Saturday, June 30, 2012

Dark Places (1973)

Old Mister Marr (Carleton Hobbs) dies in an English asylum for the mentally ill, telling his friend Edward Foster (Robert Hardy being very very fragile) something about money hidden behind a wall, probably a wall in Marr's old mansion from where Marr's wife, his children, and their nanny one day just disappeared, which may or may not have been the beginning of the man's madness.

It just so happens that Marr leaves said mansion to Foster, and boy, are there many walls inside behind which money might be hidden. But Foster isn't the only one who knows about the money. The local physician, Ian Mandeville (Christopher Lee, there to cash in a paycheck, not to act) and his sister Sarah (Joan Collins, playing the role Joan Collins always plays in these movies, but hey, she is at least acting that much) have heard about the hidden treasure, too, and both seem hell-bent on acquiring it by any means (looking like Christopher Lee, flirting like Joan Collins) necessary. Marr's lawyer Prescott (Herbert Lom) is also clearly in the know about the money. Now, you may ask yourself why these people haven't looked for the money long before Foster arrived, seeing as how the mansion has been empty and slowly rotting away for decades; and there you are, already thinking things through more thoroughly than the writers of the film.

Prescott's and the Mandevilles' vague plans to get at the money aren't Edward's only problems, though, for the mansion has a peculiar influence on him. There's a picture of the young Marr hanging over a fireplace, and he just happens to look exactly like Edward does. Soon, the face of a young woman in a window, noises, lights and the laughing of children haunt Edward. Eventually, he will have waking dreams in which he sees himself as Marr, living with a mad wife and two sociopathic children, and not quite thinking an affair with the nanny (Jane Birkin) through. Why, it's all enough to drive a man to lose his identity.

Dark Places is one of the many films of Don Sharp, a seasoned workman director with some moments of brilliance in his filmography. In its first half hour or so, Dark Places promises to be one of Sharp's outstanding movies, with a properly gothic atmosphere so thick you won't forget Sharp had been working for Hammer for a bit. At the beginning, the film seems to strive to mix a classic British ghost story about a haunted house that drives a man into doubting his own identity and losing contact with reality with the type of rather spooky thriller the British film industry loved so dearly. That's a genre combination akin to mixing rice and refried black beans (read: perfect), so I found myself enjoying these early stages very much.

Alas, the film's script lacks the proper tightness ghost stories - at least of this type - and thrillers sorely need. Instead of slowly but surely building its plot out of hints and a tightening feeling of menace, the writers opt for over-exposition in form of Edward's hallucinations. Used more subtly, these could have been an excellent way to demonstrate our protagonist's deteriorating state of mind and give us glimpses at what really happened in the mansion in the past, but the script goes for a sledgehammer obviousness that killed most of my engagement with the story; even in 1973, we had seen all this before again and again, and realized with much more elegance. As it stands, the film shows its cards way too early and then doesn't seem to know what to do afterwards, except for shuffling its feet and showing Christopher Lee looking bored.

Sharp does his best with the rather indifferent script, but he's not the kind of stylistically dominant director who can turn Dark Places into anything more than a solid, watchable movie. Of course, there are worse things than that.


Friday, June 29, 2012

On WTF: The Black Door (2001)

I am actually feeling a bit of POV horror fatigue these days, yet I still can't escape the siren song of semi-professional acting, shaking cameras and fake documentary set-ups.

From time to time - and quite often during the last few weeks - I even still stumble about films in the sub-genre I can get excited about. Case in point is The Black Door, a film that concerns itself with an occult ceremony, possible demonic possession, and no people running through any woods.

Read more about the film in my column on WTF-Film.


Thursday, June 28, 2012

In short: 5 Donne Per L'Assassino (1974)

aka 5 Women for the Killer

When writer Giorgio Pisani (Francis Matthews) returns home from some (possibly journalism related) travels, he finds his wife has not survived the birth of their first child. Shortly after the burial, Pisani learns that the child can't be his own, for family friend Dr. Lydia Franzi (Pascale Rivault) and his wife had hidden the most horrible of truths - at least that's how the film treats it - from him: his sperm count is so bad, he can't possibly be responsible for anyone's pregnancy.

Soon after that, a brutal series of murders of young women in the early stages of pregnancy begins. All of the victims are connected to Pisani one way or the other, so the nameless cop investigating the case (Howard Ross) obviously begins to suspect the writer.

Were this a more interesting giallo, Pisani would now start an investigation of his own to find the true killer among the good number of other possible suspects - a misogynist prick of a doctor (Giorgio Albertazzi), his wife's step brother, his wife's sleazy brother-brother - but as it stands, neither of our supposed protagonists is going to do much investigating on screen.

And that right there is the main problem I have with Stelvio Massi's 5 Donne Per L'Assassino. While it does feature many a stylishly filmed scene, creatively sleazy murders, and an excellent jazz-based soundtrack by Giorgio Gaslini, that's about all it has going for it.

The characters are boring and flat, and are certainly never doing anything of interest, the script is only interested in the murder scenes but ignores chance after chance to develop any thematic depth even though the film's basic set-up screams for an actual exploration of the different ways its different male characters hate women. Instead, it's all murders and set-ups of obvious red herrings, with little to keep them interesting. It's as if Massi were trying to make a giallo that's closer to a more conventional murder mystery, but forgot to add the actual mystery solving aspect to the film.

Else, there are some of the genre-mandatory jibes against the bourgeoisie, but these I've seen treated with more enthusiasm and effectiveness in dozens of other giallos.

As a whole 5 Donne Per L'Assassino treads the boring middle-ground of the giallo genre, and leaves more involved things to other movies.


Wednesday, June 27, 2012


Neues vom Hexer aka Again the Ringer (1965): Alfred Vohrer's sequel to his own Der Hexer is a decidedly middling part of the Rialto Wallace adaptation cycle. It features a few of Vohrer's trademark sight gags and moments of fourth wall demolition, a fun bad guy henchman turn by Klaus Kinski, and Drache, Rütting, Schürenberg and Arent in their usual roles, as well as a slightly insane soundtrack by Peter Thomas, but the film never feels as fun as it should do. For my tastes there's just a bit too much normal mystery tedium and too little of the pulp thrills I've come to expect from the Wallace films, leading to a film that is too well done to be completely unsatisfying yet too often trades in the anything goes feel of my favourite Vohrer movies for standard German mystery fare. For once, the German movie going public must have agreed with me, for the sequel Again the Ringer (and wasn't he called the Wizard in the English language version of the first movie?) sets up in its final scene never was made for lack of success.

One Point O aka Paranoia: 1.0 (2004): This is a pretty fantastic little (as in: obviously low budget yet just as obviously knowing how to cope) SF film in the classical mindfuck style that heavily echoes Dick in its un-real circling around questions of reality, identity and ownership of said identity. Directors/writers Jeff Renfroe and Marteinn Thorsson update the whole thing with a bit of nanotech-virus SF-science, but mostly, they let their design sense (seldom has a brown apartment building in a sideways future seemed more appropriate) and the peculiar rhythm of their film drag the viewer into an emotional place where the Weird and the surreal collide. There's also some fine acting (and fine acting's a difficult thing in a film going for the Weird this intensely) by Jeremy Sisto and Deborah Kara Unger - both no strangers to strangeness on screen - and smallish appearances by the great Udo Kier and the great Lance Henriksen to praise.

