Wednesday, October 31, 2012

In short: A Noite do Chupacabras (2011)

Somewhere in the Brazilian countryside (that is to my German eyes, the jungle), a violent family feud between the Silva and the Carvalho families has been smouldering for a few years even though both families have gone into a truce after the Silva's pretty much lost the fight.

When wayward Silva son Douglas (Joel Caetano) returns to the family home with his pregnant girlfriend Maria Alicia (Mayra Alarcón) in tow, he couldn't have come at a worse time; there's a story hanging on this return having to do with Maria Alicia's drug problem and his study of medicine, but that sort of thing is harmless compared to what the couple finds at home.

Something has been attacking and killing the family's goats for the last few weeks, leaving the father convinced a chupacabra (played by Walderrama Dos Santos with a well-developed body language that often manages to make the monster suit threatening and always manages to make the monster feel alien) is at work in the area. The old man's right, too, but that truth will only be revealed once circumstances consisting of chupacabra-spoiled meat, projectile vomiting, his own death by exploding ancient gun, and all-around insanity reignite the family feud with the added complication of a really ill-tempered monster.

When last we met Brazilian director Rodrigo Aragao, he made the flawed yet entertaining Mangue Negro (please excuse the quality of that particular review) for obviously little money but with a lot of enthusiasm. It doesn't look as if Aragao's budget has risen much for his second feature A Noite do Chupacabras, yet neither has the obvious enthusiasm declined.

The film has some of the typical problems of independent horror cinema from all around the world in form of amateurish (but at least enthusiastic) acting, problematic pacing (the film's at least twenty minutes longer than it needs to be), and a plot that is more ambitious than the production circumstances actually allow it to be. Of course, I do prefer a film that is ambitious yet can't fulfil its ambitions to one that doesn't ever bother to have any ambitions, but there is something to say for actually pulling off one's more ambitious ideas.

Much of what we see in the film's first half or so is a curious combination of horror movie clichés, said ambitions, and moments that actually work, and if the film had continued in this manner, I would probably not even have written any of this, for the film up to that point is too much of a likeable effort with too little pay-off to write even a grumpy piece on it. But then the film and its characters basically lose their shit for forty minutes or so beginning with the projectile vomiting scene. From then on, it's all people screaming, killing each other in home-made gory ways, high melodrama, sudden cannibal black magician appearances (that guy is actually part of the backstory, but that's just another case of the film being too ambitious for its own good), chupacabra birth dream sequences, cursing, and chupacabra carnage. It's certainly not high art, but it's also always far from being boring.

Add to that the fact that some of the film's jokes are actually funny (favourite moment: the teachable moment about the uses of religion), some good camerawork, an unconventional percussion soundtrack, the excellent use of locations (tickling my old love for horror films making use of the local instead of trying to appear universal), and again the feeling of enthusiasm, and you have yourself a flawed yet fun horror movie.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

On WTF: Arena (1989)

Sports movies are kind of boring, aren't they?

But what a about a sports movie taking place in true space opera outer space, about an Earthling proving once and for all that humans are the best when it comes to physical violence?

That's a question this week's column on WTF-Film and Arena are going to answer.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Satan's School For Ghouls: The Devil Rides Out (1968)

This October, the agents of M.O.S.S. are digging deep into the heart of Halloween, taking a look at films about demons, the devil, and every kind of fiend (with a particular emphasis on devilish fiends). You can find our collected annals of evil here.

Since my last stint with Satanists left me quite disappointed with the actual Satanic content of the movie, I decided to dig into the piles of DVDs in my den and grab the most Satan-inclusive movie I could find. That turned out to be Hammer's The Devil Rides Out, which certainly doesn't say much for my luck or my taste.

Initially, the Duc de Richleau (Christopher "I'm not Dracula, damn you! And where is my money, you peasant?" Lee), and his old friend Rex Van Ryn (Leon Greene) only want to celebrate a reunion with their younger friend Simon Aron (Patrick Mower). But Simon has removed himself from his friends - which seems to be a natural step once one has met the two, to be honest. The Duc is wary of his young friend's near-disappearance, though, so off he and Van Ryn go to visit him in the gigantic mansion he just bought. There, a small party is going on, but the Duc quickly realizes (the number of guests - 13 -, a few astrological charts, a devil head mosaic and a white and a black chicken in a cupboard are his clues) that Simon has become a junior member of a Satanic cult led by a certain Mocata (Charles Gray).

De Richleau attempts to convince Simon that his new lifestyle is not proper, but apart from causing a lot of perspiration in the young man, he is not very successful at it. So he does the obvious thing, punches Simon out, kidnaps him, and hypnotizes him for a good night's sleep.

Mocata is more powerful than the Duc expected, though. He uses his awesome mental powers to get Simon to flee the lair of his kidnappers while the Duc tries to convince Van Ryn - who remains curiously sceptical for someone who just took part in several crimes - of the reality of the occult.

Getting Simon back before he can be fully inducted into the service of the goat-footed means a lot of work for our heroes: they have kidnap Tanith (Nike Arrighi), another junior member of the cult, to find out where Simon might be held, have to disturb the most polite Satanic orgy, and will even have to take on the lamest embodiment of Satan ever.

However, even once Simon and Tanith are both in our heroes' (such as they are) hands, Mocata still has a couple of tricks down his sleeves, like doing giant spider special effects like Bert I. Gordon and sending out the lamest angel of death ever.

As you may have surmised, Terence Fisher's The Devil Rides Out is far from being a highpoint of the Hammer movie catalogue or its director's filmography. Being based on a novel by Dennis Wheatley, bestseller author, communist eater, and self-declared expert in the occult, provides the movie with some rather well-researched bits and pieces of occult knowledge. Unfortunately, the film - as scripted by Richard Matheson who could do much, much better - does not seem what to actually do with the occultism trivia. It also inherits all of Wheatley's flaws, like the hilariously earnest believe in the dangers of all things occult that is as unconvincing as anything a true believer ever says, the writer's painfully humourless conservatism, and pacing that is actually too breathless for the story the film is trying to tell, leaving no room for minor things like characterisation or motivation for much of what happens on screen.

