - we are talking about the perfect male specimen here, after all - that there's just no need to dwell on them.

Transitions are left out completely, unless they involve skimpily clad vampire women returning into their graves (priorities, you know), which surprisingly does wonders to tighten the film's pacing as well as helps produce the dream-like mood continental European horror in the early 80s had often already lost.

For El Retorno, Naschy has also entered the director's chair, and instead of ending in a megalomaniac clusterfuck, this actually results in a Daninsky film that for once feels like a whole, losing the messiness I now suspect to be a result of directors and scriptwriter/lead actor of the other films in the series not seeing eye to eye about what they were trying to achieve. The price for this new-won unity of purpose is the loss of the batshit craziness I've learned to associate with Naschy, but Naschy the director replaces craziness with oodles of gothic mood and some very supernatural and weird (capital w version) feeling vampire women who very convincingly move from the seductive to the animalistic and back again, like they move from otherworldly gliding to predatory leaps. Julia Saly (who did work quite a bit with Naschy), Silvia Aguilar and Beatriz Elorrieta are properly great as the vampires, too, adding a distance and a sense for melodrama and some pretty fantastic screeching noises to their roles and making the perfect foil for Naschy's by now excellent wolfman and Azucena Hernández' sometimes feisty, sometimes whimpering (always doomed) heroine.

In Retorno, Naschy manages to unite his two main interests of his work - the comic book/pulp stylings and the more atmospheric parts inspired by Universal and Hammer horror - until they become something all his own. Turns out I don't miss the craziness of many of his other films at all in this case.


Thursday, November 24, 2011

Things I Thought While Watching Conan The Barbarian (2011)

for it's really not worth a proper review. Yes, I know I've reviewed much worse films.

  • Oh hey, it's another Robert E. Howard adaptation that has fuck all to do with the stories it's supposed to adapt. Now if it were at least good…
  • The Hyborian age was so brown, people even bled a brownish hue. Remember when movies had colours in them?
  • Wait, so Jason Momoa is Ron Perlman's son? I think that's the sort of situation paternity tests were invented for.
  • Li'l Conan shows all the signs of becoming a psychopathic serial killer. I would not suggest forging a sword for him, but then I'm not Ron Perlman. Also, now I want to watch an all ages cartoon show named "Li'l Conan".
  • Slow motion horsemen. I dunno how they ever manage to ride down anyone, what with them moving much slower than normal riders or people on foot.
  • You gotta love how these war-like non-nomadic Barbarian movie tribes always have no defensive structures whatsoever at their places of habitation and always seem completely unprepared for any attack.
  • Ron Perlman prefers death to being in this movie any longer. I do understand, Ron, I really do. The bad guy doesn't, though, so he just has to hold out for one scene longer. Say "War. War never changes", Ron!
  • Is denositation a word? If it is, that's what Conan's good at.
  • These barbarian tribe members all have fantastic teeth. Except for most of the bad guys, of course. I imagine time travelling dentists with high morals are to blame.
  • Aha, so all the actual Howard stuff happened between little Conan shouting "Grraaaaar" and becoming Jason Momoa so that there's room for the crap the scriptwriter came up with instead of Red Nails.
  • And now he's a leading member of a gang of hard-partying pirates.
  • Conan is way too fond of decapitations for comfort. And of torturing people and then being a dick to them afterwards. I thought he was a Cimmerian, not an American.
  • The Shadowlord? But which one? And where is Lord British?
  • Conan has known his pirate friends since he was a child, but he only now mentions the name of the guy who killed Ron Perlman (and wiped out Conan's tribe, but that's obviously not worth mentioning). He's only playing to the camera.
  • Hooray for martial arts monks!
  • In a surprising twist, Rachel Nichols is actually allowed to be competent in a fight.
  • It's rude to discuss the property rights to a woman in front of her. I think.
  • "Woman! Come here! I said, come here!". That element of Howard they did not change.
  • Stop the press! The big bad has a motivation apart from being evil!
  • They're bickering and he's tying her up. Obviously, these two are meant for each other.
  • "Why would you save me only to tie me up?"
  • My incest sense is tingling.
  • I think someone responsible for the production mixed up Conan and the Punisher.
  • Exploding barrels! Why didn't I invent them? I'm sure I'd be rich now.
  • You know, I'd totally watch a movie about Rachel Nichols' character having swashbuckling adventures instead of the one about Jason Momoa avenging his father in a very brown land.
  • So Conan is a grunter during sex. Who'd have thunk?
  • Obligatory kidnapping of female lead so we can have more scenes of Conan scowling and mumbling through his dialogue. Which is what this movie thinks is "being heroic and badass". Bored now.
  • Why isn't this scene awesome? It has Conan fighting a tentacle monster below him and bad guys around him while also trying to protect a thief companion. There are cages and chains. And yet it's still not very exciting at all. I don't think Marcus Nispel is all that good at this directing lark.
  • "Behold - in despair - your new master!". I wouldn't work as a henchman for this guy, but then I am something of a wimp.
  • "Barbarian, I don't like you anymore". I assume when they taught smack talk in villain school, Mister Bad Guy did not attend.
  • Dual-wielding broadswords looks dumb.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