The Soul of a Monster (1944): Well, it sure is nice to see that Val Lewton's productions for RKO were regarded highly enough by executives in other studios to imitate them, like director Will Jason set out to do here for Columbia. Alas, as it goes with imitations, whoever was mainly responsible for The Soul did not actually understand how and why the Lewton productions worked so well, replacing ambiguity with cloying Christian moralizing and characters with flat clichés. While the photography is moody and beautiful, it's badly served by a script that doesn't really seem to know how to tell its story effectively, and direction that tries to take up all the outward appearances of the Lewton style without showing the necessary sense of timing and depth of meaning necessary to make that style work. I'd blame Jesus, but then the film makes it quite clear I'm not allowed to.


Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Craze (1974)

London antiques dealer Neal Mottram (Jack Palance) is in financial trouble, with creditors and the IRS breathing down his neck.

Neal also just happens to be the leader of a small cult that worships the idol of a demon named Chuku (or something of that sort) he keeps in his cellar. Neal's situation begins to improve when he has an altercation with a former member of his coven and accidentally pushes her onto the (not very spiky looking) trident the idol carries. Neal - not the sanest of men - decides to interpret the woman's death as a blood sacrifice, rolls up the dead body in a carpet and throws it in the Thames.

A bit later, Neal suddenly finds a secret drawer full of gold coins that should take care of his most dire financial troubles. Clearly, it's Chuku's reward for the sacrifice!

With this sure sign of godly intervention in hand, it does not take long until Neal loses it completely and decides to sacrifice more women to satisfy Chuku. Neal's live-in "associate" Ronnie (Martin Potter), a young man whom the antiques dealer took in from the street where he was working as a (gay) prostitute, soon enough cops to what his boss is doing, but a weird mixture of loyalty and what one assumes - though the film does never actually show it - must be at least a part-time physical relationship between the men, possibly something more romantic, keeps him in line while Neal continues killing.

The police (with a short appearance by Trevor Howard and a young David Warbeck) are soon on Neal's case.Yet even though the antiques dealer acts as suspiciously as humanly possible, the cops can't prove anything. That may have something to do with the fact that the leader of the investigation, Sergeant Wall (Michael Jayston), seem more used to letting his fists speak than to the actual investigation of crimes. Still, Neal's luck (or Chuku's blessing) can't hold out forever.

Craze is a minor film in the body of work of the great Freddie Francis (here working for producer and writer Herman Cohen) that is quite below much of the director's best work in quality, but that functions perfectly well as a time capsule of early 70s London as seen through the eyes of the elderly.

Consequently, the film is full of everything you expect from the first half of the 70s: blinding fashion (and blinding wallpapers), random occult nonsense that tries to give itself an "exotic" sheen, cops who may have once heard of civil rights, awkward sex scenes (they do after all include Jack Palance as an irresistible ladies' man, though his character seems to assume that's Chuku's - big scriptwriter in the cellar that he is - blessing too and so on. These pleasures/eyesores all come together into a thick miasma of the mood of the film's time.

As a time capsule, Craze is highly entertaining, and really pretty brilliant; as a horror film, it's okay when one has a tolerance for middling genre pieces whose strengths don't have much to do with them being horror films. Francis was incapable to shoot a bad looking movie, as he again and again demonstrates through his lovely eye for visual detail here, yet the director was well capable of making a film that just doesn't do much of interest when it comes to its actual storyline. The plot meanders a bit too much, the murders tend to the absurd, yet are never absurd enough to get Craze into the zone of irreality, and most of the interesting thematic avenues are never really explored. There's a bit of subtext in the movie that could lead to one interpreting Palance's murders as his attempt to deny his attraction to Ronnie, but honestly, that's stretching interpretational freedom in the manner of Mister Fantastic.

So what's left when one tries to watch Craze as a horror film are scenes of Jack Palance mugging, Jack Palance killing women, some very brightly coloured blood, and Jack Palance's bare chest. That would leave the film barely watchable in a "point and laugh" sort of way, but for me, there's something utterly irresistible about a film so desperately trying to be part of its time, and to be pop. I do doubt Francis or Cohen actually understood contemporary pop culture in the least, but that's part of the fun of the whole affair.


Sunday, June 24, 2012

Kung Fu From Beyond The Grave (1982)

One fine ghost month night, martial arts student Chun Sing (Billy Chong Chuen-Lei) has his Hamlet moment when the oatmeal-faced ghost of his father appears and reports that he has been murdered by a certain Kam Tai Fu (Lo Lieh) in a town not far away.

Ghost dad orders Chun Sing to make his way there, retrieve his bones and take vengeance on his killer. Our hero is a filial person, and so quickly takes off to the weeping sounds of his mother to do as he is told.

Alas, taking vengeance on Kam Tai Fu is not going to be easy, for the guy is the big man in his town and commands a gang of kung fu fighting henchmen - some of whom are quite a bit better than Chun Sing is. Even worse, the villain has his own private black magician who is just in the process of making his master impervious to damage with a process that consists of spitting blood taken from fresh human hearts that have been harvested from non-evil persons during intercourse on Kam Tai Fu's chest (oh black magic, why do you have to be so icky and complicated?). Kam Tai Fu isn't impervious to damage yet, but it seems only a question of time.

After his first attempt at a direct assault goes awry, Chun Sing uses a magic manual he's found - and which the black magician really would like to own - to sic a bunch of irregularly hopping dead at his enemies. This again meets with less than satisfying success.

Fortunately for Chun Sing, he and the dead aren't the only ones out to end Kam Tai Fu's reign, and some locals and two government agents willing to help him out may be the solution to his troubles.

Lee Chiu's Kung Fu From Beyond The Grave is one of those martial arts movies that do not believe in dialogue scenes or characterization at all, and consequently try to not include a single minute where somebody isn't hitting or kicking somebody else. The thinking behind this particular brand of minimalism seems to be that the audience is there to see people fight, so everything else is superfluous, making this school of martial arts movies quite as single-minded as porn, and equally difficult to write about beyond a general: the choreography is quite satisfying and the camera focuses on the important things, which is to say, the fighting.

Still, like all purity, this purity of only fighting all the time would get monotonous fast (there is a good reason why many movies of the genre do include scenes of people not fighting). Fortunately, much of the endless fighting here is imbued with the never pure spirit of weird fu, too, spicing up the hitting and the kicking with many moments of the awesome and the bizarre.

Among my favourite moments of "what the hell am I watching right now?" in Kung Fu From Beyond The Grave is Chun Sing's first attempt to beat his enemies with his undead gang. After Chun Sing has shot two long-tongued guardians of hell (I think) with the mandatory cartoon beams from his sorcery manual, the poor evil sorcerer finds his final resort in holding hell money into the air and asking Dracula for help, who - mercenary that he is - appears at once and gives Chun Sing's ghosts trouble until he is dispatched with exploding garlic cloves. That's probably the film's most transcendentally insane moment, but there are many other flourishes of this sort, like the sorcerer being beaten with magical lampions, the power of female hygiene products and what I suspect is meant to be menstrual blood. And who wouldn't want to see Lo Lieh get beaten up by a coffin, see a son rescued from a ghost with telescope arms by his skeletal father, or learn that evil people literally have black hearts that are unusable for black magical ceremonies?

