Sunday, December 13, 2015

It's the season

to leave this blog for the rest of the year, summon one's favourite god(s) (if any), hug/sacrifice/ignore one's loved ones and be merry.
See you next year frequent and/or imaginary readers, and don't forget to think about the important things:

See you next year!

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Island of the Fishmen (1979)

aka Screamers

Original title: L’isola degli uomini pesce

Prison ship physician Lt. Claude de Ross (Claudio Cassinelli) finds himself in the unfortunate situation of being adrift in a skiff on the open sea with a boatful of prisoners he rescued when the ship they were all on went under. Things don’t improve when the gang crashes on a mysterious island, for the local fish person population soon kills off most everyone except for the Lieutenant and two of the prisoners.

At least the island is not completely unpopulated of people (probably) not from Innsmouth: the trio soon encounter Amanda (Barbara Bach) who warns them off and basically tells them to shoo back to sea; curiously, that’s not an offer Claude takes. Instead, the stranded follow Amanda to the nice little mansion where she lives under the thumb of sadist prick Edmond Rackham (Richard Johnson), a voodoo priestess maid (Beryl Cunningham), and a handful of “natives”. Edmond clearly has plans for his unexpected guests, though it takes a bit for him to go beyond saying every sentence he speaks with improbable sarcasm (there’s not a single word the dubbing actor says that isn’t surrounded by invisible air quotes of doom).

Let’s just say the man’s plans have something to do with the fish people, the mad scientist (a terribly sick looking Joseph Cotten playing a terribly sick man) he hides in his house and who spends most of his time spying through peepholes, the lost race of Atlantis, and so on, and so forth.

I am a great admirer of Island of the Fishmen’s director Sergio Martino’s giallos. However, his work in other genres wasn’t always as fine, with films whose quality was all over the place. Island is very much all over the place, too. At its core, it’s a somewhat Vernesian adventure movie often pretending to be a horror film that follows the old rules of one damn thing after another plotting, and contains nary a second that makes any damn sense at all. I, at least, did have a hard time understanding what Edmond’s plans were actually supposed to be, why he does what he does, and other completely unimportant questions.

But hey, the film does feature the fish people its title promises rather extensively, as well as the obligatory scenes of our wetly clad (clearly, Martino did his best to get around Bach’s no nudity clause in a Bollywood approved way) heroine having a good time with them. There are completely useless (and mildly offensive, as are all the non-white characters, though you gotta admit the white people here are generally pretty offensive too) voodoo rituals, lots of shouting and running around by everyone, an explosion or two, a mad science villain speech each for Johnson and Cotten, as well as a pretty crazy soundtrack, and an English dub that sounds as if we’re listening to a first run through with especially bad accents (Johnson’s voice can only be heard but not described, unless nasal to the degree of cosmic terror counts, while Cassinelli dubs himself as a Frenchman with a heavy Italian accent). And fish people. In other words, I find it pretty damn difficult to find a bad word to say about the film, even though Martino’s direction is uncommonly bland for the third-most stylish giallo auteur, the plotting is, well, not actually plotting, and there’s not a single sensible idea in the movie.

Well, I’ll just admit it, this is exactly as awesome as it sounds.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Past Misdeeds: Mahakaal (1988/1993)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

The life of thirty year old college teenager Anita (Archana Puran Singh) is starting to get interesting. Right now, she and her equally old student friends (among them the most terrifying monster of them all - "comedian" Johnny Lever) are still cavorting around merrily - that is when her boyfriend Prakash and his best friend Rakesh aren't dishooming the local would-be rapists - but all this is beginning to change when Anita's best friend Seela, and very soon our heroine herself, is starting to have terrible nightmares.

In them, they are hunted by a shadowy, mulletted man with a scarred face and the propensity to laugh menacingly while showing his charming iron-bladed gloves. That would probably be troubling enough for the girls, yet the worst thing is that these dreams are leaving physical traces behind. It's one thing dreaming about getting your nightshirt ripped by claws, but it's quite another when you wake up and actually find it ripped.
Still, the friends are (theoretically) young, their hair freshly sprayed and mulletted, so they decide to drive to the country-side to have a picnic and cavort some more. That works out nicely until they want to drive back home and discover that their car won't move an inch anymore. Fortunately there's a hotel nearby. Unfortunately, it's managed by another Johnny Lever and has no working phones to call home from. How immoral! Well, at least it's dry and warm.

Anita and Prakash do the boring and responsible thing by keeping chaste. Seela and Rakesh however decide to have a real picnic together in one bed. Would you believe that Seela dreams of the nice man with the interesting gloves again? Yeah, I was completely taken by surprise myself. This time, though, he's not just appearing to scare the girl; he kills her, leaving Rakesh - who of course decides to run - as the main suspect of the dastardly deed, no matter that there's no proof whatsoever against him.
Hunting Rakesh is Anita's father, your usual Bollywood patriarchal copper arsehole. Thanks to Rakesh's brilliant idea to make a visit to his school campus in bright daylight, it's a very short manhunt, and the young idiot finds himself in a nice, damp cell.

The next night, Anita dreams of Rakesh getting killed in his cell by the mullet man and his new pet snakes, and even her sceptical father looks shaken when he learns that the young man did in fact die that night.
After a few more small revelations, Dad explains who the man with the gloves is. It's a certain Shakaal, a black magician who worshipped some undefined dark gods by sacrificing children to them. Seven years ago, he kidnapped Anita's little sister to do the same to her. Her father wasn't able to save his daughter, so he poked Shakaal in the face with a torch and buried him alive in a chained box in some ruins. Obviously, the dead man has returned to take his vengeance.

If there is one thing you can count on when it comes to the films of the Ramsay Brothers, it is their absolutely shameless will to entertain in the broadest and sleaziest (for Hindi cinema) way possible. These two aren't afraid of anything, not even ripping off one of the two films by Wes Craven that are actually any good - A Nightmare On Elm Street.

Well, there is something the Ramsays were afraid of - putting their Nightmare rip-off into the cinemas when their arch enemy Mohan Bakhri had just before thrown his own version of the tale, Khooni Murdaa, on the market. Just imagine, they could have lost money! So they let the film lie and ripen for a few years and only put it out when the Bollywood horror boom had already run its course, making it their last theatrical feature before they had to flee into the land of cable TV, as far as I've heard while being hunted by villagers carrying torches.

So the fashion and the victims of Johnny Lever's "parodies" (and does Amitabh Bachchan's comeback vehicle Shahenshah truly need to be parodied?) and "satire" are very much part of the late 80s. I have a hard time imagining that this will have helped Mahakaal's financial performance, but hey, what do I know about stuff like that.

What I do know is what I find fun, and Mahakaal definitely is fun.
Sure, if you are easily angered by really brazen theft of plots, ideas, scene set-ups or musical cues, you'll probably have a hard time watching it without beginning to froth at the mouth. I find the Ramsay method here rather charming. The first half of Mahakaal copies the plot progression and characters of its model as closely as possible, but adds a lot of flavour to prepare Craven's recipe for the taste of an Indian audience. So the viewer gets to see a slightly less bloody version of A Nightmare on Elm Street plus everything he, she or it ever loved about the trashier side of Bollywood cinema - musical numbers of dubious quality (well, I actually found the last one with its golden glitter costumes from hell rather undubious, even quite delightful), heroines with an insane propensity to get very very wet, said dishooming of would-be rapists and other assorted rabble, Johnny Lever humour you can blessedly fast forward through because his scenes are not in the least relevant for anything else in the film (although you will then miss out on things like his Michael Jackson imitation, his Amitabh Bachchan in Shahenshah stick - which is actually kinda funny - and the rare Johnny action scene).