It doesn't help the film's case that its nominal heroes, the Duc and Van Ryn, are often grotesquely bad at their jobs, just jumping head over heels into every dangerous situation, never planning anything and wilfully putting other people in danger without making any believable attempts to keep those people safe. Especially great is the Duc's tendency to absent himself just shortly before the next dangerous situation happens, without ever putting any effort into protecting his partners, or - you know - just actually returning with anything worthwhile from his expeditions; if one were of a less pleasant nature than I, one might think he flees whenever he thinks things will get dangerous. In this respect, the Duc reminds me of Le Fanu's Martin Hesselius. Christopher Lee's performance makes the behaviour of his character even more funny, for this time around, he actually bothers to act, imbuing every word and gesture of the Duc with an intensity and seriousness bordering on hysteria. His grand gestures make for a lovely contrast to how ineffectual he is in anything he does. Note to scriptwriters: if ninety percent of the dangerous situations in your film occur because your heroes act like very dramatic fools, you might have a problem. And, you know, if the only way for them to conquer their enemies is to wait for an anti-climactic deus ex machina (though it is more a Jehovah ex machina here), you might try and look for better heroes.

Although it's not as if the film's Satanists were much better. Even though Charles Gray has some nice moments of hypnotic glowering of nearly the same intensity as Lee's performance, it's difficult to find his cult all that threatening (and really, I'm somewhat tempted to read the film as Christopher Lee and his cronies fighting against two young persons' rights to a free choice of religion). After all, their idea of an orgy does not even contain semi-nude dancing (it's in fact the most clothed Satanic ritual I can remember seeing in a movie), their goat-headed Satan is a passive gentleman easily repelled by a tiny cross, their biggest ritual can be easily disturbed by two idiots in a car, and when they send out the angel of death, it turns out to be an utter disappointment. It's really a bit embarrassing that our heroes need the hand of God to win the day.

Having said that, I also have to say that watching The Devil Rides Out is an enormous amount of fun. After all, it's a film that consists of countless scenes of Christopher Lee uttering pompous nonsense with the greatest intensity, the good guys and the bad attempting to outdo each other in being hilariously ineffectual only to be outdone by the film's "special" effects crew, and everybody involved looking enthusiastically ridiculous while seemingly being convinced of telling a story of great emotional and spiritual impact, which makes for a pretty irresistible movie, though probably not for reasons the filmmakers would have approved of.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

In short: Espionage in Tangiers (1965)

Original title: Marc Mato, agente S. 077

Finally, world peace is near, for a certain Professor Greff (Tomás Blanco) has invented a death ray for the International Atomic Energy Agency! Unfortunately, before the ray can be used for its true, peace-making, purpose (don't ask me what that may be), evildoers working for mastermind Rigo Orel (Alberto Dalbés) steal the magical little plate responsible for hot death ray action to sell it off to the highest bidder.

The Free World™ sends its smuggest psychopathic spy Mike Murphy (Luis Dávila) to get the item back. The trail leads to Tangiers, but, this being a eurospy movie and all, Murphy will have to do a bit more country hopping before the case is finished. When he's not tussling with Orel and his goons, he has various kinds of fun with his fuck buddy and spy-for-hire Lea (José Greci) who may or may not work for Orel, gets into trouble with a disgruntled ex-girlfriend and her goons, and kills and tortures as many people as he can.

On the surface, Gregg C. Tallas's Espionage in Tangiers is an archetypal eurospy movie that presents all the required elements of the subgenre with a certain degree of low budget verve. There's the ridiculous McGuffin everybody wants to get his or her hands on, the international travel where every country is represented by Spain (this being a eurospy movie where for once Spain and not Italy seems to have been the lead country of the production), various women of dubious loyalties for the hero to bed, and a lot of action scenes that are more enthusiastic than good. On that level, Espionage is quite a decent bit of entertainment.

However, watching the film, I became less and less enamoured with the film's cardboard charms and increasingly bothered by its unpleasant undercurrents. The eurospy genre often has a bit of a nasty undertone to it, which comes as no surprise from films mainly influenced by the not exactly friendly earl Connery Bond movies and each other, but for my tastes, Espionage too often steps over the line dividing the fun, "just kidding", type of unpleasantness and the truly nasty, especially since the film always tries to keep up the appearance of being a fun romp, instead of trying to make a point with its unpleasantness.

When I called Murphy a psychopath I wasn't exaggerating. Our "hero" - and the film absolutely presents him as a hero, ridiculously even letting him talk proudly of his moral code - is the kind of guy whose reaction to killing and torturing people is smirking, smiling and laughing in the most off-handed manner; it's absolutely clear he enjoys inflicting pain and suffering on others. When confronted with women, he really likes to let his fists speak, too (and yes, of course this is the sort of film where women enjoy sleeping with him after he abused them), giving the impression of a sexual sadist well on his way to becoming a serial killer. Weirdly, I find all that to be somewhat off-putting traits in my hero spies.

Again, my problem - obviously, given my tastes in films - isn't so much that Murphy and his enemies are violent and sadistic but that Espionage treats them as if they weren't, as if it, or its director Gregg C. Tallas, didn't actually realize having a laugh after throwing a knife into someone's throat is neither healthy behaviour nor a way to make a protagonist endearing.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

In short: Entrance (2012)

The film follows the eventless life of a disillusioned Los Angeles working poor (Suziey Block). Escalating events that should be disquieting occur at the periphery of her rather empty life, but they are drowned out by the quotidian until it is much too late for her.

What begins as a mumblecore-y, mostly improvised film shot hand-held and very digitally concerning the special kind of boredom of a very particular type of urban poor in Los Angeles slowly - some might argue too slowly - turns into quite a disturbing piece of horror.

How much a given viewer will enjoy the experience of watching Entrance will probably depend on his or her patience for scenes that are constructed to make the audience feel the central character's (excellently played) disillusionment and boredom with her life, possibly even life at large (this is not the sort of film where characters do much verbal self-analysis); in other words, large parts of Entrance are out to actively bore the audience. As consequently as it is done here, even early disturbances of our protagonist's routine are made to feel quite boring when we should by all rights find them threatening.