These bizarre moments taken right out of Chinese mythology and classical literature turn what would be a competent yet also exceedingly monotonous martial arts movie into a piece of riotous fun where the unexpected is generally to be expected, and make Kung Fu From Beyond The Grave a film not to be missed even though the film's only available print (as far as I know) is a panned and scanned abomination dubbed into English in the usual horrifying manner.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

In short: Siamese Outlaws (2004)

Original title: 2508 pit krom jap taai

Honourable bandit Khaw (Dom Hetrakul) has a grand plan to rob a whole town full of gold merchants. He can't realize that plan with his small gang alone, so he uses his connections to Bai, the right-hand man of bandit king and black magician Lamay (Akekaphan Bunluerit), to convince the big man to help him out partnering up with Lamay's and some other bandit groups.

The raid on the town goes rather well, even though Khaw's partners don't hold to the rule of no unnecessary killing he has put into effect, and despite a large police force that's getting on their trail soon, the bandits manage to get away clean loaded with riches.

The group decides to part ways and let the literal chest full of treasure rest for seven days, until Lamay can contact what must be a pretty spectacular fence.

Obviously there's betrayal in the air, and Lamay and the other bandit leaders try (and sometimes succeed) to kill each other, and especially Khaw, for the gold, as is tradition. When the bandits aren't infighting, they also have to cope with a particularly angry cop of the type that has no compunctions against torture and shooting bandits in the back.

Winai Patoomboon's Siamese Outlaws may look like a film shot in 2004 (or thereabouts), but at its core, the film is an homage to an earlier era of Thai filmmaking, when Sombat Metanee was king. It's clearly no accident that the great Metanee (who would have played Khaw or the cop when he was younger) has a supporting role here too as one of the smaller bandit leaders. The old star seems to have a lot of fun with his role, affably strutting, shooting from impossible positions and winking at the ladies, and really, if these scenes of Metanee doing his thing in a slightly ironical manner were all Siamese Outlaws had to offer, I'd be perfectly alright with it.

But there's also some humour I found myself actually laughing at (not something that happens often with the comical elements of Thai movies for me), some cool gunfights that won't dethrone the greatest action director of your choice yet have an air of unassuming creativity and - again - fun surrounding them only the terminally po-faced would complain about, a bit of magical (or is it) fighting and some perfectly great shots of jungle, ruins, and ruins in the jungle.

The only element of the film that doesn't seem primed for fun first and anything else second is a slightly awkward turn for the dark in its final act and a bit of moralizing that doesn't fit the mood of the rest of Siamese Outlaws too well. However, Patoomboon's film goes about its tragic and morally uplifting business with the same lack of pretention it shows in every other aspect, making it difficult to disagree with it too much; after all, the film is much too laidback to try and convert you to anything.

Did I mention how fun Siamese Outlaws is?

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Legend of Hell House (1973)

Millionaire Mr. Deutsch (Roland Culver) hires physicist with interest in paranormal matters Dr. Barrett (Clive Revill) to examine "the Mount Everest of haunted houses", the Belasco house, a former place of controlled debauchery (yay) and murder (boo) that has cost the lives, limbs or sanity of most of its former investigators. Barrett - who smugly does believe in paranormal manifestations yet not in ghosts and is clearly obsessed with his work to the detriment of his marriage - takes his sexually repressed wife Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt) with him. Deutsch has also reserved the help of two mediums - one the painfully optimistic believer in a very Christian interpretation of ghosts - of course also sexually repressed - Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin), the other the only whole survivor of the last Belasco house investigation, Ben Fischer (Roddy McDowall), clearly a believer in repressing everything.

Of course, the house really is as dangerous as people think, and of course, it's going to play on the single character trait of everyone, so soon enough, Barrett will be even more obsessed with his work, Ann will want to have sex, Florence will try to save the ghost of Belasco's son even if it means implied ghost rape, and Fischer will mug as if he were played by Roddy McDowall.

While mostly ignored in the first decade or so of its existence, confusingly broad-minded director John Hough's The Legend of Hell House is now more often than not described as "highly underrated", " a forgotten masterpiece", or "nearly as good as The Haunting" (and I suspect anonymous internet commenter C doesn't mean the dreadful remake, even though that abomination is actually closer to Hell House in spirit). It's also often described as subtle, a statement that just leaves me puzzled, for subtlety is living in a completely different town than this film.

But before I go into what bothers me about the film, I shall not fail to mention some of its very clear surface charms. While I don't think John Hough's direction actually succeeds in achieving the creepy mood the director clearly sets out to build, I do appreciate how desperately he goes all out in trying to achieve it. There's a whole carnival of fisheye lenses, Dutch angles, uncomfortable close-ups, fog, and deep shadows, all so tirelessly working at playing haunted house they don't have any effect on me at all. The permanent piling on of directorial tics that would be subtle used in a controlled manner, or could create a mood of the weird if used in a more individual one, keeps the film teetering on the edge of the unintentionally funny for most of its running time, and it's only saved from permanently - and not just for half of the time like it does - going over the edge by some very decent performances by Franklin, Revill and Hunnicutt who make the best out of the flat roles they are given, excellent music by Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson of BBC Radiophonic Workshop fame, and fine art direction.

Unfortunately, the fourth of the film's four main actors is Roddy McDowall, whose performance is, as usual when he's not playing a monkey, problematic. He starts out slowly enough with the most showy attempts at "subtle acting" this side of Tom Cruise, but once his character "opens up", he seems to be caught in a scenery chewing contest with himself, which is at times pretty funny to watch but not helpful to keep up the po-faced serious mood of Richard Matheson's script (based on his own novel).

That script features most of the things I loathe about large parts of Matheson's work - the stiff dialogue, the insistence on Freudian bullshit (a problem he shares with Robert Bloch) instead of actual characterisation, all women being hysterics in the Freudian sense at heart - while lacking the things I love about large parts of Matheson's work - the ability to actually do interesting and sometimes even enlightening things with said Freudian bullshit, a deep interest in exploring the darker sides of the human spirit by way of supernatural horror, and a sense for keeping things weird with a capital W. In this version of Hell House, everyone is horribly one-dimensional. Florence is stuck up and trusting, Barrett a smug scientist, Ann sexually frustrated and Fischer played by Roddy McDowall, so the house's attempts at destroying them through their own character flaws are equally flat. If you've seen the character introductions, you know exactly how the place will influence them. It's as if Matheson had written the characters with crayon. Not even Belasco escapes that problem - let's just say that a haunting based on the inferiority complex of a guy who cut off his own legs so he could buy prostheses that make him look taller (that's the degree of "subtlety" you can expect from this movie) is not very frightening, no matter how often the film tells us how frightening it is supposed to be.

