Sunday, April 29, 2012

In short: Air Terjun Pengantin (2009)

Dedicated final girl Tiara (Tamara Bleszynski), plagued by flashback trauma concerning her car collision with a black cat and subsequently being trapped inside, invites her sister (I think) Mandy and a veritable horde of Mandy's young, pretty and totally non-descript friends out to a trip to a seemingly empty island not very well known as "the Bride Island". There's a tragic story about a black magician trying to steal a bride there, only killing her in the process, but these are modern times, so that's surely no reason to get nervous.
So, little does anyone expect the island not to be quite empty, but instead inhabited by a charming guy with an excellent mask who soon proceeds to slaughter the pretty hordes, drinking their blood to become invulnerable, per the recommendations of a hallucination (well, or a ghost, but since the guy's invulnerability will turn out to be quite limited, I'd bet on a hallucination). You know the rest.
I really could go two ways with this write-up. One possibility would be to bemoan the fate of Air Terjun Pengantin's director Rizal Mantovani, who started his career with the Kuntinalak trilogy, possibly the best films coming out of the great Indonesian horror boom of the second half of the Oughts, but has now come down so much in the movie life he has to helm Maxima productions with a (un)healthy emphasis on the non-softcore the Indonesian censorship allows, with much cavorting of pretty if surgically enhanced girls and boys in their underwear and swimwear while horrible music plays in the background.
However, and here's where the second and friendlier way to look at the film comes in, while it is undoubtedly true Air Terjun Pengantin can't compare with Mantovani's classier films, it actually does work quite well as what it is: a very low budgeted little slasher movie out to show nearly nude young people, some friendly yet effective gore, and to let its (clearly rather young and not oriented towards a traditional Indonesian life-style, whatever that may be) audience have a fun time with getting (sort of) scared. It may sound strange to some of you, but this sort of highly exploitative, commercially oriented horror cinema always feels very innocent to me, for instead of claiming any higher artistic goals, its proponents are never less than honest about the kind of transaction they are after: we give them our money, and they give us as much sexiness (in this case taking place in front of a landscape that's pretty pleasing to the eye, too) and blood as the censors allow (typically, Indonesian censors allow much more blood than sex, which makes the film's attempts at sleaze look even more innocent to eyes used to pink cinema and Italian sleaze like mine). It's nothing if not honest.
From time to time, Mantovani even has the opportunity to let some of his talent shine through. The latter parts of the movie - thankfully, this is a film that knows you gotta stop with the sleaze once the killing starts or lose any possibility of tension - still look cheap as hell, but also demonstrate a nice sense of pacing, and from time to time even give the director a moment or two to set up an elegantly framed shot (I'm especially thinking of Bleszynski tied to a tree in front of a waterfall, which is pretty brilliant in its horror paperback novel cover way).
The rest is routine, cheap, yet competent slashing with some small, yet appreciated, influences of Indonesian culture like the killer's mask and the motive for his violence. In this case, that turned out to be enough for me.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

In short: Cassadaga (2011)

Some time after deaf art student Lily (Kelen Coleman) has lost her teenage sister and only living relative in an accident, she decides to step back into life again. With the help of Claire Anderson (Louise Fletcher), an artist herself, Lily gets a stipend (as well as free board in Claire's mansion) that provides her with the ability to study and paint at the university of Cassadaga.

The painter also teaches the basics of her craft to children. During the course of that particular activity, Lily meets Mike (Kevin Alejandro), the father of one of her students as well as a quite eligible and clearly interested bachelor. When out on a date with some of Mike's friends, the idea comes up to visit the spiritualist enclave at the edge of town and go to a séance. And wouldn't you know it, Lily, not quite surprising given her still wavering mental state, makes contact with her sister, even hearing her voice? But the séance also attracts a different ghost, a murder victim who latches onto Lily and doesn't let go of her afterwards, plaguing the woman with terrifying visions and a lot of maggots.

It's clear the dead woman wants Lily to do something for her, probably finding her body or her killer, and won't leave Lily in peace until she has done it, but how exactly Lily is supposed to go about that, the dead girl ain't exactly clear about.

Eventually, Lily will cross paths with said killer, a man who likes to turn women into living dolls.

Anthony DiBlasi's Cassadaga is - despite marketing that rather suggests just another film about people bound to chairs or hanging from chains from a ceiling - a neat little ghost story that may not do much that is new for its given sub-genre, yet that goes about its job effectively enough to make one forget about that flaw.

A large part of the film's effectiveness is based on the time and care it spends on developing its characters. DiBlasi shows just as much - if not more - interest in providing Lily (and to a degree Mike) with a believable backstory and depth of emotion as he does in showing us the spooky stuff. Of course, this makes Lily's misadventures more interesting than when they'd happen to our usual horror movie heroine, blonde bimbo number two.

Speaking of Lily, I found it quite admirable how the film treats her deafness. Even though it is used as a plot mechanic in some of the suspense scenes, the film treats the deafness in more complex and interesting way than I would have expected it to do, never reducing the character to "that deaf girl", using her disability as a normal part of her life that influences her in many ways but not as her defining character trait.

When it comes to the more horrifying stuff, DiBlasi demonstrates a sure hand for atmosphere and the creepiness that comes from things one doesn't quite see or understand. Cassadaga's more blunt moments are slightly less effective: while the film's conception of living dolls is disturbing enough, I don't think the film would have lost out if the dead girl's killer would have been your more day-to-day murderer. That could also have saved the film from its worst moment, an intro scenes that shows us the killer's origin complete with bad acting and a cut off penis, a scene which sets a tone the following film then doesn't share at all.

Despite these slight misgivings, Cassadaga is an always competent, often good effort, another pleasant demonstration that indie horror doesn't have to be crap.


Friday, April 27, 2012

On WTF: The Pirates of Blood River (1962)

Ah, Hammer Film and their landlubber pirates. The Pirates of Blood River may not be the best movie coming from that particular sub genre, but it does recommend itself with the usual awesome cast (including Christopher Lee, Oliver Reed, Andrew Keir, Michael Ripper and Kerwin Mathews) and some Huguenot guerrilla fighting.

So click on through to my column on WTF-Film for some raping and pillaging.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Der Zinker (1963)

aka The Squeaker

Until now the criminal mastermind known as "the Squeaker" has kept his hands off crimes directly involving murder (though sure as hell not from profiting from other people's murders). This laudable state of affair ends when another member of the underworld finds out his (or her) true identity. Just before the man can betray the Squeaker, the fiend kills him with his new favourite implement - a foldable, pressure-driven poison dart thrower loaded with the poison of a black mamba his delightfully named henchman (or is he?) Krishna (Klaus Kinski!) has stolen from the animal storing dungeon (really, that's the only fitting description for that place) belonging to the large animal trader the dear, creepy man is working for.

It seems Scotland Yard has quite enough of the Squeaker's funny business now, and so sends out its smuggest Inspector, Bill Elford (Heinz Drache) to finally catch the guy. It's better this way too, for his first murder seems to have given the Squeaker a new taste for killing. The evil mastermind's now very murderous activities seem to concentrate on the already mentioned animal trading business chaired by Frankie Sutton (Günter Pfitzmann), and the surrounding group of more or less suspicious people and assorted hangers-on, to nobody's surprise played by Wallace adaptation regulars like Barbara Rütting (as a crime writer, not a bar maid), Albert "of course I'm a butler" Bessler, Inge "am I old and eccentric or old and creepy" Langen, Siegfried "nope, not Sir John this week" Schürenberg, Eddi "I'm a reporter (if I'm not a butler)" Arent and other persons of dubious renown. Will the Inspector be able to sort through them before everyone is dead?