Then the last third of the film arrives, and the Ramsays have obviously had enough of following Craven, throw out the dream demon idea completely and turn the film into the monster rumble most of their films I have seen until now end in. Which is an excellent idea when it brings us a re-jigged scene stolen from Dawn of the Dead, an inexplicable, but fun bout of demonic possession and a much better water bed death scene than in the original. The only way to beat that (or bring it to an end) is of course to end the film in a bizarre beat-down that is at once gruesome, silly and absolutely insane and alone worth the price of admission.
Technically, Mahakaal is typical Ramsay Brothers filmmaking - there's not a bit of subtlety to find anywhere, yet the brothers show an exhilarating sense for hysterical in-your-face intensity when it comes to the horror sequences or the action. If it has to do with the use of zoom, manic camera movements, fog, multi-coloured lights, more fog, or bizarre interior architecture (watch out for the temple of evil!), the Ramsays know what they are doing and (or so I suspect) love it.

Memorable acting you won't find here, but at least our heroine, future TV personality Archana Puran Singh, is as game for anything as Polly (Shan) Kuan, be it fighting an invisible man, getting very very wet repeatedly, or just screaming "Nahiiiiiiiin!". Especially her screams are something I won't soon forget.
What more could I ask of a film?

Thursday, December 10, 2015

In short: Puppet Master II (1990)

Another group of doomed psychic researchers – though these are government-sponsored parapsychologist – visit the house of Toulon (Steve Welles), maker of living puppets to find out if there’s any truth to the insane gibbering of the last survivor of the first film. Little do they expect that the puppets have revived Toulon, who now roams the house bundled up like the Invisible Man. To keep his puppets alive, the puppet master needs them to collect glands (or whatever, but glands are the traditional thing to collect in such a case) from human brains. He’d rather prefer his puppets to harvest the stuff from outside his home, but the area isn’t exactly populated, and the puppets are not terribly good at keeping brain parts unroasted (which is what happens when you build a flamethrower into one of your dolls and send it out brain-gathering, I suppose, therefore Toulon only has himself to blame), so the researchers are still doomed.

Things become a bit more complicated when Toulon decides the research team’s leader Carolyn (Elizabeth Maclellan) is the reincarnation of his dead wife Elsa. Look, Toulon, bandages don’t make you a mummy!
I don’t think the second of many, many Puppet Master films of Charles Band’s puppet obsessed outfit Full Moon is as fun as the first one, but we are still at a point in time here when Band productions were at least trying to be actually entertaining films in the classic low budget tradition. Consequently, director David Allen (despite being more of an effects guy than a filmmaker in his own right for most of his career) delivers a decent little horror movie that – for my tastes – could use a bit more of the spirited weirdness of the first film (no stuffed poodle here, that’s for sure) but that’s working the few assets it has – a decent cast, puppets – as hard as financially viable.

There are certainly far worse ways to while away ninety minutes than with this variation of various mummy films, but with killer dolls. And because the cruel and uncaring universe had a pretty good day when it caused Puppet Master II to happen, it ends on a final scene so loveably bizarre I can’t help but approve of the whole Puppet Master endeavour up to this point despite my general annoyance with Charles Band as doll movie impresario on account of it.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

SyFy vs The Mynd: The Hollow (2015)

Sisters Sarah (Stephanie Hunt), Marley (Sarah Dugdale) and Emma (Alisha Newton) have been having a rather hard time of late. Their parents died in an accident that left the youngest Emma hurt and suffering from some form of PTSD, and now the money their parents have left them has run out from paying for Emma’s hospital bills. Their only choice to escape the loving arms of the foster care system is to move in with their aunt Cora (Deborah Kara Unger).

Cora lives on a somewhat isolated island in what I assume to be the Pacific Northwest. Unfortunately, this island turns out to be at the centre of the return of a rather nasty supernatural surprise in form of a fiery stick-monster bound to Halloween and storms. And wouldn’t you know it, there’s a storm coming up, and it’s the day before Halloween, so when the sisters arrive on the island, Cora is already dead (one suspects Unger isn’t cheap), the island under attack, and the sisters will have to put quite some work into surviving.

It looks as if now that the SyFy Original is a species threatened with extinction, the few films still being made are allowed a greater degree of care – or we’re a really lucky audience and only the crappy SyFy Originals are dying out. Be that as it may, SyFy veteran Sheldon Wilson (in the past responsible for what might be my favourite SyFy movie, Carny) does provides us with a fine example of the SyFy monster movie. Pleasantly, it’s an earnest one too, so nobody’s patience will be tested by unfunny attempts at being funny, and the people who can only enjoy a monster movie ironically can go watch American Horror Story.

But I’m getting rude, and I digress. If you’re acquainted with the SyFy formula, you will have noticed this one surprisingly doesn’t feature any divorced characters getting together again via monster hunting, and indeed no romance plot whatsoever. Instead, Wilson concentrates on the tensions and bonds between the three sisters (the male characters aren’t of any import whatsoever), whose nature is of course revealed via the whole monster business. The characterization isn’t particularly deep but done with a degree of precision that avoids making any of the sisters the bad one who doesn’t deserve to live and realized by the young actresses with surety. The sisters and their relationship feels believable enough to not make me want them get eaten by a stick-monster. Indeed, I found myself actively rooting for them during the course of the film, which isn’t exactly something you can count on in more formulaic horror flicks.

As in most of his other movies, Wilson shows himself to be a capable director of low budget chills too, with many an atmospheric shot of rather picturesque woods (mostly by day, interestingly enough), well-timed monster attacks and an eye for the gruesome detail. It’s a very controlled movie, with little going on in front of the camera that doesn’t have an actual bearing on the movie except for the somewhat pointless sub-plot of Emma’s visions that changes nothing about the plot and tells us nothing about the characters (and was perhaps more important in an earlier draft of the script?). That subplot is fortunately tiny, though, so The Hollow stays the taut and fun SyFy horror movie I enjoyed greatly.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

In short: Black Sheep (2006)

Sheep farmer’s son Henry Oldfield (Nathan Meister) has not chosen the best day to return to the family farm to sell his share of it to his asshole brother Angus (Peter Feeney) in an attempt to find closure and perhaps lose his phobia of sheep (based on a cruel prank his prick brother played on him the day their father died).

For today isn’t just the day when Angus is planning to present his new genetically modified super sheep to interested parties but it is also the day when bumbling eco-activists Experience (Danielle Mason) and Grant (Oliver Driver) will accidentally cause the beginning of the sheepocalypse. That’s the sort of thing just bound to happen when one hires a mad scientist (Tandi Wright) to perform illegal genetic experiments on sheep, of course.

Well, at least the ensuing rise of the zombie sheep and zombie sheep people just might help Henry get over his sheep problems.

I don’t know what it is with New Zealand and gory (though in this case not on the early Jackson level of gore) horror comedies, but I’m glad these things always turn out so well. In the case of Jonathan King’s Black Sheep the film’s even funny enough I don’t exactly need to call it something like “the best zombie sheep movie ever made”, though it most certainly is that.

Apart from the film being funny (it’s a comedy thing), it also recommends itself through some adorable sheep people zombies courtesy (as the rest of the effects) of WETA Workshops that would also look good in a future were-sheep film, sheep fart jokes, not very mean-spirited jokes about chakras and other “alternative” nonsense up to the use of acupuncture when you fight sheep people zombies, some nastily-funny gore effects and a script that realizes that sheep jokes will only get you half-way through a film, yet family trouble and trauma treated through the lens of sheep zombie-ism aren’t just comedy gold but also a fine way to have a film that feels serious enough in certain ways not to end up as only a series of sheep jokes.

King is rather good at the sort of half-comedic (these are still and always zombie sheep, after all) suspense and zombie sheep defence scenes George Romero never includes in his films (because he doesn’t know about sheep, I suppose), so that Black Sheep stays as riveting as it is funny throughout.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

In short: Hideous! (1997)

I am generally quite down on Charles Band and Fullmoon Entertainment productions after about 1992 or so (what with them generally sucking badly in the worst possible manner) but this big gloopy ball of weirdness is much more fun than I could have hoped for, starting from an outrageously silly premise and just getting intensely strange, and then stranger.