This dispiriting lack of nuance runs through the whole film and also infects many of its horror set-pieces: Franklin's ridiculous fight with a cat doll, a finale that consists of McDowall mugging into the wind, and (horror of horrors!) hot and bothered Ann Barrett's attempts at seducing McDowall (whose reaction shots do of course ruin every possibility of the scene working as intended). The list just goes on and on.

It's all so clichéd and cheesy in its attempts to be somewhat daring that my only reaction to The Legend of Hell House is a lot of rather embarrassed laughter, the kind of reaction I usually reserve for larger family meetings.


Thursday, June 21, 2012

In short: Paranormal Effect (2010)

Not to be confused with, well, you know…

Japanese American Reiko (Mirei Yamagata) and her very white American boyfriend Darren (Darren McIntyre) are making a short trip to Japan. The couple is staying in the house of Reiko's grandmother - who has been dead for a few months - at the outskirts of Tokyo for the duration.

That does not turn out to be very wise decision, because strange things start happening right from the start. Who'd have thought in a film called Paranormal something-or-other!? At first, the haunting consists of nothing more than a bathtub full of what looks like swamp water that leaves behind a spot which can't be cleaned, so as far as paranormal somethings go, the couple's comparatively lucky.

However, Reiko decides to spend their first day visiting a shrine, and Darren can't help himself but play the respect-impaired American and crawl around in a little cave he isn't supposed to enter. After that, things get weirder: an invisible presence seems to share the house with the couple, turning on the camera Darren uses to film everything anyway when nobody is looking; Reiko starts sleepwalking, muttering about swamps in Japanese. And that damn bathtub continues misbehaving.

On the couple's very last night, something more serious happens, leaving Reiko to wander the woods with Darren nowhere to be found. Reiko ends up in a psychiatric hospital, remembering nothing of that last night. After a few sessions, her psychologist there (Sayaka Kunii) decides that it's necessary for Reiko to return to the house to remember and get better. She's not the type of psychologist unwilling to accept some supernatural dimension to her patient's troubles, so she and Reiko will be accompanied by a shinto priest (Wani Yoshimoto) who will attempt an exorcism.

The Japanese POV horror film Paranormal Effect - shot in Japan by Ryuichi Asano and Teruo Ito yet mostly with English dialogue for reasons of authenticity and easy overseas marketability I suppose - is obviously one of the children of (the loathsome) Paranormal Activity, but unlike that film, it doesn't leave me rolling my eyes and looking bored. It's just a bit more of an actual movie with a script that seems to have knowledge of basic dramaturgical techniques, which - as you know - is not something you can say about all pieces of POV horror, a sub-genre whose films often become confused about the differences between a lack of structure and a feeling of authenticity. The characters don't act quite as much as total idiots than in the American movie I dislike so much either.

If this sounds as if I'm damning Paranormal Effect with faint praise, I don't really do. This is the sort of bread and butter, solid horror film that won't ever shake up its genre, but it is at its heart a solid, well-made film that knows what it wants to achieve (be a POV horror film riding on the coattails of a certain other movie yet doing it without being a complete rip-off) and then achieves it.

It's also a movie that has quite a few enticing little elements it never really explores too deeply, but that still can't help but make it feel slightly richer. There is the obvious element of culture clash, of course, with Darren standing in for every tourist romping dumbly through a foreign country ever, as well as the only hinted at mythological background. Most interesting of all, is the subtext about Reiko being the victim of the supernatural because she's subconsciously drifting between two cultures, seemingly neither able to decide on belonging to one, nor to decide on not having to decide on belonging to one; states of confusion like this do tend to open one up to the supernatural in these films. I do wish the film were a little more ambitious about exploring this aspect, but its mere presence helps make Paranormal Effect that decisive bit more interesting to watch than its title would suggests.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Three Films Make A Post: The girls do exactly what you think they do!

Female Chivalry (1975): This Taiwanese martial arts comedy directed by Yeung Jing-Chan is mostly playing the cheap variation of its genre by the book. It's still more entertaining than I'd have expected thanks to Chia Ling's (you may knows her as Judy Lee) performance: she kicks people around with great conviction, she smirks as if her character knew she were a nameless roguish heroine in a silly martial arts movie and approved of that particular lot in life, and she looks pretty smashing in men's clothing. That's more than enough to not only carry the film but drag it up a notch or three in quality and win my heart for ninety minutes.

Der Tod im Roten Jaguar (1968) aka Death in the Red Jaguar: There's a minor series of films based on German "Heftroman" (which are a little like post-war pulps, but different in ways generally making them inferior - I'll explain someday, if I ever find a more interesting film based on one) hero Jerry Cotten (in the movies played by the sleeping pill medicine knows as George Nader), working for an FBI that has as little to do with the original as the German Edgar Wallace movie adaptation Scotland Yard has with the real one. Cotten's adventures usually take place in a not-New York that's unreal in similar, yet less interesting, ways to the Wallace movies not-London; Der Tod mostly takes place in not-San Francisco.

Despite being directed by Harald Reinl who was generally pretty great at pulpy thrills, Der Tod contains a bit too much of the typical provincial stink of German genre film, and way too little that could lead to actual excitement. In fact, watching the film, one can't help but think the film is actively trying not to be too exciting, or weird, or funny, instead aiming for the boring middle ground for no discernible reason beyond the idea that a good German bourgeois is in love with the concept of the "middle ground".

Vessel (2012): This little SF/horror movie directed by Clark Baker, on the other hand, packs more excitement into its thirteen minute running time than can be found in a whole Cotten movie. Clearly, you can still use airplanes and tentacular aliens and a certain Twilight Zone episode for good.


Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back (1934)

On the wedding day of his brain-dead sidekick Algy (Charles Butterworth), adventurer Hugh "Bulldog" Drummond begins to think about retirement in Sussex; after all, all that romance and excitement in his life is beginning to get tiresome, and now that Algy isn't around for a quickie anymore, what's left?

Drummond changes his mind very quickly when he leaves his friend's wedding and steps into a foggy London night, where he first meets a confused young woman (Loretta Young) - later to be named as Lola Field - and then stumbles upon a dead body lying in an empty villa. Strangely enough, once Drummond returns to the villa with a bobby in tow, the place isn't empty any longer but populated by Achmed (Warner Oland), the "oriental" (because Warner Oland) envoy or prince or something of a made-up country, and his henchpeople. There's no trace of a dead body anymore, and the bobby sure as hell isn't going to think anything bad about a decent gentleman like Achmed.

Drummond for his part returns to his home to call Algy away from his wedding night and ponder things quietly. Until the confused young woman he met in the fog appears on his doorstep right when Drummond - the creepy toffer - is fantasizing about his need for a woman in need. Her name is Lola Field, and she was actually looking for Drummond's neighbour Captain/Colonel/Inspector Neilson (C. Aubrey Smith) of Scotland Yard, for her uncle is missing, and people seem to pretend he never even existed. Of course, Drummond is instantly smitten by Lola and willing to help, and of course, the dead man he saw will turn out to have been Lola's uncle. From this point on, people will repeatedly be kidnapped from Drummond's living room, Drummond will repeatedly break into Achmed's villa, Neilson will doubt Drummond's sanity (he's right), and Algy's wedding night will be a no-show. Fun will be had by all.