After visiting a handful of non-Wallace krimis these last few weeks, I got a mighty hankering to use improbable language to watch some of the undiluted stuff again, and when it comes to that, there's hardly much that's better than Der Zinker, a fine example of director Alfred Vohrer at the height of his powers.

Der Zinker is pretty much all-around awesome, going from scenes of stylish tension, to silly yet well-imagined murders, to scenes of - often even funny - fourth wall breaking humour (the perfect moment of that surely is when Pfitzmann goes to bed while a fantastic piece of Peter Thomas "bada-bada-da" plays loudly on the soundtrack only to stop when the actor turns off the radio the music obviously does not come from), to melodrama that this time around actually works at intensifying the rest of the movie instead of bringing it to a screeching halt. Here, Vohrer manages to unite these disparate elements that make up the krimi genre without going to far into any single direction, giving the same care and attention to the silly stuff (see Eddi Arent buried in snow by Kinski), as to moody scenes of Kinski stalking through the fog, as to creepy scenes of Kinski being a bit too close to his animal friends for comfort. It's a bit like alchemy, if alchemy did know how to make use of Kinski. And did I mention Kinski?

The script by Harald G. Petersson does some rather interesting things with the Wallace adaptation formula too. This time around, the identity of the killer (if not his actions) makes some sort of sense, and the way the film goes about unmasking him is completely different from the usual krimi method of killing off as many characters as possible until there aren't many suspects left. The climax does two surprising things at once: using a krimi cliché character type in an unexpected way, and letting Drache's inspector actually find out who the killer is by a method slightly more hinting at competence than waiting until the heroine has been kidnapped and then stumbling into his lair. In fact, there will not even be a kidnapped heroine. Turns out that building some variations into the (at this point in the Wallace cycle already pretty codified) plotting leads to a more interesting, possibly even exciting, film. Who'd have thunk?

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Things That Went Through My Poor Head While Watching Nazis At The Center Of The Earth (2012)

Before we come to the fun and games (which will turn out not to be all that fun and game-y), one preliminary thought: while I have no problem (except that their films suck) with The Asylum sponging off large Hollywood productions, it's quite a different thing for them to try and capitalize on a quirky low budget production like Iron Sky. Where the former has a certain rogue-ish charm, the latter leaves me with an even lower opinion of the production house than I already had. And don't even get me started about how low my opinion was after watching this piece of shit.

  • Oh Cthulhu please eat me now, this has the same "writer" as tA's Sherlock Holmes!
  • Wurzberg, Germany? Did a metal band attack tA's offices (also known as the toilet of Dave's Bar 'n' Grille), steal the umlaut, and turn a castle into a mountain?
  • The single digital tank of the US army attacks!
  • Look, I've got a sense of humour about these things, but did they really have to use fucking Mengele here? [oh, how hopeful and innocent I was here when I didn't know what would be coming. -cynical ed.]
  • Antarctica is the new frontier for medical research!
  • Nazi gasmasks come with their own Darth Vader voice sound.
  • "What is this?" - "Vibrio vulnificus." - "I know what it is. I wanna know what it's doing here?". Ladies and gents, meet our hero.
  • Even today, all people with German last names are evil.
  • Ah, good old tA CGI; ignoring sizes and proportions of things so that they are smaller on the inside than on the outside. This snow vehicle thing is like the anti-TARDIS.
  • An incision along the hairline is enough to then cleanly rip off a person's facial skin. Too bad nobody ever taught that trick to Leatherface.
  • Secret Nazi base security may be so bad prisoners can just stroll out of their cells, but at least they have a room reserved for corpses and body parts.
  • Now new at Disney World: centre of the Earth entrance ice slide!
  • Answering a short monologue about Antarctica crackpot theories with "I'm sorry, how do you know all this?" clearly demonstrates the Internet doesn't exist on planet tA.
  • What's the first thing the Nazis built at the centre of the Earth? A warehouse, of course.
  • Does Mengele's evil genius monologue ever end?
  • Apparently not.
  • Dear piece of crap movie, please don't pretend to have something to say.
  • As a Nazi collaborator, you only get the absolute uniform dregs.
  • Oh gawd, Mengele's doing another very…slow…monologue. I know the guy is old, but can't he just shut up?
  • Really, a suspense scene based on "are these really showers or gas chambers?" with lots of crying in slow-motion? Don't worry, though, it's just the rape room. Classy like an Ilsa movie, this is.
  • Pro tip for b-movie Nazis: if you're so desperate to get help from the scientists you kidnapped, it's probably a good idea not to murder and rape them before they are through with their work. Unless your writer suddenly decides the whole needing scientific help angle bores him. Of course, then there was not much reason for you to kidnap the scientists at all except as skin providers, and the film's plot doesn't work anymore, but hey, you are in a tA movie.
  • You know, I generally don't have problems with movies being nasty, but this one's nasty, dumb, and way too smug about itself to get anything but derision from me.
  • Of course the woman who complains about nausea is pregnant; it's a movie after all.
  • And now comes the abortion scene. If you go into this one, expect less a rip-off of Iron Sky and more of an extended homage to the nazisploitation genre.
  • It's also totally tone deaf: you can't follow a non-consensual abortion with CGI Robo-Hitler. It's as if the film was written by two people - one going for a fun, gory pulp movie with Robo-Hitler, the other one somebody who thinks making references to Auschwitz is funny and should be punched in the face.
  • Robo-Hitler has a very non-Germanic accent. Just sayin'.
  • "Jetzt herunter!" does not mean "Take it down!", by the way, but rather "Down now!". Robo-Hitler confuses flying saucers and dogs.
  • This long, long sequence of people running through corridors nearly makes me wish for the film to turn nasty again. But only nearly.
  • Ironically, on a technical level, this just may be the best tA production I've seen; at least direction, practical effects and editing are competent for most of the time. CGI and acting still suck like a hoover, though. And I think I've already made quite clear what I think of the script.
  • "Come on you bubble-headed Nazi son of a bitch!"

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Another (2012)

When high school kid Koichi Sakakibara (confusingly an anime protagonist who is neither one of those tsundere monstrosities nor treated as a total loser even though he's friendly, reserved and a bit shy) transfers from Tokyo to a school in a small country town, he does not expect the strangeness he is going to encounter there, despite being the kind of avid reader of horror novels who should be suspicious of country life.

His new class may greet Koichi friendly enough, but there's something off about his new classmates too. Why does the class have a "head of countermeasures"? And what is the big secret everyone does so pointedly avoid telling him for bizarre reasons like his coming to the class in the middle of a school year?

Possibly even stranger than the behaviour of Koichi's classmates is a girl named Mei Misaki, whose pale-skinned lonely character make her a) a natural-born goth and b) the mysterious girl the new boy in school just must get interested in. Stranger still is that nobody else in class seems to see Mei, quite as if she were a ghost to everyone but Koichi. The combination of mysterious girl and mystery is too much for Koichi too resist, so he begins, in his own reserved manner, an attempt to unravel it. When he reaches the conclusion that Mei just might actually be a ghost, classmates begin to die in strange and random accidents. The secret Koichi is trying to understand will turn out to be far more dangerous, and far more complicated, than he could have expected.

Another, a 12-part anime series chief directed by Tsutomu Mizushima and written by Ryou Higaki, based on the novel by Yukito Ayatsuji (or possibly its manga adaptation, for all I know) surprised me quite a bit for the positive. Although - as you know, Jim - the horror genre has quite a rich tradition in Japanese media of all types, there really aren't all that many anime shows doing the genre justice. Furthermore, the careers of Mizushima (whose body of work looks completely random to me) and Higaki (who just hasn't done all that much until now) don't look too promising on paper. However, after I had seen the first handful of episodes, any scepticism I had towards the show turned out to be unwarranted.