Boring one's audience on purpose is a difficult technique, and directors Dallas Richard Hallam and Patrick Horvath are not quite perfect at it. There were moments in the proceedings when I doubted the pay off to be worth the pain, and nearly didn't persevere, but after a scene of pointless tedium usually followed one of pointed tedium, so I did. The slow and boring parts lead into a very tightly done and pretty disturbing climax that would not have worked quite as well without what came before. However, one really needs a lot of patience and some tolerance for some of the particular tics of US non-horror indie filmmaking of the last few years to get something out of Entrance. The jittery camera, the mumbled dialogue, and the willingness to bore work out more than fine in the end, but they aren't exactly aesthetic markers to fall in love with.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Three Films Make A Post: For the sake of your sanity, pray it isn't true!

Final Exam (1981): The slasher elements of this campus slasher are as generic as possible, with little gore to distract one from the film's many technical flaws, one of the most teleport-y killers in any movie of the genre and a handful of truly ill advised attempts at copying Halloween directly, which isn't something you should try unless you're a really great director.

However, despite not being much of a horror movie, Jimmy Huston's local (North Carolina, to be precise) film won me over with its other charms. The weird rituals of fraternity culture, some Southern stereotyping done with great pleasure, and many a smile-inducing off-beat idea add up to the sort of homemade appeal regional slashers sometimes have. One could call it "heart". This is how a particular group of people dramatized the life and times and people they knew through the filter of a cheap horror movie, sharing it with a willing audience. That sort of personality is worth ninety minutes of one's time, even though the resulting film sucks as a horror movie.

The Island at the Top of the World (1974): Leave it to mid-70s Disney to make a movie about airship travel through the arctic, lost Vikings and other great elements of the extraordinary voyage school of adventure cinema, and have the results become nearly impossible to enjoy. It's all a matter of having all your characters being infuriating racist stereotypes or jerks the film doesn't want to realize are jerks, ruining every chance for audience immersion through tedious and unfunny humour, and incredibly bland acting throughout the non-humorous moments. Congratulations, you just ruined a sure thing.

Last Caress (2010): This is one of two loving homages by French filmmakers Francois Gaillard and Christophe Robin to the giallo and Italian supernatural horror. The film suffers a bit from cases of amateurishness in the acting department and its narrative structure, but makes up for that by so vigorously and lovingly copying the surface charm of Italian genre cinema (the colours! boots! nudity! the improbable gore! the iconic non-characters! the strange poignancy! the score!) on a budget it's impossible for me not to adore it a little. It's also truly impressive how well this is edited and how good it looks even though it's absolutely clear this was made by enthusiasts and not professionals on an enthusiast budget.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Satan's School For Ghouls: El Mariscal Del Infierno (1974)

aka Devil's Possessed

aka Marshall of Hell

This October, the agents of M.O.S.S. are digging deep into the heart of Halloween, taking a look at films about demons, the devil, and every kind of fiend (except US presidents and presidential candidates). You can find our collected annals of evil here.

Speaking of the devil, what would our old friend Satan be without worshippers? And how awesome would these worshippers be if they were played by Spanish super-wolfman Paul Naschy? Actually, not very, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

It's the middle ages. War hero baron Gilles de Lancré (Naschy) feels his influence on the king dwindling, and decides to concentrate even more than before on his true interest: finishing the Great Work of alchemy, so that he can afterwards replace the king (man why doesn't the guy trust him!?) and rule the world. So let's hope for him that Great Work isn't meant quite a metaphorically as some scholars believe.

Gilles's mad plan is driven on by the occultist (and con-woman) Georgelle (Norma Sebre). The two are lovers with quite a Macbeth-ish relationship, for when Gilles's pet alchemist (and Georgelle's co-con-person) tells him he needs virgin blood - and lots of it - to finish the Work, she's the one talking him out of his mild attacks of conscience ("Even more murders!?"). And she's right, too - surely, there can't be nothing wrong with sacrificing young women to Satan? Though it has to be said the film awakens doubts about Gilles's understanding of the word "virgin", seeing as how the way to the sacrificial altar seems to begin in his bed; at least if he's not inconvenienced in the act by an epileptic fit.

So Gilles begins a reign of terror among his serfs, kidnapping and killing young women and bleeding everyone else financially dry to finance the alchemical experiments. He's so enthusiastic he earns himself the nickname "the Marshall of Hell". But even medieval serfs can only take so much, so Gilles soon has a small peasant revolt going on. The serfs' leader, however, is quite easily captured and gotten rid of. Things change when Gilles's old war buddy Gaston de Malebranche (Guillermo Bredeston) comes home from time spent as prisoner of war. Even though the two men were fast friends, Gilles's and Georgette's love for tactically catastrophic violence soon turns Gaston into the baron's most dangerous enemy.

After a failed attempt on his life, Gaston decides to seek out the remnants of the resistance against his former friend, and soon enough turns what had been the demotivated shells of Gilles's enemies into a sub-chapter of Robin Hood's Merry Men. I'm sure Satan would help Gilles out if he actually existed inside of the fictional world of the film, but as it stands, all hope seems lost for the cause of evil, even though Gilles still has a few tricks up his sleeve.

When I started with my films for this October's M.O.S.S. project, I didn't suspect how difficult it would be to set eyes on films that actually contain the devil, demons, or at least supernatural fiends outside of their marketing material. Il Mariscal is not the film I was looking for, for what tries to look for all the world like a horror film variation of the career of Gilles de Rais, is at its heart a rather lame and tame swashbuckler whose bad guy just happens to sacrifice "virgins" to Satan.

Apart from this core disappointment, the film suffers from all the typical Naschy weaknesses: important, possibly exciting plot developments are talked about rather than shown (the build-up of the rebel army - happens off-screen; that first rebel leader - captured off-screen; and so on); a dubious sense of the way time works; a lack of production values that leaves most sets nearly empty; Naschy's obsession with trying to make his bad guy characters look sympathetic by having them whine a lot about what poor dears they are, which is a bit difficult to buy when talking about a character who mass rapes and murders women. Not that we'd actually get to see much of the depravity, because, unlike most of Naschy's films, this one is rather lacking in nudity and gore to help keep the audience awake.

