Saturday, December 15, 2012

It's that time of the year again…

…so I'll have to stop posting and posting and posting for a bit. Normal service will resume on January the 2nd.

Meanwhile, visit M.O.S.S., overthrow the Man, smile at strangers, talk to me (@houseinrlyeh) on Twitter, and have delightful holidays of whatever kind you prefer!

In short: The Giants of Thessaly

Original title: I giganti della Tessaglia (Gli argonauti)

After having been robbed of its godly gift, the Golden Fleece, Thessaly is slowly devoured by volcanoes, for the gods are assholes. Thessaly's king Jason (Roland Carey) takes a crew full of heroes and the mighty ship Argo to sail to the other side of the world and steal the Golden Fleece back.

Alas, the voyage is slow and dangerous, and at the point the film starts, Jason and his crew have been gone from home for long months. Jason's cousin Andrastes (Alberto Farnese) is taking care of the throne and Queen Creusa (Ziva Rodann) while the King is away. Unfortunately, Andrastes has long held a dangerous crush on Creusa and power, and uses the opportunity to find fiendish ways to undermine the country's trust in the success of Jason's mission, marry Creusa and buy himself a new kingdom with Thessaly's treasure.

All the while, Jason and his companions encounter bad weather, hunger, witches, a cyclopean ape, young love and other every day troubles of mythical Greece.

I was expecting a bit more of The Giants of Thessaly than I actually got out of it, given the immense reputation its director Riccardo Freda has won over the years.

On a visual level, Giants succeeds quite wonderfully. The film's sets are particularly beautiful, full of interesting details, and clearly constructed to woo the audience with a sense of the monumental. Freda's direction emphasises this aspect of his film greatly, with nary a shot that isn't framed with a painterly eye, and compositions that often have a classicist feel to them, as is only too appropriate in a peplum.

Unfortunately, being beautiful and painterly isn't all a film needs to be. Giants suffers from several problems even Freda's obvious eye for beauty can't distract from forever. It is, to start with, a badly paced film, with the operatic melodrama going on in Thessaly permanently undermining what could and should be the flow of a fast-paced adventure movie. The film's main problem here isn't so much the existence of the melodrama - I for one approve of Freda's wish to also dive into the tragedy and emotion of Greek myth - but how badly it is realized and integrated with the adventure movie elements. There's something too stiff and too operatic surrounding all emotional scenes here that goes beyond the usual peplum stiffness and melodrama, as if the director were neither conscious of the flatness of the writing in these scenes nor of the inability of his actors to play them convincingly in either a naturalistic or a stylized manner. Consequently, the film drops dead in its trail whenever anything related to human emotions comes up, be it Andrastes being ineffectually evil, or Orpheus making a supposedly moving speech on love. It's quite a shame, for it's easy to imagine a film managing to realize these moments convincingly, providing the film they are in with emotional and thematic richness and at the same time making it's adventurous moments more interesting by virtue of given them actual stakes beyond the spectacle.

Alas, that's not what we get with The Giants of Thessaly, and so I'm left with a very pretty movie with okay peplum action that seems to be moving at a snail's pace even though it's just ninety minutes long.

Friday, December 14, 2012

On ExploderButton: The Uninvited (1944)

Ghosts and romances are things that should go together like rapier fights and people wearing ridiculous wigs, but usually, if your romance contains a ghost, or your ghost enters the realm of romance, horrible things are bound to happen.

Unless, of course, your film is Lewis Allen's The Uninvited where all manner of things are done exceedingly well and even the most cynical cult movie fan says yes to romance. Read everything I think about the film in this week's appearance on ExploderButton.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

In short: Looper (2012)

To say Rian Johnson's handful of films make me inordinately happy would be a bit of an understatement. Part of the reason for the love I've developed for the man's films can surely be found in certain parallels in aesthetic upbringing people in the same age bracket tend to have, but then I know more than enough directors of my general age whose films are the complete opposite of everything I want in my art.

But I've not come to put down vague, possibly made-up directors who happen to make films I dislike, but to praise Looper and Rian Johnson. The film is another one of the bastard children of Philip K. Dick (rule: the best Dick adaptations are those films that aren't adapting actual Dick texts but are influenced by him), and the history of the near-future SF film. The film is full of echoes of films, and books and movies of the past, but - not surprising in a film whose production design so clearly knows how retro fashion works and whose story just as clearly knows that circles need to be broken - never a slave to them; the shadow of the past is there to make the now more visible and give it more resonance. Despite being a film full of influences of the films of the past, it's not a film about those films.

Looper also just happens to be an excellent, finely ironic SF action film, a film about the lengths one has to go to if one wants to break through the loops of violence and destruction either a malevolent universe with a bitter sense of dramatic irony or just horrible luck of the kind that makes existentialist philosophers cry create, a film about the fact that the Bruce Willis-style 80s and 90s action hero has always been a self-centred prick, a timely reminder why Bruce Willis is still playing in actual movies too, while Stallone and Schwarzenegger are only good for The Expendables 2, and the kind of film that really knows where and how to use obscure soul songs and Richard & Linda Thompson.

So it's not difficult to imagine Looper was made just for me.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

In short: Sint (2010)

aka Saint

aka Saint Nick

Turns out the original Saint Nicolas (Huub Stapel) wasn't the cuddly bishop of wherever but a renegade with murdering and pillaging as his main hobbies. That is, until some heroic peasants from Amsterdam made use of pitchforks and fire and sent the murderous bastard and his gang to hell.

Saint Nick is something of a sore loser, though, so every time the night before the 6th of December - the Christmas Eve version of the Dutch - falls on the night of a full moon, Nick and his gang of Zwarte Piets (black being the colour one's skin takes on when one gets burned) visit Amsterdam for a bit of a blood bath.

This being a horror film, the authorities have kept Nick's massacring ways hidden for no discernible reason for centuries and not made any effort to get rid of the supernatural menace, which must make his job quite a bit easier.

Anyhow, it's 2010, and it's time for Nick and the Petes to do their thing again. Because the police is mostly left in the dark about their ways, and those in the know are in the business of hushing things up, it falls to shlubby college boy Frank (Egbert Jan Weeber), freshly suspected of some of Nick's murders, and cop and survivor of another Saint Nick massacre Goert (Bert Luppes) to get rid of the red-coated menace. Most probably, there will be blood.

When it comes to Christmas-themed horror movies, one can usually be glad if the film at hand is more entertaining than it is atrocious - with the absolutely brilliant Christmas Evil being the big positive exception. Seen from this perspective, veteran genre director Dick Maas's Sint is a success, as it does mildly entertain throughout its running time. Typically for its director, "mildly entertaining" is pretty much where it stops, though.

If you have any ideas about Maas's script using some of the obvious subtext about, say, the dark side of Christianity, or apply some social criticism through the film's idiotic conspiracy theory, you'd best forget them. This is a bread and butter horror film that just happens to have an undead Saint Nick and his burn-faced servants as its monsters, and really doesn't think about it any more than as an opportunity to add some winking and some jokes (it's something of a comedy) to the proceedings. It's all a bit inoffensive and not exactly bursting with imagination, but there's some competent gore and adequate horse riding over roofs action (yes, in this film, magical roof riding is merely adequate instead of awesomely ridiculous). And somebody gets killed at least every ten minutes.

