Thursday, January 29, 2015

In short: Dracula Untold (2014)

Unlike a lot of people, I have no trouble at all with Sony turning the Universal version of Dracula into a fantasy adventure thingum instead of gothic horror. The original movies, or the Hammer films, and so on, aren’t going anywhere after all, and some of those weren’t any good anyway, so there’s always room for doing the classic monsters differently. Plus, it’s not as if people would suddenly stop making other vampire, werewolf, etc movies, so I don’t see the harm in this, or in Sony’s project of turning the classic monsters into a dark(ish) fantasy action movie universe. Of course, going by the actual results until now, the project has a snowball’s chance in hell to be as successful – commercially or artistically – as Marvel’s output is right now, what with the bunch of non-entity directors making them (Gary Shore, anyone?), and the scripts that never get interesting enough to even be called bad.

Consequently, for me Dracula Untold’s problem isn’t that it’s a mainstream blockbuster film instead of gothic horror movie but that it’s a deeply mediocre mainstream blockbuster film that shows no feeling at all for the possibilities for Dracula as a dark(ish) action hero with bat based super powers (call him Emo Batman, and you’re done), only seldom shows much of an idea about how to do spectacle well (okay, there’s the scene where Dracs casts Summon Bat Swarm on the whole Turkish army, and I find the whole “vampires are made out of bat swarms” angle amusing), and hits the expected plot beats without any conviction, aiming for gravitas but never actually doing the work for earning it.

Too little about the film’s world is fleshed out: we learn a few things because characters exposit them but the film hits that sour spot where the things we actually get to see are neither believable enough nor interesting enough to make one willing to buy into their reality as parts of the world of the film they occur in. Worse, these elements are frequently not just dumb but also terribly dull. I am – for example - sure it would have helped the general excitement levels if the armies involved in various battles would either have used believable tactics (or any tactics at all, really) or tactics that would have been fun to watch. Instead, anything anyone does here – be it in war or in peace – generally feels designed to get the film from one plot beat to the next. Alas, plot beats do not a story make, and a mediocre blockbuster is as little worth watching as is a truly bad one. Though kudos to the film being not as bad as Michael Bay’s Ninja Turtles.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Northmen – A Viking Saga (2014)

A small band of Viking outcasts surrounding young Asbjorn (Tom Hopper) were outlawed by King Harald because they “have opinions Harald doesn’t like”, or so Asbjorn tells us. Seeing as they begin the film crashing their boat against the coast of Scotland while they were actually trying to reach Lindisfarne for a bit of rape and pillaging, one might think of somewhat different reasons, but oh well.

Be that as it may, after that tiny mishap Asbjorn and his men – dude with bow, old guy, guy who doesn’t like Asbjorn very much but will come around in the end, etc (all acted well enough for what they are) – do stumble upon a group of Scottish soldiers whom they proceed to kill, acquiring a Scottish noble daughter named Inghean (Charlie Murphy) in the process. Inghean, the men think, just might be what will buy them places in the closest Viking settlement. Alas, Inghean isn’t just any noble daughter but actually the daughter of the King of Scotland himself, so soon there’s half an army on our protagonists’ tracks. Worse, they won’t even be able to trade Inghean in for their safety, because while the king “only” wants his daughter killed if necessary, his favourite mercenaries leading the hunt, Bjorn (James Norton) and Hjorr (Ed Skrein), think it’s much better politics to slaughter her in any case.

Well, at least a friendly Christian warrior monk (Ryan Kwanten, who isn’t as atrociously miscast as you might expect) is around to help the Vikings out a little while they and the increasingly friendly Inghean are looking for a way to leave Scotland.

Now, as I might have mentioned a dozen times or so before, pseudo-historical pulp action movies have an easy time with me, so it probably won’t be much of a surprise that I found myself enjoying Claudio Fäh’s German, Swiss, South African co-production with a bunch of English language actors quite a bit, despite the film’s obvious flaws.

Among these flaws are: you know which colour scheme and you can – if you want – just mentally insert my usual rant about colour films who don’t actually want to take on the visual responsibility of colour but are too chickenshit to actually be black and white here; a script I’m pretty certain if seen filmed a dozen times or so before with slightly different character names and ethnicities; characters who generally aren’t terribly well individuated beyond their names and hair styles; various wasted opportunities to add any kind of thematic weight to the film (and there’s quite a bit of weight pulp adventure can carry, if the people writing it just want it); and the fact that these Vikings and Scottish clanspeople don’t actually act according to the things we know about their cultures.

Fortunately, some of these flaws are problems that I am not exactly happy to encounter yet which still are not too problematic for the enjoyment of the film at hand – apart from the non-colour scheme that wastes quite a few clearly impressive landscape shots for no reason at all. While I naturally prefer the thematically enriched kind of pulp adventure more, there’s nothing really wrong with the more basic version presented here, where every man speaks in gruff grunts that suggest bad hormone problems or damaged vocal chords, at least when he’s not fighting, a situation that can only involve him loudly shouting “Yaaaaaaargh” while showing off his perfect, perfect, teeth, and where there’s clearly nothing at all going on in the characters’ heads. At the very least, director Fäh knows how to film these things clearly and sometimes even moodily (of course – again! – except for that darn lack of colours), and does a fine enough job pacing the series of chases and skirmishes that make up most of the film’s running time. Sure, he’s no Neil Marshall but there’s no shame in that.