In fact, while Another is not a perfect show - there's a bikini beach episode and a certain flabbiness in the plotting of the episodes before the finale standing between it and that description - it's a very good one. The show has a rather wonderful time building up its strange mystery (including some effective red herrings), ending each episode with a clever - and utterly melodramatic - cliffhanger, until everything ends in the sort of hysteria that is one of the major charms of a certain school of horror manga. Think Kazuo Umezu's Drifting Classroom, and you get the mood - if not the plot trappings - of the last two episodes. In fact, Another as a whole does have the feeling of being an update of the sort of horror manga Kazuo Umezu did best, but with clear improvements when it comes to the treatment of gender (the novel was written by a modern woman, after all), and a taste for more personal apocalypses.

The show is also very good at using the classic trappings of teenage angst for its purposes; there are some moments that should speak to the isolated and angsty teenager in every one of us. Of course, this is also the kind of show that follows a demonstration of very real and close to the bone teenage anxieties (of the sort we don't all lose growing up) with scenes of teenagers dying mildly gory, and slightly grotesque, deaths, and some well done melodramatic shouting. Wonderfully, Another does manage to balance out these very different dramatic impulses and techniques more often than not, resulting in a story that works well on rather more subtle and very unsubtle levels.

On the visual side, the show is very much a state of the art anime of today, the sort of thing whose look and basic character design is not all that original, but that does too well bringing these characters to live or - as it may be - death to be called generic. The show is also pretty great at providing a sense of place beyond "generic Japanese high school in the country", always making the locations the story takes place in memorable and individual.

On a personal level, I'm also quite happy with the show's nearly total - except for that damn beach and bikini episode - lack of fanservice; one could nearly suspect the people in charge trusted their viewers to be more interested in the story they tell than in spotting another pair of panties. While I'm far from being a prude, and do think that sleaze has its place, it does not need to be everywhere all the time.

So, if you want to watch a piece of teen horror done right, Another might be just the thing for you.


Sunday, April 22, 2012

Headhunters (2011)

Original title: Hodejegerne

Corporate headhunter Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie) needs a lot of money to finance his costly lifestyle and try to buy the affection of his wife Diana (Synnøve Macody Lund) by financing her career as an art dealer, definitely more than even the job as the proverbial asshole in a suit can make him.

To stay affluent, our rather immoral hero has found an interesting side job. During his interviews with other assholes in suits, he finagles information about the security of their homes and the state of their art collections out of them, and then proceeds - with the help of security firm drone Ove Kjikerud (Eivind Sander) - to rob them of the highlights of said art collections.

This goes rather well for Roger until he meets Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), square-jawed pretty-man, co-developer of a nano tracing agent and former special forces soldier. Apart from being much too perfect for comfort, Greve also owns a Rubens painting that's believed to be lost that he wants Diana to appraise for him. The painting makes Greve an irresistible target for Roger even though his background fairly screams "Do not fuck with this guy".

When Roger breaks into Greve's apartment he finds the painting alright, but he also finds Diana's cell right in the bedroom. It's the sort of thing to drive a man like Roger who's desperately trying to hide his inferiority complex behind a wall of money batty, though, seeing as he has just ended an extra-marital affair of his own, he really isn't in a position to complain.

From this point on, Roger's life - always more like a dance on a knife's edge - unravels with ever increasing speed, for Greve is neither the kind of guy who let's himself be robbed, nor somebody who cares about killing anyone who might get in his way (and any bystanders if he feels like it). Soon enough, Roger is on the run, yet Greve somehow manages to find him wherever he turns. Roger not only has to avoid a guy who is an actual sociopath (in contrast to himself, who only ever aspired to be one), but also learns the truths behind the lies he built his life on.

Director Morten Tyldum's Headhunters (based on a novel by Jo Nesbø) is quite the film. Call me conceited, but I didn't exactly peg Norway as a country suited to coming up with the next great chase thriller with fine side-lines in black humour and paranoia. As is so often the case, I was wrong, and have now found chase thriller nirvana in form of a Norwegian movie.

The most important element in this sort of film is obviously a sense of pacing. Tyldum starts his film up at a merry jog, quickly establishing the characters and the basic situation while still showing complexities that will become important during the course of the movie. With things being established, the film fastly moves on to the first crisis point, escalates from there with incredible style and verve, all the while going through often exceedingly clever, always exceedingly well-timed twists and turns, never letting the tension drop for a second even when the running and the violence stop for a moment - for that's when the paranoia steps up to the plate. In that respect, Headhunters is very close to genre-companions made in the 70s, but instead of trying to be retro, Tyldum's film uses contemporary filmmaking techniques without looking like a tech demonstration or a bad video clip.

As if that weren't enough (and really, being clever and perfectly paced would be enough to recommend the film highly), Headhunters also manages the difficult trick of building up its protagonist as a complete jerk, yet still letting the audience root for him. At first, I found something grimly satisfying at seeing Roger's life unravel, but the further the story developed, and the more Roger lost, the more I began rooting for him, and the - formerly buried - humanity his reactions to his plight revealed. Much of my reaction is based on Aksel Hennie's performance that shows the frail humanity Roger hides behind his asshole attitude without ever actually making him nice. The character's psychology is actually a bit too simple for my tastes (too many writers - for the screen or not - love to motivate everything about a character through one single Big Thing - something that's clearly useful for plotting reasons, but that I don't believe to be true for actual human beings; and that thing about stripping a character of everything they have to reveal their humanity isn't exactly new either), yet in the hands of Hennie - and the excellent foils the rest of the cast make for him - this simplicity seems grounded in more complex feelings and reasons.

So, all in all, it's pretty fair to describe Headhunters as "awesome". It is, after all, a fantastic chase thriller that also happens to have its heart in the right place.


Saturday, April 21, 2012

Three Films Make A Post: GHOULISH! GORY! GHASTLY!

Drive (2011): Well, I doubt anybody needs me to fall in with the chorus of praise for Nicolas Winding Refn's film; its class, the excellence of Ryan Gosling's (with the rest of the cast certainly not to be ignored) performance and the quality of Refn's direction are self-evident. What isn't as often mentioned when talking about Drive is how perfect a fit Refn as a director is for adapting a James Sallis novel (despite the changes). Both excel at telling sparse seeming, yet complex stories who only look minimalist when you're not looking at them closely enough. Both men's work reminds of poetry, if you can imagine poetry that's as shockingly and horrifyingly violent as Drive becomes during its second half. I don't generally call films masterpieces (because I don't believe in them or the canonical order in art their existence implies), but with this one I'm really tempted.

Oculus: Chapter 3 - The Man with the Plan (2006): Despite its awkward title, Mike (Absentia - my write-up of that film will be coming up shortly) Flanagan's short film about a man (Scott Graham) haunted by his demons, a white room and an evil mirror is a really excellent piece of work. Tight, weird with a capital W, and as dynamically directed (and edited) as anything taking place in a single room - and, one could argue one person's mind - can be, it's the sort of thing I'm bound to enjoy. It's also the sort of thing that could only work as an independently produced short film - adding anything to it on a budgetary level or in the number of script pages would only reduce the film's tenseness and focus.