This leaves Sint as the kind of Christmas-themed horror movie you can waste your time on without hating yourself afterwards. It's a perfectly alright movie for what it is.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Grabbers (2012)

Some exciting thing from outer space crashes down in the Atlantic close to a peaceful Irish island. As it goes with these things, whatever went down contained one big tentacular mommy monster and her small tentacular off-spring, all hungry for a little islander blood.

Island drunk Paddy (Lalor Roddy) fishes one junior monster out of the ocean, which really seems to awaken the interest of the monster family in the possible food source these islanders make. Consequently, people start to disappear. Unfortunately, the place has only the most minor police force in form of two people - alcoholic Garda Ciarán O'Shea (Richard Coyle) and ultra-straight Garda Lisa Nolan (Ruth Bradley) who's on the island as a two week holiday replacement.

With the help of local marine biologist Adam Smith (Russell Tovey), the two cops soon realize the monsters' weak spot: they really don't take well to alcohol. So, when the island is cut off from any help by the genre-mandated storm, the plan is clear: get everyone on the island drunk and keep them blissfully ignorant, while a small core group of drunken monster hunters takes care of the creatures. Turns out drunken monster hunting is more difficult than anyone could have suspected.

Despite what some horror filmmakers seem to think, horror comedies are a difficult thing to get right. Many films seem to think that making the monster "hilarious" (which usually translates to annoying and unfunny) is the way to go here, but usually that way a less than satisfying movie lies, for if there's one thing a movie needs to take seriously, it's its own monsters.

Jon Wright's Grabbers does that whole horror comedy thing right, though, keeping its be-tentacled menace actually threatening and dangerous throughout, building its humour out of the behaviour of its human cast and the difficulties of comically drunk monster hunting. This could still have gone horribly wrong, for, believe the son of an alcoholic there, drunk people aren't generally all that funny unless you're a drunk yourself. Grabbers, however, actually knows what it's doing here, not only making the drunkenness jokes funny to someone who doesn't generally go for that sort of thing like me by actually giving many of it human warmth but also by not coming over like an alcohol commercial.

One thing I particularly liked about the humour was its sense of restraint. While there's a sense of absurdity throughout, and Grabbers hardly lets an opportunity for a joke pass it by, it also knows when to not make a joke, or when to just turn a sarcastic face towards the audience, or let the monster movie just be  a monster movie with a bit of added absurdity. The acting ensemble is very good at transitioning from the humorous bits to the more dramatic parts, off-handedly charming the pants off a jaded and cynical viewer like me.  Consequently, the film is really very funny and works as a monster movie that hits all the mandatory genre beats with verve and imagination.

This is also a film that's very good at using the local - in a funny, clichéd form, I'm sure - very well as a background for its horror story, giving the film a much more believable and interesting feel than a more generic background could have achieved. In this and in the way it works as a comedy monster film, Grabbers is very reminiscent of Tremors, another film with the ability to be funny and still be a real monster movie, just that the film at hand is situated in Ireland instead of the dusty parts of the US. And honestly, once a comedic monster movie can be compared to Tremors, it is as good as something in this particular genre can get.

Last but not least, Grabbers is also a fine demonstration of how good digital effects can be when a production only applies them correctly. There's never a moment here when the (tentacular) monsters look anything less than real - as much as this sort of monster can ever look real - making the monsters as much of a joy to watch as the rest of Grabbers is.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Die Weiße Spinne (1963)

aka The White Spider

The gambling addicted husband of Muriel Irvine (Karin Dor) has a car accident that leaves him quite exploded. The only way to identify his body is via his miraculously safe talisman, a white spider made of glass. Despite Muriel and her husband not having had the best of marriages, hubby's death is not the start of happier times for her. The company responsible for her husband's life insurance delays the payment of a much larger sum than Muriel had expected because they suspect something isn't right about the accident, and Scotland Yard starts poking around.

Or rather, Inspector Dawson (Paul Klinger) of Scotland Yard does. The policeman is convinced a murder syndicate has established itself in London, delivering murders that look like accidents, and - perhaps not the best idea when you want to actually have your murders look like accidents - leaving behind white glass spiders as their calling card. Dawson soon is killed by one among the half dozen bad guys who are all played by Dieter Eppler (and if you think that's a spoiler, I really don't know what to say).

Scotland Yard's boss Sir James (Friedrich Schoenfelder) decides to give the case to a secretive Australian master criminalist who hides his face behind blinding spotlights and has methods decidedly related to those of the criminal mastermind behind the white spider business. I'm sure he has nothing at all to do with Ralph Hubbard (Joachim Fuchsberger), an ex-con who - depending on one's tastes - charms or slithers around Muriel in the social worker job provided by another Dieter Eppler she has to take. Muriel's other problems include the possibility that her husband is still alive and Scotland Yard will think her to be his accomplice in insurance fraud, another ex-con with the charming name of "Kiddie" Phelips (Horst Frank), and a criminal mastermind with a thousand faces that all look like Dieter Eppler's who has grown quite fond of her and is much worse at romancing than Hubbard is, though makes up for that by turning out to be very adept at killing people with his favourite wire noose.

Now, all this may sound as if we were in the presence of another Edgar Wallace adaptation, but in truth Die weiße Spinne belongs to the number of German krimis of the 60s in the business of keeping as close to Rialto's Wallace movie style as possible while only shelling out for a novelistic source by Louis Weinert-Wilton. Not that you'd really find much of a difference, especially since this was written by Egon Eis who was also responsible for writing the earliest Rialto Wallace films. Eis, knowing what is expected of him, does not change anything of the krimi's established style. It's the German version of pulp mystery through and through, with all the curious ideas about the UK and stiff-necked melodramatics one expects here. So of course, Die weiße Spinne features the fun convoluted plot full of mildly inventive contraptions and too complicated evil plans one also expects.

Other Wallace veterans are involved too. The film is directed by Harald Reinl, whose films in the genre usually put the emphasis on fast pace and show a particular talent for and love of doing the more pulpy and outlandish elements in his films justice. Reinl can't quite bring all of his usual visual imagination to bear here, though. Neither Ernst H. Albrecht's production design nor Werner M. Lenz's cinematography (both man weren't very deeply involved in the krimi) are quite on the level of their Rialto counterparts, making the lower budget of the second row krimis quite visible in places. Even so, not quite living up to the standards set by the best part of popular German cinema of that era still leaves us with a film that always has something interesting to look at, which is as much as I'd ask of a second row krimi.

Another Rialto Wallace alumni working on the film is Peter Thomas. Thomas is generally the weirder of the two main krimi soundtrack composers, with Martin Böttcher usually providing somewhat straighter yet not weaker scores. In the case of Die Weiße Spinne, though, Thomas goes for an archetypal, horn-driven style that sounds exactly like you imagine a krimi soundtrack to sound. It's not exactly inspired work but it gets the job done.

Finally, you'll also know just about anyone on screen from playing similar roles in the Rialto Wallace films: Fuchsberger is charming and two-fisted, Dor very pretty but cursed with a horrible thing for mistaking woodenly opening her eyes really wide with effective melodramatic acting (honestly, it might be an irrational dislike for the actress speaking here, but she's so wooden, Anthony Steffen playing a wooden Indian would be less like a piece of wood), Eppler the least thousand-faced man with a thousand faces imaginable but always fun to watch, be it in bad brown-face as a Sikh or in bald eye-patched main henchman mode, and Horst Frank his usual entertaining psycho.