In short: Ministry of Fear (1944)

England, 1944. Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) is released from the asylum he spent the last two years of his life in for the mercy-killing of his fatally ill wife into the bomb-scourged countryside. On his way to London, Stephen visits a charity country fair and wins himself a cake under slightly complicated and bizarre circumstances that involve a fortune teller and attempts to renege on the promised cake (I wouldn't be surprised if GLaDOS had seen the movie, really). Next thing Stephen knows is a fake blind man is stealing his cake, only to be hit by a German bomb.

Stephen can't let the strange occurrences he experienced rest, so, once he has arrived in London, he begins a series of enquiries that will lead him onto the trail of a Nazi spy ring. Stephen will visit a drunk private detective, take part in a séance that will leave him under the suspicion of being a killer, and stumble into the arms of an Austrian émigré (Marjorie Reynolds) who may either be the woman he's going to marry or a Nazi spy herself.

I know this is still something of a sacrilegious idea in certain circles, but I've always preferred Fritz Lang's Hollywood movies to those he made in his first German phase. I think it has something to do with the friction between a fiercely intellectually independent like Lang and the strictness of the Hollywood system, or rather the sparks that can result when a director has to fight for every self-indulgence (see for example also Seijun Suzuki).

Ministry of Fear has always been one of my favourite films by Lang. This will probably not come as much of a surprise to regular readers of this blog (hi, Mum!), for Ministry of Fear contains many of the elements known to get me excited. First and foremost, there's a feeling of the bizarre (and sometimes the whimsical) lying at its heart, as if it were perfectly reasonable for a Nazi spy ring to hide McGuffins away in cakes and stage fake séances to cover their tracks and scare interlopers away; if you need realism instead of the peculiar yet coherent logic of certain types of mental illnesses or dreams in your plots, you'll probably despair of Lang's film quite soon.

Ray Milland's Reynolds is obviously the perfect foil for a plot of this kind, because he's more than just a little unsure of his own position in life and reality, and at first clearly can't decide if he's gotten so out of step with life in the world that quotidian reality looks strange to him, or if quotidian reality itself has gotten out of step. Lang's matter-of-fact depiction of wartime England as a place where it's as normal as waiting at a bus stop to keep to blackout rules and calmly go to the next bomb shelter once the bomb warnings sound emphasises this feeling of a world that's become strange even further. Once the outside world has reached a point like it did during World War II, Lang's film seems to say, there's just no telling what's real and what a paranoid fantasy. There might never have been that much of a difference anyway.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Zombies: The Beginning (2007)

Who would call the sequel to a movie "The Beginning"? Bruno Mattei is who, demonstrating the crystal clear sense of logic you expect from his body of work.

Now, you may remember that Island of the Living Dead ended with our last survivor Sharon (Yvette Yzon) being declared dead by her rescuers and rising again as a zombie. Curiously enough, this hasn't actually happened, and Sharon (who turns out to be a doctor of biology, by the way) is alive and well and suffering from regular nightmares. If you're a more generous person than I am, you might read the first movie's ending as one of Sharon's nightmares, but dear Bruno doesn't actually bother to sell it that way. Anyhow, it also turns out that the protagonists of the last movie were lying to us when they repeatedly called themselves treasure hunters and acted that way, for they were in fact working salvage operations for an evil corporation, Tyler Inc.