Red Balloon (2010): Another short film (available to see here), but of a very different style than Oculus. This film about the dangers of babysitting is slick in a Hollywood way where Oculus seems more personal, pushing all suspense buttons with professional care and craft. Actually, it's the sort of short that seems made as a demonstration that yes, one can be trusted with money for a larger production, and less because there's a story to be told for which the short format is ideal. It's hardly the fault of the two directors I'm temperamentally inclined to find exactly such a thing very, very boring, even if it is very, very well crafted (which Red Balloon is).


Friday, April 20, 2012

On WTF: Der Würger von Schloß Blackmoor (1963)

When Harald Reinl wasn't directing the adventures of Winnetou or adapting Edgar Wallace, he was probably out adapting Edgar Bryan Wallace.

Der Würger von Schloß Blackmoor is one of the latter cases, featuring slightly lower production values than usual in these films, but a lot of the usual faces.

Read about my adventures in strangling in my column at WTF-Film!


Thursday, April 19, 2012

Dantalian No Shoka (2011)

aka The Mystic Archives of Dantalian

At the end of the Great War, the former pilot Hugh Anthony Disward follows a letter telling of the death of his incredibly bibliophile uncle and his inheritance of everything his uncle owned to the man's rather dilapidated mansion in the country. There, Huey not only finds and inherits the expected - that is to say a large library and mysterious circumstances surrounding his uncle's death - but also what seems to be a rather cranky girl of dubious age (it's the good old "looks like child or doll, acts like a grown-up" that can make the inevitable romance aspect of a show like this pretty problematic outside of Japan; my moral stance is it's not paedophilia when nobody is a child) with a bizarre fashion sense named Dalian. Dalian isn't just any old little girl, though. The girl is in fact something called a "biblioprincess", the warden and physical embodiment of and gateway to an extra-dimensional library that keeps magically empowered books - so called phantom books - from harm and the wrong owner. Huey's uncle was Dalian's so-called key-keeper, responsible for protecting her, and, if need be, unlocking the keyhole in Dalian's chest to fetch a plot-relevant magical book. Dalian chooses Huey as her new key-keeper, and from then on, both spend most of their time either looking for, or just stumbling over, various phantom books and the chaos, destruction and swelling orchestral music that follows them, meeting creepy automatons, flesh-eating plants who are books, various disturbances in the force of love, and even zombies, until the show comes to a sudden end.

The twelve episode anime show Dantalian no Shoka is based on a series of light novels by Gakuto Mikumo. Like the novels (at least that's what the Internet tells me), the show is mostly separated into stand-alone stories - some episodes even feature two or three very short vignettes instead of a full story - and not very dependant on a larger story arc. There's an internal chronology to be sure, and some things that happen early on will be somewhat important later on, but for the most part, this is episodic TV of the old-fashioned kind, where nothing ever changes for longer than a single episode.

Fortunately, Dantalian's basic set-up is actually a pretty good fit for the type of show it is. Being only twelve episodes long, there's also no risk that much repetition can set in.

Seeing how the single episodes are written, I doubt there'd have been all that much repetition in the show's future anyhow, for if Dantalian does feature one thing, it's variety. Apart from all threats being based on a phantom book somehow, the writers are free to do what they want, so there are standard monster romps, an intensely creepy episode about the horrors of love and resurrection, another one that finds our heroes entering a fantasy novel (and a completely different drawing style to boot!) attacked by book worms - the show (and/or the books it's based on) is nothing if not imaginative.

That imagination is put into an interesting context. The show treats the time between the wars it takes place in as the point where traditionally Romantic European ideas meet - and sometimes battle - modernity as we know it, a thematic through-line that is not only visible in the nature and consequences of the phantom books (there's really a lot of E.T.A. Hoffmann as seen through a Japanese lens in some of the episodes, as well as an interest in art and occultism that seems earnest and well-researched), but also in the design of the show. The - rather bucolic - England the show takes place in is visually standing right between (a Japanese interpretation of) the Victorian age and a (Japanese interpretation of ) the Roaring Twenties.

This combination of elements that do not quite fit together, yet work in a very pretty way, alone would make the show worth watching; that the show actually uses these elements to explore the way change comes upon the aesthetics of a world makes it a must see for my tastes.


Wednesday, April 18, 2012

In short: Blind Corner (1963)

aka Man in the Dark

Blind composer of horrible popular songs Paul Gregory (William Sylvester) thinks his marriage to former actress Anne (Barbara Shelley) is a bit more healthy than it really is, with Anne tolerating his bouts of cynicism (caused by his blindness) and his low-level alcoholism, and he in turn tolerating her unpleasant interest in money and love for being the social butterfly of the couple.

In truth, Anne has not been loving anything about Paul anymore but his money for quite some time now, and is having an affair with the young, and rather weak-willed, painter Rickie Seldon (Alexander Davion); Paul for his part is not exactly doing much to dissuade his secretary Joan (Elizabeth Shepherd) from her big fat crush on him.

Anne knows quite well that she won't be able to divorce Paul and keep access to his pile of money, so she's trying to convince Rickie to murder her husband, who likes to cavort drunk on their flat's balcony, so that they both can be together and rich - or so she says. Rickie's not too excited about the plan, but once Paul finds out about the affair and Anne puts the painter on the spot telling him he's either going to kill her husband or will never see her again (and, to Rickie's defence, she is played by Barbara Shelley), he comes around to the plan.

Both haven't counted on Paul being blind but far from stupid or helpless, though. There's also an additional nasty surprise waiting for the painter.

Lance Comfort's Blind Corner is - despite two horrid musical numbers that make quite clear why Beatlemania was good and necessary - a pretty swell little melodramatic thriller.

Comfort's direction isn't much to talk about. Blind Corner more a case of a director not getting in the way of his actors than of one putting his own mark on the proceedings, but that does of course imply that Comfort - veteran of British B-movies that he was - was quite capable of realizing the quality of his cast and giving them room to do their thing without him trying to get in their way.

For it is the quality of the cast and the script that makes Blind Corner worth watching. All of the principals are just really excellent at fleshing out the small complexities the script by James Kelley allows them. Sylvester's projection of a combination of ill-served romanticism (which is paralleled in Davion's also rather problematic - seeing as it leads him into an affair with a married woman and a murder plan - romanticism), bitterness and self-loathing is a thing to behold, while also making it more understandable why Anne might not want to live with him any longer (without excusing murder, obviously). Shelley (who is one of the great actresses of British genre films, of course) for her part makes for a fantastic femme fatale, carrying herself with the right mixture of allure and cruelty, yet also showing why life with Paul has - at least in part - made her how she is, in a performance that's more complex than you'd expect in your run of the mill low budgeted thriller melodrama.

Blind Corner is a fine example of the British low budget thriller, and comes highly recommended, even to the fools who don't adore Barbara Shelley.


Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Sweet Sugar (1972)

Somewhere in South or Central America (the film was shot in Costa Rica, some of the dialogue mentions Brazil, so take your pick) Big-breasted (yeah, sorry, that's her only character trait) not-a-prostitute (yeah, sorry, the only thing we learn about her career is that she isn't directly selling her body for money) Sugar (Phyllis Davis) is arrested on a minor drug possession charge and lands in a rather peculiar work camp for it.

There, she and her co-detainees like Simone (Ella Edwards) have to cut sugar cane with the trusty machetes provided by the camp, and pretty much function like indentured workers. Some of the detainees, though, aren't actual detainees, but real indentured workers; I have no idea how the set-up's supposed to work, but neither have the writers.

Anyhow, we're not here to think about how any of the stuff in the movie works, but to follow the usual Women In Prison film adventures of shower scenes, sadistic wardens, too long scenes of odious comic relief, catfights, the black heroine and the white heroine coming together after the catfights, and a climactic escape under gunfire (with explosions). Sweet Sugar provides all this in the expected form and quantity, if not always with as much enthusiasm as I would have hoped for. Of course, this also means that the nastier aspects of the film's sleaze aren't played quite as enthusiastically as in other films: attempted vaginal mutilation, rape and whippings may be part of the film, yet they seem especially fake and harmless here.