That's not enough to make for one of the top spots in krimi history, but it sure as hell makes for an entertaining ninety minutes.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

In short: Idaho Transfer (1973)

I was thinking quite hard about how to best approach the spirit of apathy and half-assed-ness that moves - or rather not - Peter Fonda's sort of SF film Idaho Transfer, but then I was possessed by the spirit of the movie and didn't care anymore if what I wrote became a rambling, incomprehensible, preachy without any actual affection, bunch of nonsense.

And lo, I wrote this: The end of the world, man, who cares? Let's just get transferred into the future, not attempt to find out what destroyed humanity as we know it and wander around apathetically. We're a bunch of apathetic lame-ass hippies, so obviously we're meant to repopulate the world. Just too bad nobody cared to make any actual plans for the event, or realized the whole time travel bit makes us sterile any earlier. I'd be all angry now, but the film only allows us to sulk and wander off a little, because everything else would have needed an actual script or actors able to improvise with a point. And let's be honest, it's difficult enough to keep the characters here apart, seeing as nobody beyond our main character Karen actually does anything or has a personality. And Karen mostly likes to sulk and wants kids, and is kinda (the film's too apathetic for more) sad about the end of the world. Or something.

Just look at the film's awesome-sweet visual metaphors! You know, that stone skipping on the water until it sinks is just like humanity and, um, I'm sure there's a point, but I can't tell what point over the sound of people being apathetic. Man, perhaps Peter should have left that weed alone for the five minutes writing the script must have taken.

And after that, I drifted off into the long, dreamless, apathetic sleep Idaho Transfer felt like.

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Friday, December 7, 2012

On ExploderButton: The Bullet Vanishes (2012)

aka Ghost Bullets

Blah blah, Hong Kong movies aren't what they once were, blah, blah, Takeover, blah.

While I was bloviating about the sad state of Hong Kong cinema, I nearly missed out on this very fine pulp mystery with (the eternally glorious) Lau Ching-Wan and the (eternally boring) Nicholas Tse that may smell a bit like Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes movies but really has other interests at its core.

Click on over to the all-new, all-exciting ExploderButton to read more of my words about the movie.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Three Films Make A Post: Their Form Is Human But They Have Crossed Over ... Is There Sex After Death?

Corrida pour un espion aka Code Name: Jaguar (1965): This Spanish-French-German co-production directed by perfectly decent director Maurice Leblanc starring perfectly decent Ray Danton in a curiously non-globe-hopping, perfectly decent adventure is a perfectly decent romp, unless it suddenly turns on the torture and the chauvinism a bit much for about five annoying minutes. From time to time, the film's more humorous moments are even better than perfectly decent. And that's really all I can say about a perfectly decent Eurospy movie.

Juggernaut (1974): Richard Lester's bomb disarming thriller on the other hand is quite a bit more than just decent. It's also a very strange film compared to the way a thriller is generally supposed to be built. Instead of being based on obvious dramatics and twists, Lester's movie is an experiment in building ever-mounting tension through the most laconic presentation, a precise, unhurried narrative tone, and brilliant actors consciously being as little overtly dramatic as possible; even Richard Harris is game to working against his usual approach to any given role.

Unlike some experiments, Juggernaut actually works too, consequently pointing out a completely different direction the thriller as a genre could have taken.

ParaNorman (2012): Despite all its technical accomplishment and its stylistic deftness, this piece of animation mostly reminded me of everything I already hated about US family-centric animation when I was a kid. It's a film willing to betray its charm, its humour, its willingness to engage with the unpleasant sides of childhood, and its few moments of subversion for patronizing - the only way the film knows to talk to children seems to be to talk down to them - and deeply hypocritical moralizing at a moment's notice. The film belongs to that part of children's entertainment that seems to think doing everything else, like being honest and not pretending that everything in life will work out with a smile and/or an ascendancy to heaven is bad for children, even in a film whose story really screams for a more complex solution.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

In short: The Lost World (1960)

As a fan of the Lost World subgenre, I have developed a - perhaps misguided - patience with the genre's worst elements, namely racism, a problematic love for imperialist structures, and gender politics of the most dubious kind.

Therefore, one would expect me to be all over Irwin Allen's adaptation of the - lovely - Arthur Conan Doyle (my democratic principles laugh at your titles) novel which gave the subgenre its name. Curiously, one would be wrong in that assumption, for I do in fact enjoy only about twenty minutes of this version of The Lost World. In part, I blame Allen's insistence on making a film whose politics often feel more problematic than those of a book published 48 years earlier, which is an achievement the film even manages to repeat by including a romance much worse than the one in the Doyle novel. Even worse, the film seems to assume people care about the human element in this sort of film and so puts a lot of emphasis on it. Too bad people generally don't, unless the human element in a Lost World movie is either very well written or enabling exciting adventures, neither of which applies to the film at hand.

Lost World 1960 doesn't rise in my appreciation with using the animal snuff film version of dinosaur special effects, that is, the responsible parties glue fins and horns to helpless reptiles and let them fight or fall to their (actual) death, while the camera lingers unpleasantly. It's a bit like a junior version of Cannibal Holocaust without the self-consciousness, and also so vile I find it difficult to even laugh at the movie for its idea of how a Brontosaur or a T-Rex are supposed to look.

And I still could ignore or pretend to ignore all this if the film would just throw me a bone of actual entertainment for more than just once or twice during its running time. Allen's direction is just too bland, the characters just too uninteresting and/or annoying, and the film just too lacking in visual imagination to distract from the basic unpleasantness of its worldview in theory and practice (as demonstrated by the way Jill St. John and all brown people are written, as well as the animal killings - one might even suspect a connection between the two). It's just not The Lost World I signed up for.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Malocchio (1975)

aka Eroticofollia

aka Evil Eye

Playboy Peter Crane (Jorge Rivero) goes through some heavy times. Dreams where a bunch of butt-naked evil hippies (is that a penis dangling in semi-slow motion?) make googly eyes at him and make funny noises. The dreams disturb Peter's wild(ish) lifestyle, but things become really disturbing when he meets up with a woman named Yvonne (Lone Fleming) who tells him she had a dream in which her dead husband warned her that a man named Peter Crane was going to kill her. Which would be reason enough to either seek psychiatric help or avoid people called Peter Crane in the future, but obviously not for her. Yvonne is quite different - the next night, she meets Peter again, and even follows him to his villa.

But the making out session first turns into a manifestation of poltergeist phenomena, and then sees slick Peter suddenly turn into a glowering strangler. The next morning, Peter remembers nothing of what he's (probably) done. Somebody seems to have taken care of the dead body too. This is the first in a series of murders Peter may or may not commit under some sort of occult influence. There will be more poltergeisting, an old family friend who may have an agenda of his own (Richard Conte), a frightfully attractive female psychiatrist with dubious ethics (Pilar Velázquez), a blackmailing factotum (Eduardo Fajardo), and a lot of oddness (and I don't just mean a couple brushing each other's teeth in the shower though that scene would be odd enough for most). From time to time, the film pops in to the investigation of the murders as made by Inspector Ranieri (Old Wooden-Face Anthony Steffen) whose attempts to make sense of anything that happens in the movie are bound to fail.