This is the second and last time Ronald Colman was taking on the role of Bulldog Drummond - the actor's first appearance in the role being in 1929's Bulldog Drummond - and like his first outing this mystery comedy in the same spirit of style and verve responsible for The Thin Man is quite a bit of fun.

Unlike the earlier movie, Drummond Strikes Back does not feature the stiff and possibly slightly confused acting of an early talkie. Instead, the film is dominated by the type of slick and glossy acting I find typical of classical Hollywood films. Colman still is the stand-out actor here, hitting the right spot between charming and smug, convincing the audience that being a crime fighting vigilante must be quite the lark, and again pulling the rest of the cast with him in any scene he is in; the difference this time around is just that his colleagues don't need as much pulling and clearly are able to stand on their own feet.

Most of what I have written about the 1929 film stands here too, though the level of pulpy thrills has been reduced a bit - there's no mad scientist in place, the more risqué psychosexual undertones have gone missing, and Warner Oland's "evil oriental" (sigh) is a bit bland as a villain for my tastes - in favour of more comedic bits, which usually would spell doom for me liking any film. I don't mind in Drummond Strikes Back's case though, for most of the humour - except for the always insufferable Algy - is as witty and charming as what Colman projects.

Even though the movie's plot really is paper thing - the mystery Drummond is trying to solve isn't much of one, and there isn't much happening beyond kidnappings and rescues once the situation has been set up - it's a whole lot of fun to watch Colman having fun, delight at the often very stylish manner director Roy Del Ruth shoots his few yet finely made sets, and forget all about the rather nasty political background of the Bulldog Drummond books. Sure, there is Oland's "oriental" evil mastermind (sort of) to remind one of the latter, however, there's so little mean-spirited about his use I found it difficult to get annoyed. It's an unfortunate cliché in a generally good-natured film, and seems to me more of a sign of the times the film was made in than any sign of active racism of its makers; it's the difference between actively doing evil and being thoughtless.

Apart from that, I can only criticize Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back for making me unhappy Colman didn't star in more Drummond films, and that's a criticism born of the fun I had with this one as well as the actor's earlier stint as the character.


Sunday, June 17, 2012

Das Phantom von Soho (1964)

aka The Phantom of Soho

A shadowy figure wearing a skull mask and what looks a lot like silver oven mitts stalks the streets of Soho to start a charming little series of murders. Curiously, the killer doesn't steal from his victims, but leaves manila envelopes with money and little gifts with them; if it were Christmas, you'd probably think him to be a Santa Claus themed serial killer. Chief Inspector Patton (Dieter Borsche) and sort of comic relief Sergeant Hallam (Peter Vogel) are investigating the case, but after the first success of realizing that the murders have something to do with a bar cum bordello named the Zanzibar, it's slow going.

There are just too many suspects - most of whom will soon enough turn into victims of the murderer - and unlike the audience, the policemen don't even know these suspects share a dark secret that may very well be the motive for the murder. Among the dubious people Patton and Hallam encounter are the wheelchair-bound and scarred owner of the Zanzibar, Joanna Filiati (Elisabeth Flickenschild), the gangster who manages the place for her (Stanislav Ledinek), a member of parliament (Hans Nielsen), a peculiar masseur (Werner Peters), a sea captain (Hans W. Hamacher), and the young club photographer (Helga Sommerfeld). Really, the policemen can thank the murderer for slowly whittling down the number of suspects.

However, there are other problems troubling Patton, too. The head of Scotland Yard, Sir Phillip (Hans Söhnker), takes a personal interest in the case, and acts increasingly like a good suspect himself, while Sir Philip's girlfriend, crime writer Clarinda Smith (Barbara Rütting) does her damndest to be part of the investigation.

Das Phantom's director Franz Josef Gottlieb is another filmmaker whose stint in the krimi genre hints at a talent neither his later nor his earlier films would suggest. By now, my working hypothesis explaining this singularly strange - for post-war German filmmaking - tendency is that the krimi was the only genre where either producers allowed the directors to do more than point and shoot, or one of the few genres that actually interested them enough to put some effort in. Looking at the horrible TV shows Gottlieb worked for at the end of his career (45 episodes of a show starring a chimpanzee as its most talented cast member will kill anyone's creativity, I suppose) I'd tend to the latter explanation.

Be that as it may, fact is that the Franz Josef Gottlieb who directed this Bryan Edgar Wallace adaptation for Artur Brauner's CCC Filmkunst, was quite a different director from the director he would all too soon turn into. There's hardly a second in The Phantom where the director isn't setting up a creative shot, letting his camera glide from a room's ceiling to a more normal position, positioning his camera in a cabinet, or letting it swirl nearly psychedelically in a knife throwing sequence. Somehow, Gottlieb still manages to keep his stylistic excesses at least so much in check the film they dominate doesn't fall apart; it's just a bit more surreal than one would expect of one the actually more sanely plotted krimis.

I was a bit surprised, even slightly shocked, by how much of an exploitation movie - for something made in Germany in 1964 - Das Phantom is: there aren't just the comparatively intense knife murders, but also more weird nightclub scenes than in a Jess Franco production (and I'm sure if the great man saw this one, he must have approved of it heartily as made by a kindred spirit), and two striptease numbers that actually show bare breasts, completely going against the spirit of a prudishness that was at its most obvious when a given film was trying to be risqué that always haunted the Wallace adaptations, be they based on Edgar or Bryan.

Gottlieb's visual oomph and the distractions of bloods and breasts and pretty people (well, pretty women - the men here are all of the sort of stiff-necked middle-age that makes girls cry and boys never want to grow old for sheer terror of what they might become) are very helpful as a distraction from the weaknesses of its script, or rather, the script's love for long, pointless dialogue scenes that always threaten to overwhelm the awesome bits with their sheer length; fortunately, unnecessary scenes of characters talking can be made quite bearable through a distracting execution Alfred Vohrer would be proud of.

So, if you want to venture into the weird, sometimes wild, sometimes hilariously conservative not-England of the krimi, you could find far worse films than Das Phantom von Soho.


Saturday, June 16, 2012

In short: No Blade Of Grass (1970)

Humanity's finally done it. The Earth's natural resources have been wasted and poisoned, and now a new disease is destroying all grass-type plant life like rice and wheat, promising food shortages in apocalyptic dimensions.

While China is gassing its own population centres to reduce its population to a survivable number, the UK hasn't quite been reached by the catastrophe yet, but it's only a question of time until it does.

Architect John Custance (Nigel Davenport) plans to take his wife Ann (Jean Wallace), his teenage daughter Mary (Lynne Frederick), and their youngest child David (Patrick Holt) to his brother's farm far away in the countryside, for he's cultivating plants that aren't (yet) touched by the disease there. Plus, the farm's naturally situated so it can be easily defended once the expected anarchy breaks out.