While this still sounds like I’m damning the film with faint praise, I honestly quite enjoyed Northmen, its focus on being the simple pulp action piece it wants to be, the grace that comes to a film without pretensions and without the need to apologize for not having pretensions via irony or by being offensively bad (like, say, much less fun Viking movie Hammer of the Gods).

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

In short: The Haunting in Connecticut 2: Ghosts of Georgia (2013)

There’s actually a fine Southern Gothic ghost story with many a creepy idea hidden inside Tom Elkins’s film just burning to get out. All the elements are there after all: a family whose female members all have the ability to see ghosts, a house in the woods in Georgia with a dark secret connected to its past as a station of the Underground Railroad, and more ghosts than you can shake a stick at. Unfortunately, it also has no idea how to treat these elements properly and not end up with what plays out like a somewhat more brutal episode of one of those TV shows about people talking to ghosts and fixing their problems so they can move on (like crap occult detectives who nearly never actually meet frightening ghosts, come to think of it).

Unfortunately, even if the script did better, it all would still come to naught thanks to the most generic Insidious “inspired” modern mainstream horror direction imaginable, so it’s a film that mostly consists of clichéd “character moments” that have little to with people or the idea of actual people (despite Abigail Spencer and Katee Sackhoff trying their best to pretend they are in fact playing human beings), and the kind of horror scenes that just can’t imagine to use anything other than whoosh cuts, flash cuts, random inserts of the moon, lots of flickering for no reason, and many a stupid noise on the soundtrack that’s pretty much the opposite of sound design.

It’s a bit as if the supernatural menace here were a chap trying to try out all the effects of his cheap new digital editing suite; not surprisingly, the resulting scenes of horror are ineffective, generally annoying and even a bit depressing because it’s oh so easy to imagine what people who actually knew what they were doing could achieve with some of the film’s basic ideas. Unfortunately, we end up with a cheap house of horror ride that doesn’t even work as one. Though I have to give The Haunting in Connecticut 2: Ghosts of Georgia props for the gnomic paradox of its title.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

In short: Springfield Rifle (1952)

For a Western directed by the great André de Toth, I was actually a pretty disappointed by this espionage piece taking place during the US Civil War. There’s a surprising lack of complexity to the film’s characters, and even protagonist Gary Cooper’s central moral dilemma (you can’t have a 50s Western without one) is rather clear-cut to me, with the film’s script underplaying and undervaluing copious opportunities to give more depth to the proceedings. The films seems to see no place for an actual character arc for Cooper’s Major Kearney, leaving us with a story about a man who starts the tale it tells just as he begins, with no changes to him at all in between.

Then there’s the Gary Cooper factor, the man’s very personal type of blandness that, as always, sees him saying his lines, scrunching his face up from time to time, but never developing much of a personality. Who is his Major Lex Kearney? Neither Cooper’s performance nor the script seem willing (or able?) to tell, which leaves quite the hole where the film’s emotional and intellectual heart should be.

Still, while this is a minor de Toth film, even working from a bland script that ends in pretty unendurable fawning about the (oh so wonderful, so buy one) Springfield Rifle (capital letters totally necessary), the director knew how to make an entertaining movie, even if there was no room for depth, so Springfield Rifle’s big set pieces really deserve the descriptor of “rousing”, with beautiful photography, excellent staging and the kind of visual imagination that should have been served by a better script. Plus, the film features one of Beloved Horror Icon Lon Chaney Jr.’s Western appearances as a rather dumb main henchman.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

In short: Thor: The Dark World (2013)

I’m actually a bit embarrassed for Kenneth Brannagh that a – talented – journeyman director like Alan Taylor is able to make a decent Thor movie for Marvel, where the so-called artiste’s attempt was mostly an example of bored indifference, wasted actors, and of how to make expensive effects look a lot like cardboard.

Don’t get me wrong, this second Thor movie is generally cute instead of riveting, fun instead of exciting, and really not very rich on interesting subtext, which does keep it far from being one of the first rate superhero films, but, unlike with the one that came before, I was enjoying myself tremendously watching it. This Thor movie also makes good use of an actually pretty wonderful cast, and is generally giving the impression the people on screen are having fun doing what they do. Why, even Anthony Hopkins seems to be awake this time around, and Hemsworth and Hiddleston are the two actors we saw in the Avengers instead of the ones looking awkward and dull in Brannagh’s film.

Add to that how much imagination The Dark World shows, how many lovely nods towards Kirby and Simonson it contains, and how it dares to be silly without being embarrassed about it, and you find me rather happy with it even though it doesn’t try to be a superhero version of A Tale of Two Cities (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

Thursday, January 22, 2015


Beckoning the Butcher (2013): This Australian POV movie – directed, written and edited by Dale Trott – is a perfectly serviceable spook show that avoids some of the usual found footage clichés. There’s no climactic running through the woods (though there is running through an outback desert stretch), no tearful confession into the camera, and the film purports to be an actual documentary built from the footage of the mandatory disappeared kids. It’s also quite well made on a technical level and knows how to pace itself (no format typical sagging middle here).