Despite beginning like a giallo with slight supernatural elements, Mario Siciliano's Malocchio soon enough turns out to be one of these really weird pieces of continental European horror movies from the 70s that pride themselves in making as little sense as possible. Sure, one could, if one wanted, read a lot of what's going on as metaphor, squint at some of the film's backstory, add up what one imagines (audience hallucinations are always a possible effect in these movies), and arrive at some sort of explanation of everything that's going on here that may even be the explanation the screenwriters thought of (if indeed they were in the thinking business). However, I don't think that effort would be as worthwhile as just taking the film's oddness at face value.

The narrative is as jumpy and illogical as you'd expect in a case like this, with nobody's actions making much sense, motivations that seem made up on the spot, and only the loosest idea of dramatic tension. The film's climax does indeed seem wilfully un-climactic, and the filmmakers decision to do the ouroboros thing in the end gives the impression they just ran out of napkins to write on rather than leaving the audience with the shock of finding the main character trapped in a never-ending nightmare.

Of course, as you'd also expect in a film like this, that insistence on only making the vaguest sense, on leaving every scene dipped in a haze of the unreal is also Malocchio's greatest strength. This is, after all, a movie whose protagonist can't tell dreams from reality and truth from lies - why should it be any different for the audience?

If there's one problem I had with the film, it's that Siciliano's direction is not quite strange enough for the strangeness of the material. His direction is not bad - especially in the evil hippie demon dreams and assorted scenes - but he's often coasting a bit on the wonderful mugging and eye-rolling of his actors and the oddness of the script without adding quite enough oddness all his own.

But in the end Malocchio is confusing and dream-like enough to satisfy me, even if I've experienced films that were even more confusing and dream-like than it is.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Venetian Affair (1967)

Warning: this is not a Solo for U.N.C.L.E. movie, so get over it.

Former CIA agent Bill Fenner (Robert Vaughn) is now an alcoholic reporter for a wire service, walking through life in the mandatory crumpled suit and trenchcoat. The end of Fenner's career had something to do with his wife, now ex-wife, Sandra Fane (Elke Sommer) working for the KGB, and left Fenner rather cynical towards his old life.

When a conference about nuclear disarmament in Venice ends in a bomb explosion, the CIA pressures Fenner's boss to send him to Venice, for Fenner's former CIA chief Frank Rosenfeld (Edward Asner) knows a few things Fenner will take some time to find out, namely that Sandra is now working for a rather nasty freelance spy named Wahl (Karlheinz Böhm), and had an affair with the US delegate for the conference, which can hardly be mere chance.

But before Fenner stumbles into this particular nest of vipers, he meets Pierre Vaugiroud (Boris Karloff), another freelance operator, but one with a more wholesome agenda. Vaugiroud has written a report that not only confirms that the bomb explosion was caused by a suicide bomb the US delegate of the conference wore, but he also has an explanation for that rather atypical behaviour the film will continue to play coy about. But before Vaugiroud can get his report into the hands of the powers that be, he disappears. Rosenberg sics Fenner to somehow catch his ex-wife and use her to get to the truth of the affair.

Of course, various trusts will be broken and Fenner's cynicism confirmed during the course of the narrative.

TV workhorse director Jerry Thorpe's The Venetian Affair stands in the rather uncomfortable part of the spy movie genre where a film is neither as realistically minded as a Le Carré novel, nor as outright silly as a Eurospy movie or a James Bond film. In honour of what most people on screen apart from Elke Sommer and Karlheinz Böhm are wearing here, I dub this the "trench coats and crumpled suits" sub-genre. We could also call it the "nearly existentialist but not quite" sub-genre. In these films, the spy business is rather dirty, and really not an adventure, but these films aren't generally intellectually or emotionally deep enough to be existentialist about it, nor is there much of a political bone in their bodies.

This doesn't mean that this part of the spy genre isn't worthwhile, it only means you need to bring a different set of expectations to them than you would either take into Eurospyland or into Smiley's office. Otherwise, you end up like the IMDB reviewers complaining this isn't like Solo for U.N.C.L.E. and miss out on a perfectly fine film.

And really, it's difficult to imagine a film with a cast like The Venetian Affair's being a complete loss - Vaughn is expectedly good at looking bitter and somewhat worse for wear, Sommer is ambiguous, Böhm a very polite monster, Asner expertly grumpy, and poor, sick, elderly Boris Karloff gives the poor, sick, elderly spymaster he plays true dignity. Other minor roles are filled out by capable actors like Felicia Farr, Luciana Paluzzi and Roger C. Carmel, so there's nothing at all to complain about on the acting front. Venice is also exceedingly convincing at playing itself with its usual mixture of beauty and decay that seems built for the shady dealings on screen.

Director Thorpe gets the job done in a straightforward yet not completely uncreative way. There's no moment I haven't seen in many other straightforwardly directed films done exactly the same way before, but then this is not the kind of film that needs anything more from a director than the ability to let the plot and the characters go about their business while he takes care of a wee bit of mood building; all this Thorpe does.

That leaves me with The Venetian Affair as a minor yet well enough realized film full of people looking grimly at each other, trench coats, conspiratorial meetings, threatening gestures, and a bit of mind control. I'll take it.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

In short: Amphibious 3D (2010)

It's impossible for me not to admire Brian Yuzna for the tenaciousness he shows when it comes to getting films financed. After his luck in the US ran out, he went to Spain. After that went dry, he took his leave to Indonesia. And if he then needs to take some money and some horrible actors from the Netherlands on, too, to make a SyFy Channel style monster movie, he'll do it. Movies need to be made, after all, and they're still rather difficult to crowdsource.

Unlike actual SyFy Channel films, Yuzna's attempt at the genre even shows some ambition. Consequently, this isn't just a film about a charming rogue without the charming (Michael Paré, who will sit out important parts of the movie and could have been replaced by a cheaper actor with an equal lack of facial expressions to have more money for the effects) and a marine biologist named Skylar (Janna Fassaert) encountering an amphibious giant scorpion in the surroundings of a fishing platform, but also one where the marine biologist once lost her little daughter and is now merrily projecting onto the child (Monica Sayangbati) of a black magician in indentured fishing slavery. Plus, there are hints of a more mythological background to the whole giant underwater scorpion thing.

Unfortunately, despite its ambitions for being more than the most basic of films, and a surprisingly effective horror movie shock ending, Amphibious spends most of its time going through the motions of all monster films that can only afford showing their monsters for the grand finale, which is to say it spends most of its time with various heavily accented people talking and talking with some sparse scenes of gore thrown in so you don't fall asleep. While I do appreciate Yuzna's attempts at making these non-monster scenes more interesting than usual in this sort of thing, I can't say he actually succeeds at that effort. When it's not the sloppy pacing of the film, it's the mediocre and boring acting - scenery chewers or good actors could have saved a lot here - that gets in the way, and if it's not the acting, it's Yuzna's inability to sell subtlety or ambiguity through his direction. As a director, he never did subtlety well, and that clearly hasn't changed with his ever decreasing budgets.