Warned by Mary's boyfriend Roger (John Hamill), who works in some scientific capacity for the government, that a state of emergency will be declared shortly, the Custance's and Roger begin to make their way towards safer pastures. The situation deteriorates quickly, though, and soon enough, the group kills and steals its way to survival, not so much slowly losing its civilized veneer but throwing it away with great enthusiasm.

Cornel Wilde's No Blade of Grass (based on a novel by John Christopher whom you may know for his - also post-apocalyptic - YA book series The Tripods) is an early, desperately bleak example of the post-apocalypse movie that not only predates most of this particular genre (at least on screen), but is also much grimmer than many of its successors.

Seldom have I seen a film this willing to make no particular moral difference between the way its protagonists try to achieve survival, and those the groups they encounter do. In No Blade of Grass's world, barbarity seems to be humanity's natural state that it only too happily falls back into again once civilization gets into trouble. However, it's clear that Wilde, unlike a representative of the survivalist bend of post-apocalyptic fiction would be, may be deeply pessimist about human nature, but isn't perverse enough to celebrate this state of affairs. So there's an - often blunt, sometimes quiet - sense of desperation running through the film I found particularly moving.

On the directorial side, No Blade Of Grass (at least in its newly restored full-length version) is a bit of a schizophrenic case. Half of its emotional punch is based on laconic, semi-documentarian shots of people wandering through the empty English countryside, polluted nature, and action sequences that are suspenseful yet devoid of action hero behaviour. This mood is regularly broken up by strange stylistic flourishes like flashbacks and flashforwards, negative shots and freeze frames (most of this stylistic excess is completely missing from the film's shorter versions, making that version more easily digestible, and weaker) that can seem awkward and blunt, yet also help emphasise that the film isn't meant as a man's adventure movie. Wilde doesn't want his audience to be excited by the action, so he's undermining the normal build-up of suspense for this sort of movie. It's a rather bizarre way to go about it, but it works.


Friday, June 15, 2012

On WTF: The Scarlet Blade (1964)

aka The Crimson Blade

As you know, Jim, there aren't many adventure movies set during the English Civil War, but fortunately, the glorious people of Hammer did at least provide us with John Gilling's The Scarlet Blade, a film that features a comparatively active female lead, Oliver Reed and others glowering with all their might, and an incredibly boring hero.

If that adds up to something good or something rather bad I'll tell you in this week's column on WTF-Film.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

In short: Iron Sky (2012)

Usually, the proper reaction for me when I hear words like "camp" and descriptions like "instant cult classic" buzzing around a movie is to keep as far away from it as humanly possible, even though this goes against the spirit of hopeful masochism I otherwise cling to in my movie watching decisions. Fortunately, I made an exception to this sanity-defending rule for the Finnish, German and Australian co-production Iron Sky, and while my sanity probably is not the better for it, my mood surely is.

For this campy comedy about a Nazi invasion of Earth that moonlights as a silly yet bitter satire on contemporary political culture (and perhaps even human nature, but that does make the film sound rather pretentious, so let's just say that there's a surprising large amount of Dr. Strangelove in its gene pool) is actually good; more surprisingly, it's so funny I found myself snorting, even regularly laughing, about more of its jokes than I usually do when it comes to comedy. Of course not every moment is a hit in that regard, but then, humour tends to be as personal a thing as sexual preferences.

What - besides it actually being funny - differentiates Iron Sky from many other attempts at being consciously camp is its utter lack of laziness. While plot and worldbuilding are patently absurd, they are also pretty damn well thought through, adding fittingly absurd details that logically derive from absurd premises. That seems especially fitting when it comes to Nazi ideology, for what else is it than atrocity based on absurd and grotesque premises?

For a film with a comparatively small budget of 7.5 million Euro (that's what, five minutes of - the of course awesome - John Carter?), Iron Sky also manages to squeeze in a very impressive amount of CGI. Even better, it's the right kind of digital effects work that puts effort into letting objects look as if they had an actual physical presence. Plus, the sense for the funny and telling detail that runs through the film's writing is clearly visible in the designs of moon zeppelins and space ships too.

The effects, like just about everything else in Iron Sky, are the product of filmmakers who care about their film and don't just shrug off problems with a handwaving "it's supposed to be bad".


Wednesday, June 13, 2012

In short: The Lady Constables (1978)

The fiendish men of the Black Wind Fortress steal a set of pearls known as the Night-Shining Pearls, slaughtering the escorts protecting them in the process. Because the Pearls belong to Prince Cheng (whoever he is), the bandits' leader, either called Coldwater or Coldstar Tiger (depending on if you believe the subtitles or the HKMDB), in any case played by Chang Yi, disbands the group; the Pearls are divided between Tiger and his four sub-chiefs.

Some time later, three heroes begin stalking the former Black Wind Fortress members. There's the (lady) constable Tien Ying Hung (Angela Mao being Angela Mao, which is more than enough for me) who is the straightforwardly temperamental type. Tang Lin (Chia Ling), a lady who is looking for vengeance for the murdered escorts. She likes to play with coffins and home-made torture devices and is something of a charming psychopath. Prince Cheng's bodyguard Hung Yi (Wong Goon-Hung) has his orders and doesn't like to talk, so he's only communicating via little pre-written scrolls which just happen to always have the right content - or so I assume, for the (of course often terrible and unreadable) subtitles don't bother with his messages, so I found myself bound to think whatever he's saying with them must be as supremely sarcastic as his face is unmoving.

The three don't really team up, instead opting for trying to outwit and outrace each other to the black fortress people whenever possible. In the end, one of the three always ends up torturing one of the Black Wind Fortress chiefs while the others come in a minute later, only for all three to get distracted by something and their victim to end up dead by unknown hands (oh, whoever might it be?). Yes, our heroes are torturers and idiots.

Still, how difficult can it be to work through a bunch of bad guys and get some pearls back?

I don't really know why Cheung San-Yee's Taiwanese wuxia is called "The Lady Constables", seeing as it does only contain one actual lady constable, but I have to say the slight loopiness of that fact fits the slight loopiness of everything else about the film well enough. Now, The Lady Constables is not a true piece of weird fu - it's just not weird enough for that - and rather a relatively straightforward wuxia film that can't completely escape the natural tendency of a film of its genre and its era to always drift toward strangeness. So while there's nothing even close to a scene of a little person riding a giant and spraying acid from his goitre, the film still has its weird moments, like Chia Ling's coffin fixation, that whole "I'm not mute, but I still only communicate with tiny scrolls that even have their own sound effect" business, the metal armours that look like metal space suits the bodyguards of one of the chiefs wear (and which are of course beaten with a big magnet), the other bodyguards whose kung fu is based on standing in a leg-up, or Coldstar Tiger's umbrella of doom. It's not mind-blowing stuff if you're used to Taiwanese wuxia madness, but it's imaginative enough to help the characteristically basic plot stay interesting; a sense of whimsy goes a long way.

Cheung San-Yee's direction is nothing special either: he really likes to zoom in and out and in and out, keeps everything in focus and the characters in the shot, and that's about it as far as his direction goes. It's serviceable enough, which is exactly the thing I'd say about the fight choreography too.

