Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Some Guy Who Kills People (2011)

Warning: here be rather large, yet unavoidable spoilers.

After having spent time in a mental institution (or loony bin, as he and everyone else how ever was in one calls it) to help him get over his suicidal depression, Ken Boyd (Kevin Corrigan) walks through his life with the shell-shocked expression of somebody neither able nor willing to take the risk of actually beginning to live again. Ken has moved back in with his - deadpanning and sarcastic - mother (Karen Black, truly delightfully deadpan) and works in the local ice cream parlour, where he frequently has to take on the undignified job of dressing up as an ice cream cone. His life is pretty horrible, but at least nothing is happening in it.

That is, until Ken's eleven years old daughter Amy (Ariel Gade, who actually manages to be as charming as the script wants her to be, no mean feat in the nightmare world of child actors) steps into his life. Amy's the product of a one-week-relationship, and until now, her mother was able to pretend her father just disappeared. However, once happenstance leads Amy to the truth, the girl decides to get to know her father, if he thinks he's too much of a fuck-up to be one or not. Amy decides to move in with Ken for a week, and she sure isn't going to take no for an answer.

Spending time with Amy slowly opens up something in Ken, and with the girl's encouragement, he even begins dating British ex-pat Stephanie (Lucy Davis, still orange).

However, while all this has been going on, the small town Ken lives in has been hit by a series of murders. The victims are all major pricks, and, though the Sheriff (Barry Bostwick, just as deadpan as Black) - who just happens to be the boyfriend of Ken's Mum - doesn't realize it for quite some time, were once involved in a flashback-inducing traumatic event for Ken. In fact, there's a lot the Sheriff doesn't know that implicates Ken to the audience as a serial killer, and soon enough, Amy will have to share our point of view.

Colour me confused, for Some Guy Who Kills People was made by Jack Perez, the director and writer of Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus and other crap, yet it is actually pretty darn good. It's a clear demonstration of the fact that putting one's heart into a movie leads to much better results than putting in self-serving irony.

Not that Some Guy is free of irony or humour, it being a comedy and all, but this is not the sort of film that points at itself and shouts "Look how crap I am! Now laugh at me!". Most of the film's humour is of a rather more deadpan type that is in my mind part of the US indie movie tradition. It's the sort of humour that points out the absurdity of the situation the characters are in, and finds the funny in the quiet horribleness of Ken's life, but never stoops to making fun of people's pain. And there's a lot of pain to go around, for Some Guy's greatest strength is the quiet and honest way it shows its characters' unhappiness. There are no big dramatic break-downs, instead, Corrigan's stooped shoulders, and Gade's often a bit too ready smile are all the Perez needs to demonstrate how his characters are feeling for most of the running time.

However, Some Guy isn't only a film out to explain how much life sucks, but also one willing to suggest that yes, it might get better. I'm nearly tempted to use the word "heart-warming" like some of my more courageous movie-loving peers do when talking about the film, if that particular word didn't suggest a kitschiness neither Perez' quiet and unassuming film nor the nuanced performances of the cast have anything to do with.

Ironically, given my general tastes and unflinching pretend-cynicism (surely, I've never cried while watching Doctor Who), it's the film's horror part I find the least convincing. For one, I'm not sure if Ken's and Amy's story actually needs the serial killer plot at all, and while it certainly isn't anathema to the rest of the film, that aspect of the movie also feels a bit superfluous. It sure doesn't help that the film's indictment of Ken for the murders does not really play fair with the audience, showing things to make us think Ken really is the killer that don't seem believable anymore once we know he isn't.

On the other hand, the serial killer plot is so minor in its impact compared with the interplay between the main characters that its lack of success doesn't pull down the film too far. It may be keeping Some Guy Who Kills People from being a perfect film, yet it still is highly recommended one.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The New Daughter (2009)

After an unpleasant divorce, writer John James (Kevin Costner) moves with his teenage daughter Louisa (Ivana Baquero) and younger son Sam (Gattlin Griffith) to Mercy, South Dakota, or rather, a lonely house in the woods near Mercy, South Dakota.

Not surprisingly, the children aren't exactly happy about the move. Sam's a bit too young to actually understand what's going on, and seems mostly afraid and confused, while Louisa - in the throes of puberty and now half a country away from all her friends - blames herself, her father and her mother in turn.

The family's situation doesn't improve when Louisa discovers the burial mound in the woods behind the house. The male members of the family seem somewhat repelled by the place, but for Louisa, it fastly becomes a retreat from everything that ails her. However, contact with the place begins to change her: she starts sleepwalking, gets a curious rash on her neck and upper back, and all of a sudden acts much rougher than the rather timid girl she was before. She's not just getting more assertive against bullies than is generally considered correct, but also begins to experiment with (slightly) shorter skirts and make-up. And that really is just the beginning.

At first, John thinks Louisa's changed behaviour is another consequence of the divorce and the move, but the longer things go on, and the more like a stranger his daughter becomes, the more his conviction grows that there's some outside force changing Louisa. Being a writer and therefore knowledgeable in the ways of the search engine, he begins to research and stumbles upon the sad story of the former owners of his home that includes a changed teenage girl, a run-away mother and a death. Below that, though, lies something more ancient.

In theory, Luiso Berdejo's (whom you may know as the co-writer of the [Rec] movies) The New Daughter should be a film right up my alley: an Americanization of a short story by John Connolly from the author's excellent collection Nocturnes with clear nods in the direction of Arthur Machen, shot atmospherically and with obvious love for detail, well-acted (even Kevin Costner is perfectly alright when he for once doesn't salute flags or explain the sanctity of baseball or said flags), and all-around solidly made.

Alas, in practice, the film turns out to be rather limp and ineffectual. It is one of those films that clearly prides itself on following modern Hollywood's beloved three act structure as closely as if scriptwriter John Travis had written the handbook on it, leaving us with a film that might as well have ended after thirty minutes, for everything that's going to happen after the set-up is going to happen exactly by the book. It's the sort of film where you can be sure that a gun that was buried early on in the proceedings will be dug out again and used later on, for what is good writing if not following rules Anton Chekhov set up once that never were meant to be strict rules every writer has to follow in the future? As it turns out, slavishly following the rules and regulations of the craft isn't good writing, but riskless writing.

As if that weren't bland enough, the film also spends too much of its running time spelling out its metaphors and themes (adolescent female sexuality is so frightening for dads, don't you know? also, it's icky) so clearly that even the idea of ambiguity or (oh noes!) openness to diverging interpretations of what's going on seems preposterous. The audience, after all, should never have to think for itself. We are dumb and need to be told.

Having said that, I also have to make it clear that The New Daughter isn't a bad movie at all, it's just a movie so aggressively lacking in life and actual imagination that it made me wish for an actual bad movie. Those films do at least know how to surprise.


Saturday, January 28, 2012

In short: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011)

If there's a more peculiar and specific way to make a guy feel old than Tomas Alfredson's rather brilliant John le Carré adaptation just found for me, I don't really want to know what it is. What got me was the (in fact pretty obvious, but I've never pretended to be able to see the obvious before it bites me in the ass) realization that you can adapt the good novels of John le Carré today only by turning them into period pieces, which feels slightly off to someone who does remember the Cold War as more than just a more or less exciting background for movies.