For most of its running time, the film also lacks the secret weapon that keeps many of other Naschy's other films that share Mariscal's flaws at least watchable, often even brilliantly entertaining: an endearing love for the wrong-headed, the bizarre, and the improbable. Naschy's love for these things seems absolutely stunted in this outing, with little happening on or off screen that I wouldn't call quotidian.

I'd be less down on the film if it were any good as a swashbuckler (after all, "Robin Hood versus Satanists" sounds rather great, doesn't it?), but the swashbuckling is so rote and charmless it's impossible to get excited about it. It doesn't help the film's case how little visual imagination Naschy's regular collaborator León Klimovsky brings to the table here. Everything is very brown and slow and realized without passion, as if no one was even trying to let the film look like anything other than a handful of people in school play medieval garb waddling through brown, depopulated locations and sets without a designer. Just look at the so-called tourney with two horses and twenty guys standing in a row in the middle of nowhere and despair!

Among Mariscal's few positives is an expectedly melodramatic and physical performance by Naschy (his antagonist Bredeston is unfortunately not Errol Flynn, or even Richard Harrison). Naschy-the-actor really gets into his character's increasing mental deterioration; unfortunately, Naschy-the-writer doesn't provide him with much of interest to do. The final fight between (a stuntman clearly standing in for) Naschy and Bredeston is also relatively remarkable, with much better choreography and execution than anything that happens before it. In fact, if the rest of the film's action were of this standard, this could have been a rather more decent swashbuckler than it actually is.

That final fight is also the only point where the film does something actually surprising and interesting. Despite all genre conventions and being the designated noble hero of the piece, Bredeston loses the fight against his enemy, and it's the job of the peasant rebels to shoot the enemy of virginhood with arrows. This scene is staged as the only moment of true Naschy weirdness in the movie, with Naschy ranting about the awesome power the devil has provided him with, and the rebels just shrugging and turning him into a porcupine; the working classes finally asserting themselves.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Alligator People (1959)

Warning: I'm pretty sure various alligators were hurt for our entertainment during the making of this movie, so if you're sensitive about these things, this might be a film to avoid. It was a borderline case for me

Under hypnosis, nurse Jane Marvin (Beverly Garland), tells her psychiatrist boss a peculiar tale about a time when she was the freshly married Joyce Webster.
The honeymoon trip with her new husband Paul (Richard Crane) was rudely interrupted by a telegraph whose content convinced Paul to jump the train and disappear out of his wife's sight. Before the wedding night. Her husband's sudden and inexplicable flight wasn't something Joyce was willing to tolerate, but her attempts at finding out where her wayward husband got to were less than successful. It's not as if Joyce had much to go on anyway. Paul never did talk about his life before he met her except for mentioning a plane crash he shouldn't have survived and his belongings are strangely devoid of any hints towards his past.

Some off-screen sleuthing eventually led Joyce to Paul's former college fraternity and from there to the place he gave as his home address - a creepy mansion deep down in the swamps of Louisiana. Of course, Joyce made her way there as soon as she was able, finding a certain Mrs Hawthorne (Frieda Inescort) living there with two black servants and hook-handed, gator-hating, alcoholic handyman Manon (Lon Chaney Jr.) in the swamps nearby. Mrs Hawthorne purported not to know anything about Paul, but Joyce easily enough understood the old lady was lying for some reason, and would not be moved until she found out what truly was going on.
One suspects our heroine didn't exactly expect the truth had something to do with a friendly mad scientist (George Macready), the pituitary glands of alligators, and a husband with a very bad case of psoriasis.

Despite pretending to be a horror movie in its marketing material, The Alligator People is a SF melodrama with a slight influence of Southern Gothic for all but the final five minutes of its running time. As expected, it's also patently ridiculous in its set-up - so Paul is absenting himself from his new wife because he might start to look ugly, despite the way his face looks anyhow? -, silly in its science - did you know the best hope against curing the unpleasant aftereffects of alligator pituitary gland serum is radioactivity, or that cobalt 60 is transported in simple wooden crates you leave standing around at a rural train station until a mad alcoholic can get them? -, and not as clever as one would like it to be - after all, the only way the film's writer Orville H. Hampton can think of to produce a meeting between scaly-faced Paul and Joyce is to have the up to that point perfectly capable and sane woman suddenly run hysterically through a swamp full of very laid-back alligators by night, during a storm, and nearly getting raped by Lon Chaney Jr. whose leering she seems completely oblivious towards.

Despite these problems, the film has its moments. Director Roy Del Ruth (a man with a long and varied filmography starting in the early 1920s and nearly ending here) manages from time to time to conquer his workmanlike tendencies and shoot an atmospheric scene or two before it all breaks down in a very badly done bit of last minute monster rampage that only seems to happen because the producers suddenly realized they were selling this as a monster movie and not the science fictionally enabled melodrama they actually had. Plus, when she's not going into uncharacteristic hysterics, The Alligator People unexpectedly gives always theoretically capable (which is to say, as much as the movies she was in allowed her) b-movie actress Beverly Garland much opportunity to shine as the sort of heroine that even comes to her melodramatic moments with honesty. When the script isn't betraying her, Garland is very convincing as the driven, capable (for a 50s genre movie) woman out to understand why the hell her jerk of a husband suddenly disappeared. She gives the character just the right amount of frailty and desperation at the edges of her strength, making her much more believable than anyone or anything else in the movie.

Unfortunately, nobody else in the cast got the memo about Garland's kind of naturalistic acting, and so Inescort, Macready, and Chaney are mugging their roles up with fierce abandon. Chaney clearly has fun with his role (and who wouldn't have - he has a hook hand and rants about the evil of alligators, after all), while Macready speaks every single one of his lines (even "good morning", if he'd ever say something quite as prosaic) with a pathos and overemphasis I can only explain with him assuming every single member of any giving movie audience to be dumb and deaf. Even though I do approve of a good bit of overacting, I don't think these performances do the film any favours at all. They sure as hell don't do Garland's performance the justice it deserves.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

In short: Beyond The Black Rainbow (2010)

Holy crap!