So why am I still somewhat lukewarm about the resulting movie? I suspect the reason is that it seems a bit too comfortable for my tastes with being a decently made POV horror film that avoids some clichés, not aiming even a little bit beyond that. There’s a certain lack of depth – of emotion, of imagination, of ideas – that make it difficult to say much more about it, really. The film’s central supernatural force lacks any visible or suggested backstory, or really any characteristics that would make it interesting, mysterious, weird, or what have you, leading to a blandness I wish a film this technically competent would have avoided.

Grave Encounters 2 (2012): On paper, I should be all about a horror sequel acting this meta towards its predecessor. However, there seems not point at all to the amount of metafictional nonsense John Poliquin’s film gets up to, at least if you’re like me and like this sort of thing only when it has a reason to be in a film beyond providing an excuse to make the first film again, just worse, with added unfunny jokes and a pacing that drags us through so much “funny” and “ironic” horror film making business it truly becomes a drag. It’s difficult to see all that irony as anything but padding, a mutant, even more horrifying form of odious comic relief that isn’t just a part of the movie that’s out to destroy all tension anymore, but the film actively gloating about destroying its own tension. Or, given the quality of the actual horror parts, here, supposed tension.

Inner Demons (2014): Given my usual dislike for possession style horror films (and yet I’m still watching them - because that makes sense in my world), I’m surprised by how much fun I had with Seth Grossman’s “demonic possession at a reality TV rehab show” film, but then, as a high concept, that’s hard to beat. Of course, the film only makes little sense looked at from the angle of actual psychiatric practices or actual human behaviour, and becomes increasingly improbable in these regards the longer the whole affair goes on, but until the rather hilarious climax rolls around, it’s just surprisingly fun to watch, with a lead actress in Lara Vosburgh (who looks a bit like a young Jennifer Connelly) who throws herself into that possession stuff in all the right and all the wrong ways, a plot that isn’t sensible yet moves at an atypically fast pace for POV horror, and quite a bit of fun to be had. 
And hey, that’s a lot more than The Last Exorcism was ever willing to provide.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Lucy (2014)

A series of unfortunate events starting with a bad choice in boyfriends leads American-in-Taiwan Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) onto the road to become an involuntary drug mule for South Korean drug kingpin (I assume) Mr. Jang (Choi Min-sik). When more unfortunate events bring the experimental drug she’s smuggling from her stomach into her blood stream, Lucy starts to develop better superpowers than you get from being bitten by a radioactive spider. Lucy becomes able to use ever more of her brain capacity, using the 90 percent of the human brain we can’t access according to the bullshit science of the script (seriously, people, I know that’s a much-loved bit of nonsense, but it’s nonsense nonetheless). From then on, the plot increasingly resembles a random assortment of disconnected scenes, with nobody doing much that makes sense, neither on the level of logic nor on that of basic human psychology. Or what, just for example, is Mr. Jang’s actual motivation for his killing spree that includes basically everyone his goons encounter? Lucy for her part tries to give her increasingly superhuman knowledge to one Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman), famous neurologist (tee-hee) before she’ll die, or, as she in fact does, turn into the sort of entity that’ll make people who like some privacy for their masturbation decidedly uncomfortable.

So, as should be obvious writer/director Luc Besson still hates logic, physics, and all that comes with it. Unlike with many a EuropaCorp movie, the resulting film-like entity is quite fun too watch, probably also because it was directed by Besson himself, a man with a keen visual imagination, a classic eye for the staging of all kinds of scenes, and none of the love for video clip bullshit that can make the films of some of his protégés – like the dreaded Olivier Megaton – so difficult to stomach. Sure, neither the science nor the psychology make sense, and the film’s Big Answer to the Big Questions it is supposedly asking in those scenes where no perfectly idiotic bit of violence is happening seem to be “Time’s a bit important. I think.”, but then, I didn’t really expect Besson to make a proper philosophical SF movie, nor even a science fictional action movie with proper philosophic bits.

As nearly always with Besson’s films, it’s not the question if the film’s a mess or not, but rather if it’s a hot one or not. Lucy, fortunately, is the former, at first pretending to use its superhuman basic as an excuse to have Scarlett Johansson do a Liam Neeson (as if we needed an excuse for that, particular since she has turned out to be such an excellent Black Widow in the Marvel movies) but then quickly turning into an excuse for Besson to do the thing he’s really good at: making up weird stuff while things explode from time to time, and – in this case – Morgan Freeman pops in for a few scenes to hold a scientific lecture (not based in actual science), look wise, and manage to not break out into fits of the giggles. If you take it for what it is, Lucy really is pretty fantastic, eschewing sense for the free-floating game of associations of a very loud and flashy dream that culminates in one of the most peculiar nods to Kubrick’s 2001 you’ll ever see.

I’m happy there are many SF films that aren’t like Lucy but I’m totally fine with Lucy being as it is, in particular because it’s a film much too weird to ever bore you, and so random I find it difficult to assume even Besson did see anything that happens in it coming beyond the explosions and Johansson and Freeman putting way more effort in than their characters deserve.

Also, what the hell did I just watch?

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

In short: The Long Riders (1980)

There’s something peculiar about the fact that various groups of what most certainly were deeply unpleasant men of the Old American West have become folk heroes. But then, there seems to be a strain in US culture that values independence far more than any moral or ethical values. Of course, in the case of the James-Younger Gang, history did make things quite easy for folklore by involving the even more unpleasant boot of the rich and equally lawless in form of the Pinkertons on the other side, and including the taste of betrayal.