I'm not entirely sure how I think about that. On one hand, it's surely nice to see a Women in Prison film that does not provoke me into feeling so dirty I have to take a shower afterwards, on the other hand, one could argue that including the nasty stuff without making it look all that nasty is worse. After all, "harmless" is exactly what sexual violence isn't.

If Sweet Sugar only had this going for it (the bland but okay direction, the sometimes hilarious dialogue, and the dubious acting are a given), there'd be not much use in talking about it beyond calling it a "generic, yet pretty harmless Women in Prison flick like Roger Corman loved to produce them in the Philippines". Fortunately, the film's director Michel Levesque came to this film after making the excellent and weird occult biker werewolf movie Werewolves on Wheels, and does include some elements that can't help but make this film worth watching. Sweet Sugar's sugar cane plantation, you see, belongs to the very, very mad - and therefore funny - Dr. John (Angus Duncan) - as always, not that Dr. John - and Dr. John likes to do experiments as well as torture women, so the receptive audience is treated to some excellent mad science babble while Dr. John tries out a drug and some electrodes which I dub the Orgasmatron on Sugar, until she makes the Orgasmatron explode through the awesome power of her orgasm (don't look at me, I didn't write this). Then there's the inclusion of a male prisoner called Mojo (Timothy Brown) who can use voodoo radar to locate dead bodies, has a good line in voodoo priest babble, and feels the evil spirits.

Mojo does not take part in the movie's high point, though, a scene that alone can make any film worthwhile. In it, Doctor John lets his henchmen throw cats at a bunch of prisoners to torture them (the prisoners, not the cats), after having injected said animals with a serum of which "the Indians" say that it lets its victims regress to their more feral nature (neandercats?). Some of the cats, despite the throwing, seem rather pleased with the situation, some of them licking the "blood" off their victims in very delighted ways, others obviously wanting to be petted by the bunch of writhing women in underwear they have been thrown at; the rest of the cats, being cats, just cat-shrug and move on. Morally, I'm of course all against throwing kittens at people, yet I still can't help but call this scene one of the core achievements in cinema, if not human culture.


Sunday, April 15, 2012

Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell (1978)

A bunch of worshippers of The Beast has the best plan ever: they buy (how fiendish!) a worthy female Alsatian (only the best breeding dogs for evil!) and impregnate her with the seed of "the Barghest" (not really your mythological Barghest). Then, they run over the dogs of random typical US upper class (yeah, sorry, these rich people may call themselves middle class, but they can't fool anyone) families and then flaunt adorable devil dog puppies in front of their children's eyes.

That's what happens to the Barrys, at least. Soon, the dog has made adorable puppy eyes at the family's housemaid (who, not being white, at once identified the cute little bugger as evil) until she catches flames and dies, corrupted the innocent Barry children Bonnie (Kim Richards) and Charlie (Ike Eisenmann) until they lie, cheat, and paint pictures of a three-eyed demon, gets to mother Betty (Yvette Mimieux) as well, and has killed various neighbours and do-gooders with the power of its mind (no dog attacks in this devil dog movie). Only father Mike (Richard Crenna) seems immune to the mutt's evil influence, well, except for an episode in which the dog tries to hypnotize him into sticking his hand into a running mower and nearly succeeds. What is a man to do?

Fortunately, the powers of good, as represented by a lady occultist with a British accent and a toothless Ecuadorean shaman (Victor Jory) are able to identify the dog, and explain to Mike that he's one of the Blessed of the Light whose job it seems to be to send evil dogs back to hell by showing them their new magical tattoos.

It's not uncommon, at least among people talking about the director at all, to see Devil Dog as the point when Curtis Harrington's career as a director derailed completely. What he made after this TV movie seems to confirm this theory, at least, but it's a mistake to see Devil Dog as a failure.

Sure, the film is about as effective a horror film as a nice, relaxing evening in front of a fireplace, but seen as a comedy, the film's brilliant. In fact, there aren't many films I laughed as long and hard at as this one, and the longer the film went on, the clearer it became to me that Harrington must have known as well as anyone he wasn't really making a weird The Omen rip-off where the antichrist is replaced by a particularly friendly looking dog, but a parody of such a film; unless Harrington was a much dumber man than any of his other films suggest, but if you believe that, there's still that bridge for sale.

Once I began interpreting what I was seeing as consciously comedic, the whole film began to make much more sense to me. After all, there's no other reason to cast your devil dog with such a good-natured looking dog (not to speak of the adorable puppy phase of the film) who hypnotizes his victims to death (while looking bored), to give your actors lines like "My dog...he's taken over my wife and children. And somehow he kills anyone that tries to stop him", or to feature some fascinating information by that British lady about the differences between one-eyed and three-eyed demons (turns out one-eyed demons are much easier to fight because they are pretty stupid; now would you like a cuppa, my dear?). There are also some fantastic moments in bad acting on display, with hardly a scene featuring an evil family member that isn't made hilarious by the most excellent "evil" facial expressions (well, and the choice dialogue, too), and of course the epic final fight between Richard Crenna and his lantern hand against a large-rear-projected dog with horns and a lot of fluffy bits (are Barghests part bird, all adorable?). It also bears repeating that the film indeed tries to pretend a story about good white upper-class people being driven to evil by the family dog is somehow frightening; seldom has a horror comedy been that straight-faced.

Barely a scene goes by that does not feature something sublimely ridiculous. Especially the death by hypnotism scenes are awe-inspiring in their wrong-headedness, but really, every second of the film made me happy.

Unless I produced this write-up under the influence of my new demonic dog, and am now lying to you to provoke you into watching Devil Dog.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

In short: Virgin Witch (1972)

Thanks to her latent magical powers nudging her in the right direction, Christine (Ann Michelle), just arrived with her sister Betty (Vicki Michelle) from the country in London, walks into the office of lesbian model impresario Sybil Waite (Patricia Haines).

Christine wants to become a professional model, and Sybil's just the right kind of woman to help her there. But Sybil has plans of her own for Christine that don't necessarily have to do with making her famous, so the girl's first job, a weekend shoot at a mansion named Witch World - which doesn't sound like a sinister theme park at all - is actually only a pretext for Sybil to induct the magically very potent Christine into her witch coven (and bed her, of course).

Once inducted, though, Christine turns out to be quite a bit less naive than Sybil had suspected, and soon enough, the younger woman takes steps to turn Sybil's coven into her own.

Virgin Witch (directed by director of a thousand TV show episodes Ray Austin and the only writing credit for - mostly - British TV producer Beryl Vertue) is one of those horror films evidently more interested in using their merry occult nonsense to show as much nudity as they can possibly squeeze in than in making a movie that's actually horrifying, disturbing or at least scary. That's a bit disappointing, really, because it's also evident that a little more care for the creepy and weird and just a little less interest in the nudity could have turned Virgin Witch into a very effective erotic horror film. It's also a bit of a shame how little of interest Austin's direction has to show for it. There are some cleverly edited moments in the film, but for the most part, Austin shoots in a blandly pretty style I found perfectly acceptable, yet also perfectly forgettable.

As it plays out, the film's an occult soap opera spiced up with a bit of sex, a few rather funny occult ceremonies (oh, the nude dancing of middle-aged people!), witchy mind control, some early 70s temporal colour, and an ending that I've found called subversive, but that is by far not subversive enough for my tastes. Isn't "that young, innocent country girl is much less innocent than the urban, middle-aged decadents" a cliché too?