Anyhow, Alfredson not only makes his film a period piece, but also a film heavily reminiscent in spirit of the sort of film major Hollywood studios in the 70s - before the arrival of the blockbuster and long before a whole industry seemingly turned to prefer whining about piracy while making huge profits instead of actually trying to make movies worth paying for - still dared to produce: slow, based on grown-up characters having grown-up character feelings, talky, and sure not only of their own intelligence, but also of their audience's intelligence. Alfredson's film displays a subtlety and a trust in the ability of his actors to emphasise the complexity of their characters without becoming showy that is extraordinary, and that is - not surprisingly - repaid by those actors in form of brilliant, subtle and nuanced performances worthy of a script and direction just as subtle and nuanced.

Thematically, Tinker, Tailor is a movie not only about the paranoia that comes with the spy territory, but also one asking questions about loyalty, trust, the necessity of the little betrayals that get people through the day, it's also a movie especially centring around the question if there actually is something like a little betrayal; are the little betrayals perhaps more destructive in the long run?

Tinker, Tailor's biggest strength is that it doesn't answer these questions cleanly, even though it ties up its complex narrative of double-crosses and small and large cruelties clearly enough. A mystery like the one of the Russian double agent in the British intelligence services, can, after all, be solved with finality; it's just it's emotional costs and emotional reasons that truly can't.


Friday, January 27, 2012

On WTF: Sennentuntschi (2010)

I don't think I've ever talked about a Swiss movie here before, but who can resist a perfect piece of art house exploitation cinema like Michael Steiner's Sennentuntschi? It's the sort of film that could have found a place of honour in Tohill's and Tombs's Immoral Tales if it had been made a few decades earlier.

It's not a perfect film, but I'll go into some of Sennentuntschi's flaws and more of its virtues over at WTF-Film.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

In short: Zombie Apocalypse (2011)

Not to be confused with other Zombie Apocalypses. This is the Syfy/The Asylum one.

As its title oh so subtly suggests, the film takes place in the late stages of JAZA (Just Another Zombie Apocalypse, featuring all four types of zombies: fast, slow, mid-tempo and CGI tiger). After having hidden away in a hut in the woods for most of the end of the world - which makes them zombie apocalypse virgins who can be exposited to whenever necessary - Ramona (Taryn Manning), Billy (Eddie Steeples), and some zombie-chew friend of theirs emerge to wander around randomly and provoke zombies by being obnoxious and loud.

Ramona and Billy are saved from a zombie attack that kills Zombie-Chew by a merry band of effective  survivors (who'll turn ridiculously ineffective whenever the script calls for it) lead by Henry (Ving Rhames) and Cassie (Lesley-Ann Brandt). The survivors adopt the two slackers, and together they go on their way to Catalina where there's supposedly a zombie-free area to be found. On their way, the group goes through all the zombie movie standards, except for the dialogue about how much women suck popularized by The Walking Dead.

Curiously, Zombie Apocalypse is another SyFy-produced movie I don't utterly loathe. Even stranger, it's also a The Asylum production that looks like an actual movie. Sure, the film's script, written by Brooks Peck and Craig Engler who were also responsible for that other SyFy movie that was at least entertaining crap, seems to be out to remove as much subtextual complexity from zombie cinema as possible while going through all the genre's clichés and presenting all its expected set pieces, but at least it's doing that with a degree of competence and love for (alas, CGI-infested) cheap zombie carnage that's actually pretty entertaining to watch. Plus, this is one of the few horror movies I've seen that contains more than one person of colour in a central role without trying to sell itself as some sort of hip hop horror thing; this natural inclusiveness goes a long way to make up for the film's flatness in all other social and political regards.

For once in an Asylum film, the direction's not too horrible either. Director Nick Lyon actually manages to shoot decent action scenes (until the ridiculous CGI zombie tiger in the climax, that is), and is doing a job that is all-around not crap. Probably a first in the world of The Asylum.

Then there's the additional bonus of a very good low budget movie cast, doing very decent low budget movie acting. Okay, Taryn Manning's pretty horrible, but I have witnessed The Asylum's Sherlock Holmes movie and know that "pretty horrible" is still better than what this particular production company is willing to take from a lead actor.

If all this sounds as if Zombie Apocalypse's greatest virtue in my eyes is that it's not atrocious, then, well, you do understand me right. Sometimes, not being horrible is enough.


Wednesday, January 25, 2012

In short: Children Who Chase Lost Voices From Deep Below (2011)

A little girl who has lost her father early in life enters Agharta, a semi-mythical world lying under the surface of the Earth. She falls in with her teacher cum agent of a secret society in his attempt to bring his dead wife back from the dead by opening the gate between the world of the living and the dead situated down there. The people living in Agharta are not amused. Various action sequences and obvious melodrama happen.

This anime by Makoto Shinkai sure is pretty in a "let's try to imitate Studio Ghibli's visual style as closely as possible (hopefully without getting sued)" kind of way, especially when it comes to the character design that more than once oversteps the line between loving homage and outright rip-off.

Unfortunately for the film at hand, this visual closeness to the works of Hayao Miyazaki also invites the comparison with the other aspects of that man's work, and it's here where Children starts to look and sound rather tired. Shinkai replaces what I assume to be his big model's actual insight into humanity and the world with a sweeping soundtrack and trite morals like "you have to let your dead loved ones go". It's Miyazaki without soul and the understanding of the actual complexities of life, love and humanity.

As an adventure movie, Children is trying to hide its basic emptiness and its lack of a sense of wonder behind visual lavishness, but never manages to make the actual adventuring exciting enough to let its audience (at least in my case) overlook the general lack of charm and urgency of the endeavour.

For the tastes of someone like me, who prefers the rough and interesting to the slick and mindless, watching Shinkai's movie was particularly annoying: all that talent and all that money wasted on something without any emotional, intellectual or artistic ambitions beyond being a good imitation.


Technorati-Markierungen: ,,,,

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Look Ma, I'm quoted in the Wall Street Journal!

Fellow M.O.S.S. agent Beth of Beth Loves Bollywood fame spends some of the 48 hours in her day on a weekly column about Bollywood movies for the India blog of the Wall Street Journal Online.

Because she has been slowly driven insane by us other M.O.S.S.ers, Beth decided to spend this week's column exploring the world of the movies of Harinam Singh, Hindi no budget horror auteur extraordinaire/from hell. Such a thing is, of course, an endeavour best not started alone, so Beth asked me a few pointed questions about the why and wherefore of a certain part of the cult movie bloggers' set's love for the works of the kindly Mister Singh.

Read all Beth discovered, and some of what I gibbered, here!


Technorati-Markierungen: ,,,,

Custodes Bestiae (2006)

After making some sort of big discovery via a handful of scratched photographs he has stumbled upon and a fresco he's restoring in a provincial village church, (art historian?) Professor Dal Colle (Giorgio Merlino) invites newspaper Journalist Londero (Massimiliano Pividore) to an interview in which he is planning to unveil whatever that discovery is.

Just as Dal Colle is about to get into the details, a car arrives in front of his house. Clearly, Dal Colle is frightened of whoever is inside. The professor gives Londero a bag with his old camera and asks the journalist to hide until the unbidden visitor leaves again.

That's the last Londero sees of Dal Colle for quite some time. When the visitor is gone, so is the Professor. Londero takes the camera with him, and starts an investigation to find out what the historian wanted to tell him. It soon becomes clear that Dal Colle must have made an enemy of a very dangerous group, men who don't have any trouble killing or lobotomizing whoever crosses them, and that this group won't stop at anything keeping Londero away from their secrets.