Once the film gets to the (not very good) giant scorpion in plain sight and the rather ridiculous attempts to fight it, it does become rather fun to watch. Unfortunately fifteen fun minutes hardly make up for over an hour of boredom and character arcs that never go anywhere, as much as I wish it were otherwise.

Friday, November 30, 2012

On ExploderButton: Assignment Naschy - La Venganca De La Momia (1973)

aka The Mummy's Revenge

Fellow M.O.S.S. agent Kevin's WTF-Film has transformed into a shiny new beast made of pop culture and is now the less movie-centric, even more awesome ExploderButton. I'm still doing my weekly column there, so the Internet can rejoice/sigh with disappointment.

As anyone reading my blatherings for some time will know, I've developed a rather large enthusiasm for the body of work of Spain's sexiest (he did after all usually write his own scripts) horror actor/director/writer/enthusiast, the immortal Paul Naschy.

So it'll come as no surprise that my inaugural column on ExploderButton enthuses about Naschy's turn as that most well-dressed of monsters, the mummy. Please click on through to hear about the film's wonders.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

In short: El asesino está entre los treces (1973)

aka The Killer Is One Of Thirteen

Two years after the death of her husband in the crash of his private plane, rich widow Lisa Mandel (Patty Shepard) calls thirteen of his friends and associates - among them a bored looking Jack Taylor, Simón Andreu and other familiar faces - for a big reunion. On the group's first dinner, Lisa reveals that she has proof her husband didn't die accidentally, but was murdered, and that she's convinced one of the attendants is his killer. After all, everyone had motive and opportunity to do the deed, which she then proceeds to reveal. Let's just say that the rich in this movie really are involved in a lot of things, reaching from the rather more typical mass adultery, to art forgery, to deeply Freudian mother-son relationships, to drug smuggling.

Unfortunately, the motives and opportunities are so ample, Lisa has her difficulties deciding who actually is the killer, so she's obviously decided to just bring everyone together and wait until the killer reveals his or herself. It's a sound plan, as it turns out, for once everyone's secrets are revealed or hinted at, the guests spend the next few days with attempts at digging each other's holes deeper. And after a time, the killer cuts the phone lines, wrecks some cars in the knowledge nobody here knows how to walk, and begins to thin the herd of people who might know something about him.

In theory, Javier Aguirre's The Killer should be a rather pleasant mystery of the "rich bastards die in an isolated place" type, but in practice, it's mostly a bore.

I suspect the higher number of the guests here is an attempt to outdo And Then There Were None, but it really leads to a film with so many characters there's no room to properly develop any of them or to find time to amuse the audience with their decadent hobbies for more than five seconds. The only bits of decadence the film finds time showing are various deeds of adultery, but those are filmed as the sort of face rubbing that wouldn't be steamy in a 70s soap opera, with little of interest to the friend of sleazy entertainment nor the viewer in hope of anything visually or emotionally interesting. It's just a very bland film that even manages to waste an excellent set-up for Freudian shenanigans.

This blandness is further increased by the film's snail-like pacing, Aguirre's decision to tell his story as a series of overlong and perfectly boring dialogue scenes, and the fact that it takes an hour until the killer decides to finally off a member of the horde of suspects (of course in a bland and uninvolving manner). It's difficult to understand how the same Javier Aguirre was able to direct the insane Hunchback of the Morgue in the same year as this snoozer, but there you have it. As it stands, the only connection the two films have is the presence of beloved Spanish horror icon Paul Naschy, but where Hunchback is his film, this one sees him only doing a short guest star part in which he looks as bored as Taylor does.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

In short: April Fool's Day (2008)

Evil rich girl Desiree Cartier (Taylor Cole) and her evil rich brother Blaine (Josh Henderson) use the debutant ball of Torrance Caldwell (Scout Taylor-Compton) for an attempt to humiliate Desiree's arch enemy Milan Hastings (Sabrina Aldridge) with a properly unfunny April Fool's joke. Things get a bit more intense than planned, though, leaving Milan dead of an allergic reaction to a roofie and the fall from a balcony, and everyone involved rather scandal-plagued.

One year later, an anonymous message invites the inner circle of the movie's jerks to Milan's graveside. There, a message tells them that the one responsible for Milan's death shall confess his or her crime, or else they all will be killed during the course of this April first. Which is of course what happens.

The only thing The Butcher Brothers' remake of 80s kinda-sorta slasher April Fool's Day does right is to not actually make a remake of the original movie, but only steal the date and part of the final plot twist from it. The original is after all easily available, so a remake that actually changes things seems the way to go.

Unfortunately, the directors turn this version of the film into a bland and obvious whodunit where the most boring killer imaginable kills bland and uninvolving characters in bland and uninvolving ways until the obvious plot twists occur in the obvious way. It's one of those films where characters nobody can give a crap about because they're neither sympathetic nor vile enough to be interesting are killed off in ways so uncreative and filmed with such dispiriting disinterest (hello, Stan Lee!) it's impossible not be bored by what happens on screen. From time to time, the film tries its hand at satire, but that aspect of the film falls as flat as everything else, for the film's caricatures are too superficially drawn to interest, while the supposed satire makes Sesame Street look like a cesspool of cynicism.

Acting and direction completely keep inside the (soap opera) bland, uninvolved and boring trinity the rest of the film sets up. Watching April Fool's Day, I couldn't avoid the impression that neither the actors nor anyone behind the camera actually gave a shit about the movie they produced, which not surprisingly resulted in a movie I don't give a shit about. I (perhaps too) often decry lack of ambition in contemporary low budget horror, but this one really takes the cake in this regard. It feels as if the filmmakers didn't even have the ambition to make a movie.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

First Men In The Moon (1964)

The crew of the first moon landing by an UN expedition made up of British, Soviet and American astronauts stumbles onto a little British flag and a declaration of possession of the moon for Queen Victoria made out in 1899.

Hasty research on Earth leads to Arnold Bedford (Edward Judd). Bedford tells the UN the story of his adventure of a lifetime. As a hopeless playwright (which is the only kind of playwright someone can be who never actually writes a play), and well on his way to become a con-man of the sort who has no problems implicating his own fiancée, American Kate Callendar (Martha Hyer), in illegal affairs, Bedford learned that his neighbour Joseph Cavor (Lionel Jeffries) had invented a curious paste with the ability to shield objects from the influence of gravity.

Bedford lied himself into Cavor's trust because he, quite unlike the mad scientist, saw many useful and lucrative applications for the stuff. What Cavor really wanted with his paste was use it to fly to the moon. Bedford, only half a prick, let himself be swayed by Cavor's excitement and agreed to accompany the scientist.

Thanks to Bedford's cons and an accident, Kate also stumbled into the moon capsule when it was about to start, and they all ended up on the moon where trouble with the local population, the Selenites, arose.

When first I realized First Men in the Moon's existence a few months ago, I was quite confused why I had never heard about the movie before, seeing as it was directed by the dependable Nathan Juran, co-written by Nigel Kneale, based on an H.G. Wells novel (if not one of his best, if you ask me) and had special effects by Ray Harryhausen. Having now watched it, I'm not so confused anymore - there may have been a bunch of greats involved, but none of them brought anything even close to their best efforts to the film.