Where folklore went, Hollywood followed very early on, so Walter Hill’s film about the rise and fall of the James and the Youngers is only one particularly fine film about these dubious people among many. And a very, very fine film it is, perhaps one of the best – und certainly one of the more underrated – revisionist Westerns ever made. It’s a film that does little wrong, starting out leisurely in a tone of highly stylized authenticity - which of course isn’t authenticity at all, but a way to make the world a film takes place in feel believable and lived in by real people – that slowly but surely turns darker, culminating in the most surreal Great Northfield Minnesota Raid ever put on screen, as far as I know.

In between, the film walks the line of treating its robber heroes as its heroes without ever turning them completely into the folkloric heroes, nor treating them as mere psychopaths. The James’s and Younger’s exploits are also located in a very specific kind of post-US-Civil-War resentment of poor Southern whites towards the Union, not a place I find particularly comfortable to sympathize with (because, d’oh, slavery) but again something that adds complexity to the characters and positions them in a believable social milieu, something Hill is – to my surprise – just as adept at showing as he is at the violence and the underplayed male friendships. And even though this is quite the male dominated film, Hill also finds room to show women with agency and minds of their own; it just doesn’t help them much.

It’s a humanizing effort that is further supported by some fine acting by the collected Keachs, Carradines, and Quaids that make up its cast in what sounds like stunt casting but really does work out very fine in this case, with the various siblings playing siblings with not exactly surprising sibling chemistry. Ironically, at least for me, for once letting actual relations play relations does feel a bit strange in a movie, because I – and I do imagine I’m not the only one – have so gotten used to see siblings on my screen not looking similar at all, the film’s gesture of particular naturalism does feel weird rather than natural. Which, come to think of it, is quite a trick of Hill to play on his audience.

But then, The Long Riders does play quite a few tricks on its audience, subverting expectations and making things much more messy than they appear at first; that the film is also just a fantastic revisionist western might be one of these tricks.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Kite (2014)

In a near future South Africa dominated by gangs and a corrupt police force after some sort of economic collapse. A young woman named Sawa (India Eisley) hunts a mysterious slaver and trafficker in kids only known as The Emir, the man responsible for the murder of her policeman father. To keep her trauma at bay, Sawa is taking the drug Amp that not only makes the psychological pain go away but also erases parts of her memory and increases her combat reflexes, though I’m not sure her killing machine style really needs much improvement. Her only friend is Karl (Samuel L. Jackson), her father’s former partner who keeps her in weapons, drugs and information and tries to erase as many of her traces as he can, which gets increasingly more difficult the closer she gets to the Emir and the higher her body count becomes.

Of course, taking a drug that destroys one’s memory isn’t necessarily a good thing to do because you just might lose your personality, or the actual reason for doing the things that you do, with it, and consequently, Sawa might have forgotten some rather important facts. Like how she is connected to the young guy (Callan McAulifee) who seems to be following her, helping her out (or at least trying to) and who says they know each other well.

What we have with Ralph Ziman’s Kite is a US/Mexican/South African co-production of the adaptation of a Japanese anime I haven’t seen but which is supposedly much, much smuttier. The whole international she-bang was filmed in South Africa, giving the film more of the feel of one of Luc Besson’s more obscure productions than of your typical US SF/action movie.

In fact, on an aesthetic level, Kite doesn’t so much remind me of its own anime roots as of a live action version of a francophone comic crossed with the 2010s interpretation of an old Duran Duran video clip. Which, if you ask me, is a good thing, and certainly an aesthetic that gives the film an individual feel, particularly in connection with the use it makes of its South African locations (only the most ugly and run-down, of course, because this is a post-economical apocalypse movie and not a tourist video) and minor role actors. It’s an interesting mix to say the least, and while Kite’s plot isn’t anything I haven’t seen a dozen times before (including the idea that vengeance probably-maybe doesn’t solve everything or makes you whole again), the rather more lived in world it takes place in gives it a bit of originality – at least inside the genre borders of post-economical collapse SF action. Which yes, is a thing now.

The film’s action is pretty great too, with a variety of increasingly tense and bloody fights that actually manage to sell the not exactly threateningly built Eisley as a frightening killing machine through clever choreography, fast-but-not-too-fast editing, and Eisley’s surprising ability to go from controlled childlike to fierce through poise and facial expressions. Sure, she probably couldn’t take most of the guys she makes mincemeat out of here in real life but she sure has the eyes of somebody who could, and that’s what counts in movies. On the other hand, the film also doesn’t make the mistake of never letting her lose a fight; as all good action heroes, one of her qualities is not that she’s never going down but the way she gets up again.

The plot, as I said, isn’t very original, but the film is well enough paced and doesn’t just go from one action sequence to the next. At the very least, Kite possesses an actual story, as well as characters that make sense in their comic book-y way, and while it isn’t exploring questions of trauma, memory and identity deeply, it’s not a thoughtless movie either. In particular when it comes to a style of worldbuilding that suggests more than it explains about its specific post-collapse world but which does intimate things that feel to belong together and form the place in which these characters attempt to survive.

And that’s really the part that makes Kite work for me the most, the feeling that its crazy, a little sad, and a little silly plot takes place in a world appropriate to it.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

In short: WolfCop (2014)

Right, spoilers.