However, the physical danger isn't the only thing Londero has to fear. The further his investigations lead him, the clearer it becomes that Dal Colle's big secret must have been kept for centuries and concerns things that are neither fully natural nor sane. The supernatural qualities of the whole affair are made clearer to the audience by the presence of increasingly more comprehensible flashbacks into the late 16th century which the film's poor protagonist never gets to see.

The few bits and pieces I've read about Lorenzo Bianchini's Custodes Bestiae on the 'net put a heavy emphasis on the film being an homage to Argento in his short occult phase (which just happens to be my favourite part of Argento's career). I don't entirely agree with that emphasis. Sure, the film does contain more than one nod to Argento's films, but the differences between Argento's style of film-making and that of Bianchini are gigantic.

In part, these differences are certainly caused by the much tighter budget the younger director clearly has to work with. Of course, there are the usual problems of a film made in the 00's, like sometimes amateurish acting, sometimes problematic sound and the generally cheap look of something shot on digital video - problems never found in Argento's movies when he was good. However, Bianchini doesn't actually seem to be trying to emulate Argento's aesthetic closely, which, given the circumstances, is something to be commended, for the film would only ever become a pale imitation of Argento, as built with cheap papiermache. Visually, Bianchini doesn't reach for Argento's highly stylized, hypnotic artificiality, but uses predominantly real locations in Friuli, sometimes giving his film slightly documentarian appearance that works well with the investigative story he tells, at other times trying his best - and more often than not succeeding - to create a weird mood by cheap and simple camera and editing devices. Custodes Bestiae is not always as slick as one would probably wish from a film, but there's an intelligence and care on display that really helps to make it work for me.

How well the film does work for a given viewer will probably depend on one's tolerance or liking for a film that by and large consists of scenes of people doing research and trying to make sense of it in a narrative that reminded me of my favourite investigative Call/Trail of Cthulhu scenarios more than once. In fact, while the film doesn't use Lovecraft's mythos, its background story has more than just a slight resemblance to Shadow over Innsmouth, as does its climax and the inevitability of the self-destruction of its protagonists. If you think watching people puzzling over books and crawling through archives until they meet their certain doom sounds boring, then this will probably not be the film for you at all. If, on the other hand, the idea of a well-constructed investigation into an equally well-constructed mythology that fits excellently into the way real-life myth and religion work sounds like your kind of thing, Custodes Bestiae should be right up your alley.

Me, I'm always happy when I can watch people doing research into the occult in movies, and if a film knows as well how to pace this sort of narrative as this one does, I can't help but be spellbound.


Sunday, January 22, 2012

Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark (2010)

Because of the girl's obvious psychological troubles, her mother sends Sally (Bailee Madison) to live with her ex-husband Alex (Guy Pearce) and his new girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes, surprisingly decent here) in the Victorian mansion they are restoring to sell on.

As if that weren't enough trouble for a little girl, Sally is soon enough beset by the rat-like fairies living in the house's ash pit. At first, the creatures are pretending to make friends with the little girl, but it doesn't take long until they show their nastier side. While Alex - excellent dad that he is - doesn't seem to take Sally's problems as much more than a nuisance, Kim begins to believe Sally's stories about the monsters sharing their house once the occurrences become too strange to take them for expressions of a troubled child.

I have never been as big an admirer of the original TV movie Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark as many of my horror film loving peers, so I have to admit that this Guillermo Del Toror-written and produced remake directed by Troy Nixey is not pushing my sacrilege buttons at all. In fact, if I had to decide between the two films, I'd clearly take the cinema version over the TV movie.
For my tastes, Don't Be Afraid is a remake done right, taking elements of the original, but giving them its own spin and direction, turning the very white upper middle class (as all TV movies of that period invariably were not just by "virtue" of the characters, but also in feel and ideology) original with its TV-induced bland production design into a modern gothic of the visual style that's pretty typical of del Toro projects. The character's are now even more upper middle class than they were in the original, but curiously enough, the film itself doesn't feel that way anymore. 

I like the film's re-interpretation of its monsters a lot: turning them into fairies (with the proper shout-outs to Arthur Machen, thanks to at least one scriptwriter who actually reads books in form of del Toro), and an appropriately creepy version of the tooth fairy to boot, gives the monsters' existence and threat a proper weight the somewhat characterless creatures of the original didn't have for me. Thanks to this (and the inclusion of various of the frequent themes of del Toro's work), the new Don't Be becomes more of a dark fairy tale, trading the innate American middle class-ness of the TV movie for the mood of one of our dark European fairy tales, frequently cleverly broken and mirrored by modern psychological concepts and a playful sense of what you can change about the traditional tropes of fairy tales. So, fortunately, step mothers aren't inherently evil, and even rather ineffectual and superficial fathers can rise to the occasion, though only when it is much too late for a happy ending.

As befits a fairy tale in this key, Don't Be Afraid has an ending that is surprisingly consequent and absolutely keeping with the tone of what came before, even though it's not as complete a downer ending as a film from the 70s would have had. In this film's world, it's one of the characters who at least "deserves" it, who dies; it's as if virtue is not necessarily something that will be rewarded, and contact with the supernatural has its price even if it's not fair to the person who has to pay that price at all.

While there are a lot of interesting things happening on more than one subtextual level, and its visual side is as sumptuous and detailed as you could hope for, Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark may be a bit too conventional on a dramatic level to satisfy some. It's a film that frequently makes fascinating and fruitful decisions about what it can and will do inside of the frame of a very traditional horror movie but it never tries to completely break out of the structures of a film of this type, featuring suspense scenes that look and feel exactly as you'd expect them too, following each other in exactly the expected way. On one hand, this formal conservatism is a bit of a disappointment, but on the other, it is also a reminder that you can work inside of traditional structures without having to act dumb.


Saturday, January 21, 2012

On WTF: Mr Wrong (1986)

There's a horrifying lack of write-ups of movies from New Zealand on this site or over at my WTF-Film column, so I'm glad to put things right a little by talking about the only good movie about a haunted car I know.

Gaylene Preston's Mr Wrong is based on the Elizabeth Jane Howard story of the same name, and turns out to be a quietly feminist, unassuming and clever film. Head on over to WTF-Film to learn more.


Some Random Thoughts On Akira (1988)

Because who needs another full write-up of a classic everyone has already written about? Still, I have a handful of jumbled thoughts and ideas to share.

First of all, I'm impressed by how well the film still holds up as an aesthetic whole. A big part of the film's effect on me is the earnestness and relentlessness with which director Katsuhiro Otomo intensifies most of the more exhausting (one could say hysterical) tropes of anime and manga to the brink of the apocalyptic, creating a whole new set of tropes and concepts for later creators of anime to follow.

But what still gets me most isn't actually the apocalyptic, the boyish manliness, the shouting and the explosions, it is Otomo's treatment of silence. Some of Akira's most impressive moments are happening without a sound, at times accompanied by a few notes of the still pretty weird soundtrack, reminding me of the quiet/loud dynamic that was starting to become important in music at about the same time.

Perhaps related to that, perhaps its total opposite, I think, is the director's decision to stuff his film full of telling details, none of them emphasised, all of them just there, until Akira becomes so full of these details that it's more than just a little jarring whenever Otomo actually does emphasise something. A part of this is probably an attempt of Otomo to adapt his much more sprawling manga the whole affair is based on without having to leave out too much of the incidental detail (though large swathes of plot are left out, and the movie's better off that way), but its effect of me as a viewer is still just as confusing, exciting, and exhausting as it was when Akira was shiny and new.