Obviously, Tyler Inc. doesn't believe Ripley'sSharon's story about alienszombies killing her crew mates and fires her for reasons of mental instability and "the inexplicable explosion" (cough, self-destruct button, cough) of her ship, leaving RipSharon with working at the docksbecoming a Buddhist nun as her only career option. If you know Mattei's films, you'll probably now have flashbacks to the other times when he ripped off James Cameron's Aliens, and verily, he does it again. Only this time around, Mattei keeps even closer to Aliens' narrative structure, leaving Zombies with nary a scene that isn't mirroring another one from what we must imagine to be the Italian's favourite film. Good old Bruno (or his script-writers, returning Antonio Tentori and new guy Giovanni Paolucci) manages to borrow even more of the original's dialogue than he and his buddy Claudio Fragasso did in the best movie ever aka Shocking Dark, though I am a little disappointed he didn't find a way to include anything about nuking the place from orbit. I also decry the sad absence of androids.

Given that everybody really should know the plot of Aliens, there's no need for me to do any further plot synopsising for Zombies. Just imagine Aliens without Newt and Bishop (and of course without anything taking the place of Newt in motivating Ripley/Sharon, because we can't have her act in a way that makes sense, right?) and with mutant zombies and later on conehead mutant zombies replacing the aliens, and an inexplicable and unexplained talking - of course with a British accent, for all brains are British - brain in a glass cage standing in for the alien mother. If much of the plot doesn't seem to make much sense to you after these replacements, hey, it's a Mattei movie, and the man aimed to please. I think.

As a matter of fact, I found myself hard pressed to not be pleased by Zombies while watching it. This reaction to what happened on screen is probably on the same level as the delight of a certain kind of anime fan confronted with scenes of female characters whose breasts make "boink! boink!" noises when they move, but what can a guy like me do when confronted with a guy like Bruno Mattei not having learned a bit about filmmaking in all the years he worked as a director.

All the shoddiness the connoisseur expects from a Mattei movie is there and accounted for: acting on school play level with an especially hysterical performance by the guy standing in for Bill Paxton (Yvette Yzon who was one of the least terrible actors in the first movie also manages to top her performance there and sometimes reaches the levels of overenthusiastic horribleness the film surrounding her deserves); action directed without an eye for the position of the characters taking part in it; dialogue that is borrowed from another movie not exactly known for brilliance of dialogue and then dumbed down until it fits the quality of the acting; a sense for weird, stupid and peculiar details that manifests in things like flame throwers that seem to work without fuel (I imagine they use fire elementals), that brain in a glass cage, or a fascination with mutant foetuses that really shows by comparison how tasteful H.R. Giger's shtick is; sets that include empty brown rooms, empty grey rooms and not much else; a complete lack of sanity. In other words, Zombies: The Beginning is an awesome film that never ever wants to waste a single second boring you or talking sense. After all, there's still a scene from Aliens it hasn't transformed through the magic of its $100 budget it needs to rip off.

Some may find it tragic that Mattei's last film is a shot-on-very- visibly-digital rip-off of a James Cameron movie, without a budget and clearly nobody of talent involved, but if I am honest, I think this is the perfect, honest end point for the man's career. Mattei's talent did after all always lie in his ability to make highly entertaining crap, and in this regard, he couldn't have succeeded more than he did with Zombies: The Beginning.


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Nothing to see here

At least until next Monday. I'm sure this has nothing at all to do with the release of Skyrim, for elder horrors do not roam imaginary countries rescuing kittens and shooting bandits in the back.



Sunday, November 13, 2011

On WTF: Island of the Living Dead (2006)

I was very sceptical about Bruno Mattei's return to filmmaking via crap looking direct to DVD features, but I did do the great man wrong.

While Island of the Living Dead isn't quite as brain-damaging as Mattei's films made together with Claudio Fragasso, it still does contain more than enough of the good stuff to cause major hallucinations. My column on WTF-Film will explain - as far as Mattei is explicable - more.


Saturday, November 12, 2011

In short: Don't Look In The Attic (1982)

Original title: La Villa Delle Anime Maledette

aka House of the Cursed Spirits

aka House of the Damned

Three relatives and one spouse (Annarita Grapputo, Tonino Campa, Fausto Lombardi and Ileana Fraia) who didn't know about each other's existence because they've all been scattered around the world by their parental generation, inherit the family fortune and the family mansion. Alas, the fortune comes with the condition to live in the mansion, and the mansion is cursed, having cost the lives of many a generation of the family by driving them to murder and suicide.