Unlike most of these films that spend more time winking at their audience while exclaiming how funny they are, this one actually had me amused throughout, thanks to a cast of strange stereotypes with an extra dollop of weirdness, played with the proper kind of overacting by a cast (among them Michael Citriniti, Mel Johnson Jr., and Jacqueline Lovell as the strangest henchwoman imaginable) that actually isn’t phoning it in, even though they are in a film with mutant killer foetuses concerning the misadventures of people in the medical specimen collectors’ underground. A film not containing all that much of said killer foetuses to boot, because special effects ain’t cheap, buddy, but talking it. Fortunately, said talking’s often so funny – as well as off – you might not even miss said foetuses. If all this does sound a bit like a Troma movie, there certainly are more than just a few parallels, but it’s Troma done right, which is to say, actually funny and weirdly subversive in feel instead of just screaming at you that it is.

Hideous! (it truly works hard for that exclamation point) is directed by Charles Band himself with unexpected verve, and just goes from one moment of fun off-the-cuff weirdness to the next. There aren’t many films around who get their mandatory bit of nudity in by having Lovell (the actual brains of her collector’s operation, like every good henchwoman should be) staging a hold-up while being topless and wearing a gorilla mask, which won’t even be the weirdest habit the character will show. And if that sounds like your idea of fun, this one’s for you as much as it is for me.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Past Misdeeds: Fiend (1980)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

A strange red energy descends upon a graveyard by night. It seems to have plans with one of the corpses which are so peacefully rotting away. Conveniently, a pair of lovers has decided to spend some time together there, and the freshly revived dead guy (Don Leifert) can have some fun strangling the female part of the duo with red glowing hands. Looks like he is sucking out her life force too - at least he looks much fresher after the rude deed is done.

Some weeks later, we see the former dead guy move into a house in the circle of hell known as the suburbs. Another jump in time forward, and we finally learn a little more about him and what he is up too.
Dead guy now goes under the name of Eric Longfellow, owns a music school and drives his choleric and paranoid neighbour Gary Kender (Richard Nelson and yes, ladies and gentlemen, our hero) bonkers with his proclivity to play the violin until the early evening hours (terrifying, I know).

When he's not fiddling away merrily, Longfellow sits in the cellar of his house, pets his (of course black) cat and swills wine. From time to time, he drives out to kill another woman to replenish his energy levels.
This could probably go on forever if Longfellow wouldn't start to get sloppy. He kills his victims ever closer to his home until he one day strangles a child in the woods just behind his house. The police might not suspect anything, but his categorical statement that he hasn't heard or seen anything out of the ordinary when the child was slain is more than enough to put the aggressive lunatic that is Gary Kender on his case.
Gary is soon convinced that his hated neighbour hides something terrible behind his facade of arrogant politeness.

For once, there are no evil aliens invading Baltimore in a Don Dohler film. We are in fact not in Maryland at all but in Delaware, and the change of scenery does minor wonders for Fiend. It's the peculiar case of a Dohler movie that is actually more good than just stupidly entertaining.

Sure, Dohler still provides all of the flaws that characterize his films in copious amounts, but their impact on the film as a whole is not as bad as I'm used to in his works. As a director, Dohler often had trouble reaching a level above "technically barely adequate", probably thanks to the shoestring way he had to budget his film, but also thanks to a decisive lack of visual imagination. Fiend still isn't a festival of the senses, yet there are enough moments that show a higher amount of style than one is used to from the director. For once, Dohler is out to evoke a mood through his film's visuals instead of just pointing the camera in the direction of his actors. Don't get me wrong, he isn't suddenly transforming into Mario Bava, but in the context of his other works and the way American local independent horror films had to be shot to be shot at all, it's quite an impressive development for Dohler.

The acting is also quite a bit better than in other Dohler films. Of course, there are still enough bad line readings to make viewers unaccustomed to backyard filmmaking flinch. Nelson and Elaine White as his wife however are at least coming over as natural instead of wooden, which is all I ask for in a film like this, really.
Don Leifert's performance as the film's Big Bad is a little more difficult to evaluate. On one hand, he does some truly fearful mugging for the camera, like a chimpanzee trying to imitate Vincent Price (and of course failing), yet on the other hand he hits some notes of real creepiness, sometimes even of evil, when one would least expect it.

Also better than usual in Dohlerland is the script, or at least the plotting. The pacing is very deliberate (meaner people than I might call it slow), yet also lacking the rambling, disconnected quality of Dohler's other films. Calling it tight would probably go too far, but it's pretty solid.

What I found especially interesting about the film was the character of Kender. The viewer is obviously meant to identify with him, but his irascible nature and extremely rude manners and the initial irrationality of his antipathy towards Longfellow made this completely impossible for me. Our hero here is the kind of guy who, living in a totalitarian state, would go around denunciating people with the smugness of one perfectly unable to have empathy with anyone but himself. In this, he is ironically enough just like the monster he is after, both of them perfectly punchable.

Now, I'm not arguing this is something Dohler put into his film on purpose; looking at the politics of his other films I rather think Dohler sees Kender as "good people", and as someone perfectly in his rights when being an insufferable arse. To me, it just seems to be one of the beauties of art, and something that happens especially often in this type of local filmmaking, that aspects and ideas an artist never planned for still find their way into it, making it stranger and quite a bit more interesting than anyone could expect.
Of course, one would be perfectly in one's right to call this pretentious crap and just let oneself get distracted by Fiend's perfectly annoying synthie soundtrack.

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Thursday, December 3, 2015

Three Films Make A Post: It's diabolical! It's daring! It stalks, it cuts, it rips!

Debug (2014): Call me conceited, but I always get a bad feeling when a movie is written and directed by somebody who is mostly working as an actor, despite there being clear and rather fantastic exceptions to the rule that actors can’t write and direct for shit unless they bring a ghost writer/director or two. David Hewlitt’s Debug is not going to change my mind on the matter either, for while the film’s technically competent on the direction side, it’s also a text book example of a film that makes the wrong choices for mood, characters and everything else with every single edit.

And that’s before I’ve even come to the atrocious script, a kind of lite version of the lovely but already not exactly intellectually brilliant Event Horizon. The script doesn’t know how or when to exposit effectively, how to build up to its supposed scenes of suspense or fright, and instead just lets things happen without seeming to have any control over its own narrative. The characters are one-dimensional and – despite a decent cast – uninteresting, and the dialogue’s just embarrassing, with no single line that sounds as if an actual human being would speak it, nor one that at least sounds cool. I thought I’d be so easy to please with SF/horror that no film in the small sub-genre could manage to not entertain me at least a little, but this thing’s beyond any hope.

Timebomb (1991): This action film with conspiracy thriller elements by Avi Nesher featuring good old Michael Biehn and Patsy Kensit as the least believable (and impressively stupid) psychiatrist imaginable on the other hand did entertain me quite a bit. The script doesn’t exactly hold up to scrutiny (but then it’s not paced to be scrutinized, really) but Nesher’s a consistent director with a decent eye for keeping things rolling, there’s some entertaining nonsense about brainwashing, and the cast (also including a ranting Richard Jordan, a completely wasted in a non-role Robert Culp, our old friend Billy Blanks and Tracy Scoggins) is getting into it with a degree of enthusiasm.

There are even one or two scenes – the shoot-out in the porn cinema in particular – that are as good as US low budget action gets, and given these scenes aren’t in a film that bored me before them, this is a minor for me.

Eden Lodge (2015): Despite marketing material that makes Andreas Prodromou’s film look like a British version of slasher, torture porn and backwoods cannibal flicks, this is actually much more in the tradition of 70s British thrillers, with some bits and pieces of the more hip genres stitched onto the proceedings (one suspects for better saleability). Unfortunately, it’s not a very gripping entry in any of its genres, with not terribly much happening in it that’s actually very thrilling at all, the psychological suspense never really arriving, and a hesitant air to the proceedings.