Thursday, January 19, 2012

In short: The Monolith Monsters (1957)

Those darn meteors, always bringing down trouble when they crash down near small US towns! This time around, said meteor-brought trouble does not come in form of a malevolent (or just very hungry) life form, but in form of silicate rock carrying some rather curious traits. When coming in contact with water, the alien rock gets a lust for growing and multiplying that seems quite fitting to the somewhat phallic shape it has when it gets larger.

It also somehow (the film becomes especially unclear about the how and why on this point) manages to turn people coming in contact with it and water slowly to stone, except for those people it comes in contact with that don't turn to stone.

Will heroic Department of the Interior geologist Dave Miller (Grant Williams) and his former Professor Arthur Flanders (Trevor Bardette) find a way to stop the rebellious rock formations before they can stomp the quaint little town of San Angelo? Will Dave's girlfriend Cathy (Lola Albright) be allowed to do anything of import? Will I be able to keep from rhyming "rock formation" with "park bench mutation"?

If there's one thing John Sherwood's The Monolith Monsters (shouldn't it rather be called "The Monster Monoliths"?) should be remembered for, than it is the rather clever idea of its scriptwriters - Norman Jolley, Robert M. Fresco and Jack Arnold - to construct a film that hits most of the mandatory beats of a 50s giant monster movie while replacing the standard giant monster with an even less conscious force of nature. This small change doesn't really shake up the way the film's plot develops much, and sure as hell does not change anything about the narrative techniques of the genre its operating in, but gives it that slight but important degree of memorability a film operating inside of a genre that always tended to especially samey movies desperately needs.

If you ignore the novelty of The Monolith Monsters' non-monster, you're left with a 50s monster movie that isn't on the level of perennial favourites like Them!, but that is surrounded by a pleasant air of low budget competence. The film goes by with a rather sprightly pace and avoids some of the more annoying pitfalls these films tend to jump in with abandon. Namely, the (very minor) romance bits aren't completely nauseating and Williams's hero is not as much of a square-jawed jerk as one is used to.

Add to that the rather nicely designed and realized monolith effects, and you may not have a classic of its genre, but certainly a movie worth a bit of time for anyone who doesn't outright hate all 50s monster movies.


Wednesday, January 18, 2012

In short: Hobo With A Shotgun (2011)

It looks like movies based on the fake trailers in Grindhouse have truly arrived and become their own little genre now. Jason Eisener's film about a Rutger Hauer's titular hobo (soon enough to be outfitted with a shotgun, obviously) doing the vigilante thing in a city full of freaks also has a lot in common with the school of self-conscious Japanese exploitation films following The Machine Girl in that it manages to make up for its low budget and the usual problems that come with it by dedicating itself to a feverish interpretation of what's most entertaining in exploitation films. Which it then proceeds to heighten to the absurd to at times awesome and exhilarating effect. Often, the film is even as funny as it thinks it is.

Alas, there are a few other times when the film's hysteria comes over as phony, the winking and nudging taking away some of the fun Hobo's crassness and violence generally bring. I'm also a bit disappointed about how little imagination the film shows when it comes to the treatment of its female lead Molly Dunsworth. I'm not going to complain about her being a prostitute - for the stories of prostitutes are worth telling as much as (let's be honest, more than) those of vacuous New York media people - but I was quite disappointed that the film chose to let her sudden moment of kicking some ass end in a whimper that's only there so that Hauer can die a more heroic death - especially compared to the Japanese school of these movies where objectification of girls in school uniforms and having a female lead with actual agency mingle in classic exploitation style. Not that I expected much from a movie from North America in this regard. Keep in mind that Dunsworth still gets to stab someone with her arm bone splinter.

This doesn't mean I didn't enjoy myself for most of Hobo's running time. As I said, large parts of the film are exhilarating and/or imaginative in that special blood-spattering way and/or crassly funny - what's not to enjoy about that?

Plus, Rutger Hauer imbues his on paper utterly ridiculous character with surprising amounts of humanity, putting the "man" back in homicidal maniac. Not a bad achievement for an actor often described with the cruel words "limited range". Clearly, it's not the range, but what one does with it.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Assignment Naschy: Seven Murders for Scotland Yard (1971)

Original title: Jack el destripador de Londres

A murderer roams the backrooms of 1970s London, murdering (mostly) prostitutes as a self-styled new Jack the Ripper. The police in form of the frighteningly coiffed Inspector Cuthbert Campbell (Renzo Marignano) soon have a main suspect. It's the second victim's boyfriend, former trapeze artist Pedro (Paul Naschy), his solid alibis for more than one of the murders notwithstanding.

Implicated to the audience by quite a few sledgehammer-subtle red herrings, Pedro is soon fleeing the police and trying to avenge his lover by catching the killer himself. That's not quite as easy as it sounds, for there's not only the police trying to catch him, but the local gangsters have seen Fritz Lang's M one too many times, and want to see supposed serial killer Pedro dead.

Pedro's investigation eventually points him towards Inspector Campbell himself as the possible perpetrator. This, however, may be just another red herring, for Campbell's buddy, teacher, guy with sexual problems, frequent lounger in house coats and inappropriate admirer of his students Winston Darby Christian (Andrés Resino) is just as good a suspect.

Sometimes, my project of getting my hands and eyes on every Paul Naschy movie possible turns into a bit of a chore. As someone who is completely unable to learn from my own mistakes, I decided to follow the pretty dire Spanish giallo A Dragonfly For Each Corpse with another one of Naschy's giallos, in form of Seven Murders, directed by José Luis Madrid (possibly known as the director of the also not very good Horrible Sexy Vampire, a film about a vampire who is neither). And wouldn't you know it, this one's only slightly better.

At least, Seven Murders isn't quite as unpleasantly reactionary as the later movie, a film whose protagonist and scriptwriters would probably applaud the killing spree of this one's villain. In fact, Seven Murders (at least in the version I saw; the different character names on the film's IMDB page suggest that other versions of the movie may be quite a bit different from the one I saw - on the other hand, the IMDB may just be full of crap) never suggests for a second that the victims deserve to be killed for being prostitutes, adulterers or just young and trying to experiment a bit. There's an uncommon unwillingness to identify with the murderer even in those scenes that are shot from his point of view that is on one hand pretty sympathetic, but that on the other hand only increases the film's distanced and disjointed feel.

As is so often the case with the films Naschy starred in, Seven Murders suffers from a script that doesn't seem to be able to make up its mind about much. Should it use too much exposition (like in one third of it)? None at all even when it would be useful (as in its other two thirds)? Should it really play this fast and loose with the guilt and innocence of its protagonists and include red herrings of a kind that can't be explained away and will therefore have to be ignored after the film is through? And who exactly is the protagonist: Pedro? Cuthbert Campbell? Winston "the Dandy" Darby Christian? How to tell a story in a way that doesn't drag and jerk from scene to scene as if the film were assembled from bits and pieces of two or three movies (it actually flows less well than some of Godfrey Ho's frankenfilms I've seen by now)? Scriptwriters Tito Carpi, Sandro Continenzo, Madrid and Naschy either don't know or are of different minds. Not surprisingly, this results in a film that's not just lacking focus, but can't even imagine having such a thing.