Every 32 years, there’s weird shit happening in an otherwise sleepy US small town. Alcoholic and worst cop ever Lou Garou (Leo Fafard) has rather a bad time of it, for he finds himself victim of a ritual that turns him into a werewolf. His transformation is part of the ass-backwards plan of the shapeshifting reptile people secretly running the town who snuff werewolf blood harvested at the time of a solar eclipse. To keep things handled as easy as possible, they usually turn the least capable people they can get their hands on into their blood donator werewolves, but in Lou’s case, something – possibly thanks to all the alcohol he’s marinated his innards in – goes very wrong and he turns into some sort of super werewolf who just happens to be a much better – though decapitation-happy – cop than the original human.

But will his stupid wolf powers, his wolf mobile (don’t ask), and the help of the only sane person in town, his decidedly more competent colleague Tina (Amy Matysio), be enough to thwart the shapeshifters’ vague evil plans?

I’m generally not too fond of the whole “instant cult film” approach to filmmaking, but I did find myself somewhat charmed by Lowell Dean’s WolfCop. Probably because it does work as an actual horror comedy and not only as an exercise in ironic winking at its audience (something I generally react to with eye-rolling, annoyed muttering and the shaking of fists). Now, it’s not the deepest of comedies, and not every joke is a hit but I really appreciate how most of the humour here is based on setting up a ridiculous situation and then following it with the appropriate logic, which is to say, the logic of the ridiculous, an approach that does at the very least provide the film with an absurd sort of coherence.

From time to time, the film even hits pay dirt, deserving some hearty chuckles for scenes like our hero’s invention of what I can only call the Wolfmobile, or a wolfman/woman sex scene filmed exactly like you’d have found it in 90s action cinema, just that one of the participants is a werewolf in a sheriff deputy’s uniform. As I said, it’s not deep, but it certainly has its moments. WolfCop also gets bonus brownie points for its pleasant use of Tina, who doesn’t suddenly turn from competent to helpless for the film’s finale so our hero has somebody to rescue; instead there’s a lot of female lead and male lead rescuing each other going on. Mainstream movies could learn something from that.

And if that is not enough to entertain you for 80 minutes, there are many spirited practical gore effects, a wolfman get-up that is as silly as it is expressive, and basically never a dull moment.

Friday, January 16, 2015

On ExB: (The) Shepherd (1999)

aka Cybercity

Hey, you! Yes you! You might not know it, but you need some Shepherd in your life! It’s the cheap-o post-apocalyptic sort-of cyberpunk action movie of choice for everyone who wants to witness how Roddy Piper gets religion, C. Thomas Howell makes a growly face, and David Carradine becomes one with his ventriloquist’s doll (I suspect The Method).

Just click on through to my column at the brilliant ventriloquist doll lovin’ Exploder Button for enlightenment!

Thursday, January 15, 2015

In short: The Houses October Built (2014)

Friends Zack (Zack Andrews), Brandy (Brandy Schaefer), Bobby (Bobby Roe), Mikey (Mikey Roe) and Jeff (Jeff Larson) are going on a road trip, visiting various haunted house attractions in the run-up to Halloween, filming whatever they encounter. The attractions our protagonists visit become increasingly disturbing, featuring moments where the line between make-believe and something much more disturbing and real becomes more than a little blurred.

Internet hints and rumours lead the friends on the trail of a mysterious “extreme haunt” that seems to move from state to state with every year. That sounds like a thing to look for when you’re as low on self preservation instincts as these people are, so go and look for it is what they do. Unfortunately for our heroes, what they are looking for might already have found them, and it might care little for the fine differences between the anything goes space of the haunted house attraction and the outside world.

Bobby Roe’s excellently titled The Houses October Built makes pretty fantastic use of the basics of POV style horror, adding some choice bits of verité by using some real roadside haunts as locations, and telling a simple yet effective story that really works best told in this style. The real haunts add quite a bit of veracity to the proceedings, making the slow approach of the worse things awaiting our protagonists that decisive bit more plausible, playing with the fact that the particular home-made character of the attractions gives their horrors a more authentic and therefore potentially more disturbing feeling than a slick corporate production could provide. It’s a bit like the difference between Poltergeist and Texas Chainsaw Massacre (the latter of which Houses makes repeated nods towards).

Roe is also very clever in the way he integrates his – or the production’s, for in this kind of indie production, where half of the cast is also involved in the writing, not to speak of the direction, the distinction is rather difficult to make – own pieces of creepiness into the original houses, emphasising the blurring lines between showmanship and reality even further.

It does of course help that these pieces of creepiness are designed with a keen sense for the disturbing schooled on the modern campfire tale. Simple and highly archetypal masks – skulls, and clowns, and creepy girls – abound, and the shadow of what we imagine a snuff film would like (Last House on Dead End Street?) lies heavily over the proceedings. The escalation of the film’s real threat works just as nicely, again using simple means to great effect.

Now would probably be the point where I’d have to grumble about he film’s characterisation, but for the plot at hand, the sheer basics the film provides are just about enough, and the actors are definitely competent enough for the characters. I might have wished for some kind of explanation beyond stupidity for the way three out of five of our characters rush headlong into obvious danger where most people would be running into the other direction but the point didn’t really encroach upon my enjoyment of The Houses October Built too much, given how well it does everything else (with extra bonus points for starting with a Walter Jon Williams quote).