The film is pretty to look at though, and, as it so often goes with films that leave me absolutely cold, clearly made by basically competent filmmakers making a basically competent film without anything in it you’ll remember a day later, and not much more you’ll actually be interested by while watching it.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Headhunter (1988)

A series of deaths among the local Nigerian community awaken the mild degree of interest deaths among the poor and the black tend to awaken in Miami’s police force. Racist idiot Captain Ted Calvin (Steve Kanaly) sends out what must be his least favourite couple of detectives to solve a series of murders you’d usually build a task force for. The lucky ones are Katherine Hall (Kay Lenz) and her peculiar partner Pete Giullani (Wayne Crawford). Pete’s suffering from marriage trouble: seems as if his wife (June Chadwick) has found her lesbian self after what we can only assume to be a decade or more of horror and is throwing him out on his ass, and if you ask me why that’s going to be important for the course of the film, I surely don’t know. But then, I didn’t write the script.

But, let’s get back to the murders – as the film does from time to time too. These aren’t your run of the mill killings but rather bizarre beheadings after which the head of the victim goes missing. Because they sure as hell wouldn’t find anything out on their own, Nigerian-American shaman/lawyer Samuel Juru (Sam Williams) provides a bit of exposition and informs our heroes they are looking for some sort of demon that drove the Miami Nigerians from Nigeria. Which they of course don’t believe.

But no matter, for the demon finds himself threatened and challenged by the two worst cops in town kinda-sorta being on his case doing nothing of consequence, and starts to haunt them with hallucinations and attacks instead of letting them get on with drinking in bars, walking around town muttering nonsense, and not doing anything that could solve even the case of little Timmy’s vanished ball.

Seriously, I got nothing here. I have no idea what Francis Schaeffer’s film is supposed to be, what it’s supposed to do, or what the people involved think its plot is. About half of the film belongs to the peculiar genre of the mumbling, rambling cop film, consequently spending its time on showing our police heroes (yeah, that’s sarcasm right here) being shlubby, mumbly, and totally ineffective, investing a lot of time into Pete’s personality crisis without it having any pay-off or much connection to the supernatural plot beyond his wife and her lover becoming victims at the end. Mostly, that part of the film takes places in bars, cars, and other places where characters can mumble some nonsense at each other, and honestly, I have no idea why the film showing half of this stuff.

I have even less of an idea about the supernatural plot. There’s a demon, who might have a cult, and might do something or other even worse than beheading people we never learn anything much about, I suppose. He’s mostly an invisible wind for large parts of the film (at least those parts that are indeed concerned with him), and turns into a rubbery suit for the big tiny chainsaw against monster finale, but otherwise, I have no idea what his game is, why he feels threatened by two characters who couldn’t find their own asses, or why I should care.

If all this sounds rather vague and disconnected, welcome to Headhunter, a film that spends most of its time not actually doing anything except for being somewhat peculiar and pointless, and certainly never deigns to attempt stuff like entertaining its audience, telling a story, building up a mood beyond “huh?”, or anything you might connect with, you know, a film, and which, alas, just isn’t weird in an interesting enough way to keep one awake watching it.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Berserker: The Nordic Curse (1987)

Warning: I’m going to get a bit spoilery here; on the other hand it’s going to be one of the spoiled elements that’ll be the film’s main draw for most potential viewers (you know who you are).

A bunch of the usual young ‘un stereotypes go fishing and hut dwelling in your usual dark woods somewhere in the United States. George “Buck” Flower is playing a guy called Pappy Nyquist; a police man exists (John F. Goff). One of the kids (character and actor names aren’t really needed) – the Intellectual, obviously – reads from a book about the Vikings, because the local area had mostly been settled by Norwegians. From him, we learn a bit about berserkers, specifically a curse that opens up the descendants of berserker bloodlines to possession by berserker ghosts. Oh boy, history can be so exciting.

And wouldn’t you know it? There is indeed someone or something with a bear snout and paws going around killing people in the area. Is it a berserker, or the bear the film shows off from time to time?

In many aspects, Jefferson Richard’s Berserker is your typical middle-80s (the point just before the films became all “funny”) low budget independent slasher movie. There are the paper thin characters embodied by actors with little experience and not much of a future in that career, the oh-so-very-slow first half of the film that spends a lot of time on things like showing the cop and Flower playing chess, or people just goofing around in front of the camera for no reason of narrative, mood, or character.

However, despite these not very enticing elements, Berserker has that peculiar something – call it magic – that made watching it a more pleasant experience than I’d feared. Some of that is caused by some actual filmic achievements, for Richard, particular once the plot gets going, does know how to shoot an (improbably bright by night) wood with all the atmosphere mist, blue light and a primitive (in a good way) soundtrack made out of fake wind noises and random synth warbling can provide, which is an excellent way to make something out of the best production values nature (and cheap electronics) can provide. Done right, and it is done right in this case, watching kids creep through the woods and getting murdered can provide a lot of bang for one’s buck, and doesn’t ever get old to my eyes (particularly since the advent of corridor horror redefined true visual boredom, or horror). What I’m saying, I think, is that the later parts of the film show a bit of a sensibility all its own. Let’s called it individuality. For an example, just look at how creepily it realizes the old tacky chestnut of the sex scene intercut with a murder scene. It’s not exactly tasteful, but it certainly works better at making me uncomfortable than a lot of these scenes do in other movies; most probably because Richard even mirrors the camera angles of the two scenes appropriately, really making the old sex and death story work for him.

There are also some surprises to the script: the way the film takes elements of slasher, nature strikes back horror, and some survivalist thriller bits is actually pretty clever, and leads to some truly unexpected scenes. In particular, it’s the scene where our film’s killer in his partial bear cosplay costume gets to wrestle a bear, a scene that nearly gives Leslie Nielsen mud-wrestling a bear in Day of the Animals a run for its money. And that’s not even the film’s actual climax, because that somewhat later scene aims for a bit of 70s horror feel, with our heroine (more or less) screeching “shoot him! shoot him!” until the rather doubtful looking cop indeed does shoot our killer. In other words, what starts out as a very typical cheapo slasher turns into something unexpected. People get killed if they had sex or not, I’m pretty sure the survivors aren’t virginal, and the way the survival horror elements make their way into the slasher narrative does lead to a handful of minor surprises.

It’s still seat-of-your-pants filmmaking of course (this is a film whose big guest star is Flower, after all), with many a rough edge, and a lot of elements it’d be easy to point at to call Berserker “bad”, but to my eyes, this one’s got heart and personality, and a head of its own, and is therefore good.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

In short: Waxwork II: Lost in Time (1992)

The zombie hand that survived the first part’s finale murders the step father of survivor Sarah (now played by Monika Schnarre). Because the police doesn’t believe in killer hands or physical evidence, she soon finds herself on trial for murder. Mark (still Zach Galligan), survivor number two, has the brilliant idea of looking through the stuff of Sir Wilfred (Patrick Macnee returning as a film projection and later as a raven) for anything that might help her out. There, they find a time compass thingie that opens up time portals that’ll lead them into a crap version of Frankenstein, a really crap version of Alien(s), a slightly less crap because it features Bruce Campbell doing Bruce Campbell version of The Haunting, and an abominable sword and sorcery filmlet.

During the course of their adventures, Mark’ll turn out to be a Time Warrior chosen by god, whereas Sarah is only there to be rescued again and again. Oh Lord.

Ugh, after the barrel of fun that was the first film, you’d think the same writer/director would get up to something equally entertaining in the sequel, but where the first film was an enthusiastic, fast, and charming homage to horror films, film number two uses its even looser narrative structure (which is to say, it doesn’t really have one) to churn out a series of inferior short versions of beloved classics with added slapstick and some shit about Zach Galligan being chosen by God (I assume the Christian one, because I’m pretty sure most other godhoods would be somewhat embarrassed). Turns out all that stuff with set-up, characters, and so on and so forth the films this one rips-off instead of quotes tend to have is somewhat important to make an audience care about what happens in a movie; Waxwork doesn’t have time for nonsense of this sort, because it needs to set up a David Carradine cameo, and really couldn’t care less about actually hanging together as a film. It’s also pretty damn boring by virtue of showing a lot of stuff, none of which is interesting or in any form involving.