Now, a certain lack of logic and narrative focus isn't uncommon for a giallo; in fact it is something rather to be expected. However, the better films of the genre manage either to use these theoretical problems to enforce their thematic argument(s) (in which the absence of logic is often one of the points), to bury them under a pleasing, confusing or mesmerizing aesthetic surface, or to just throw so much weirdness and sleaze at their audience as to produce a state of bliss that makes caring about incoherence impossible. Seven Murders just doesn't manage any of these three feats. If the film has a theme, than it's something extremely generic like "in every man dwells a murderer", and Madrid (or the other writers) really can't be bothered to do much of interest with it.

Seven Murders' aesthetics are as confused as the writing. For every moment of beauty, every moodily framed scene, every bit of visual cleverness, there are two scenes of talking heads in anonymous rooms draining away all visual (and intellectual) excitement. Finally, weirdness and sleaze don't make any appearance at all.

One of Seven Murders' few high points is Naschy's performance. While it's really a Naschy standard role (the dark, brooding romantic with a dark past who is loved by all women, unpleasantly adept at physical violence, but has a good, yet tragic, heart), the actor puts a lot of energy into it, acting as the only physical and personal presence in a movie that is lacking personality in most other respects.


Sunday, January 15, 2012

Unearthly Stranger (1963? 1964?)

Panicked and sweating scientist Dr. Mark Davidson (John Neville) speaks his terrible story onto a tape machine.

Davidson is a British scientist working on a way to transport humans to other planets through the power of their minds, whichever doctorate you may need for that sort of thing. While Davidson is on holiday in Switzerland, his project leader dies under mysterious circumstances that seem pretty unnatural for natural causes. Davidson is made the dead man's successor. What the security chief of the project, Major Clarke (Patrick "Lestrade" Newell), fails to mention to Davidson, but tells the scientist's boss and friend Professor Lancaster (Philip Stone), is the fact that this wasn't the first death connected with the project, or rather, related projects in the USA and the Soviet Union have taken the same losses, under the same circumstances. One might think someone or something does not want humanity to reach for the stars. And why is it that the dead man's blood contains a substance that can only be found in outer space? Davidson soon enough finds out that his job may be a death sentence, but, being British and all, he keeps comparatively calm and carries on.

During his Swiss holiday - which must have been pretty epic - Davidson also met and married his new wife Julie (Gabriella Licudi). Something is a bit strange about her, though: not only is her body language exceedingly weird, but one night, Davidson realizes that she sleeps with her eyes open, doesn't breathe and doesn't blink. And, as is revealed when Major Clarke investigates her background, she also does not seem to exist. Unlike the audience, Davidson isn't quite ready to realize the obvious at that point. It will, however, come to him sooner or later; perhaps too late.

Unearthly Stranger is a decidedly British production (as in, doesn't contain a visible monster and nobody who is square-jawed) directed by John Krish whose filmography suggests your typical journeyman film-maker to me, and whose work here shows a clear noir influence in his staging of emotional scenes as well as in his use of shadow and light. It's a fine little low budget SF/horror movie that convinces through a clever script, some excellent acting, and Krish's slightly melodramatic yet moody direction.

In style and content, the film has a lot in common with some of the anthology TV shows of the 60s, especially the original Outer Limits, sharing these shows' ability to take a silly basic idea and elevate it by treating it seriously and with an eye on contemporary anxieties, as a proper piece of SF horror should. Rex Carlton's script may play fast and loose with its science, it does, however, show a sure hand juggling the film's themes - the paranoia of the "they are among us" invasion movie, some surprising (in a film of this place and time) barbs in the direction of the classism of UK society, and the fear of (certain) men of women (especially well realized in the film's brilliantly creepy last shots). There's also a bit of the old "alien woman gets hit with human emotions" trope that wasn't much better in the 60s than it is today, but the film handles that part well enough not to annoy.

It's also only fair to praise the actors for helping the film work. John ("Sherlock Holmes"/"Well-manicured Man") Neville's performance is quite intense, selling the moments of paranoia and distrust as well as those of tenderness, while Licudi convinces by using a body language just alien enough to neither be too ridiculous nor too normal.

All in all, Unearthly Stranger is exactly the sort of film I'm happy too stumble upon: clever, cheap yet stylish, and pretty damn unknown.


Saturday, January 14, 2012

Three Films Make A Post: Born A Man...Turned Into A Living Laser Beam By Science's Most Gruesome Experiment!

The Last Killer (1967): Slow, ponderous, but not as weighty as it would like to be Spaghetti Western about George Eastman making a crash-course as a gunfighter and professional killer to be able to avenge his murdered father. Boredom ensues, though I can't say the film is actively bad.

Sector 7 (2011): Generally, contemporary South Korean filmmakers seem to be much better at making big budget genre movies that aren't dumb as rocks than their US counterparts, so I did go into this monster on an oil rig movie with certain expectations to be entertained. Alas, Sector 7 is a proper catastrophe of a movie. It's a plodding mess, dumber than you may think possible, full of clichéd non-characters who do things too idiotic to even accept in a monster movie (it really is that bad), hideous "comic" "relief", actors working on valium and a monster that looks a lot like that from The Host but (of course) worse.

The whole affair has a SyFy monster movie vibe, with all the crappiness that entails, just with a higher budget.

The Gibbering Horror of Howard Ghormley (2005): Fortunately, this brilliantly creepy piece of Weird filmmaking (shot on Super 8, no less) that is available to watch on YouTube in two parts here and here, gives me the opportunity to end this on a positive note. Director Steve Daniels uses the rawness of Super 8, editing and staging that at times remind me of Eraserhead and Weimar expressionist films, and a pretty fantastic soundtrack and sound design to create a nightmarish mindscape I found utterly irresistible and properly conducive to feelings of actual dread.


Thursday, January 12, 2012

In short: Django the Bastard (1969)

Original title: Django Il Bastardo

aka Django the Avenger

aka The Stranger's Gundown

A rather creepy gunman with very limited facial expressions - for the movie's first hour, I count one and a half - named, like these gunmen usual are, Django (Anthony Steffen), rides through the West delivering crosses containing the given day as their date of death to various men before he shoots them. Of course, Django is out for vengeance for something that will be explained in a (slightly comical) flashback later on.

The avenger's job is nearly done, too. After getting rid of two of his victims in short order, there's just Rod Murdock (Paolo Gozlino) left, but Murdock is a more worthy opponent than the others. Once he realizes someone is after him (Django ain't one for subtlety), Murdock decides the protection of his mad brother (Luciano Rossi in a role that has a decided whiff of Kinski) and a few men isn't enough, hires a lot more thugs and holes up with them in a town he empties of other inhabitants.

Now having to use various techniques I usually connect with the goddamn Batman, Django goes to work on them.

I always seem to be of two minds about the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Garrone. On one hand, they are all highly derivative, with hardly any plot point that don't come up regularly in other Spaghetti Westerns, and with characters completely following the expected types, on the other hand, they are also usually highly entertaining and accomplished films.

Django the Bastard may even be Garrone's best Western - it is at least the best I've seen to date - mainly because this time around, there are actually a few elements to the film that aren't quite as often explored in other Spaghettis.

The main point of interest in this regard is the way the film treats its avenging anti-hero. That a Spaghetti Western's protagonist has near superhuman abilities with the gun and incredible tenacity isn't anything new, of course, but for about the first hour, Garrone's and Anthony Steffen's script builds him up as a nearly supernatural threat, putting a bit more of the creepy in their West than is the rule. In fact, the script uses this aspect so intensely that it came as a bit of a disappointment to me when Django turned out to be only a very messed-up and angry man who consciously tries to seem more than merely human, making the comparison to Batman more than just a throw-away joke of yours truly.