This time around, family member Elisa has a direct connection to the beyond, but despite her mother's dire warnings from the grave, she - and her male cousins - still end up living in the unhealthy family home. Elisa's cousins soon succumb to the house's bad influence, and it's only a question of time until a bloodbath will happen and/or a completely random explanation for what's happening in the movie will pop in out of nowhere.

Carlo Ausino's (whoever he might be) Don't Look In The Attic is a shoddy and threadbare movie even for the not exactly high standards of Italian movies made at the beginning of the 80s. I've become used to the often stiff and always slightly off nature of the English dubbing of these films, but Don't Look beats most everything I've encountered from these quarters by virtue of swinging in a wildly out of sync way between the incomprehensible and the plain stupid.

The dubious quality of the English language dub is quite a good thing, for it adds entertainment value to a film in dire need of it. Between its too few expected moments of batshit insanity, Don't Look is quite a bore, you see, so it's actually necessary that its longish discussions of the reproductive problems of some family members (really) and the non-relationship between one of the family lawyers and his secretary Martha (Beba Loncar), who will also swing a mean silver dagger later on, are made more interesting through the dubbing.

The main problem standing between Don't Look and a place in my heart is that it spends too much time on scenes of nothing happening at all, and too little on expanding my mind with true Italian weirdness. It's true that there are moments of the skewed and nonsensical beauty I'm looking for in this sort of film, but these moments are drowned out by the wrong, which means the uninteresting instead of the hypnotic, kind of boredom. Don't Look In The Attic is a film that can even make an incestuous rape attempt look utterly boring.


Thursday, November 10, 2011

Three Films Make A Post: Things happen that have never been seen by human beings. The blood flows like vintage wine.

And The Crows Will Dig Your Grave aka Los Buitres cavaran tu fosa (1972): Despite its being graced with an awesome title, routine Spanish Western director Juan Bosch's film is a wee bit too generic to warrant me writing anything long about it. It's the usual mess of people (Craig Hill, Angel Aranda and Fernando Sancho among them) of variable nastiness doing nasty things to each other for monetary reasons - not much vengeance going around here - with some light political allegory thrown in. While I've seen it all before, I can't really complain about Bosch's execution of the story: the cruelty is cruel, the action is tight, the dialogue scenes have a certain amount of bite. Add decent acting by people with excellent facial hair and a generic yet fine soundtrack by Bruno Nicolai, and you get a Spaghetti (Paella?) Western that might be totally forgettable, but is also pretty entertaining.

My Horse, My Gun, Your Widow (1972): Again directed by Bosch, again made in 1972 (and still not the last film the director shot in that year), again a Spaghetti Western, again featuring Craig Hill, a Bruno Nicolai soundtrack and an awesome title. Alas, I wasn't as happy with this one, for this is one of those dreaded "comedic" films that suffer from not being funny at all. There are of course some good Spaghetti Western comedies, but those films usually know if there in it for the jokes, want to be parodies of the genre their working in, or hide more complex things behind their humour. My Horse etc doesn't seem to have much of a plan at all, and ends up being one of those films that are just kind of there without ever amounting to much.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011): After the rather disappointing Thor, Joe Johnston (the guy responsible for the horrible Wolfman remake) of all people pulls the Marvel superhero films out of the druthers again with what is as fine a piece of blockbuster cinema as you're likely to encounter. The film not only gets the core of the character it is about right, but also realizes which elements of the original's serial/pulp origins will work under these particular circumstances and which won't, and then proceeds to dial up the useful elements to awesome. Add that the film has an actual heart, and find me a very happy man.


Wednesday, November 9, 2011

In short: Gamera (1965)

Original title: Daikaiju Gamera

A pretty hot moment in the Cold War somewhere in the Arctic ends in a plane carrying an H-bomb exploding. The explosion sets free the ancient devil of the Inuit tribes, the giant fire-breathing turtle Gamera. After eating a Japanese research ship, only leaving alive zoologist Dr. Hidaka (Eiji Funakoshi), his assistant Kyoke (Harumi Kiritachi) and journalist Aoyagi (Junichiro Yamshiko), Gamera disappears to parts unknown.