"But what," I hear you, imaginary reader, ask, "of the nudity, which, as you say, is what the film was made to show? Is it adequate?"

It sure is, in that there are two very attractive - in a way that just screams "UK! 1972!" - sisters playing sisters and dropping their clothes whenever possible; there are even panty shots. Alas, I've seen just as much pleasant nudity in much more exciting films, so it's not enough to raise the film above the level of being mildly watchable unless you have a kink for manipulative witches. In the latter case, of course, I'd recommend to run, not walk, to seek it out.

Friday, April 13, 2012

On WTF: With Death On Your Back (1967)

Original title: Con la muerte a la espalda

Sometimes, I'm still positively surprised by the movies I stumble upon. Case in point is this fine, highly entertaining Eurospy movie by Alfonso Balcázar starring George Martin and Vivi Bach.

Read more about my encounter with it in my column on WTF-Film.


Thursday, April 12, 2012

In short: Dragon Slayer: The Legend of Heroes (1992)

Original title: Dragon Slayer Eiyuu Densetsu: Ouji no Tabidachi

The peaceful fantasy kingdom of Faaren is invaded by the monstrous Lord Akdam and his monster minions. The country's armies are slaughtered, the good king killed while he is distracted by the demonic faces Akdam hides under his cloak, and the queen kidnapped. Fortunately, the "head of staff" (whatever he does) manages to get a way with Prince Serios.

A few years of dominion by evil and no sunshine over the country later, Serios has grown into a shouty teenager with a large sword, and returns to take vengeance on Akdam. Fortunately for Serios, he doesn't have to go it alone, for there's a resistance movement including the expected fantasy anime characters willing to help him out. But even with an army, Serios won't have it easy: before he can even think about rescuing his (still living and fit) mother or killing Akdam, he'll have to cope with the troubling fact that Akdam's main henchmen can transform into a big damn dragon (actually, it's the other way round, these are monster that can transform into people - werehumans), with tentacles. It's Dragonthulhu!

Oh, if Serios only had a dragon of his own.

The two part OVA Dragon Slayer is based on one game of a pretty popular JRPG series, not one of which I have ever played, so if you're looking for deep insights into the quality of the adaptation (this might even be a prequel for all I know) you've probably come to the wrong write-up.

I'm just here to praise this thing as an especially shouty piece of shonen anime that tries to cope with the necessity of squeezing a probably pretty epic piece of (kinda) quest fantasy into a running time of 44 minutes, which would usually hardly be enough time for the prologue of such a thing, and sort of succeeds. Director Noriyoshi Nakamura (sort of) gets around the impossibility of his task by pretending his film's running on triple speed; there's just no time for stuff like exposition, characterisation or character development, so Nakamura just shouts the plot into his audience's face while pummelling it with editing so hyperactive this looks like the platonic ideal of a shonen anime instead of a real one. This - surprise! - does not exactly result in a good anime, but if you have a place in your heart for attempts at condensing Big Fat Fantasy to its most basic elements, adding much shouting (did I mention there really is a lot of shouting, even for shonen?) and an evil dragon with tentacles, this will probably be right up your alley.

Even though this may sound like I'm damning Dragon Slayer with faint praise, I'm doing no such thing. In fact, I think the thing is just awesome. It's an epic fantasy anime made by and for the amphetamine-fuelled twelve-year-old in all of us, and that's something I can't help but approve of.

Plus, a dragon with tentacles is like chocolate cake with ice cream.


Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Three Films Make A Post: her last kiss .... a horror worse than dying

The Devil's Daughter (1973): Jeannot Szwarc's TV movie about Belinda Montgomery finding out her dear dead mother was once a Satanist and her old compatriots (as lead by a sometimes effectively creepy Shelley Winters) want her to take on her true role as daughter of Satan ("Hail Diane, Princess of Darkness!") starts out derivative but entertaining enough, but suffers from an unwillingness to actually show the more exciting parts of its plot on screen, and the suburbanity of its menace. Like with most US TV movies from the 70s, it's quite difficult to share the film's ideas concerning what's horrific. The longer the film goes on, the larger the gap between what it thinks is horrifying and what I think is horrifying grows, until the final ten minutes or so turn into pure camp. Well, at least there's a shot of Joseph Cotten with goats feet.

Phobia 2 (2009): After the surprise success of the first part, it's no surprise that a sequel didn't take too long to appear. Said sequel contains five unconnected horror shorts by different directors, all very slick, very tight, and not afraid of being pretty damn gruesome when the situation calls for it. The monsters reach from awesome hungry ghosts to western-style zombies, all presented with a sense of spirited fun. Phobia 2 does stand very much in the tradition of the horror movie as a carnival ride, so if you're allergic to that, this won't be much of a joy to watch. If, on the other hand, you can appreciate the form, you'll hardly find it done better than here.

Las Vegas Bloodbath (1989): This SOV abomination does sound quite attractive, seeing as it does feature badly done gore effects, a serial killer who likes to rant about "daytime whores", a love scene so horrifying it makes those in Don Dohler movies look sensual, hair that clearly could survive without the people its living on (Exte 2, anyone?), and long scenes of professional female oil wrestlers enjoying their down time until the arrival of the killer. But don't let these wonders of the filmmaking art and the human imagination fool you, for enjoying (or "enjoying") these elements is nearly impossible thanks to the film's painful pacing and an odour of boredom that surrounds everything like a thick fog of sleeping gas.


Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Firecracker (1981)

Martial arts expert Susanne Carter (Jillian Kesner) travels to the Philippines to find out what happened to her sister Bonnie who suddenly disappeared without a trace.

The guys working in the bar over which Bonnie lived point Susanne in the direction of drug kingpin Erik (Ken Metcalfe), of whose connection with Bonnie's disappearance they seem quite sure. Susanne agrees with the boys, and decides to get close to Erik's operation by charming and hitting her way into the heart of his main henchman, white boy afro and 'stache wearing martial artist Chuck Donner (Darby Hinton). Because that's not enough for a movie plot, there's also a sub-plot about Erik trying to outwit his drug middle-man Grip (Vic Diaz), and another one concerning an undercover police woman (Chanda Romero) who is quite under cover with Erik. Plus some stuff about Erik's hobby, the Arena of Death (guess what happens there), but all these threads are so loosely connected they only belong together because they just happen to include the same characters as the other plot lines.

So, if you're looking for a tightly constructed thriller, or even just a film that makes a lot of sense, Cirio H. Santiago's Firecracker will probably disappoint you. If you, on the other hand, are going into the movie to enjoy a series of pretty disconnected, yet increasingly strange and awesome, scenes of grindhouse imagination, you've come to the right place.

Firecracker does, as you'd expect from a Filipino movie made for the international market, feature a lot of mildly okay fight scenes, choreographed with more imagination than the fights in a comparable US film would be, but looking a bit limp if compared to films from Hong Kong or Japan. Kesner isn't exactly a great screen martial artist, but she's enthusiastic enough and does a pretty good glare; she's also from time to time doubled by a guy wearing a really bad wig, which is always a plus.

On the acting side the film is all over the place. Kesner is at times grindhouse movie good - she does "angry and going to do violence to you" quite well - at other times nearly comically wooden. The scenes between her and Darby Hinton that are supposed to suggest their feelings of mutual attraction are so horrible they can't help but be amusing; it's not too often one has the possibility to study the mating habits of two pieces of wood. Good old Vic Diaz, on the other hand, has fun stealing every scene he's in by good old fashioned scenery-chewing of the kind that always makes me want to applaud and throw my underwear at the screen.