Another peculiar pop-cultural resonance of Garrone's film is Django's cruelty, and the strangely ritual elements of some of his killings, that - especially early in the movie - give the impression that he's not just traumatized and angry, but an actual serial killer preying on pretty atypical victims. If you squint, you could even argue that this makes Django the Bastard some sort of proto slasher movie, but then you can say that about nearly all movies with vengeance-driven plots if you broaden your definition of makes a movie a "proto-slasher" enough.

Apart from these aspects, Django the Bastard is very typical of this phase of the Spaghetti Western: a minimal (or minimalist, if you prefer) plot with archetypal characters is executed with true visual panache; actors with very limited range work excellently within their limits (in Steffen's case, this is clearly one of his best performances); rich people are bastards; fun is had by all.


Wednesday, January 11, 2012

In short: Psychophobia (1985)

The death of her husband in a plane crash leaves Mary (Mary Saint Peter) with two children frighteningly dubbed by adults trying to sound like children, a house threatening to fall back to the real estate company they bought it from, and frayed nerves.

Mary's nerves surely aren't going to become any better when the company her husband was working for decides to not pay her any money for what may or may not have been a work accident. At least there's a friendly lawyer and former school friend to help her out and fall in love with coming into play.

But monetary troubles aren't going to stay Mary's main problem. Strange phenomena begin to surround her and her house, and people treating her badly start to die horrible off-screen deaths.

A professor of parapsychology diagnoses a psychic infestation. Whoever or whatever may the problem be?

Psychophobia won't go down in the annals of Italian weirdo horror as anything more than a mediocre effort by a guy (Stefan D'Arbo) who didn't make any other movies, but if you have stepped as deeply into the world of these movies as I have, you will probably appreciate some of the film's more peculiar aspects.

If you are, on the other hand, looking for a "good" movie, you'll probably be less than delighted by the usual traits of Italian cheapo cinema, like erratic pacing and a narrative that never even seems to try to make sense.

Of course, what drives some people away is exactly what I enjoy about these films (unless it's not), so a complete breakdown of time, space and logic isn't just perfectly alright with me, but something I'm actually looking forward to. Psychophobia's brand of illogic isn't all that exciting or interesting for most of the film's running time, yet from time to time, the film comes up with lapses in logic peculiar and brilliant enough to help one through many scenes of melodramatic declarations and not much happening. Plus, there's that parapsychologist whose earnest explanations are always funny and never make any sense.

It seems as if the film were saving most of its powers of blowing minds for its last fifteen minutes. Suddenly, the lumbering narrative begins to jump and dance with silly glee. A hilarious tape from the beyond causes joy, and a brain explodes, until it all ends in awesomely dumb psychic powers manifesting. I couldn't have asked for more.


Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Twilight Q (1987)

This OVA in two independent parts was initially supposed to be the start of a whole series of episodes in the Twilight Zone mode, but, as so often happens, commercial problems got in the way of art and the project was canned before it could even begin properly.

Fortunately, it at least left us with two episodes that are showcases of two very different anime directors in the early stages of their careers.

Episode 1, usually called "Reflection", sees school girl Mayumi find a beat-up camera that must have been lying on the ocean floor for some time. The camera contains a roll of film with only one photo on it. Strangely enough, the photo turns out to show a slightly older Mayumi with a boy she has never met before. Research turns up a very peculiar fact about the camera - it is a model that hasn't gone into production yet. It's as if it came from the future. However, her finding the camera from the future is only the beginning of some strange occurrences surrounding Mayumi. Soon, she will find herself traveling through time, meeting her future husband in the future after her (future) death, and falling back into a parallel 1936. Is it all just a dream, or is time out of joint?

"Reflection" is the work of Tomomi Mochizuki, and clearly inspired by things like the inevitable Girl Who Leapt Through Time and thoughts about environmental destruction that may turn the laws of nature themselves against humanity. Stylistically, Mochizuki goes for a semi-realist anime style highly typical of 1987. The character designs are a bit too generic to cause any enthusiasm, but the animation is lively and presented with a good eye for the telling detail it should not skimp on, which is even more important in a story that tries to condense as many plot elements as your normal full-length movie has into less than thirty minutes. It's a small wonder - and a compliment to Mochizuki's ability to keep a visible through-line in a story like this - that the episode does not only not collapse under its own weight, but actually manages to evoke a mood that can only be described as bitter-sweet, seeing as it does include a feeling of youthful hope as well as one of preordained loss. Not bad for half an hour of anime.

The second episode, "File 538", concerns a private detective breaking into the room of a man and a child he has been watching for some time now while investigating the disappearance of airplanes (or, as the audience knows, the airplanes turning into carps) from the skies over a nameless city. In the room, the detective reads the story of the man, and learns that the man himself was a private detective hired to investigate a man and a child living in this room, and that man in his turn was a private detective hired to investigate a man and a child living in the room, and so on and so on.

This episode was directed and written by Mamoru Oshii. It shows Oshii at his strangest with a plot that clearly imagines itself to be a (Japanese) detective novel as written by Kafka and Borges (or it might all just be a Paul Auster influence - who knows?). The episode's execution is peculiar indeed - one third (the plane transformations and the story's intro and outro) are realized as typical Oshii animation, while the other two thirds are nearly static pictures of a guy reading from a print-out and completely static tracings of photographs. Clearly Oshii aims for a distancing effect fitting the alienation and distance of the circular story he tells. Unlike many of the director's other more surreal projects (especially the live action ones), this one works for me, probably because thirty minutes are just a better running time for the kind of emotional abstraction the director is going for than the two hours he prefers.


Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Eerie Midnight Horror Show (1974)

aka Enter the Devil

aka The Devil Obsession

aka The Sexorcist

aka The Tormented

Original title: L'ossessa

When art student and ingénue Danila (Stella Carnacina, who will turn out to by a very enthusiastic actress when her time to writhe, shout, moan and puke green stuff comes) takes on the job of helping restore a wooden religious statue whose mere sight seems to arouse her, she probably doesn't expect what follows. After watching her mother (Lucretia Love) take a friendly rose whipping by her lover, Danila has a vision of the statue coming to life as Ivan Rassimov and having sex with her (most reviews actually speak of rape, but the act is clearly consensual in the print I saw). Suddenly, Danila's mild-mannered character begins to change.

A new-found interest in very rough masturbation and spending her nights screaming soon turns into an attempt to seduce her father (Chris Avram), who declines, leading to more noisome behaviour. Why, you could think Danila is possessed!

A bit of rest seems to help the young woman just fine, though, until she visits a former heathen temple. At this point, it's vision time again. Now, Danila sees herself at a Witches' Sabbath, where she pledges herself to Satan (who likes to spend time hanging on a cross, laughing, it seems) and gets crucified for her trouble. Danila's following hysterics are enough for the group of doctors her parents called in to diagnose her as Possessed by the Devil (it's SCIENCE!, I tell you) and give her into the loving (perhaps too loving) hands of exorcist Father Xeno (Luigi Pistilli), a man who, frankly, sucks at his job so much I was rooting for Satan.

Yes, Enter the Devil (or whichever title you prefer) was another of many attempts of the Italian cheap-shot film industry to beat The Exorcist (winner of the title "classic horror movie I personally care least about") at its own game by sexing it up a little (or a lot) and going into directions US movies even in the 70s seldom dared to walk.