Actually, I was playing with the idea of a write-up only consisting of these two words, but then I'm trying to be somewhat informative here even about films that could use more being seen and less being read about by people before they have seen it. So I'll just make vague, excited noises, jut down some thoughts, and ask some rhetorical questions (yes, I'll go there) instead of my standard reviewing spiel.

On a plot level, Panos Cosmatos's Beyond the Black Rainbow is about Elena (Eva Allan), a young woman with psychic abilities of the Scanner type who is held against her will in Arboria, the Platonic Ideal of a particular type of late 70s/early 80s dystopian futurism you'll recognize once you've seen it. She's drugged up and supposedly mentally improved by Barry Nyle (Michael Rogers), but it's clear early on that, mostly, Barry gets his kicks from breaking her. And that's the most pleasant thing we'll learn about Barry.

But really - and here's where the film becomes interesting and special - Beyond's plot isn't told in the usual manner, but rather through a series of sequences I'd call trippy if that word didn't imply a certain randomness and vagueness utterly alien to a film as concentrated as a sniper before the shot. Yet the film uses colours, filters and techniques usually only seen in films that are either coded as "trippy" or "experimental cinema", so perhaps "trippy" can mean something different than "the director took some LSD once"?

This is a film where every shot and every sound we hear is strictly and coolly composed and colour-coded, every form on screen consciously imbued with meaning, every element of the production design important. In theory, this should of course describe every movie ever made, but watch this and a less exalted movie back to back and you'll know what I mean.

I can already hear the "style over substance" brigade coming from beyond the horizon out to put the film in its place, for what is more offensive to a certain type of movie fan than a movie simply not interested in saying all it has to say via dialogue and a three act plot structure? That's a type of criticism I have never been able to grasp, to be honest. Isn't the style something is told in an important part of its substance, or else we could just scribble down a handful of sentences for every narrative work of art and have something just as effective as the complete work itself? And isn't understanding the surface of something necessary and part of exploring its depths?

Apart from all that, I also find Beyond very interesting as another movie - Drive comes to mind as the other big example - that uses very particular pieces of 80s film and sound aesthetics in a way nobody would ever call "retro" (I hope), creating its own, contemporary, future and style out of those of the past. There are some clear aesthetic and intellectual influences at work here - Ballard, Cronenberg from a time when he made movies instead of Oscar bait while whining about superhero movies, Argento at the height of his powers, perhaps even John Carpenter, and others obvious and less obvious - but Cosmatos isn't just copying his influences, he's using them to construct something all his own. That "something" is probably the most exciting film I've seen in a long time, at times strangely beautiful and fairy-tale-like, at times disturbing, always hypnotic.


Thursday, October 18, 2012

In short: Death Will Have Your Eyes (1974)

aka Savage City

Original title: La moglie giovane

Poor, badly educated working class girl Luisa (Marisa Mell) comes to Rome hoping to find some opportunity for getting by. But the economy's bad, and even the paying jobs don't pay enough to not make a girl think if she shouldn't just make the final step from "just this side of prostitution" to the actual thing. Before it comes to that point, Luisa gets lucky. Random chance leads to her meeting rich and famous surgeon - who always wanted to become a poet - Armando (Farley Granger).

Armando falls in love with Luisa, or so he says. Surprisingly enough he even wants to marry her. Even though she doesn't really reciprocate the feeling, Luisa agrees to finally stop being poor. The class differences, their incompatible temperaments, Armando's impotence and the fact that there isn't much actual love between the two soon turns the marriage into an ordeal. It doesn't help the situation that Luisa isn't actually as mercenary as she pretends to be, so she falls in love with a younger, not impotent and more emotional colleague of Armando.

Even when Armando learns of the affair, he isn't willing to let Luisa go, so she decides to murder him. The whole murder thing starts off well enough. Soon, however, Luisa has a working-class blackmailer in her living room and has to juggle her bad conscience, said blackmailer, her boyfriend, and the police to survive.

Death's director Giovanni d'Eramo only seems to have written a handful of films, and directed two, with the film at hand being the last. It's a bit of a shame, really, for while Death isn't one of the more stylish melodramatic giallos, it's a film with an intelligent script directed with unassuming tightness.

D'Eramo's film is far from the showiness that makes the giallo in generally such a fun genre to watch. There's hardly any painful/awesome fashion, nor much psychedelic camera handling, though the film does play a bit loose with temporal structures, with a few flashbacks to keep the narrative less clear. Instead, d'Eramo uses the melodramatic thriller format to explore questions of class, with several working class characters trying to make it, only slowly realizing that class differences in the society are not just about the money, and everything's set-up to keep them unhappy whether they stay "in their place" or try to climb the social ladder. The bourgeois of the film (as in real life) on the other hand, seem to lack any true understanding of the meaning of being poor, nor do they in the end take much efforts to try to understand. Quite wonderfully, the film manages to pack this thematic baggage in without ruining its effect as a piece of genre cinema with it: it's all very organic, with theme and (simple) plot bolstering each other.

The film also gives Austrian actress Marisa Mell (as friends of Italian cult cinema will know a frequent appearance in these films) a well-deserved opportunity to do a bit more than just to flash her breasts (though we do meet those too, and I, for one won't complain). Turns out Mell is very good at giving an emotionally nuanced performance, and really drives home that her character isn't just a gold digger, or evil, or misunderstood, or a fool in love, or a victim of the class system, but a person; those, as you may have heard, can't generally be described that easily.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

In short: The Mutilator (1985)

It's origin story time! A kid named Jack (Trace Cooper, soon to grow up to become Matt Mitler) accidentally kills his mother while cleaning one of the many, many guns his father (Jack Chatham) doesn't lock away. Daddy and Jack - who faults his son but not himself for what happened - become estranged, with the old man ending up an alcoholic trophy hunter. Birth of a slasher movie killer.