Because Hickox makes no attempt at involving his audience emotionally (well, or intellectually), the whole thing feels pointless throughout, like a never ending attempt to show off that its director has seen quite a few movies. Ironically, the resulting film mostly suggests he hasn’t actually understood what’s good about them. So, it’s very much a film like what certain critics (the ones who are wrong) pretend Quentin Tarantino is doing.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Past Misdeeds: High Crime (1973)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.
Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.
Genuan Commissioner Belli (Franco Nero) is one of those highly irascible cops movie Italy is full of, always screaming and raging about the terrors of corruption etc and etc.
Belli's unwillingness to play politics and his nearly comical impatience lead to frequent clashes between him and the chief of detectives, Commissioner Scavoni (James Whitmore), but the older cop obviously respects Belli's passion for justice a lot and treats the younger man with the patience one has for talented if absolutely mad little children.

Scavoni himself has a secret file full of information that he wishes to use to bring the whole network of corruption and crime that dominates his city to fall, yet he does not dare to use what he has too early out of fear that all his efforts might go to waste.
Life in Genua isn't going to get easier for the two. A new organisation tries to bust in on the turf of the city's aging crime lord Caffiero (Fernando Ray), and the new guys are even more brutal and reckless than the Mafia the police knows. A bunch of car chases and shoot-outs later, all tracks lead Belli to the highly respected industrialist clan of the Grivas, but witnesses have the sad habit of dying.
Belli is finally able to shout Scavoni into using the material he has on the Grivas, but the old cop is murdered and his files lost before he has even begun to make a ruckus.
Scavoni's death just intensifies Belli's crusade, a crusade that will in the end be very costly for everyone involved, especially Belli's loved ones.

Enzo G. Castellari's High Crime is one of the core films of the Italian police film genre of the 70s and to me, it is one of the best parts of it.
That the film is highly kinetic and racing from one brilliantly filmed action sequence to the next is par for the course in the genre, yet Castellari's action - always given a rhythm of its own by a hypnotic score by the de Angelis brothers -  feels somehow more driven and desperate than the action scenes in the films of his contemporaries. There's a special feeling of recklessness and wildness at High Crime's heart you won't find in European films, even other Italian cop movies, too often and that connects Castellari's work in my mind with the sheer madness of Hong Kong cinema of the 80s and early 90s.

But even here, the action is not all there is to the film. I remember more than one film of the genre I had difficulties to stomach on account of their unpleasant politics which usually just start with the supposedly heroic cops getting mightily pissed off by the fact that they have to keep to the laws they are sworn to protect. The longing for a police state is often quite strong in these films and makes me in cases like the films of Umberto Lenzi nearly physically uncomfortable. Now, I wouldn't call High Crime's politics pleasant, but they are a lot more complex than in some of the lesser films of the genre. It is very helpful that Belli may be overtly irascible and not exactly a stickler for human rights, but at least we never see him torture gay people or fake evidence. Basically, Belli comes over as a decent man in a society teetering on the edge of chaos, much more interested in getting the big fish than in kicking in the teeth of some junkie. Actually, one of the things the film seems to say the loudest is "look at the big picture to end corruption".

It does of course help quite a bit that Franco Nero plays Belli as highly sympathetic in his desperation for change, an impression that is strengthened further by the scenes he has with his girlfriend (Delia Boccardo) and his daughter. That a pleasant family life won't be in the card for Belli is obvious from the beginning, but the way Castellari handles the things that were bound to happen to the two is at once so ruthless and so right (in the context of the film, mind you) that I couldn't help but be impressed.

One of my pet theories about directors of action films is that the great ones can't be judged by the quality of their action sequences alone, but by the quality of the melodrama in their films and the way they use this melodrama to heighten the tension and meaning of their action. That's the reason why the American action cinema of the 80s does so little for me - they just didn't know what to do with their heroes' emotions, if they admitted to the existence of them at all.

Castellari knew.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Arachnid (2001)

Somewhere in the South Pacific. An air force pilot crashes into an invisible UFO and saves himself only to have an unfortunate encounter with an alien and an uncomfortably large spider.

Some time later, a patient with a previously unknown infection caused by some mysterious bite has come into the loving care of the hospital of Dr. Leon (José Sancho) from an island somewhere close by. Off-screen Leon has set up an expedition to the island to find the cause of the infection and provide treatment for the locals if necessary. The island is rather difficult to reach, so it’s a nice twist of fate former air force hot shot Mercer (Alex Reis) has come to the area as pilot for hire. We will later learn the pilot of the intro sequence is her brother and she has been looking for him ever since he disappeared.

Apart from Mercer and Leon, the expedition consists of spider expert Henry Capri (Ravily Isyanov), probably because he really knows about bites, Leon’s assistant and former jungle badass Susana (Neus Asensi), three former marines – the leader and obvious male lead Valentine (Chris Potter), and his men Bear (Roqueford Allen) and the soon to be particularly unfortunate Lightfoot (Jesús Cabron) – and local guide Toe Boy (Robert Vicencio). Things go badly for the expedition right from the start – a mysterious loss of all electronics in Mercer’s plane leads to a crash that only doesn’t become deadly because she’s a superior pilot, something is making it impossible to radio the outside, and these are only the minor problems. It doesn’t help that Leon is such a major asshole he’s the last person who should lead any kind of expedition, and Mercer’s as prickly as she is competent. The latter actually makes a lot of sense for a female ex-military member even when you disregard the whole business about her missing brother, because I imagine not taking any shit at all will quickly become a very useful survival technique for a woman in a military environment with all the prejudices and macho bullshit she’d have to cut through.

And did I mention the jungle our heroes will have to make their way through now instead of flying over it is full of mutated spiders and other unpleasantness like huge ticks with even nastier habits than is the tick baseline?

Until now, I somehow managed not to see this film from Brian Yuzna’s short Fantastic Factory time in Spain, for reasons only known to the Gods that make me watch the films I watch and not others. Couldn’t I have seen this earlier rather than Paranormal Activity, ye Gods!?

It’s directed by good old dependable Jack Sholder in a good old dependable way, without much fanciness but with a good eye for traditional suspense effects and the pleasant absurdities of monster movies in the semi-classic style. It’s enhanced for the new millennium with a bit more ickiness and a script that doesn’t exactly break new grounds but does generally avoid to treat its female or non-white characters different (worse) than the white and male ones. Which might also have to do with the fact the film’s nominal male lead is actually a nice guy for a soldier but also frightfully boring. We’re not talking a major rethinking of the less pleasant genre traditions here (and the film still has some moments in its first half that can raise some eyebrows in mild irritation) but a film that realizes one major flaw of a 50s world view is that it just isn’t any fun and so cuts it out of a film that is all about fun.

For this truly is the sort of traditionally minded monster movie about twenty percent of the similarly positioned yet less usually less exciting SyFy Originals manage to be, though much less jokey and with often pretty damn beautiful practical effects standing in for shitty CGI (even though the CGI that is in here is indeed pretty damn shitty too), and a giant mother spider that looks convincingly unpleasant in at least half of its scenes (in a few, it just looks too stiff to be believable). So we get various joyfully silly yet effective monsters, some awesome fights against monsters while our cast is whittled down, a bit of body horror because who doesn’t like the icky stuff, and characters likeable enough we don’t necessarily want to see them killed. And if that doesn’t sound like fun to you, you’re just not part of the audience Arachnid was made for; I, on the other hand (see also several dozen write-ups of SyFy Originals, more than a few of them positive) am that audience, and find myself mightily pleased.

In short: The Freakmaker (1973)

aka The Mutations

University professor Nolter (Donald Pleasence putting on what I think is supposed to be a German accent that comes and mostly goes) is maybe a tiny bit mad. His fascination with genetic mutations and plants has led him to the belief that natural mutations are dangerous - and probably somewhat disquieting to the ordered mind, one assumes – and that humanity truly needs a bit of controlled mutating – and plant genes.