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

SyFy vs. The Mynd: Interceptor Force 2 (2002)

A few years after the first film, the second (and final, don’t you worry) Interceptor Force movie found its true home with the Sci Fi Channel, which doesn’t seem to have changed the production values for the worse. The new crappy CG alien still looks and moves ridiculous, the number of locations is limited and corridor-heavy – you know the drill by now.

Plotwise, the company idiot mercenary Sean Lambert (Olivier Gruner) is still working for is now under exclusive contract to the US government, a fact the mild-mannered will explain with the theory that they must be very very cheap, the cynical with corruption. Both philosophical factions will at least agree the reason for renting these guys can’t be competence, because if ever I’ve seen a group of “special operatives” where the “special” is the same as in “special needs” it’s the guys and girls who accompany Sean on his new alien hunting assignment. The gang’s off to a nuclear reactor near Grosny the mate of the alien (who prefers the form of one Eve Scheer to the crappy CGI form it can also take because Terminator 3 is totally a film you want to copy from) is planning to explode together with enough nuclear war heads to poison the whole world. I’m sure Sean, his new best black buddy McCallister (Roger R. Cross), least likely to get through any psychological assessment – even among these people – Adrian Sikes (Elizabeth Gracen), German heavy weapons guy Bjorn Hatch (Alex Jolig) – totally a German name - and scientist without field experience or training – because why would you need that when you fight aliens from time to time - Dawn DeSilvia (Adrienne Wilkinson) will have everything under control, not one of them will panic or play a junior version of “oh noes! You might be the shape-shifting alien, you fiend!”, and there certainly won’t be need for a last minute bomb defusing by people you wouldn’t trust to locate their own hands while a nuclear strike force wants to strike.

Again, as with the first film, I actually kind of enjoyed this thing, not as much as the first one thanks to its replacement of crazy stupid with mere stupid, but on the very simple level where attractive people move in front of a camera, mild action sequences excite mildly, guns are shot, people are fake-killed and Nigel Bennett makes profound efforts to look concerned. So, just like the first part, but a bit less so. We can probably be thankful for the lack of a third Interceptor Force film, for the highly probable next step down on the quality ladder would have been from mere stupid to boring stupid.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

In short: See No Evil 2 (2014)

I know it’s a bit unfair to try and compare Jen and Sylvia Soska’s film after the brilliant American Mary with the one that came before, seeing as it is the belated sequel nobody ever asked for in would-be slasher franchise the WWE tailor-made for Glenn “Kane” Jacobs (whoever he may be), but then, one might ask why waste talent and time on something like this?

The optimistic view would of course be: because you can probably do much more interesting things in a franchise nobody cares about than you could do with, say, Halloween. The optimists, it turns out, aren’t completely wrong, yet they aren’t completely right either. See No Evil 2 certainly is a better film than the first one, but then, so is Jason goes to New York. Seriously, though, as far as minor slashers go, the film is perfectly fine, with the Soskas showing a – after the film I’m not going to mention anymore not too surprising – great eye for making things look interesting. Even if their film takes place in the boring corridors that make up a morgue, at least it’s a morgue dominated by various beautiful lighting effects in actual colours, and while neither the sets nor what happens in them is particularly exciting (I mean, how often have we seen this exact same thing happening?), at least it is photographed well.

I also appreciated that at least Danielle Harris’s Amy and Kaj-Erik Eriksen’s Seth are better drawn than the usual final girl and boyfriend (or in this case, guy who doesn’t dare ask her out-friend), and their little love plot is actually much better observed than you usually get in a slasher. Alas, the rest of the film consists only of the most minor variations on slasher standards, and while I’m happy there are any variations on screen at all, it really makes little difference if character type A dies ten minutes earlier than usual in a slasher, at best drawing the script from boring to perhaps mildly interesting, with none of the changes to the usual clichés eventually leading anywhere worth going.

So there’s not enough to recommend See No Evil 2 as a revisionist slasher, and at the same time, while it is always nice to look at, it is by far not viscerally exciting enough to work as a traditional slasher. The killings are perfunctory, the suspense scenes too obvious, and worst of all, Jacob Goodnight is just not a very threatening killer, lacking the archetypal power that makes the Shape or even Jason so long-lived. Instead, it’s a big guy who randomly slaughters people and from time to time flashes back to his mummy and rambles a little about sin.

It’s just not enough, which is my problem with the whole of See No Evil 2 – there doesn’t seem to be any reason for it to exist at all.

Music (ahem) Tuesday: Weighty Edition

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Sunday, January 11, 2015

In short: The Numbers Station (2013)

When CIA killer Emerson Kent (John Cusack) starts to show signs of a developing conscience, he is dispatched as “protection” to a numbers station. He’s there to take care of code broadcaster Katherine (Malin Akerman), a state of affairs the woman who hasn’t quite wrapped her head around what kind of world she is working in interprets as him being her bodyguard. As a matter of fact, it’s Kent’s job to kill Katherine in case of a security breach, protecting the one unbreachable line of communications the espionage business knows.

When that breach comes, though, Kent finds himself unable and unwilling to do what he’s supposed to do. Instead, the station gets into a minor siege situation, and it might just turn out that Kent acting like an actual human being – as well as Katherine being rather brilliant at her job – will save more lives than the more traditionally monstrous choice would.