There's nothing to make me go "oooh!" about The Lady Constables, yet also nothing that's disappointing or boring.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

I have to take a small break from the unending stream of write-ups

until Wednesday. Certain names have been called from certain hills, so certain answers have to be given.

If you can't live without me, I'm still on Twitter as @houseinrlyeh and reachable via the email in the sidebar.


Friday, June 8, 2012

On WTF: Occult (2009)

It's one of my more lonely convictions that Koji Shiraishi is one of the great unsung heroes of post-Ring Japanese horror.

Sure, he's made some horrible crap too, but for every Shirome there's a film like Occult. That film once again sees the director returning to the fake documentary format (this time around with cameo appearances by the great Kiyoshi Kurosawa and mangaka Peko Watanabe), and is very much worth seeing.

I'll explain why in my column on WTF-Film.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

In short: John Carter (of Mars) (2012)

Adding insult to the many injuries Disney caused over the length of its existence - please don't get me started on their influence on the continuing prolonging of copyright into all eternity and keeping large parts of our cultural heritage locked up so they can make more money on that idiot mouse - is the inability of the company to hype this piece of actually awesome and fun blockbuster cinema into the at least minor hit it deserved to become.

It's got wonderful world-building, silly quips, romance, awesome (yes, I'll use this word again and again when talking of John Carter of Mars) action scenes, actually does a little more with its female characters than these films usual do (I'd watch a film that runs rough-shot over Burroughs and features the adventures of Lynn Collins's Dejah Thoris and Samantha Morton's Sola any time; oh, for a parallel universe), shows respect for its minor characters and makes awesome use of CGI effects. It even has a cute CGI dog monster thing that manages to be not annoying at all, for Cthulhu's sake! John Carter is certainly not a film to overburden the minds of the mainstream cinema public, but it, unlike the comparably budgeted films of the Bays and Bruckheimers of this world, is neither dumb, nor cynical, nor driven by an actual hatred of the human race; the film also just happens to be extremely fun once it gets going, taking what's good of its pulp roots and mostly leaving what isn't.

Of course, the film's not perfect. There are far too many superfluous introductory scenes, and the film gets a bit flabby around the waist once it enters its final ten minutes. Personally, I could also have lived without the flashbacks into Carter's (played by the unfortunately named Taylor Kitsch) traumatic past that seem to want to hammer home a point an audience should get on its own. However, the core of John Carter's running time is taken up by moments of awesome (see, I told you) fun that often even suggests the responsible filmmaker Andrew Stanton is pretty much in love with Burroughs's Barsoom - but obviously not with Burroughs's racism and sexism - and truly wants his audience to fall in love with it too. Worked well enough for me, as you can see.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

In short: The Frozen Dead (1966)

If you're a fan of the "cult movie watching as a form of prospecting for gold in the dross" theory, Herbert J. Leder's film about the troubles with unfreezing Nazis and keeping their sanity intact (please insert a clever observation about the obvious disconnect between Nazism and sanity here) - the sort of project that needs a fresh human head to experiment on - may be right up your alley, seeing as you have to fight through some very potent dross to get at the film's handful of good scenes. There's a non-plot that stops and starts - but mostly stops - and never goes anywhere, long scenes of pointless and listless talk by actors earnestly doing phony German accents until your brain hurts, all filmed with the enthusiasm of a family slide show, the wooden romance between two wooden young people to end all wooden romances, and all manner of attempts by Leder to sabotage his own film further by not filming many of the potentially exciting (and important) scenes so he can fit more talking, and then even more talking, in.

And if you're an admirer of classical Hollywood, Dana Andrews's performance as the main Nazi scientist nearly going native in the UK may possibly make you very sad with line readings so apathetic I'm still not sure if he was trying to do a German accent or was just too drunk to be bothered pronouncing his lines as if he were awake.

Despite these problems - and some others I don't feel the need to get into - The Frozen Dead does contain the proverbial gold nuggets. The head Andrews keeps alive for his experiment is the only example of this particular trope I can remember that is actually gruesome instead of silly, and even played tragically enough to evoke a degree of sympathy in a viewer. There's a real air of the macabre surrounding the head scenes the rest of the film does neither achieve nor even seem to aim for. This sense of the outré even infects some of the more generic parts of the movie, as is especially demonstrated by the scene in which the romantic lead stumbles upon part of Andrews's horrible secret, and instead of being revolted looks as if he'd like to make sweet, sweet love to what's left of the poor body-less woman. For science.

The wall of arms Andrews also keeps in his lab fits right into this aspect of the movie.

Unfortunately, these glimpses of a much more creepy movie are haphazardly nailed to the utter boredom that makes up at least 70 minutes of The Frozen Dead's 93 minutes of running time. While I don't rue having dragged myself through the mire of those minutes, I don't think I'll ever do so again.


Tuesday, June 5, 2012

A Study In Terror (1965)

It's 1888 in London, and Jack the Ripper has begun his serial killings of Whitechapel Prostitutes. Fortunately, a mysterious persons sends a set of surgical instruments only missing a post mortem scalpel, and carrying the crest of the noble family of the Carfaxes, from Whitechapel to consulting detective Sherlock Holmes (John Neville) and his associate Doctor Watson (Donald Houston), enticing the pair to take an interest in the murders. Why Holmes needs an invitation to investigate this type of public serial killings is anybody's guess.

Soon enough, Holmes pokes into the complicated net of relationships between the disgraced heir of the Carfaxes, his prostitute wife, shady bar owners, and a charitable doctor trying to change Whitechapel one religious hymn and moralizing speech after the other.

It will take all the detective's powers of deduction to catch Jack the Ripper.

If you go by Sherlock Holmes movies and novels, Moriarty wasn't the detective's only arch enemy, at least if you take the number of stories, novels, and - to a lesser degree - films, concerning Holmes's investigation of the Ripper murders into account. As far as I know, the first of the literary Ripper hunts took place in a German Holmes pulp novel in 1907, with A Study in Terror being the first (of only two) movies taking care of the case.

The film at hand (competently if not remarkably well directed by James Hill) does not keep too closely to the facts of the actual Ripper murders, and instead opts for somewhat cleaner killings of somewhat more attractive looking prostitutes taking place in front of the background of a Victorian age that seems half interested in veracity and half in looking good on screen. That's not a criticism of the film, mind you, for a more realistic treatment of the times would really leave no believable place for Holmes and Watson in it. One could, of course, have moral qualms about taking a real, horrible series of murders and making a piece of merry entertainment out of it, but there's also an undeniable attraction of mixing a historic truth (and mystery) of the Victorian age like these murders with one of the age's great fictions that overrides all moral concerns for hard-hearted me.

For a film about a truly gruesome series of murders that is at least superficially (that is to say, as long as everything stays photogenic and just a little quaint) interested in showing the horrors of poverty of the Victorian age, A Study is a pretty cheerful little film. There are some relatively graphic (for the time and place) murder scenes with very pretty Technicolor blood, but the film's tone is that of a merry little adventure where none of the deaths and none of the emotions are meant to have much of an emotional impact on the audience.