Some time later, the turtle lands on Hokkaido and smashes up a lighthouse. Because he's a suicidal, dumb little twat, a turtle-loving boy named Toshio (Yoshiro Uchida) is climbing the lighthouse while Gamera is already smashing it. Then Gamera makes a grave mistake. Instead of letting the little bastard fall to his well-deserved death, Gamera rescues him, leaving Toshio free to spend the rest of the movie whining, moping, shouting for Gamera and wandering into danger. Thank you so much, Gamera.

When the film doesn't show us the non-adventures of the most stupid boy in Japan, it does from time to time allow us to watch Gamera's further adventures and the attempts of scientists and military to somehow get rid of the fire-breathing menace.

The plan that succeeds in the end is very special indeed.

The first film in Daiei's Gamera series (the studio's attempt to create a monster as successful as Toho's Godzilla/Gojira) is actually two films. The first one is a pretty fine kaiju eiga about one silly yet wonderfully imaginative monster, with some fine suitmation - clearly the best in a Gamera movie before Shusuke Kaneko got his hands on the character -, pleasant city-smashing and what might just be my most favourite way of getting rid of a monster in all of kaiju-dom. In other words, that film isn't as good as the best Toho productions - it's lacking a bit in emotional resonance and depth for it - but it is a smashingly good time. Director Noriaki Yuasa even manages to let Gamera quite often look like the threatening force of nature a giant monster should be. That Yuasa does this with a rocket-propelled, fire-breathing turtle deserves all respect.

It's just too bad that Yuasa loses that respect again with the second film you can find inside of Gamera. This Gamera is about a whining little brat named Toshio who neither possesses a sense of self-preservation nor empathy with the suffering of others nor a brain and is always at hand to distract from the stuff that's fun and important in a kaiju eiga, that is, a monster smashing things and earnest people in white coats talking SCIENCE(!). I know, I know, Toshio's supposed to be the audience identification figure for the children Daiei was mainly aiming the Gamera movies at, but you can't tell me that anyone - child or not - could watch him going on whining and moping and not come out of the experience hating him with great passion. What makes Toshio even more infuriating is the fact that you could cut all of his scenes out of the film, and nothing at all about the plot would change, making Toshio not only annoying, but also completely useless.

How much you'll be able to enjoy the parts of Gamera that don't contain Toshio will really depend on how hardened your are against annoying child characters in movies. I found myself suffering so much from the child's scenes that I began to wish for odious comic relief instead.


Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Assignment Naschy: La Maldicion De La Bestia (1975)

aka Night of the Howling Beast

aka Hall of the Mountain King

aka Horror of the Werewolf

aka The Werewolf and the Yeti

In this edition of the long and continuity-challenged cycle of movies about poor beleaguered Waldemar Daninsky (Paul Naschy), our hero is a famous psychologist, anthropologist and adventurer. Because of his manifold talents, a certain Professor Lacombe (Josep Castillo Escalona) - coming with the mandatory young, pretty, and soon Wally-adoring daughter (Mercedes Molina) - asks for Waldemar's help mounting an expedition to continue the life's work of a now deceased colleague who was travelling Nepal looking for the Yeti. In fact, the dead scientist managed to find the animal, but making a photo of a yeti and then getting mauled to death by one is no proof for it's existence. Or something.

Anyway, Waldemar does of course agree to help out with the expedition. Once they have arrived in CataloniaNepal, the main body of the expedition stays behind while Waldemar strides forth heroically to find a pass to Yeti Central, an attempt that is the death of his only companion on this part of the journey, and nearly Waldemar's as well.

After some exhausted stumbling through Catanepalia, Waldemar comes upon an inhabited cave, where two women pray to Black Kali and a stone sarcophagus with an arrow in it. Despite saving Waldemar's life and starting a freaky threesome, the two don't have his best interests at heart, for they are cannibalistic witches with lycanthropic tendencies (or something of the sort), and they are planning to turn Waldemar into their companion (he will be an avid lover, or so they say). That arrow sticking out of the sarcophagus comes in handy once Waldemar has found out that his hosts aren't exactly human, but even though he manages to kill the women, one of them gives him a good and proper bite that of course infects our hero with the curse of the wolfman.