Obviously, we’ve seen all the elements that make up Kasper Barfoed’s rather low key espionage thriller The Numbers Station before, but this is another film where the beauty and the success lie in the execution. Barfoed demonstrates a calm and secure control over his material that at the very least turns the film into something very much worth watching, where a viewer might know the borders inside of which the film operates very well, yet still find himself captivated. I at least did, appreciating Barfoed’s focused and methodical direction befitting a film centring around a usually focused and methodical character, the fact that he’s actually keeping the lost art of using colours in a meaningful way alive, and the excellent use he makes of a small yet fine cast and the handful of locations. There’s a real sense of concentration on display here, with no moment wasted on anything that isn’t important for the simple yet effective plot. On the other hand, the film never falls into the trap of giving its audience too little to work with.

Add to that the pleasant fact this is one of the film’s where John Cusack isn’t just showing up but actually giving his role a quiet intensity, and a strong performance of the kind that looks simpler than it actually is by Akerman, and you have a film that will probably not send many people raving with excitement but whose focus and steadiness are actually things one might find worth cherishing.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Winter of the Dead (2012)

aka Meteletsa

It’s snowing in July over a Russian town. Curiously, at the very same time, the phone lines are going down and the cell phone networks become unavailable, so it might be even more than climate change going on here. In fact, before you can say “zombie apocalypse”, there’s an outbreak of slow yet somewhat shouty zombies. Muscovite TV reporter Kostya (Mikhail Borzenov) and his crew were in town to film some sort of protest, but Kostya soon teams up in running for their lives with Iskra (Tatyana Zhevnova), who is handy with a nail gun and also just happens to be the daughter of Khan (Sergey Shirochin), a gangster/businessman aiming for the governor’s seat of the region.

The rest of Kostya’s crew runs into Khan and his well-armed group of thugs, giving the film opportunity for some slight satiric jabs at oligarchs of this particular type as well as providing the opportunity to have some parts play out in our beloved/hated POV horror style. You can pretty much imagine the rest. Just add Khan’s arch enemy, part time tough guy Knyazev (Dmitriy Kozhuro), Khan’s wife/Knyazev’s girlfriend Dariya (Yuliya Yudintseva), and a priest (Aleksandr Abramovich) who’s very good at fighting zombies with axes.

So, how is the first Russian zombie movie I have encountered? In a lot of ways, like half of all the other zombie movies from around the world I’ve seen, going through the same time tired plot beats in generally the same ways. Could we call a moratorium on the “loved one becomes a zombie thing” at least? I know, the concept as it is still is horrifying but the tireless repetition of it in every damn zombie film ever made has turned what should be an archetypal fear into a tired cliché, so why not not have it in your film?

Not surprisingly, Nikolai Pigarev’s film is at its best when it doesn’t concern the traditional plot beats, and when it attempts to turn the facts of Russian life into fodder for its zombie apocalypse. We haven’t seen the particular unpleasant tough guy type represented by Khan in many horror movies, for example, which makes his final destiny slightly disconcerting, seeing as it does suggest a degree of approval for him from the side of the film. At least, there’s no page in the zombie filmmaking rule book for him.

For my tastes, there’s really not enough of this more individual stuff in the film, and – apart from haircuts and fashion – a lot of what takes place here could happen the very same way everywhere from Timbuktu to Gdansk. Well, apart from the mild religious undertones to parts of the proceeding, but, given how little I know about the Russian Orthodox church and its ways, I’m not sure how seriously I’m supposed to read them.

Fortunately, and not totally surprising for me in a Russian film after some of the late period Soviet movies of the type Western film critics never talk about because they’re too busy pretending each country in the world only produces one type of movie I’ve seen, Winter of the Dead also finds its feet whenever it tries to be a cheap, cheesy action movie with zombies. Particularly the last third has quite a few fun moments concerning improbable acts of shooting, the eternal fight between construction machinery and zombie horde, and a big damn explosion (which our survivors escape not by the classical running away from it but by the hopefully soon-to-be classic driving away from it on a train). While this doesn’t make the tiredness of the zombie apocalypse tropes go away it does give the film a bit of a personality of its own, and should be enough to entertain people who enjoy a bit of cheap and cheesy action cinema in their zombie movies. Which I, of course, do.

Thursday, January 8, 2015


Apocalyptic (2014): Are all contemporary films about apocalypse cults the same? Discuss! But seriously, Apocalyptic’s big problem isn’t that it’s a bad film – it certainly isn’t – it’s that I’ve seen more or less exactly the same film more than once before, which can’t help but make the very low survival skills of the protagonists even less believable, nor make the same damn twist ending (where “twist” means “something utterly predictable”) all these movies have any more interesting.

But hey, if you haven’t seen one of these before, you might as well watch this one.

Falcon Rising (2014): Ernie Barbarash’s Michael Jai White vehicle is a perfectly decent low budget movie with all the problems that entails – the often a bit too cartoony characters, the plot that jumps from nearly having something interesting to say about power structures to utter nonsense (and never back again), and creativity in the set-up of the action scenes that is at times visibly constrained by the available money. Barbarash’s direction tends towards the decent instead of the excellent here, while the action choreography is good. The film moves along at a nice enough pace for the most part, and Michael Jai White is – as has been often the case in his career – generally better than whatever surrounds him.

There’s really little else to say about the film. It’s like the movie equivalent of fast food, probably not very nourishing, never too exciting, yet pleasant enough while it lasts.