The feeling of watching a friendly lark is only further emphasised by the way Neville and Houston interpret their iconic characters. Neville's Holmes is clearly in the detective business to have some fun, visibly delighting in impressing his friend Watson (and here, these two characters are played as friends, quite unlike the Rathbone/Bruce pairing where Holmes is the kind of man who drags a mentally disabled guy around to look cleverer in comparison) with his deductions - a bit like a stage magician - and having the time of his life annoying officials, gentlemen and the lower classes alike; it's actually a very human approach to the character. Houston's Watson can best be described as "cuddly". He surely isn't brilliant, or even more than averagely intelligent, but seems the kind of guy who has his heart in the right place, typically giving emotional grounding to Holmes's intellect as will be the role of Watsons (poor bastards) forevermore.

As a whole, A Study in Terror is a fun little mystery that doesn't set out to explore any depths of idea or emotion, but that takes itself not seriously in such a pleasant manner it would take a much grumpier man than me not to be entertained watching it.


Sunday, June 3, 2012

Cold Eyes Of Fear (1971)

Original title: Gli occhi freddi della paura

Italian prostitute-in-London-exile Anna (Giovanna Ralli) did probably not expect going home with charming young solicitor Peter Flower (Gianni Garko) would end up to be quite as dangerous.

Soon after the couple has arrived at the home Peter shares with his uncle, Judge Flower (Fernando Rey), the corpse of the house's butler falls out of a cupboard, and they are threatened by a cockney with a gun (Julián Mateos). Quill, as the guy is called, doesn't actually seem to want anything from his victims right now, so a long, tense wait for something the criminal's victims are not sure of ensues.

Eventually, a cop (Frank Wolff) sent by the judge with a snarky "put away your strippers for a moment and look up some law for me" letter for Peter arrives. However, when Peter tries to clue the cop in on his plight, all he gets in return is a fist in his face, for the cop isn't really a cop, but Arthur Welt, the brain behind the whole strange criminal affair. Arthur has a plan that involves murdering the Judge for revenge and looting his house of certain files; his problem is that he doesn't know where the files are located, so he and Quill need to stay much longer at the Judge's villa than they'd like to. A cat-and-mouse game between them, Peter, and Anna begins that may turn deadly at any moment.

We who know and love the body of work of director Enzo G. Castellari mostly love him for his Eurocrime films, his handful of Spaghetti Western and his post-apocalyptic movies - all basically different kinds of action films - while ignoring his horrible TV action comedies (don't talk to me about the Extralarge films, maaan) as well as his more interesting sporadic expeditions into other genres. Often, that's pretty understandable, for the films Castellari took on outside of his core genres often aren't quite as exciting or complex as his action films are, even when they are not utter tripe.

Cold Eyes Of Fear is Castellari's contribution to the giallo. The film comes down heavily on the suspense-based thriller side of the genre, working with a plot thrillers have used at least since the time of the noir (I suspect since the beginning of time). Large parts of the film (with the big exception being the pretty random inclusion of a fight between bikers, what looks like fat karateka to me, and the police that might hint at the direction Castellari's post-apocalyptic movies would later take) take place inside of a few rooms inside of a villa, the Judge's office and a police call centre, therefore preventing Castellari from indulging in the awesome, largely movement-based action scenes he is so good at.

Instead the director uses fast, sometimes nervous cuts, his zoom lens, a bit of standard giallo stylishness and lots of close-ups on the faces of a fine cast doing fine work to bring a sometimes tight, sometimes flabby script to life. Castellari also indulges in moments of pop-art surrealism to illustrate his characters' inner lives, which clearly isn't playing to his strengths; these scenes work on a camp level, but aren't as good at fulfilling the function of fleshing out the characters as they are supped to do, especially when you keep in mind that an actor like Wolff really has no need for this sort of visual crutch to show that his character is losing it fastly.

Still, the film does work more often than not, and even finds time to ask questions about some of Castellari's pet themes - the difference between justice and the law, as well as the influence of class on the two - as ever without finding any satisfactory answers. In fact, there's an especially great, silent moment between Garko and Rey right at the film's end that probably says more about the nature of corruption than any long philosophical discussion ever could.

Yet even if it weren't for that moment or the performances of the cast throughout the film, it would be worth it getting through Cold Eyes of Fear's too slow moments for the fantastic climax that once again demonstrates Castellari's class as a director of physical violence, be it between hordes of thugs or just between four frightened and mad people in a dark house.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Three Films Make A Post: Puts terror into a new dimension!

Evidence (2011): This just might be the shakiest of all POV/found footage movies - at least, it's the first one I've encountered that actually caused me motion sickness. Horror movie fans love to praise movies as "visceral", but I don't think it's really this sort of physical reaction we're hoping for from our films.

Evidence seems to be out to try to break records in other respects too: the characters are especially annoying, the non-stop bickering starts especially early, the part of the the film that consists of running and shouting and shaking the camera even more wildly (plus added shaky editing) is especially long. The film's actual claim to fame will probably be that it seems to have some rather decent monster suits and make-up, and that it's making an unexpected sub-genre change about two thirds in. Alas, the former are buried under a whole lotta shakin' going on, the latter would only be effective in a movie tightly enough scripted not everything that happens feels just random (there is, it turns out, a point to Blair Witch Project actually telling us the legends about the witch before stuff begins to happen).

It's clearly not worth the motion sickness.

Murder By Decree (1979): I know, this is the one of the two Holmes versus Jack the Ripper movies one is supposed to prefer, but I've never had much time for it. There's a stuffy worthiness and self-importance surrounding the proceedings that rubs badly against the silly conspiracy theory at the core of its plot, with worthily acting high class actors very slowly walking through worthily reproduced Victorian London while - worthily - things happen in excruciatingly low speed, a bit like I imagine the morning jog of Mycroft Holmes would go.

For me, the whole worthy, ponderous affair has the whiff of a TV movie that has stumbled onto a budget and into over-length and now doesn't really know what to do with them, except making gestures that try to affirm its own importance. Frankly, it's just boring, and feels dead compared to the charms of a film like A Study in Terror.

Blood Red Earth (2009): This short companion piece to J.T. Petty's fantastic The Burrowers leaves me in a much less foul mood than the much worthier Sherlock Holmes film. It concerns the run-in of a small group of Native Americans with the creatures from the film, and doesn't really broaden or explain the main film's mythology much. It's just a short, fragmentary companion that suggests where a sequel to the film might have gone (not that I think The Burrowers needs one), and doesn't really try to add anything. Still, after the shaky cam overkill of Evidence and the bloated monstrosity that is Murder by Decree, this kind of story vignette is actually refreshing, if not particularly exciting.

Friday, June 1, 2012

On WTF: Gladiators 7 (1962)

Original title: I sette gladiatori

As a fan of dubious interpretations of mythology and rubber monsters, I often tend to come down on non-mythological peplums a little harder than they probably deserve.

Gladiators 7, starring the somewhat inevitable Richard Harrison, is not a film that gives me much opportunity to indulge in these rude and evil ways, because it's a pretty perfect example of what it is. Let my column on WTF-Film enlighten you what the hell I'm talking about.