When Jack is in college, fall break just coming up, he gets a call from his father, who wants him to close up his house at the beach for the season. Despite misgivings about his father, off Jack goes with a bunch of friends, including his virginal girlfriend Pam (Ruth Martinez), and the usual assortment of character types which are for a change played as if they actually were friends and not just doing things together for no discernible reason. Alas, Daddy is hiding away in the house cuddling with his favourite battle axe, ready to pop out with said battle axe and various other pointy and sharp objects to finally add some choice college kid heads to his trophy collection, so this vacation isn't going to be very pleasant for the meat.

For most of its running time, The Mutilator (initially to be called "Fall Break" in keeping with its theme song and slasher movie naming traditions), the only film directed by a certain Buddy Cooper, is a perfect encapsulation of a middle of the road regional slasher, the kind of film that never strays far from the obvious genre beats, and provides its audience with decently realized kills, some moody shots of a house and a beach in the dark.

The Mutilator really is as generic a slasher as possible, not as sleazy or nasty as some (well, except for one kill very late in the proceedings), gorier as some others, not very weird (he said about a film featuring a killer mounting heads on a garage wall) yet also quite entertaining as far as these things go. The reason for the film's entertainment value for once isn't outrageousness of any kind, but the surprising competence of the filmmaking. Cooper does really know how to block scenes, with some moments even suggesting he didn't just watch Halloween but actually learned some of John Carpenter's simpler tricks. For example, there's a nice shot of the characters going to the beach at night that foreshadows doom by letting the characters seem as if they were already buried by their surroundings, and some nice moments of important things happening in the frame's background later on. The editing is on that level too, and while probably nobody will watch this and die of excitement, the film has a nice, natural flow to it that can't have been easy to achieve.

Nice and natural is also a description that fits the acting performances by the bunch of one-time actors well enough. There are no great thespian achievements here, but most everyone comes over as sympathetic enough one doesn't automatically wish them dead as early as possible. Even better, the characters of the two worst actors are killed off as soon as possible.

All in all, this is the sort of bread and butter slasher to watch when you have seen all the good films of the genre, don't want to go for a train wreck and just want to while away some time watching college kids get dismembered. Surely, we all are in that sort of mood from time to time.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

A Night In The Woods (2011)

And now, the news: three people have disappeared on a camping trip in Dartmoor, and the film we're talking about does of course consist of the video material they left behind.

Said three campers are Kerry (Anna Skellern), her American boyfriend Brody (Scoot McNairy) who loves his cameras and won't ever stop filming in what will become an actual plot point, and her cousin Leo (Andrew Hawley) whom she hasn't seen in more than two years. The trio is the perfect example of a group of people that should really not spend their time alone on the moors or in the woods, at least not without a bunch of therapists nearby. Kerry still has to cope with the death of her father - or rather the childhood abuse her father's death reminds her of. Brody's camera obsession is quite explicitly far from healthy, with voyeurism and an obsession with control that more than just suggest mental illness being the more benevolent interpretations of his behaviour. And Leo and Kerry seem to be cousins who are very, very close for people who haven't seen each other in ages; one might just think they are sharing a secret.

Needless to say, this is not going to be the most fun camping trip imaginable for anyone on screen, and that's before we come to the folklore surrounding the area the unhappy campers are in. A black huntsman is supposed to hang "sinners" (whatever that may be) from bleeding trees there. It will come as no surprise to anyone than the characters that things won't go well for them. There will be breakdowns, and death, and just possibly a malevolent supernatural force.

Even though Richard Parry's A Night In The Woods keeps quite closely to the form of the POV movie as set down by Blair Witch Project (right to the mostly improvised nature of the dialogue) when my hair had less grey in it, it recommends itself by doing some important and rather interesting things differently.

Mostly, the difference is one of emphasis - where Blair Witch took great care with its characters but did this to make their fear when confronted with the unknown more real, Night is interested in the characters for their own sakes, leaving the supernatural horror part of the equation not exactly an afterthought, but an element that intensifies the characters' troubles instead of the other way round. In fact, it's not clear if there is any supernatural agency working here at all, and the whole affair not just a very normal case of several people losing it with horrible consequences.

In general, I'm not a big admirer of films that don't want to make up their minds if the supernatural in them is real or not, but in Night's case, I actually don't mind, for the exact nature of what is doing what to whom here just isn't important to the film. This one really is all about paranoia, the moments when you realize you don't know the people close to you or yourself as well as you think you do, bad life experiences that lead to even worse decisions later on, the consequences of trauma, and why you really shouldn't go camping with the wrong people in Dartmoor.

For some viewers, the film's highly improvised dialogue and acting will probably be a big turn-off. I think the actors do this rather well, showing some subtleties and complexities of their characters this way that couldn't have been shown in a film going for a more mainstream type of storytelling. It also makes for an interesting contrast with how bad a lot of POV films are at actually drawing interesting characters. Despite the closeness to their protagonists the immediacy of the style suggests, many films of the sub-genre just want warm bodies to screech, cry into the camera and stumble through the dark, giving them as little depth or actual character as the slasher genre did at the worst of times. If you're in luck as a viewer these films can still do something with their cardboard cut-outs, of course, yet it's a pleasant surprise to find a POV movie that is so explicitly character-based.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Three Films Make A Post: HALF MAN...HALF BEAST...He held them all in the grip of deadly terror...nothing could keep him from this woman he claimed as his own!

The Lost Coast Tapes (2012): I'm the first to agree that films - especially those concerning the weird, the horrific and the not quite naturally - really shouldn't and needn't explain everything, but a film still needs something to bind its part together - let's just call it "a point" -, be it in form of a thematic throughline, be it through a developed mythology the strange and the inexplicable follows in one way or the other. Otherwise, a film becomes just a way to throw random crap at an audience, which is pretty much where The Lost Coast Tapes comes in, for a point is what the film is lacking, like so many of the POV movies that ape parts of the structure of other POV movies without ever getting what makes the good ones work.

In this case, it's a bit of a shame, because on a technical level, this is a well-made movie that does not use the found footage format as an excuse to look bad. Alas, the point, it is lacking painfully.