Game of Assassins aka The Gauntlet (2013): A bunch of people who have killed before find themselves in a cardboard dungeon set even copious amounts of dry ice can’t make more convincing. They have to survive a series of contrived and deeply idiotic tests that have a moral dilemma aspect so flat many videogames would be ashamed to use it. Characters babble clichéd nonsense about their past. Some violence happens. Then, some more violence happens until the whole stupid affair climaxes in a twist-y ending so dumb yet played with so much seriousness and conviction it does become funny enough I suddenly found myself kind of liking the film for it, despite having reacted to what came before mostly with yawning, eye-rolling and damning the influence bad RPG trap design seems to have had on the script.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

SyFy vs. The Mynd: Finders Keepers (2014)

Following the separation from her husband Jonathan (Patrick Muldoon), writer Alyson Simon (Jaime Pressly) and her little daughter Claire (Kylie Rogers) move into a surprisingly cheap house in what I assume to be one of these archetypal US small towns. Not surprisingly, there’s a rather violent reason for the new home’s excellent price, and it hasn’t got anything to do with home foreclosures.

Barely moved in Claire finds one of the most hideous dolls ever created by human hands (or is it?) hidden away in her room. The doll quickly becomes the girl’s only friend, but it’s a rather bad influence on her. Before you can even say dollmonic possession, Claire starts ripping off fly wings, cats are skinned, and various people are killed in various silly ways. This being a SyFy movie and all, Alyson will have to team up with Jonathan - as well as her very useful expositional anthropologist professor friend Elena Carranza (Justina Machado) - to set things straight again.

Because some things are just naturally creepy, it’s really difficult to mess up a horror film about a creepy doll, particularly when the film in question also uses the that other mainstay of utter creepiness, children. Consequently, Alexander Yellen’s Finders Keepers is watchable and mostly entertaining throughout.

Alas, it is also little more, for in the tradition of the mediocre third of SyFy originals (the other thirds are of course the genuinely good ones, and the atrocious ones, respectively), there’s not just a decided lack of originality on display but also a somewhat sad unwillingness – or maybe a lack of ability – to use the standard elements the film is built on to their full potential. So you have a film that first brings up a plot point where Claire’s psychiatrist (a very sleepy Tobin Bell who doesn’t look or sound like he actually wanted to be on set, or get up in the morning) has to think Alyson is abusing her daughter thanks to evil doll machinations but then doesn’t do anything worthwhile with it, never daring to actually dive into the combined anxieties surrounding child abuse and the horror it would be to be innocently thought to abuse one’s child. Instead of going this more subtle and potentially disturbing way, the film’s horror becomes increasingly silly, until Claire (not the most convincing creepy kid even in her best scenes) is plucking out eyeballs and setting anthropologists on fire. On the positive side, the film certainly doesn’t drag its feet or ever stays still long enough to bore, eyeballs are plucked out, and anthropologists are set on fire.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

In short: Timecop: The Berlin Decision (2003)

The timecops of the TCE are still policing the timelines, protecting them against changes by evildoers and the well-meaning alike. But, in a classic “who watches the watchmen?” decision, the Powers that Be decide that there needs to be another time travelling organization to check the timelines really haven’t been tampered with. Or something.

Unfortunately, said organization’s boss, Brandon Miller (Thomas Ian Griffith) goes into the business of changing the timeline for the better himself. Top timecop Ryan Chan (Jason Scott Lee) just barely manages to stop Miller from killing Hitler. Miller’s wife dies in the process, leaving the already crazy Miller absolutely batshit.

That could be that, but a freak time-travelling accident cum timecop stupidity changes the past of Miller’s organization just enough for some of his men to be able to free him from his imprisonment. Miller now begins to systematically prevent the birth of the TCE’s members, which curiously enough doesn’t lead to a different bunch of timecops but to an organization so understaffed, soon only Chan is left. Timey-wimey, etc.

Our hero now needs not only to somehow catch Miller but to prevent him from killing his younger self.

In 2003, the masses were clamouring for a straight to video (well, DVD) sequel to Timecop, and this Van Damme-less effort is what they got. To my surprise, it’s actually a fun little action flick that works around its low budget pretty well without losing out on the feeling of letting its hero travel through time. Obviously, there were some western sets available on the cheap, Nazi uniforms are basically everywhere, everyone can build a disco and put silly wigs on various characters, so time travel to places other than warehouses and empty industrial buildings are a go.

Director Steve Boyum – just before an actually pretty impressive career in episodic television – keeps things moving along nicely, using cheap yet effective ways to impress in his audience that yes, indeed, people are traveling through time in inappropriate directions here, and yes, the time line has indeed been changed, even if it’s just putting an eye-patch on Chan’s boss played by John Beck. I found myself pretty impressed with the way the film handles these things, its use of shorthand perhaps more than just a bit silly but generally clear and not totally stupid.

I also liked how simply and effectively the film portrays the strange sense of alienation Chan is suffering from, from time to time emphasising the dream-like quality the life of someone travelling through time like he does would probably take on. It’s much more thought and care than I’d have expected to encounter in a film that by all rights only needed to provide some decent action scenes – which it does – and a few shots of a shirtless Lee – again, mission accomplished. Now, I’m not saying this is a particularly intelligent or deep treatment of time travel and its potential ethical complexities, but I am saying The Berlin Decision actually does put some thought into these things, leading to a film that feels just that decisive bit more convincing and satisfying than one that would not make the effort at all.