For the first thirty or forty minutes, director Mario Gariazzo (last seen here making the noirish and very interesting Passport for a Corpse) delivers a film with a fine eye for taboo-skirting sleaze, put side by side with imagery that would probably look pretty blasphemous to me if I were Catholic; you just gotta love the willingness of Italian filmmakers to go to places like this.

Unfortunately, the conceptually wonderful and creative scene of the wooden statue coming to life and then having a bit of fun isn't really a sign pointing in the direction the film will be moving in during its second half. It doesn't take too long until The Sexorcist mostly gives up on the sexually loaded imagery (except for a slight return with a lame but nearly effective attempt by possessed Danila to seduce the hapless Father Xeno), wags its finger at Danila's mum's sex practices (really), and goes for the most basic exorcism movie stuff, with a lot of unexciting writhing and praying. In a film that starts out as sleazily strong as this one did, that really is a bit of a shame.

The Devil Obsession isn't improved by Gariazzo's rather variable direction style. Here, too, the film starts out strong with scenes filmed with a certain panache, a clear eye for the strange, and a complete absence of subtlety, but soon enough gets dragged down to a level where nothing that's happening on screen is staged in an interesting manner. I wouldn't be at all surprised if somebody told me there were two directors at work here, one responsible for the three vision sequences and the early scenes in the church, and somebody much less talented for the rest of the film. This is, of course, mere speculation.

Be that as it may, I can't say I found The Eerie Midnight Horror Show (a most puzzling title for the film at hand) to be all that bad as possession movies go. While its second half is pretty boring, it does at least have three (perhaps even four) good scenes, which is more than I'd be willing to say about a lot of movies.


Saturday, January 7, 2012

In short: Diabolicamente…Letizia (1975)

aka Sex, Demons and Death (two out of three are even in the movie)

Because they can't have any children of their own, rich couple Marcello (Gabriele Tinti) and Michaela (Magda Konopka) take Michaela's teenaged niece Letizia (Franca Gonella) from the boarding school she's on to live with them from now on.

Little does the couple expect Letizia to be a witch who uses her psychic powers to ruin their lives by the usual exploitation movie ways of seduction and encouragement of lesbianism and depression (and yeah, the film really seems to think same sex love is a mental illness) until the whole household, including the two servants, is a zoo where everyone has at least groped everyone else once and people scream melodramatically at each other a lot. And if Letizia didn't have a partner who walks around in the skeleton mask of the killer from Im Banne des Unheimlichen and kills people, that would be all that would ever happen. All the sex and melodrama takes place because Letizia wants to take revenge on Marcello and Michaela for something to do with the death of her mother. I'd love to tell you more about Letizia's motivation, but this, as you will be no doubt unsurprised to read, is not a film bothering with actually explaining stuff like it to its audience.

Salvatore Bugnatelli's Letizia is one among many Italian exploitation movies about a more or less sexy teenager (or, often, as is the case here, "teenager") destroying some nasty rich people with sex and/or magic and/or violence before dying herself in an ironic twist of fate. The plot in these films is usually an excuse to show off as much nudity as possible and excite or annoy an audience with suggestions of incest and underage sex, which makes these films probably not the ideal family movies - depending on one's family, of course.

Letizia is one of the less interesting entries in this sub-genre, for it is a film surrounded by an air of apathy. Sure, there are the mandatory scenes of people rubbing against each other and Letizia making googly eyes that are supposed to suggest hypnotism but rather look like the effect constipation to me. However, none of these scenes ever leave much of an impression beyond that of a director and movie going through the motions of exploitation without actually having a feel for it.

The problem - apart from Bugnatelli's extremely bland direction - Letizia can't (and possibly doesn't want to) solve is that I (and therefore its prospective audience) have seen everything it has to offer in other movies made by directors with more of a sense of visual style who were much more enthusiastic about being kinky, cynical, and exploitative. Letizia's just too square to boldly go where other films had already gone.


Friday, January 6, 2012

On WTF: Grave Encounters (2011)

I'm probably not the only one suffering from a bit of POV horror fatigue (for which I mostly blame the insufferable Paranormal Activity movies) at the moment, but from time to time, the sub-genre does still produce movies good enough to break through my apathy.
Case in point is the Canadian Grave Encounters, a film that just happens to be the theme of my column on WTF-Film this week.


Thursday, January 5, 2012

In short: Elemi (2009)

Original title: Denshinbashira Elemi no Koi

Suburban Japanese telephone pole Elemi falls in love with phone technician Takahashi. After Elemi learns something about transience and compassion through the death of a cat, she begins phoning Takahashi, pretending to be a human girl instead of a cute telephone pole, even going so far as to do some stock trading to be able to buy Takahashi a birthday present. Through their conversations, Takahashi falls in love with Elemi too, but what kind of a relationship can a telephone pole and a guy have - if the guy will even believe Elemi when she tells him what she truly is? And what will the utility pole community say?

Hideto Nakata's short (44 minutes) stop motion animation is - among other things - a reminder that not all Japanese animation is of the drawn sort; in fact there's a not quite as popular but strong tradition of other types of animation in the country, usually of a (compared to the anime mainstream) more indie movie nerd than a otaku sensibility.

Elemi is a fine piece of fantasy (the term "magical realism" is for the weak of heart) meditating - in a very Japanese way - about things like transience, love and the culture of utility poles. For my philosophical taste, the film's probably a little too accepting of fate in its outlook, but then I am less than enamoured of the concept of treating acceptance of that which makes one unhappy as a virtue.

Nonetheless, Elemi is a pretty wonderful piece of work, hitting the sweet spot between melancholia, a love of the slightly weird (this is after all a movie that spends time inventing the social rules of utility poles), and beauty.

The film delivers all this through an appropriately leisurely pace, a very fine soundtrack, and pretty brilliant character design - the sort that knows how to anthropomorphise a telephone pole properly and provide it with real character.


Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Die Bande des Schreckens (1960)

aka The Terrible People

Before his execution, master criminal Clay Shelton has a friendly meet-up with the people he holds responsible for his arrest and his death (poor executioner of London). Shelton promises that all of them will be killed by "the Gallow's Hand".

Chief inspector Long (Joachim Fuchsberger), also known as "the Better", bets against it, which is pretty understandable, seeing how he is one of the threatened victims himself. To nobody's surprise, the promised murders begin soon after Shelton's death. What's really peculiar, though, is that people see someone looking a lot like the dead criminal in the vicinity of these murders. Is Shelton taking his vengeance from the grave into his own hands, or does somebody just want Scotland Yard to think he is?

Of course, this being an Edgar Wallace adaptation, this is not the only troubling question Inspector Long will have to answer before the criminal or criminals can be apprehended. He'll also need to escape various assaults on his own life, muddle through the usual pool of suspect victims and even more suspect suspects (among them usual professional suspect actors in the Wallace films like Dieter Eppler and Ulrich Beiger), un-kidnap the woman and - of course - heiress of his dreams (Karin Dor), and find out how his own father, the brilliantly named Lord Godley Long (Fritz Rasp), is involved in the whole affair. Who said it's easy working for Scotland Yard?