A Haunted School aka Borei Gakkyu (1996): An early direct to video movie by Norio Tsuruta about a haunted school that contains all the typical school spook elements: worms, ghostly possession, ghosts in school uniforms and a haunted toilet. It's certainly not the most original or exciting piece of Japanese horror I've watched, tends to drag in places and is not exactly disturbing, but a curious and/or infuriatingly open ending and two or three quite effective scare sequences are enough to make it halfway worth watching. If you're interested in Tsuruta as a director, this'll also be interesting as a film featuring many scares Tsuruta would recycle in the later P.O.V., just with the difference that their execution in the later film is much more sure-handed and effective.

The Four (2012): I really wanted to like this one, for connecting wuxia and superheroics means putting two of my favourite things into one movie. Alas, this was directed by Gordon Chan, a man who has in the last few years proven that there's no amount of competent actors, costly effects and lavish sets large enough to save his movies - or his audience - from utter boredom. I'm perfectly alright with a film following blockbuster rules: you can use these rules, break and bend them when need be, put your heart in and get something like The Avengers or John Carter, but you can also end up with something like Green Lantern, a film focus groups but not an actual audience will enjoy. The Four is of course on the Green Lantern side of the equation, aping all the outward appearances of your typical Hollywood blockbuster movies, and missing the parts where you add the heart the good ones still have.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Ace Attorney (2012)

Original title: Gyakuten saiban

(I'll go with the accustomed names of the characters from the western translations of the videogames here; I'm sure there won't be any objections).

Turns out the Japanese judicial system is just as weird as I have always expected. To cope with overburdened courts, a rather more duel-minded court system has been established, because who needs things like judicial fairness, logic, or a proper chain of evidence when he can instead have people dramatically pointing their fingers while shouting "OBJECTION!", holograms, confetti rain and lawyers with manga character fashion style? Not me.

Phoenix Wright (Hiroki Narimiya) is a rookie lawyer trying to establish himself in this glorious style of court battles, and he's already breaking down to cringe in moments of crisis with the very best of them. Just after winning his first case against hot-shot dandy prosecutor, as well as his former co-student,  Miles Edgeworth (Takumi Saito), Phoenix's mentor Mia Fey (Rei Dan) - of the Fey spiritist family if you need to know - is murdered; supposedly by her younger sister Maya (Mirei Kiritani), but that's a case of judicial error Phoenix takes care of fast enough. This murder is only the first step in a series of events that will lead the attorney to defending Edgeworth against the excellently named prosecutor Manfred von Karma (Ryo Ishibashi) in another murder case, lighting up the murky shadows of his and Edgeworth's fathers' pasts, and learning to cringe even better.

It's a natural law that 99 percent of all videogame movie adaptations are terrible shite. Fortunately, beloved (by me!) Japanese director Takashi Miike does not believe in natural laws of any way, shape, or form as little as the "Ace Attorney" videogames themselves do believe in real-world logic, due process, or a confetti-less court system, so he just went and made a good videogame movie.

Miike is pretty much the ideal director for this sort of thing, for the mixture of hyped-up yet straight-faced absurdism and pop culture references of the - heavily manga, anime and tokusatsu culture based - videogames plays to some of the directors strengths, namely getting distracted by any shiny thing and then filming it, and not giving a crap about realism of any shape, kind or form.

What strikes me as slightly surprising - but works out very well for the film - is how much Miike avoids the stylistic and narrative excess Ace Attorney suggests. The film may be full of ridiculous nonsense and look like a real-life comic book, but it's also restrained enough not to become annoying, generally avoiding to shout into its audiences faces how CA-RAY-ZEEE it is, though it is, in fact, plenty crazy. Ace Attorney's craziness, however, has a very effective internal consistency. Rather like the mirror image of US superhero movies that usually ask how elements of a comic strip would work in the real world, Miike's film asks how elements of the real world would work in a comic strip, and builds its sense of fun on that basis.

For my tastes, Miike keeps up this sense of fun for the whole 130 minutes of running time of the movie. I'd even call the film tight, for, atypical for the director even in his more commercial mode (though you got me if you ask if this is, in fact, made in Miike's commercial mode), there's nary a moment that's pure digression here. Even the many, many moments when the film seems to digress later turn out to be important parts of a rather well-constructed - at least if one is willing and able to accept the film's internal logic - plot.

This makes Ace Attorney an easy to love film for me, for what could be more entertaining than concerted weirdness that still makes its own sort of sense in the end, combined with absurdly-haired people shouting "objection" (or rather "OBJECTION!!!!!")?

Thursday, October 11, 2012

In short: Frogs (1972)

Rich people are really disgusting. So thinks the animal population on the swamp island belonging to the rich Crockett family, and one fine 4th of July (well, actually, they begin the day before), they finally do something to clean the place up. Led by what oh so meaningful shots of adorable animals croaking suggest must be their frog generals (who, like all generals, don't dirty their hands themselves), the animals slowly kill off servants and family, mostly by betting on the natural horror film human tendency to fall down for no good reason, stumble into puddles full of leeches, or - in what might be the film's funniest scene - to step towards the smoking poison instead of away from it.

Accidental family guest Pickett Smith (a name that can only belong to a pre-facial-hair Sam Elliott, or a fence company) tries his best - it isn't much - to keep the family alive, but that's not easy with a family patriarch (Ray Milland really needing the money) who won't have his beautiful 4th of July/birthday be ruined by mere trifles like a few corpses.

In the realm of nature strikes back movies, there are mere films about nature striking back, and then there's the unfairly named - seeing as all other animals are doing all the work and the frogs just croak, unless they are controlling their peers by telepathy, an idea I wouldn't put past the writers - Frogs. Frogs, probably to nobody's surprise, is as bad as its plot suggests, and therefore awesome.

To understand the quality of the movie, just imagine the most boring members of the cast of a soap opera of your choice - let's say Dallas - transplanted to Florida where they are attacked by lots of adorable animals director George McCowan never manages to let look threatening for even a second. Which must be some kind of achievement in a film that does feature an alligator attack. Of course, it is quite difficult to imagine how the poor animals could look threatening in a film that insists on letting them kill off their victims in predominantly indirect ways that really rather suggest the true cause of the film's humans deaths isn't so much killer animals as a proclivity to drink too much alcohol and inborn stupidity.