To further the cause of scientific (ha!) obsession, Nolter has brought circus freak show boss Lynch (Tom Baker) under his thumb by promising to some day cure his acromegaly with his future genetic super science. So now, Lynch acquires students (predominantly some going to Nolter’s own classes, because master criminality is hard) for Nolter to experiment on, and Nolter sometimes uses Lynch’s show to park his failed experiments. Which isn’t ideal when some of these experiments still got faces and friends in town, but then, these villains are idiots.

I have no idea what went wrong here. By all rights, The Freakmaker should be a perhaps silly but enjoyable piece of mad science horror. After all, it features Pleasance, Baker, and even good old Brad Harris as the nominal romantic lead, and was directed by Jack Cardiff, who has some excellent and a lot of competent work in his filmography.

Alas, nobody seems to have told the people involved about their talents, so Pleasence seems bored, Baker is hindered by his stupid make-up, and Harris goes through his scenes with a perpetual expression of embarrassment . And Cardiff? Well, he spends about half of the film dragging his feet with filler. This is a movie that starts with five minutes of archive footage of plants, continues with another five minutes of a dubious lecture by Pleasence, and often seems much more comfortable not actually showing anything of interest. Then there’s a sub-plot that’s a completely incompetently handled and misguided rip-off of Browning’s Freaks, just without feeling the need to include any of that film’s humanity.

There are a few scenes that show potential for a slightly uneasy bit of exploitational fun, like the short bit where Baker visits a prostitute (whom seems to have suspiciously low rates) and pays her to tell him she loves him, or the hilarious yet macabre man-plant thing that just happens in the film’s final twenty minutes. Not surprisingly, a couple of promising scenes do not a good film make; in The Freakmaker’s case, they also don’t make an entertaining one.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

In short: Jordskott (2015)

I don’t generally write up TV shows around here, because I’ve grown to loathe the episode by episode approach that seems to only lead anybody using it to whining and complaining about tiny details, or launching into the kind of high level philosophizing that leaves the thing you’re actually writing about so far behind you might as well be honest and not pretend to write about it.

So I’m only putting down a few lines about this Swedish TV show (with Finnish, Norwegian and British involvement) because firstly, I’d nearly missed out on it completely myself, and secondly find some of the stuff I read about it on the net rather puzzling, if not to say wrong-headed. Mostly, I’m puzzled by this being treated as some sort of spiritual successor of The Bridge, when it is actually a fantasy show that uses elements of Nordic Crime television in a way that’s increasingly turning out to be a Swedish approach to the Urban Fantasy genre. It is a local and individual approach, though, with the series firstly being rural and not urban and secondly not trying to bore its audience by the umpteenth story about vampire princes and alpha werewolves, instead using Nordic folklore and the X-Files for their mythology.

For someone who finds urban fantasy often painfully samey, that’s like a breath of fresh air in the genre, as is the (perhaps too clever, looking at the reactions) use of Nordic Crime elements to awaken viewer expectations it then consciously and willingly disappoints; an approach I personally love, but that will find some people feel tricked.

Thematically, this is very much a show about family, in particular the bonds between parents and children, the joys and horrors of this love, and the destructive force of secrets and lies. Here private horrors make uncontrollable ripples in the world outside of family units.

All this is presented with mostly stylish, often atmospheric direction and a fine ensemble cast – particularly Moa Gammel is great. The ten episode show is probably one or two episodes too long, with one or two side plots taking up more space than they need to be, but that’s not any worse than your 20 episode US network show that could use to lose five of them. What might be a flaw to some viewers and turned out something I quite enjoyed myself is how all out the show goes with its fantasy elements as well as its melodramatic vein in its last few episodes, subtlety clearly not being on its table there.

But then, it’s a fun show when you meet it on its own terms, and one whose willingness to find something sympathetic and human even in the least pleasant of its characters is far more interesting than the much more common talk about “evil”.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

In short: Mortuary (2005)

The Doyle family – mother Leslie (Denise Crosby), teenage son Jonathan (Dan Byrd) and little daughter Jamie (Stephanie Patton) – move into some god-forsaken small town so that mum can fulfil her mortician dreams. Too bad their brand spanking new mortuary is actually a ruin and that strange stuff seeps from the septic tank. And let’s not even start on the blood-drinking fungus turning people into fungus zombies.

I’m usually giving Tobe Hooper’s later works a bit more of a chance than most tend to do, but when confronted with a confounding piece of crap like Mortuary, even my tolerance goes out the window. I do assume this isn’t actually supposed to be a pure horror film but rather a horror comedy – or Hooper’d have to be stupid, which he clearly isn’t. Unfortunately, it’s a horror comedy whose every single joke isn’t funny, and that also takes ages to get going.

Now, in other films you’d suspect the slowness of the first hour or so had something to do with the film building mood and character, but since everybody’s a cardboard cut-out, and the mood is mostly childish, there’s only boredom coming through. Afterwards, it’s thirty minutes of kids screeching while people in bad zombie make-up waddle around or puke at them, with no second of tension, fun, humour, or whatever. Despite some awkward attempts at the grotesque, the proceedings feel painfully harmless too, with nothing to even vaguely keep one’s interest, wasting the generally decent potential of what could be a tale of kids not being able to trust grown-ups anymore (with added fungus zombies).

Friday, November 20, 2015

Past Misdeeds: Mad Love (1935)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

Yvonne Orlac (Frances Drake), the lead actress in a rather dubious looking play, is the not so secret object of affection for the genius but mad surgeon Doctor Gogol (Peter Lorre). Yvonne doesn't do anything to dissuade Gogol, because to her knowledge he is not doing anything more creepy than visiting each of her performances and sending her flowers every night without trying to meet or molest her. What Yvonne doesn't know is how affectionate Gogol is when he's slavering over that wax figurine of hers that's standing in the theatre's foyer.

The two finally meet on the day of Yvonne's final performance. It is only then that Gogol realizes that his object of obsession is married to the pianist Stephen Orlac (Colin Clive) and is really quite repulsed by the good Doctor's less than model-esque appearance and creepy demeanour when confronted with it closely.

Still, Gogol does take the whole business with as much composure as someone with his mental problems is able to show. The surgeon seems willing to be content with buying wax Yvonne (who at least has a reason to be as lifeless as Drake is) and leaving the breathing woman in peace.

That could be that, but unfortunately, Stephen's oh so precious hands are hurt in a train accident and the only way to save his life seems to be amputation. Yvonne goes to Gogol and begs for his help. The surgeon can't resist the woman's shrill, melodramatic exclamations, but he knows he can't save Stephen's hands in the way his object of adulation wants him to.

What he can do, and secretly does, is give Stephen new hands. Too bad that those are the hands of the knife-throwing killer Rollo who just had a close acquaintance with the guillotine.

I say too bad because Stephen very quickly develops the tendency to throw knives at people that displease and annoy him while losing the ability to play his beloved piano again. When he goes to Gogol for help, the by now quite mad surgeon gets a brilliant idea how to acquire himself a real, breathing Yvonne.

Mad Love is the last directorial effort of the brilliant director of photography Karl Freund, and I would call it his best work in the position. To me, it is possibly his only film as a director where he isn't a director of photography trying his hand at directing, but a real director, by now knowledgeable enough to put state of the art cinematic techniques and his experience in German expressionist filmmaking to excellent use. When it comes to visual style, Mad Love is one of my favourite films of the era, full of little details that heighten the tension and bring Gogol's state of mind to the front.

There is also much to love on the design front - I'm especially enamoured of the insane costume Gogol dons to try and fool Orlac into thinking he is Rollo, back from the dead with a freshly stitched-back head, and the set design for Gogol's home, all its rooms a little too empty, all doors a little larger than they should be.