Die Bande des Schreckens is one of the more straightforward movies in Rialto Film's Wallace cycle, not in its plot construction - that part is as byzantine and improbable as usual in these movies - but in its presentation as a classical thrill-a-minute pulp movie with relatively little interest in self-irony, camp or madness. The film is not completely without humour. There's still Eddi Arent walking around doing his usual shtick, yet - also as usual - being allowed to do a few things that make him actually useful, too. However, where the humour is all-pervasive in many of the other Wallace films even this early in the cycle, it's really just a minor element Die Bande des Schreckens includes because films are supposed to have comic relief, and Edgar Wallace movies are supposed to have Eddi Arent as comic relief.

On the down side, director Harald Reinl replaces some of the comic relief with additional scenes of stiff melodrama, putting more energy into the "romantic" (as romantic as scenes between two actors with zero chemistry and horrible dialogue can get) parts than strictly necessary or recommendable.

Generally, the Wallace films tend to revel in their own silliness and divorce from reality in a way that straddles the Weird and the absurd, while still trying to keep a straight face. Reinl's movie just doesn't seem to be all that interested in its own silliness and ridiculousness, instead putting the emphasis on, in the beginning, creating a mildly spooky mood through techniques influenced either by the film noir or the films that influenced film noir (take your pick). The scene where Shelton basically curses a bunch of people just before he is going to die is one of Reinl's finest achievements in a directorial career containing quite a few of these. With the help of Dutch angles, uncomfortable close-ups and stark shadows and lights, Reinl sets Shelton's threat up as something closer to destined doom than just your normal death threat. It's as gothic as any scene of classic gothic horror.

Die Bande des Schreckens doesn't keep to the gothic mood for very long, though, only using it as the starting point for a much more conventional pulp thriller with the expected assortment of weird murder methods (shot by phone is a fine one), last minute escapes and heroine kidnappings. In combination with the romance bits that just don't work, I could have become quite disappointed with this state of affairs, but - the more Vohrer-like stiffness of the acting notwithstanding - Reinl is pretty darn great as a director of straight-up pulp thrills packaged in sometimes painterly, more often dynamic black and white pictures. The downplaying of the more outrageous elements of the Wallace cycle in this particular movie just makes all the more clear how good Reinl is at this sort of thing, how energetic a director he is when he wants to be.


Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Three Films Make A Post: Enter a prime-evil world of future shock and alien terror.

The Unholy Four aka Ciakmull - L'uomo della vendetta (1970): Enzo Barboni's Spaghetti Western about four escaped mental patients (Leonard Mann, George Eastman, Woody Strode, Pietro Martellazana) finding out the truth about the amnesiac (Mann) among them, which obviously leads to some vengeance-ing in the end, starts out strong if loosely plotted, but peters out somewhat after half of the film is over and the actual main plot is truly starting. A film that up to that point was dominated by some beautifully photographed scenes taking place in autumnal Europe/America becomes predominantly bound to not very interesting looking sets and wants a type of highly melodramatic acting from the cast that only Evelyn Stewart actually knows how to provide.

It's thanks to Barboni's impressive tight editing rhythms and his always inventive direction that the film stays watchable and recommendable.

Island Claws (1980): This film about a giant crab and his little crab buddies fighting "eccentrics" in Florida is the only movie by director/producer/writer Hernan Cardenas, and watching it, I wasn't much surprised by that. It's not a catastrophically bad monster movie, but if the internet wouldn't tell me differently, I'd have taken it for a rather mediocre TV movie without anything in the writing or direction marking it as something other than just another movie made for no other reason than a pay check, and without much enthusiasm. The film does have one or two moments of pleasant silliness but the rest of it is just so dumb and inoffensive that I think I've already spent enough words on it.

Heavy Metal (1981): As a rule, I don't watch much Western animation, what with the form's peculiar fixation on kids and a family audience, and it's corresponding lack of exploitational values. The portmanteau film Heavy Metal (based on the US version of the French magazine) is an exception to this rule, seeing as it was made with the twelve year old boy in all of us in mind and therefore exists only to provide exploitational values. I find the quality of the animation rather rough when compared to Japanese films of the same era, but it is rough in a way that fits the film's fixation on breasts, blood and freaky humour.

Personally, I could have lived without the segment based on Richard Corben's Den, but then I do think that the Den stories are the absolute nadir of Corben's rather wonderful body of work. However, as we all know, every film like this is bound by law to contain at least one bad segment, and the rest of the segments is entertaining enough to make up for that beautifully.


Sunday, January 1, 2012

Cowboys & Aliens (2011)

The Old West. A man (Daniel Craig) with a pretty strange wound, a futuristic looking bracelet around one of his arms and not a clue who he is and how he got there wakes up somewhere in the desert. After proving his alpha male badassitude on some ruffians and demonstrating why men with tiny little heads shouldn't wear hats, he reaches the nearest town, where he eventually learns that he is a wanted robber and possible murderer named Jake Lonergan. His trip to a federal jail is cut short when aliens attack the town and, as aliens are wont to do, abduct some of its inhabitants (among them a badly underused Keith Carradine). Fortunately, Jake's fine little bracelet turns out to be some sort of blaster, which doesn't save everyone from abduction but is rather helpful in pushing the rude aliens back to wherever they came from. For now.

Lonergan (still wearing hats though he shouldn't) becomes part of a posse of townsfolk trying to rescue the abductees. Among the (obviously rag-tag) bunch are the local sadistic torturer and potentate with a hidden heart of gold Woodrow Dollarhyde (Harrison Ford, better at wearing a cowboy hat) and his kinda-sorta Apache adoptive son (Adam Beach), the mysterious Ella (Olivia Wilde, much better at wearing a cowboy hat than Craig), a shotgun-toting preacher (Clancy Brown in a too small role), a wasted-on-his non-role Sam Rockwell (he's the mild-mannered shop keeper learning to be A MAN, you know), a goddamn orphan boy and his stupid dog and various other alien fodder characters.

Later developments will see the group team up with some bandits and a small tribe of Apaches as the only hope to save Earth from the scouts of an alien invasion. Because no alien baddies ever follow up on their lost scouts.

Wasted as a bunch of great to competent actors are in it, I did find Cowboys & Aliens much easier going than the full-grown catastrophe its critical reception let me expect. Sure, it's a film full of tired old cliché characters doing tired old cliché things, but it's also a film actually willing to use the oldest tropes in the writing book (and by the way, why are scriptwriters Orczi, Kurtzman and Lindelof so much less intelligent when they write for the movies than when they write for TV?) to entertain an audience in an adequately old-fashioned style. There are some moments of the dreaded "wink-wink, nudge-nudge, we know how silly this all is", but more often than not, Cowboys & Aliens plays its silly nonsense straight, which of course is the way silly nonsense has to be played to be any fun at all.

For me, more problematic than the clichés alone ever could be is the film's length in combination with these clichés. There's really no reason for a concoction about cowboys (and Native Americans and bandits) fighting off an alien invasion to be one-hundred and thirty minutes long when ninety would lead to a faster, punchier and less bloated feeling movie; I don't think Cowboys & Aliens would have lost anything by cutting thirty minutes of character bits (and the orphan and his dog), especially not when all the character bits are taken from the handbook for blockbuster writer beginners and are below actors like Rockwell, Brown, Beach, Carradine and Wilde (see how I cleverly not mention Craig and Ford?).

And here I go again making a film sound much worse than I actually feel about it. For most of the time, Cowboys & Aliens is utterly serviceable - if dumb - entertainment that may be completely forgettable, but is at least mildly exciting while it lasts. Which, sadly enough, makes it much better than your average blockbuster shat out by Hollywood these days.