It's not just my underwear that's flying in the film, though. Once Santiago has decided that a female fighter going about her vengeance work earnestly and fully clothed isn't interesting enough, he inserts two totally random would-be rapists who chase Susanne (who has suddenly lost her badassitude for five minutes - I suspect nudonite, kryptonite's lesser brother) around a bit, only pausing to gorily dispatch of a helpful cop. During that chase, Susanne just happens to lose one piece of clothing after the other, until she ends the whole thing (suddenly regaining her power of fight) in one of those always classy moments of bare-breasted fighting. That whole scene is so lazily written and so randomly sleazy, the only possible reactions one could have are either outrage or hysterical giggling; as is my morally decrepit wont, I giggled.

I giggled even more during Firecracker's other big sleaze scene, the sex scene between Kesner and Hinton. That scene may begin with a depressed Kesner saying "hold me" to the man least likely to react appropriately (he is clearly a sociopath, after all), but then decides tragic romance is when two people slowly cut each other's clothes off with knives. Needless to say, it's one of the great love scenes in cinema, made even better by the fact that Kesner will soon enough poke Hinton's eyes out with a pair of sticks.

Nearly as awesome as these two scenes is the music by Nonong Buencamino. Buencamino's minimalist disco noise funk wouldn't be out of place on a No Wave compilation, and provides a film full of weird moments with another layer of strangeness.

Firecracker is a film that shows all the best elements of its director/writer/producer Cirio H. Santiago's work. It has all the mediocre fighting, the sloppiness, the off-key acting, and the ridiculously awesome or awesomely ridiculous ideas that can make Santiago's movies so much fun without the boredom that destroys some of them.


Friday, April 6, 2012

Interruption of Eldritch Service

There'll be no new posts until Monday, for there's a non-Euclidean rabbit infestation for me to take care of.

There may be activity on Twitter (@houseinrlyeh is obviously the name), but then again, there might not.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

La Redevance Du Fantôme (1965)

Cambridge 1850. Divinities student Fanning (Stéphane Fey) spends the time he isn't studying (which seems to be most of the time) with long walks across the countryside. On one of these walks, the young man comes upon a seemingly uninhabited, locked house that develops a strange power over him. Even though Fanning does not believe in ghosts or hauntings, he is convinced something supernatural is surrounding the house, an opinion that only rises in intensity once he realizes how little the people in the area like to talk about it.

Fanning becomes so fascinated by the place that he begins to visit it regularly to stare at it. One evening, the student observes an old gentleman (Francois Vibert) nearing the house, bowing to it, and stepping inside. Fanning's can't see much of what's going on inside, but he hears the clinking of coins before the old man steps out again.

Fanning manages to "accidentally" meet the man again at the local graveyard, but his attempt to get his story only provides him with the man's name, Captain Diamond, and some rather peculiar pronouncements concerning the existence of ghosts.

Now completely fascinated by the mystery before him, Fanning starts pestering his landlady (Reine Courtois) about the man and the house, but at first, she is reluctant to speak of it, uncharacteristically fearful of something. Only when Fanning insists through an impressive display of passive aggression does the landlady tell her tale. Captain Diamond, so she says, once had a young daughter (Marie Laforet) who died (or just fainted and disappeared) when he cursed her after finding her with her lover. But over the following year, the ghost of Diamond's daughter returned to her former home, making it slowly impossible for the Captain to stay there, cutting him off from renting rooms away and farming, his only sources of income. Somehow, the Captain and his dead daughter came to an agreement. He would leave the house, and she would pay him a sum in gold four times a year as some sort of rent.

Having heard this story, Fanning understandably continues to be fascinated, and begins to worm his way far enough into the old man's trust to be allowed to take a look inside the house himself.

Robert Enrico's TV movie adaptation of a Henry James story is an interesting experiment in first building a mood and then not exactly deconstructing it, but at the very least turning it around. The film spends its first half expertly constructing the mood of a classic ghost story - there's the old dark house, some highly atmospheric nature shots, a protagonist slowly unravelling a horrible secret of the past, and a secret that may sound slightly ridiculous but does not feel ridiculous in the least thanks to the way the story is told. Then, the film shifts into the realm of strange psychology, where the outside story becomes a self-created expression of the internal struggles of the story's characters, while still keeping elements of the unexplained, the inexplicable, and the ambiguous. Depending on one's tastes, La Redevance then is not necessarily a ghost story anymore - though there sure are ghosts, especially of the characters' pasts, and even some supernatural agency - but a strange tale that circles ideas of guilt and forgiveness, trying to express difficult and highly ambiguous mental states through metaphors its characters create all by themselves in the real world.

This being a French movie from 1965, Enrico also adds a sense of romance that may not exactly have been in James's sense, but enhances the sense of ambiguous (the characters' motives are never explained, wide open to interpretation, and perhaps even unknowable) tragedy of the film's ending.

Apart from being wonderfully ambiguous and strange to its core (if a little slow and a little long), La Redevance is also as much of a visual feast as a film made on a mid-60s TV budget can be. Even though he has to work with only a handful of locations and sets, Enrico makes fantastic, at times even hypnotic, use of his black and white pictures, loading every shot with as much meaning and/or mood as he can get away with, which turns out to be a lot. The director also makes excellent use of the soundtrack - the minimalist music of François de Roubaix, as well as some subtle shifts in sound effects. The only flaw I see on the sound side is that the film's final emotional scene uses a horribly overwrought arrangement of "Katy Cruel" sung by Marie Laforet where something much simpler would have fit the emotional aspects of the script and Laforet's acting much better.

But, unlike certain videogamers, I'm generally not the sort of person who condemns the whole of an impressive work for a flaw in its final five minutes, so I'm happy to recommend this one to the more patient among you.


Wednesday, April 4, 2012

In short: Der Teppich des Grauens (1962)

aka The Carpet of Horror

The secretive - he's the type who only communicates with his minions via wall-projected text, like an old-fashioned teacher gone mad and invisible - leader of a criminal organization that has moved from India to London mercilessly kills traitors and supposed traitors with a peculiar nerve gas that's damnably difficult to treat.

Among the victims is the uncle of sweet, good-natured, nauseatingly innocent Ann Learner (Karin Dor). Being practically a saint, Ann did not know of her uncle's involvement in EVIL, which does not hinder Scotland Yard in form of the incompetent Inspector Burns (Julio Infiesta) and the mean-spirited, incompetent and frighteningly square-jawed Inspector Webster (Marco Guglielmi), from suspecting her in her uncle's murder. Fortunately, a rather stalkerish, yet clearly romantic lead-featured character named Harry Raffold (of course Joachim Fuchsberger), has taken an interest in Ann and protects her from the Yard and the expected attacks and kidnapping attempts of various evil-doers of various quarrelling factions of the gang her uncle worked for. But is Harry - who unfortunately only comes with his racist caricature servant/assistant Bob (Pierre Besari) - really a good guy, or part of the gang too? (Hint: he's played by Joachim Fuchsberger, not Klaus Kinski.)

Only time and a series of shady characters (among them Krimi mainstay Carl Lange as suspicious Colonel and Eleonora Rossi Drago as suspicious and Fuchsberger-adoring boarding house owner) will tell.

After that synopsis, you just might be surprised to hear that Der Teppich is not based on a novel by Edgar Wallace, but on one written by Louis Weinert-Wilton; though Weinert-Wilton's book was published as part of the same paperback line as the Wallace books. This is one of the numerous attempts of companies not Rialto Film - in this case Rialto's distributor Constantin Film with some Italian help - to also get at some of that sweet Krimi-money, and because Rialto had Wallace's works all tied up, those other companies adapted books of a comparable style to those of Wallace. Or at least turned these books into films very much in the style of the Wallace adaptations.