Even better than Freund and the art design is Peter Lorre. Lorre is doing another step on his way to be forever typecast as the psycho here, but his performance is so nuanced that even the worst moments of over-ripe dialogue (and gosh, there's a lot of that here) just plain work. In fact, the purpleness seems to be part of the way the doctor defines himself. As Lorre plays him, Gogol is as frightening as he is pitiably, and I think the way he creates a very human monster and not just a monster is something people doing serial killer movies today should really take a good look at, instead of just looking at Anthony Hopkins doing the bug-eye. Of course, there's always Criminal Minds doing it right/more interesting, but I digress.

What for me put Mad Love down below the status of lost classic are two things. Firstly, Lorre's performance might be a career high, but he is the only one really doing much of anything with his role. Drake's only mode of acting is being shrill and melodramatic, and Colin Clive, as we know from Frankenstein perfectly capable of doing an excellent job, is badly hampered by the second - and bigger - one of the film's problems, a really bad script.

Sure, as you can see from the plot description, there are a lot of great, even subversive ideas in it, but the execution is in parts execrable. This begins with the overblown-even-for-1935 dialogue and ends with the absurd way poor Colin Clive's role is handled. In theory, he is slowly driven mad by his inability to learn playing the piano again, hurt by money troubles and the feeling that his hands just aren't his own anymore, but as the film shows it, he goes from "person we have never seen" to "mad, tittering wreck" in seconds. And, you know, that's quite a problem when your film wants me to believe in a plot that hinges on his state of mind. Instead of exploring Orlac deep enough to make him as interesting as Gogol, the script prefers to waste its running time on throwing two OCR characters at us in the form of Gogol's alcoholic (and what could be funnier) housekeeper and an especially dreadful comic relief reporter.

It's a wonder that the film still is as good as it is, really, but the raw talent and determination of Freund and Lorre win out over the trite and the unfunny.

Just don't think about how great the film could have been with a good script.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Waxwork (1988)

Four college students, Mark (Zach Galligan), Sarah (Deborah Foreman), China (Michelle Johnson) and Tony (Dana Ashbrook) - the Poor Little Rich Boy, the Virgin, the Slut, and the Idiot respectively – make a very special late visit to the mysterious Wax Museum of an even more mysterious man (mysterious David Warner). As we all well know, wax museums are incredibly dangerous when there’s no masked luchador around, so it doesn’t come as much of a surprise when China and Tony get sucked into different exhibitions which, it turns out, work as time bubbles where they live out and die in some rather unhealthy episodes (the vampire life of Miles O’Keeffe and a very short werewolf tale with a minute of John Rhys-Davies shouting grumpily as is his custom) to eventually become waxen parts of the exhibition.

At first, Mark and Sarah don’t think too much about their friends’ disappearances, but when they stay gone the next day, they start a little investigation that’ll lead a poor cop (Charles McCaughan) into a mummy-induced death, and give Mark some opportunity to learn important things about his family history from his godfather Sir Wilfred (Patrick Macnee). Sarah for her part’ll learn all about her rather un-horror-movie-virginal desire to be whipped to death by the Marquis de Sade (J. Kenneth Campbell) – who for some reason likes to dress like a pirate. It’s all part of mysterious David Warner’s rather dubious plan for destroying the world (“Somebody has to!”), and only a Poor Little Rich Boy, a masochistic Virgin (something I’d really love to become a new horror movie character archetype) and Patrick Macnee can save us!

Ah, US late 80s and early 90s horror, you are a bit weird aren’t you, with your insistence on turning everything into a comedy (like our contemporary horror TV shows, come to think of it), and never showing stuff that could actually disturb someone on a deeper level beyond the pleasant “yuck”.

If you can cope with that, though, Anthony Hickox’s Waxwork should be quite a good time, for this is a film that may not have any intellectual or emotional depths (or even many shallows of that sort) but that is also so full of an utterly un-ironic love for the horror genre’s past it’s bound to charm (possibly the pants off of) anyone who shares this love. The film demonstrates its love by including oh so many sight gags and so many moments of joyful genre nonsense you’ll mostly probably really miss stuff just by blinking, I couldn’t help but be impressed by their sheer force of numbers.

The waxwork exhibition episodes are of course mostly a basis for the film to let rip homages on all the most classic horror monsters, specific films (I particularly dig the early George Romero camera angles in the zombie bit), and all things macabre. Just imagine, the film grins, what if your Universal or Hammer horror would end really badly for the heroes and include many more buckets of blood? Turns out that’s very fun to watch, particularly in the hands of Hickox (now a solid direct-to-DVD-action director, then a promising horror guy), who knows how to time the icky stuff, as well as the jokes and directs everything as if he had a big happy monster-mashing grin on his face. The film even has so much love to share, it also finds space for a bit of a swashbuckler homage, as well as an excursion that makes the masochistic subtext of certain classical horror movies text. Bonus points also for having the oh so typical virgin character really getting into the whole death by de Sade thing, and orgasms, and not only not killing her but making her mildly ass-kicking afterwards (though I curse the film for not keeping that development in the much inferior sequel).

There’s so much love going around here for everything: Warner and Macnee clearly standing in for classic horror hams and beloved actors and doing good by it, the shrugging absurdity of the film’s finale that just might be the most fun updated peasant mob versus monsters sequence we’ll ever get to see, and so on, and so forth, until a crawling hand (hi, Ash!) crawls good-bye.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

In short: Re-Kill (2015)

It’s a few years after the first (fast) zombie virus outbreak. Large parts of the world’s population have been killed, but the survivors – at least the US ones, which are the only ones we’ll meet - are pretending things did not fundamentally change, so there’s still TV, TV ads (though for things like an anti-zombie-virus medication that doesn’t actually work, and sex because there’s a certain repopulation pressure), and reality shows. The reality show we are watching is called Re-Kill and follows the misadventures of a squad, ahem, division of the Re-Kill military organization created to kill the not exactly tiny remnants of the Re-Ans (which is this film’s zombie moniker).

Journalists Jimmy and Bobby are the lucky bastards accompanying R-Division 8 (among whose members are Daniella Alonso, Roger R. Cross, Scott Adkins and Bruce Payne). After encountering a truck shipping Re-Ans through the United States, the group is tasked with following the truck’s trail to something called Project Judas in the walled-off ruins of Old New York. The mission doesn’t go very well.

If you’re like me and you’re suffering from a bit of zombie fatigue (and don’t even like The Walking Dead outside of its Telltale Games incarnation), a POV military horror film with zombies which predominantly takes place in corridors and empty industrial buildings does not sound too enticing. So I think it says something for Valeri Milev’s Re-Kill when I tell you I actually think it’s a pretty neat little low budget horror/action movie that doesn’t re-invent the zombie genre but does put quite a bit of effort into its worldbuilding, even if most of it comes in form of – rather funny – fake ads for post-zombie-apocalypse products that break up the bloody, camera-shaking violence. These ads not only do some nice satirical work on contemporary TV culture, they also represent the state the film’s world is in, the story the characters try to tell each other to be able to sleep at night, but also provide useful exposition, and all in a simple yet flexible format. It’s the sort of cleverness and humour you’d have found in a New World production from its golden age, and like in the best of the films of that particular era, they enhance a simple yet effective genre tale with a bit of cleverness.

Said genre tale is certainly on the pulpy side, not very complex, but told with gusto and a lot of blood and guts, providing quite a bit of fun for this jaded viewer. Milev makes the most out of the budget he has to work with, never letting his characters stop so much their mostly grey and brown surroundings become boring, setting up some nasty little set-pieces, all the while taking a look at a world full of people who’d really like to pretend everything’s going to go back to normal some day soon, but just can’t anymore. The cast of TV and character actors does the expectedly good job, leaving the increasingly shaking camera as the only thing I found potentially annoying about Re-Kill. Though thematically and logically, the camera shakes do belong into the footage we see, so the film gets a pass there too.

So it seems there’s still life in the rotting corpse of the zombie genre.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Zimmer 13 (1964)

aka Room 13

Evil mastermind Joe Legge (Richard Häussler) returns to his native London with plans for a Great Train Robbery. Because of a mysterious shared past he is able to blackmail pillar of society Sir Marney (Walter Rilla) into providing a hiding place for the loot once the deed will be done. Marney isn’t happy at all with this and hires two-fisted private eye Johnny Gray (Joachim Fuchsberger) to take care of business. At the same time, a black-gloved killer is slitting female throats with a razor that just might belong to Sir Marney.