Juran's direction is bland, Kneale's script is - outside of the framing narrative that at least delights with its international moon expedition - devoid of the expected depth and breadth of ideas and never develops any element of the story that could be interesting any further than strictly necessary to let the film slowly lumber on, and the film's narrative is close enough to Wells's original to afford Harryhausen little opportunity to actually do what he does best in the effects area - even most of the Selenites are crappy costumes rather than stop motion creations.

Then there's the fact that the film's first half consists of scene after scene of unfunny comedy that. Does. Not. Stop. It's also less than pleasant how little the movie seems to realize that Bedford is a total tosser and not the charming rogue it thinks he is, so if you hope for some sort of payback for him for all the immoral, illegal, and just really assholish stuff he does, or at least some sort of character development away from being what he starts out as, you will be sorely disappointed. And I don't know why Kate is even in the movie, for she sure as hell is of no import to anything that goes on. Not even her kidnapping by the Selenites is actually important to the plot, making her even less than the usual helpless female stereotype.

It's not all bad though. Once we finally, finally, leave Earth, the "comedy" slowly but surely recedes into the background, and the film turns into your typical fantastic voyage movie with all the basic entertainment value that genre carries in its genes. You'd really need to put a lot of effort into ruining scenes of people in diving suits meeting aliens on the moon, and while nobody involved seems to have had a very good week creatively, they're still experienced professionals enough to not ruin what's left of the film.

First Men also has a secret weapon in form of John Blezard's art direction that shows an eye for the beauties and charms of proto-steampunk-ish devices, giant multi-coloured tubes and curious alien (well, Selenite) cave systems. It's an enthusiastic and wonderful effort in a film that is mostly just coasting on genre standards, and is for me what made First Men In The Moon worth watching beyond my completist impulses and the basic decentness of every cinematic fantastic voyage.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

On WTF: A Black Veil For Lisa (1968)

Original (much better) title: La morte non ha sesso

I'm not much of a fan of police procedurals, but I'm making an exception for one that's as great as this one by Massimo Dallamano, particularly when it's also a police procedural that turns into a giallo.

Click on through to my column on WTF-Film to learn more (and you really, really should)!

Saturday, November 24, 2012

In short: Anguish (1987)

Original title: Angustia

Ophthalmologist's assistant John (Michael Lerner) is losing his eyesight and his mind. Assisted and/or hindered through the hypnotic influence of his mother (Zelda Rubinstein), John begins to remove the eyes of various unwilling donors. His killing spree eventually leads John into a movie theatre where he goes to work with particular relish. However, the mommy's boy and his serial killer habit are only a movie inside of a movie.

Teenage girls Patty and Linda (Talia Paul and Clara Pastor) are sitting in their own movie watching John's, but their mix of popcorn-munching and naked panic in reaction to the peculiar happenings on screen - respectively - is just the beginning, for someone starts killing off the patrons of their cinema, though in a less sexy style than John is using. The borders between movies, or between movie and reality, become exceedingly porous for everyone involved.

Spanish director Bigas Luna's Anguish is a fascinating movie, and one of the most interesting and successful attempts at that whole "horror movie inside of a horror movie" thing. When films go as meta as this one does, they sometimes tend to put too large of an emphasis on the ironic or the satirical elements, leaving any chance of an emotional connection (and I do think a film absolutely needs this kind of connection as much as it needs an intellectual one) with its audience by the wayside.

Anguish for its part works on all levels it reaches for at once. Taken completely at face value, it's two fantastic thrillers at once - the eyeball killer one a giallo style experience in exciting weirdness, the other one a more naturalistic piece made with the same expertise and sense of style. Yet it's also a film which questions even the realism of its supposedly realistic parts, permanently asking questions about not just the nature of reality, the nature of realism, the influence of movies on reality (which of the two movies we see is really mirroring which?), but also the question if the per definition more realistic also is the more real. After all, these borders tend to blur when the murderer of one movie kills for the approval of the mother of the other movie's murderer, even more so once it becomes quite unclear if the first movie's murderer doesn't have the ability to enter the second one, though he might do so only in a character's mind. And that's before we come to the ending titles where another movie audience watches said titles. It's all rather complex, and yet Luna never loses control over his material, with every (stylish, brilliant) shot clearly made for a reason.

On another level, Anguish is also a film about the power of the Weird over mainline reality. This aspect of the movie is perfectly incorporated in Rubinstein's performance. Her character, in all her ambiguous oddness, has no trouble drifting through the movie screen into the minds of the audience (both the real and the imagined one), changing the reality of those she comes in contact with in one way or the other. It is after all the nature of the Weird to infect reality until ideas of order, of cause and effect begin to disappear.

This moment when the quotidian transforms (deforms?), is what Anguish is all about for me; that it's also a great meta-thriller is nearly beside the point.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

In short: Night School (1981)

A killer in black motorcycle garb is murdering women in Boston, depositing the heads of his victims in whatever water is closest at hand. Police lieutenant Austin's (Leonard Mann) investigation leads him to a girl school where several of the victims were students. The cop's suspicions quickly concentrate on anthropologist professor and jerk Vincent Millett (Drew Snyder), who does not seem to have student he hasn't slept with (must be the hot anthropologist sex into which we will be given unwanted insight by the movie, because it sure as hell can't be his looks).

When he's not sleeping with his students, Millett lives with his research assistant and lover Eleanor (Rachel Ward), with whom he shares a deep interest in the headhunters of Papua New Guinea. Oh, and all of the victims had something to do with Millett. Despite everything about the case being pretty damn obvious, it'll take quite a few dead bodies, and heads in sinks and toilets until it can be closed.

In 1981, the slasher movie genre wasn't quite as codified as in the years to follow, so it was still possible for a movie to (sort of) belong to it without being about a bunch of teenagers getting slaughtered in the woods or a dilapidated building. Ken Hughes's Night School differs from many other slashers by trying to incorporate elements of an actual mystery, where the killer's identity stands in question. Even red herrings make an appearance. I assume a more direct influence of the giallo than usual. This theory is compounded by the styling of the killer with its shade of Strip Nude For Your Killer, some very typical shots of spiral staircases, and the rather bizarre way the mystery is set up.

This may sound like quite an exciting combination, for what's better than a slasher that comes to the genre from a different direction, but the killer's identity is so obvious, and the whole investigative aspect so undercooked, it's difficult for me to conjure up much enthusiasm.

It doesn't help Night School how unbalanced a film it is. Tonally, it jumps from neatly done stalk and slash sequences, to bad melodramatic acting, to tasteless and overlong suspense scenes based on the question "where will they find the head this time?", to boring police procedural, to unfunny humour and back again, without ever reaching the point where these elements come together in entertaining, interesting, or dream-like ways. It's as if Hughes couldn't (or wasn't allowed to) decide what type of horror film he was trying to make and so ended up trying to make all of them at once; this seldom ends well for a movie or its audience.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Three Films Make A Post: Come to the get killed!

V/H/S (2012): I actually think the anthology movie is a logical direction for the POV horror sub-genre to take, but despite the inclusion of directors like Ti West and Adam Wingard, V/H/S isn't really doing much for me. It's clear the stories that make up the film are attempting to use the immediacy of the form for some urban legend style horror with a bit of a messed up ick factor, but the end product leaves me cold at best. It's difficult to bring up much interest for stories that tread well-trodden horror movie paths even when they are going for surprises, and it's equally difficult to have any interest for what happens to characters when they are only some mumbled dialogue, some shaky close-ups and nothing else; especially when most of the episodes go out of their way to also look like utter crap. I know, that's a stylistic choice (and the only time the word "style" can be used when talking about the film's aesthetic), but I'm really more interested in films that make stylistic choices about the way they picture the things their audience sees rather than the choice to shake-shake-shake that camera and put some mock-VHS post-production effects on.