While all this has been happening to Waldemar, the rest of the expedition has decided to follow their disappeared friend, but soon find themselves under attack by bandits working for the local potentate, Sekkar Khan (Luis Induni). These bandits are of the "torture the young men, rape and kidnap the women and just kidnap the wise old men" persuasion, so it's no surprise that soon enough not many members of the expedition are left. The Professor, Waldemar's buddy Larry Talbot(!) (Gil Vidal), and Talbot's girlfriend Melody (Veronica Miriel) are captured and brought to the Khan's palace. Sylvia manages to escape only to run straight into the arms of another rape-y group of the bad guys.

Fortunately, it is then that Waldemar re-appears. Even though it is daylight, he's walking around in wolfman form and he's not at all in the mood for rapists. Soon after taking care of Sylvia's attackers, our hero loses his fur again, so it's time for him and Sylvia to try and rescue their kidnapped friends. There are also still a wise monk, more kidnappings, an evil witch/mad scientist named Wandessa (Silvia Solar), some Naschy-style swashbuckling, a short Wolfman versus Yeti fight and a surprise ending waiting in the couple's future.

After the rather boring gothic horror of El Retorno de Walpurgis, actor/scriptwriter and professional wolfman Paul Naschy brought his series of Waldemar Daninsky movies back to their roots, that is to say, into the realm of pulp craziness where he - as I now realize - ruled supreme.

This time around, Naschy has decided to spice up his stew of supernatural silliness with a dollop of adventure movie tropes, and cut down on Waldemar's self-pity. Even though Naschy possibly made the latter decision only because there was no space for the usual whining scenes in his film's allotted running time, it turns Waldemar into a more sympathetic character than he usually is for me; there is a time and place for whining about being a werewolf, but it's pretty difficult to see Waldemar as a tragic figure when he never seems to spend a single thought on the people he killed.

Watching Maldicion, I was also pretty surprised by the film's ending, or rather, I was surprised that Naschy didn't hold to his established formula for the ending this time around, but actually went for something a bit more friendly for this more deserving Waldemar. I don't know if Naschy had an especially optimistic year in '75, if he just wanted to shake things up a little, or if the film's ending was producer mandated; I do know that I like this change, even though I'm a pessimist at heart.

As a writer, Naschy had become quite a bit more proficient at this point in the Daninsky cycle. Sure, especially the film's beginning still features scenes of people telling each other parts of the plot, but generally, Naschy now prefers to show us potentially awesome things instead of just telling us about them. Structurally, Maldicion is still a bit of a mess, but it's one because Naschy has stuffed it full of, well, everything.

While this grab-bag approach to plot (or "plot") construction may be rather problematic if you believe only in the tight, the clear, and the coherent, I can't help but admire it, for I think this approach is based on Naschy's unwillingness to just repeat his favourite elements of a certain Universal movie. It's an attempt to liven things up, even if the narrative has to get crazier with each film and Naschy has to go to more ridiculous lengths with each film, this time around ending up with a film containing witches, werewolves, warlords, yetis, kindly monks and everything else that's wonderful and cheap.

All of this is of course very very silly, a silliness that is further emphasised by the film's brazen attempt to sell late-autumnal/early winter Catalonia as Nepal without even trying a bit of movie magic to make it look that way. The whole adventure movie element, with its bizarre ideas about local dress and culture, is a lot like little kids pretending to be Cowboys and Indians, which of course means that it's much more enjoyable than more earnest attempts would be, at least in the context of a Dansinky movie. Plus, the parts of Catalonia this was filmed in are very picturesque places for a wolfman to wander through, Nepal or not.

But even if you don't like to look at the pretty landscape or to laugh about not-Nepal, Naschy is trying his hardest to find something that might entertain you, so there's his wolfman, a bit of swashbuckling, some near-nudity, somewhat freaky sexiness, utter confusion, some curious Buddhism, a handful of moments of a certain ickiness, romance, a yeti, various witches and half-witches, multi-coloured fluids, a real deus ex machina, a very colourful (remember when movies weren't avoiding colours?) cave, "native" dancing, etc. and so on and so forth, all held together with a shoe-string budget (I suspect) and a clear and wonderful feeling of enthusiasm. Whatever you like in your pulp entertainment, Paul Naschy, director Miguel Iglesias, and La Maldicion de la Bestia have your back, and they have it gladly.