Gray will need to hit various people in the face, romance Sir Marney’s daughter Denise (Karin Dor), and pal around with comic relief crime scene forensic Dr Higgins (Eddi Arent) to get behind what’s really going on. Gray isn’t helped by the police investigation into the matter being pursued by Sir John (Siegfried Schürenberg) himself, nor the fact that his client quickly decides hiring him was a very bad idea.

If you’re among those people who are understandably a bit sceptical about the influence the German krimi had on the Italian giallo (before the giallo started to influence the krimi right back), watching Zimmer 13 will probably clear up all doubts, for its side plot about the razor killer – including the identity of the killer and the explanation for their madness - is pretty much exactly what you’d get a few years later from the Italians, just not as stylishly and sleazily done here, and unfortunately made by people who really rather seem to prefer the train robbery business. Still, the influence is obvious.

Apart from the influence game, Harald Reinl’s film is one of the lesser known Rialto Wallace films, probably because it’s another one of the cycle’s films that very much is a thing all its own instead of a repetition of the best beloved elements of half of the other films, with no masked pulp mastermind hiding in an bizarre lair (Legge’s really just a clever criminal, and working from a nightclub), no curious murder methods, and not even a proper threatened heiress. The resulting film still goes for a pulp/serial type of enthusiasm (which is much preferable to the few attempts to make a “realistic” Wallace film in the Rialto cycle, because those turned all out rather awful and pretty darn boring), but where the core Wallace films are very much weird crime pulpy goodness, Zimmer 13 is more Gangbusters than the Shadow.

This certainly might be a problem in a film that doesn’t actually deliver on the required amount of fisticuffs, car chases, shoot-outs and train robberies. Fortunately, it’s this slightly more straight stuff Harald Reinl was best at, so Fuchsberger and company find themselves in a film much faster and rather less talky than usual in Germany, with seldom more than two scenes going by before some sort of outward excitement happens. Even better, the action is as good as a German filmmaker of the time could provide, so even as a hardcore fan of mysterious people in masks, I found myself rather too entertained by the stuff on screen to complain about the lack of Blue Archers or Hogs with Masks.

I found myself also rather pleased with the way the proto-giallo subplot went, even somewhat subverting the way basically every other Rialto Wallace film ends. Add to that a bit of the cycle-mandated off-beat weirdness like Eddi Arent’s (whose character is once again even doing something beyond being funny or “funny”) sexual relationship to a manikin, a Peter Thomas score that sounds more peculiar the closer you listen, an adorable strip tease (though one Alfred Vohrer would have done more with) and the expected professionalism in front of and behind the camera, and you’ll find me enjoying myself quite a bit with this one.

Music Monday: Vincent Black Lightning Edition

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Sunday, November 15, 2015

Graveyard Shift (1987)

Vampire Stephen Tsepes (Silvio Oliviero) spends his nights as a taxi driver, from time to time breast-biting women either with a death wish or a terminal illness. For reasons we’re not privy to yet can assume have mythical and perhaps Freudian sex and death reasons women in that sort of situation feel rather drawn to him. Stephen turns them into a variation of the good old vampire brides in the process, and unlike him, they seem to lack self-control rather badly.

Particularly once Stephen meets Michelle (Helen Papas), a director without a promising career with a cheating husband (Cliff Stoker), and a fresh diagnosis of terminal illness. Michelle may or may not be a reincarnation of a former lover – or they might just have dreams that suggest they’re destined for each other – and she’s the first woman Stephen meets he wants to fuck instead of bite, which he hopes will somehow(?) end in his own death. He’s not even wrong there.

Jerry Ciccoritti’s Graveyard Shift is a peculiar, personal, at times frustrating, more often fascinating effort, a film that often feels more like a US local production made in the 70s than a Canadian film that probably only scratched together its tiny budget because 1987 was a big year for vampire movies, and there’s always some producer trying to cash in on a trend who will let directors make whatever weird stuff they want as long as the money-making element of the day is in the film.

As a vampire film Graveyard Shift stands with one foot in the more romantic approach to the genre (at least, Stephen isn’t a simple monster and clearly truly convinced his Freud-baiting breast-biting is good for the women he vampirizes – they certainly seem to agree, so who am I to judge?), the other in the artsy philosophizing sort of vampire film, and its tail (bats have tails, right?) in the trenches of exploitation. I wouldn’t exactly say these three things go together perfectly all the time (philosophy and romance and mild sleaze aren’t exactly on a talking basis at all times) but when they don’t, they do lead to interesting friction that keeps the film lively and certainly never boring. Well, almost never – there are the inevitable scenes about two character-vacant cops trying to solve a series of murders mostly committed by Stephen’s brides (the film never calls them that, but it’s clear it is playing with the trope) that really lead nowhere and could have used cutting, but we’re not talking about Last House on the Left levels of self-sabotage here.

Ciccoritti’s direction is at times awkward and stiff like an art school project gone wrong, often creative like one gone very right, and certainly moody, showing 1980s Toronto as the grubby Canadian sister to the grubby 70s New York we know from so many other movies, and using its urban decay as the perfect - slightly unreal in its grimy reality - backdrop for a story about a bunch of people and not-people-anymore close to death. This provides the film with an effective mood of decay that’s even further increased by the sometimes curiously affected, sometimes natural, and sometimes just plain weird performances by Oliviero (who is called Michael A. Miranda today, it seems) and Papas. Thanks to this internal strangeness, it is often not clear at all if any given scene is a dream sequence, a vision, a memory, a wish of one of the characters or a metaphor, an approach to depicting the precarious position of reality in these characters’ lives that also takes the film close to European horror of the decade before. Ciccoritti isn’t quite the poet Rollin was, obviously, or the obsessed man Franco was, but he’s clearly giving the film a dream-like mood of its own devising. It’s probably a death-dream though, giving the ideas about Eros and Thanatos Graveyard Shift is interested in.

So, given my peculiar tastes, it’s no surprise I’m quite enamoured with the film. Because really, what’s not to like about a film that takes elements from downbeat US horror of the 70s (the ending, the grubbiness), and Europe (the mood), swirls them with urban decay, and philosophizes about death, sex and love, and the point where it becomes very difficult to distinguish one from the next?

Saturday, November 14, 2015

In short: Gangs of New York (2002)

For quite a few people (particularly those that didn’t already throw their hands up in disgust over Casino, which I rather love), though certainly not all, this seems to be the film where Martin Scorsese lost it. Me, coming to it after a decade or so of thinking they were right, think these people, and therefore yesterday’s me, are dead wrong, and this just might be one of the man’s masterpieces. Fortunately, we still can look down on The Aviator.

There’s no need to go into technical accomplishments, I think, but it seems rather important to me to emphasise how much this is the perfect, horrifying, pretty damn apocalyptic epos of how the US look from over here: a place divided by tribal lines of race everybody is always on about but only wants to change by kicking other people in the dirt, and by lines of class everybody pretends don’t exist; a place that channels its guilt and its pressures into horrifying outbursts of ritualistic violence that also just happen to distract the people involved in them from what’s really going on around them. Not that Europe 2015 and our willingness to let people just die at our doorsteps and to only ever take an interest in our own catastrophes looks much better there, mind you.

Gangs takes this basic fact about America and rams it home in exhausting, sometimes exhilarating, generally operatic and often terrifying ways with a combination of highly stylized yet pretty perfect acting performances, the technical accomplishments I’m not mentioning, and an often surprising streak of compassion that’s never undermining the horrors of the film (as a film about systemic horror, this is as much a horror film as Halloween is, just about a different kind of horror) but helps to avoid cynicism and provides humanity in places where you’d least expect it. And while Marty’s at it, he also deconstructs a classic tale of revenge (or rather, crushes it under the boot heel of history), and breaks every thinking viewer’s heart.