Dead Hooker In A Trunk (2009): This indie movie by and with the Soska sisters Jen and Sylvia on the other hand seems to have its style well in hand, despite an obvious backyard budget. What this one has going for it are a sense of fun, an often rather uncontrolled imagination and the resulting weirdness. It's far from slick, but a great reminder what's actually good about the possibilities of contemporary filmmaking: that a handful of semi-professionals (I had too much fun with the film to use the term amateurs, plus there's more professional filmmaking coming from this direction) can just go out and make a movie full of private jokes, silliness and bits and pieces of the films they love, and it might even be one other people will be able to enjoy too like Dead Hooker. In this particular case, the film works via energy, attitude, some decidedly clever low budget direction and editing, and the fact that at least half of its jokes are pretty funny.

Toshi Densetsu Monogatari Hikiko (2008): A one-part OVA that looks like ass, full of characters with plastic faces and horrifying teeth that move through low detail backgrounds with all the grace of zombies while pulling faces that don't have anything to do with humanity as I know it; in other words, visually, this is your typical piece of CGI animation.

However, what the piece lacks in visual graces, it contains in its script (and voice acting), telling a creepy and rather disturbing tale of quotidian bullying and abuse, just as quotidian cowardice and the inability to face up to the truth. That tale is emphasised by expertly timed ghostly going-ons which mirror and amplify the short film's more natural horrors. It's a demonstration of the concept that timing and an intelligent script can make up for a multitude of flaws in a movie.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Special Mission Lady Chaplin (1966)

Original title: Missione speciale Lady Chaplin

Minor evil mastermind Kobre Zoltan (Jacques Bergerac) plans fiendish things with a sunken US nuclear submarine. Most of the elements of his plan are executed by his right-hand woman, the titular Lady Chaplin (Daniela Bianchi), fashion designer, thief, and spy, and the kind of girl who wears a parachute under her clothes just in case her boss throws her out of a plane. She's what we in the Biz call true marriage material, and - one suspects given her actual competence compared to her boss's incompetence - the main reason for Zoltan's criminal success.

The CIA puts Dick Malloy (Ken Clark) on the case. Dick - despite working for the CIA repeatedly called a policeman in the film, by the way, which might hint at some character-changing shenanigans in the English dub - needs about half of the film to come to the no shit Sherlock realization that Zoltan doesn't want to steal the wreck of the sunken submarine, but has already absconded with what interests him about it: a bunch of nuclear missiles he is trying to sell to "a foreign power" represented by a certain Hilde (Helga Liné). And here I thought World War II was over.

Fortunately for the future of the Free World™, Dick has three things going for him: a) Zoltan is a raging incompetent, b) Dick is excellent at punching and shooting people and c) Lady Chaplin is all too willing to change sides when she realizes the authorities know about Zoltan's little plan. Or is she lying?

Special Mission Lady Chaplin is another highly entertaining Eurospy movie by Alberto De Martino that makes me wish the director had worked more in this particular genre. I'm not sure, though, how much of the film's entertainment value is his work, and how much that of the three action directors listed in the credits. In any case, much of what's fun about the film happens in the numerous and expected chases, shoot-outs and punch-offs.

De Martino and co. put a heavy emphasis on semi-gritty hand-to-hand fights that surprisingly do not include any fake martial arts performed by white non-martial artists. Instead they give Ken Clark - who might be not the greatest actor alive but is really good and even more enthusiastic at this sort of thing - and his co-actors and stunt people opportunity to throw themselves into somewhat rougher, and more stylishly filmed, interpretations of serial action. It's often really rather exhilarating.

In another surprise, at least half of the film's action happens in actual locations instead of the usual cardboard sets, which enables De Martino (or whoever was behind the camera of any given scene) to make the fights more dynamic and attractive simply by having more space for them to take place in; turns out verticality is a good thing in an action scene to have. It's all still clearly made on the kind of budget that probably wouldn't have paid for the hairdressers of a contemporary Bond movie, but De Martino really puts everything he can on screen and makes up for any theoretical problems the film's silly plot could cause with pacing and enthusiasm.

De Martino doesn't forget the second leg a Eurospy movie needs to stand on beside the action: women wearing various awesome fashion catastrophesilliness, curious plans, and gadgets. Lady Chaplin isn't quite as brainfart-y as some other Eurospy movies I love, but it's still a film where the villains smuggle experimental missile fuel (can't these "foreign powers" produce anything themselves!?) in form of atrocious red dresses that tend to explode when shot at, where murders are committed via armed wheelchair and taxi-shaped gas chamber, and where our hero appears to the prelude to the final fight with a harpoon gun that shoots explosive cartridges that can kill henchmen that haven't even been caught in the explosion. That's more than enough to keep me happy.

The film's only major flaw lies in its main villain. Zoltan, to be perfectly honest, is a bit of a crap villain, lacking the menace or the cackling mania the bad guy in this kind of film needs. Instead, he's just a bit of a smug jerk (quite like the heroes of many Eurospy films are, actually) with big plans. It doesn't help that Jacques Bergerac's English language dubbing voice (going by the accents, at least some of the actors dubbed themselves, but he didn't) is provided by one of those guys…who…make curious pauses…at…the…most…inappropriate times. On the plus side, Daniela Bianchi (or should I say "former Bond girl Daniela Bianchi" which is certainly want the producers would want me to say?) seems to have a whale of a time kicking ass and wearing dubious fashion, as befits the title character of a film.

Lady Chaplin provides additional little jolts of joy with a fine, jazzy Bruno Nicolai score that would have me whistling the main theme if I did in fact whistle, and the appearance of various European genre movie mainstays like Evelyn Stewart and Helga Liné in smaller roles.

It's quite a package for anyone even slightly interested in Eurospy films.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

L'assassino… è al telefono (1972)

aka The Killer Is On The Phone

aka The Killer Is On The Telephone

Warning: spoilers are unavoidable in this case

When successful theatre actress Eleanor Loraine (Anne Heywood) arrives at the Bruges airport she accidentally meets a bald gentleman (Telly Savallas) whose mere appearance causes her to scream and faint. When Eleanor awakes, she has lost the memory of the last five years of her life. She neither remembers the supposedly accidental death of her boyfriend Peter five years earlier, nor the fact that she's married now, nor the reason for her sudden breakdown. Eleanor seems to have had a more minor case of amnesia after Peter's death, too, and clearly hasn't been in the best mental health despite professional success during the past few years, so her family and her acting partner Thomas Brown (Osvaldo Ruggieri) are rather slick and practiced in their attempts to help her come back to the present again, but Eleanor is understandably unwilling to trust anyone.