Needless to say, an alcoholised viewer will find much to be entertained by here, starting with the film's effortlessly ridiculous attempts at doing Southern Melodrama (I imagine the filmmakers seeing themselves not as producing a horror movie Dallas but rather a cross of a horror film and a Tennessee Williams play), continuing through the utter absurdity of many of the deaths (obvious favourite: the glass house with the poison-bottle-throwing lizards, though there's something to be said for however it is Milland is supposed to die), and ending on little flourishes of random weirdness that must come quite natural to a film that dances to an electronic Les Baxter soundtrack that might have been composed by letting frogs jump all over a synthesizer.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

In short: Ghost on Air (2012)

Popular DJ Xiao Ping (Dennis Chew Zhong Qing) has trouble coping with the mysterious (I think) death of his true horror tale writer girlfriend, leading to hallucinations and a public breakdown that sees him demoted to the weekend late shift. There, Xiao Ping begins telling ghost stories based on the rich collection of his dead girlfriend. Various ghostly occurrences, ghost-induced computer messages, and the fact that the script wants him to, soon lead Xiao Ping to the last place his girlfriend investigated before she died, a shop house where vague and horrible stuff happens. In the end, he'll learn the truth about her death, though I'll be damned if I understood what exactly happened to her.

Cheng Ding An's Ghost on Air has its moments of somewhat effective spookiness whenever the director lets his ghosts linger just outside the frame, or uses the sort of lingering shots favoured by people like Takashi Shimizu to produce a sense of unease. There's also some choice spooky noise fun concerning a rattle drum.

Unfortunately, these proven and well-loved techniques are put in the service of a plot that is infuriatingly vague instead of making clear sense or being intelligently ambiguous, leaving plot lines like the death of our hero's girlfriend more vaguely circled around than actually explained. Of course, I have seen more than one Asian horror movie where an unwillingness to explain itself was a great virtue, but those films are about exactly this inexplicability of the supernatural, or connect their characters and the supernatural by the more subtle logic of theme than that of plot. There's not much of that sort of high-falutin' thing to be found in Ghost on Air. If the film has any sort of theme, I couldn't find it between the standard spook scenes and many shots of Dennis Chew Zhong Qing looking constipated and having no character development I could discern. It's a bit as if someone had put thirty minutes worth of the film's script through the shredder before filming, and nobody ever realized. Or cared.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Satan's School for Ghouls: The Tall Man (2012)

This October, the agents of M.O.S.S. are digging deep into the heart of Halloween, taking a look at films about demons, the devil, and every kind of fiend. You can find our collected annals of evil here. In the first of my contributions, I interpret the definition of "fiend" as broadly as humanly possible.

(Warning: even though I'm not going to go into this film's twists in any detail, discussing anything about it can't help but touch spoiler territory, so proceed at your own risk. Structural spoilers ahoy, too!).

The charmingly named US mining town of Cold Rock, Washington (as always doubled by British Columbia, the Bronson Canyon of the 90s and beyond) has taken a turn for the worse ever since the mine shut down years ago. It's now a poster child for picturesque poverty and squalor, like a kid's version of Winter's Bone. But there's something worse than mere poverty stalking the town's streets. For some time now, the town's children have been disappearing one after the other, without a trace. The townspeople are convinced their children are taken away by someone who has taken on mythical proportions in their minds. Thus they have turned him into "the Tall Man", a creature half monster from under your bed, half mystery.

This case is quite beyond town sheriff Chestnut's (William B. "Cigarette Smoking Man" Davis) abilities, but Lieutenant Dodd (Stephen McHattie), the big city cop sent to take care of the case, hasn't proven to be any more effective. He's hanging around, watching the town by night, getting nowhere. Things change when the child of Cold Rock's only remaining medical professional, the nurse moonlighting as a bit of a social worker, widow of the town's now dead and practically sainted GP, and designated protagonist Julia Denning (Jessica Biel), is kidnapped. In the following hours, some truths about what is really going on are bound to get to light, though not all of them will be pleasant, or believable to an audience.

If Pascal Laugier's The Tall Man is one thing, then it is willing to be more unpredictable than it at first seems to be. The film starts out like your typical stylish Hollywood thriller, with a plot, characters and narrative beats that are realized with great technical proficiency by people of obvious talent. It begins as the type of film that is clearly competently made, but also a bit boring thanks to what looks like a total lack of imagination; really not what I had hoped for from the guy who made my favourite piece of "torture porn", Martyrs.

However, after forty minutes of the expected have firmly established in the audience's mind what kind of film it is watching, Laugier pulls the rug out from under our feet twice in short succession. The first time he does it only changes the sub-type of thriller the film is working in, suggesting a classic piece of small town paranoia, but the second one undermines all the unspoken assumptions one makes when watching a movie of this style and type, assumptions about the nature and character of protagonists and audience identification. Laugier uses its audience's knowledge of filmic structures against itself. For the following half hour or so, the film thrives on a rather delicious feeling of confusion, because now that it has shown how far it is willing to stray from the conventions of the genre it is working in, everything seems possible, any direction open again. For once, the question of what the hell is going on in a thriller actually becomes pertinent again.

Unfortunately, the film's problems begin once Laugier decides to answer the question about what is going on. I would argue that, after the awesome (in the classic sense of the word) double-twist, there were only two ways the movie could have kept what its build-up promised: either by not answering the central questions of its plot at all, but keeping to suggestions and hints to incite feelings of dread and/or hope, or by giving an answer that's as dark and unpleasant as it could get away with.

Instead, the film ends on a curious mix of sentimentality and the sort of classism that makes a few distracting noises to pretend it isn't classist but humanist. There's pretension of going for a morally grey zone, but it's just damnably unconvincing after a film that seemed interested in doing interesting things with the genre it is working in, a film that seemed to be willing to go to uncomfortable and surprising places. Even worse, the ending we get is banal and therefore deeply unsatisfying, leaving the carefully built mood of what came before and the promises of mythic depth behind for the least exciting and thoughtful ending. Which at least is in keeping with The Tall Man's unpredictability.