Because the German film industry never was all that big, some of the usual names of the Wallace krimis appear here too: there's Joachim Fuchsberger giving his usual energetic and often charming leading man performance, Karin Dor being pretty and very decorative when being kidnapped yet also being utterly bland and without any chemistry with her supposed love interest, and Carl Lange looking suspicious. The direction falls to Harald Reinl, one of the two big directors of the Wallace films, and he keeps to his style: much less comic relief and irony than in an Alfred Vohrer movie leaves even more room for moody scenes full of noir-inspired shadow-play that meet not spectacular yet enthusiastic and fun action scenes in a slightly more mannered (it's a German movie, after all) serial style, in a combination I find pretty much irresistible, seeing as it mixes the visual cues of two of the three movie genres black and white film was made for.

The film's script suffers a little from a typical krimi problems in that its more emotional scenes belong to the sort of hollow melodrama that, instead of being an emotional intensifier for the film's pulp action and noir leanings, always ends up feeling limp and unconvincing, reminding me of the horrors of the German Heimatfilm instead of the glories of Douglas Sirk.

Fortunately, there are three scenes of Fuchsberger fake-punching people and shadowy people looking shadowy in shadowy rooms for one of Karin Dor and Fuchsberger suddenly feeling the urge to marry (or worse), so while Der Teppich isn't quite up there with Reinl's best films, it's still pretty darn entertaining.


Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Double Man (1967)

High ranking US intelligence agent Dan Slater (Yul Brynner) has given the education of his son into the hands of his old friend - as far as a man like Dan can have friends - and former intelligence man Frank Wheatley (Clive Revill) who is now running a school in the Austrian part of the Alps. Consequently, and because Dan's a jerk, he hasn't spoken to his teenage son in two years. Still, when news reach Washington that his son has been killed in a skiing accident, Slater takes the next flight to Austria in the conviction somebody murdered his son to get to him.

Slater is just too right with this theory: his son's death is the first step in a needlessly complicated plan of Stasi agent Berthold (Anton Diffring) with the goal of replacing Slater with a surgically enhanced double.

Very, very slowly, Slater begins to investigate the circumstances of his son's death, following clues to a woman named Gina (Britt Ekland) who may be a witness or may be part of communist spy ring. However that may be, Slater's whole investigation is part of Berthold's plan, and every step he takes only leads the US agent further in the direction his enemies want him to go.

On paper, The Double Man is sure-fire satisfaction. A spy film starring a customarily intense Yul Brunner playing an agent who is also an utter bastard with stunted emotional development (or who just has locked away all of his emotions so securely it's questionable if he's even still human), confronted with his failings as a father and falling victim to a complicated conspiracy sounds pretty awesome on paper to me; alas, large parts of the film turn out to be just dull. For too many scenes in the film's first hour nothing much of interest is happening, unless you're very interested in watching a scowling Yul Brunner traipsing through an Austrian ski resort and stalking Britt Ekland; it doesn't help that the bad guys' plans on how to kidnap Slater seem just needlessly complicated, and not in an interesting silly spy movie way (the film's tone is too earnest for that) but in a "how can we fill these twenty minutes without having anything actually happen" kind of way. Frankly, it's just not very interesting at all.

That part of the film - most of its first hour - isn't really helped by the more often than not intrusive soundtrack, nor by the fact that an Austrian ski resort is not a location that provides much visual excitement (and I say that as a lover of snowy landscapes).

Director Franklin J. Schaffner may have directed some memorable films, but The Double Man again shows him to be an unmemorable director, a man whose films are technically perfectly fine, yet which lack any kind of personality; the film might as well have been directed by a robot.

The Double Man gets better in its last thirty minutes, when things start happening that are at least a little exciting. Suddenly, Schaffner even puts the rather dull ski resort and its strange social rituals to somewhat effective use, and the film culminates in a climax that is as cynical as anything I've seen in a spy movie. In how many other spy films, after all, does the hero survive the final confrontation because he didn't even really love his own son, or would at least never admit it?

For my tastes, these final thirty minutes are not quite enough to rescue the movie as a whole. The first hour is just too dull, everything in it too needlessly stretched out to be excused by the climax. I just can't shake the impression that The Double Man's script only ever provided plot for an hour-long movie, and Schaffner decided to just add forty minutes of filler to get the film up to feature length.


Sunday, April 1, 2012

Gyo (2012)

College student Kaori is visiting Okinawa with two of her school friends, leaving her fiancé Tadashi behind in Tokyo for a bit. Little does she expect the near future to bring the End of the World™. Soon enough, fish with insectoid legs who smell like death step on land, literally overrunning whatever gets in their way; unless they are sharks on legs - those also like to take a good bite.

When the horror reaches Tokyo, and Kaori loses contact with Tadashi, she decides to return to the capital to find him, but the girl's search is frequently hindered by the ever weirder threat. The fish, you see, are only the product of a peculiar bacterium that may or may not have something to do with Japanese experiments during World War II, and the legs are in truth strange, gas-driven contraptions that like to catch anything that is infected with the bacterium - like humans who got stuck by a fish leg.

Soon, an army of the gas-driven, insect-legged dead and even worse things walk around what's left of Japan. Can the world be saved? No.

Well, I don't know why, of all the things the great mangaka Junji Ito has written and drawn, one would decide to make an anime OVA out of his weakest long form effort, but director Takayuki Hirao did, and here I am, watching it as soon as fansubs have become available. Clearly, I'm a sucker for Junji Ito.

Even though the anime takes quite a few liberties with the manga, it does admirably keep with the spirit of Ito's work for most of the time. There's a bit of sleaze added (something Ito just doesn't seem very interested in), but that's about as far as the philosophical differences between manga and anime go.

So Gyo the anime is just as grotesque  - I'm talking "hulking heaps of bloated green living dead corpses bound together by tubes through mouth and anus walking around on gigantic insect legs that are driven by the gas the corpses produce" grotesque here, and just as plain freakishly weird as Ito's manga, never letting down its barrage of increasingly disturbing and/or funny images. As is often the case with Ito's work, the anime too reaches the point where the grotesque and the silly are difficult to distinguish from each other, and it's not completely clear if the audience is supposed to be freaked out about what it sees on screen or laugh about it. Both are hysterical reactions that seem equally appropriate to the things happening in Gyo; only from time to time, for example when we meet Tadashi's mad scientist uncle, does the film clearly come down on the sight of the funny-silly.

While this is all fantastic if you like Ito's grotesque apocalypses, Gyo also shares the two major problems of the manga (which, one might argue, are connected to typical weaknesses of Ito's body of work in general that usually are less problematic than they are here). Firstly, the plot is a complete mess, jumping from one bizarre set piece to the next without ever making much of an effort to connect them, either dramatically or thematically; there's some not very closely explored subtext about the Japanese society "stinking of death", but that's as far as the film's ever willing to go.

Secondly, whenever the human element is supposed to help heighten the dramatic tension the plot (such as it is) can't provide, Gyo falls flat on its fishy ass, for the character's internal lives lack coherence as much as the plot does. Even hysteria and madness need to make sense.

On the other hand, it's not the human drama one comes to witness when approaching a Junji Ito adaptation, but the weird, the very weird, and the world-ending weird, and these are things Gyo the movie is willing to deliver with as much enthusiasm as Gyo the manga. I for one am just glad to not only get to see an anime adaptation of one of Ito's works, but an anime adaptation that does not try to make the man's work more normal or streamlined.