The only thing Eleanor is sure of is that she not only needs to remember the life she led in the past five years but finally has to remember the circumstances of Peter's death she repressed five years ago. This project would become all the more urgent for her if she knew what the audience knows - that the bald gentleman who caused all this is a professional killer, and that he is now stalking her, as if he'd feel the need to get rid of a witness to one of his murders…

Alberto De Martino's L'assassino (whose titular telephone habits aren't actually important to the movie's plot, by the way) is a giallo about confusion and uncertainty. Eleanor - as picture-perfectly played by Heywood - spends the largest part of the film utterly confounded by what is going on around her, unsure not only of the meaning and truth of her surroundings, but also of her own identity, trying to interpret herself and her life through what other people tell her and her fragmentarily returning memory. While the audience knows a bit more than Eleanor does, and can guess even more, that surplus knowledge is never concrete enough for us to feel superior and secure in that knowledge. We may be pretty sure that Telly Savalas's sneer is that of a killer, but we know as little as Eleanor does about how the world she tries to understand truly works.

One of the film's more ridiculous but effective moments comes when Eleanor confuses her real life with elements of a theatre role she was playing, an idea that is absolutely fantastic on a thematic level but becomes more problematic if one attempts to apply the rules of normal reality to it. Realistically, Eleanor should remember playing a femme fatale in a stage play, not being a femme fatale, even if one takes Eleanor as an intense lover of the Method.

It is, however, this feeling of irreality, of a lingering, dream-like confusion that makes it difficult to separate truth, dream, memory, and stage play from each other that is L'assassino's great strength. It's not about being realistic, but about sucking the audience into the same state of mind Eleanor - and sometimes, it seems, also the killer - is in. Here, the giallo is an engine of confusion and doubt that only works all the better because it leaves consensus reality behind.

De Martino's often stylish, sometimes melodramatic and sometimes surprisingly subtle direction furthers the project of turning the movie into something close to a dream. As photographed by Joe D'Amato in a very good mood, Bruges looks like the least real place on Earth, and therefore the perfect place for Heywood to look in turns confused and determined in while the Stelvio Cipriani score swoons rather hypnotically.

On the negative side, I could well have done without the evil lesbian explanation at the film's end, but then I'm not living in Italy in 1972. On the other hand (I think it's number three), this is a giallo where the heroine solves her problems under her own powers in the end, so L'assassino's politics aren't quite as conservative as one would fear. I'm not even sure that should come as much of a surprise in a film this devoted to letting its audience share the state of mind of said heroine.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Three Films Make A Post: IF STARK TERROR WERE here would be sheer bliss!

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012): In my book, the good silly movies are often those that may know about their own silliness well enough, but still decide to treat their stupid (and possibly tasteless) "high concepts" with a face so straight and earnest, you can't really be sure they really do know how silly they are.

Case in point is Timur Bekmambetov's film with the self-explanatory title, the axe-swinging Lincoln and the very stupid yet entertaining action sequences. The whole thing treats seriously what can't be taken seriously by anyone, and is more like a comic book than most films actually based on comic books. Plus, there's an awesome moment where Mary Elizabeth Winstead suddenly does excellent dramatic acting as if this weren't a film about a vampire hunting Lincoln but about actual people, which is the sort of thing actors earn my never-ending respect with.

I was highly entertained by the whole thing, though your mileage may vary depending on your emotional closeness to the US Civil War and your tolerance for stupid ideas. When in doubt, just look at the title. If this sounds like the sort of thing you might enjoy, you probably will.

Skull Soldier (1992): Musician/actor Masaki Kyomoto attempts to sleaze up the the tokusatsu genre in a direct to video project written and directed by himself, with himself in the lead role. On paper, I could totally get behind adding blood and boobs to the Japanese costumed hero biz (like Garo would later do quite a bit more successfully), but unfortunately, Kyomoto is one of those Jennifer Lopez/Kenneth Brannagh "multi-talents" who does everything, but is not very good at any of it, proving that egos can be bigger than talents anywhere on the globe. Acting-wise, we're in the same territory as with the hair brigade in Hong Kong; direction-wise, it's verve-less crap; music-wise, pestilential soft jazz plays in the most inappropriate moments; and writing-wise, horrible comic relief drowns out the already not very exciting rest of the script.

Life's just too short to waste time on an ego-trip this boring.

The Thompsons (2012): The Butcher Brothers on the other hand clearly don't set out to bore with the sequel to their vampire movie The Hamiltons. The vampire siblings from the first part have gone on the run in Europe after a very unfortunate incident that left their bloody faces all over the news. In the more civilized part of the world, our sentimental vampires try to find others of their kind, and a little bit of help. When brother Francis (Cory Knauf) makes contact with a British country vampire family (with location shots at least in part actually shot in the UK for a change, and with actual UK actors that spare us the expected fake accents), things do seem to take a turn for the better, with peace and discipline promised by the family's elders, and romance for still brooding Francis by their mutant daughter Riley (Elizabeth Henstridge). Alas, it seems a bloodsucking monster family can't even trust another bloodsucking monster family anymore.

While the film does from time to time descend into scenes of very silly fang-baring and snarling like an even less convincing True Blood, this is for the most part a successful attempt at a) fleshing out The Hamilton's particular vampire mythology in a somewhat slicker film, b) philosophising about the nature of monsters and family, and c) spicing things up with blood and boobs in a much more effective way than Skull Soldier does.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

In short: Spasmo (1974)

One suspects rich ne'er-do-well Christian Bauman (Robert Hoffmann) does expect a rather different night than the one he gets when he picks up Barbara (Suzy Kendall) while his supposed girlfriend is watching. What he gets is a gunman (Adolfo Lastretti) assaulting him in Barbara's bathroom while he's shaving off his beard (don't ask). Christian manages to shoot said gunman with his own gun, but then decides that going to the police would be much too complicated and goes on the run with Barbara.

Next up is breaking into an old tower that belongs to one of Barbara's friends, because what would be more logical? This is only the beginning of a rather bizarre time for Christian. Soon enough, he as well as the audience will have to question his own sanity, everyone else's sanity, and the probability of really dumb conspiracies. All while people die and someone leaves very creepy latex dolls picturing murdered women lying around everywhere.

Generally, director Umberto Lenzi's and my sensibilities are in complete opposition to each other; and that's when I just ignore how boring I find many of the man's films. Spasmo, however, is the sort of film to provoke me into rethinking a whole body of work thanks to the sheer power of its wrong-headed awesomeness.

The Italian giallo is often criticized for having ridiculously illogical, random and obtusely constructed plots (even I as a fan of the genre won't deny these criticisms completely), but in Spasmo's case, Lenzi and his four co-writers seem to have decided to pretend to treat that criticism as a rule, to see how far weird yet intense acting, a fantastic Morricone score that gets increasingly strange with the increasing strangeness of the film, and oodles of style can take a film whose narrative decisions are based on characters always doing the least probable thing, with a plot that makes less sense the more of it is explained. Turns out the place a film reaches this way is also known as "my heart", for how could I not love a film that consciously revels in being as insane as possible (because half of its characters are supposed to be insane, which really isn't much of a spoiler) without ever returning to the land of logic and boring normal plotting?

It can be dangerous for a film to be as weird for the sake of weirdness as Spasmo is, but this is an Italian film, and if there's one thing the country's genre films were good at (let's just ignore their usually fantastic aesthetics for the sake of argument here), it's being weird for the sake of weirdness in a natural and organic way, as if strangeness weren't something they strive for, but their natural state of being.