Saturday, February 28, 2015

Shreck (1990)

Roger (William Lantry), one of the members of a trio of teenage horror fans calling themselves the Dogs of Gore (I dunno, man, must be a US small town thing we wouldn’t understand), lives in the house that once belonged to their rural small town’s local serial killing Nazi, one Max Shreck, who named himself after Nosferatu’s Max Schreck but obviously didn’t know how to spell the name. Because making a pretty hilarious (except for the inserted real footage from concentration camps that’s just dumb and tacky) exposition video about Shreck and dreaming of tours through the killer’s house isn’t enough for an evening’s entertainment when one’s parents are out, the Roger and his horror fan duo of friends hold a fake séance to conjure the spirit of Shreck into a Shreck dummy one parentless day.

Unfortunately, fake séances work as well as your local TV preacher says, so our heroes soon find themselves confronted with the actually possessed Shrek dummy, the ghosts he conjures up by hitting some bedsheets, and timey-whimey troubles that suggest a Doctor Who episode that really went off the deep end.

Before there was the digital camera revolution with its opportunity for everyone and their pet monkey to make a movie in their backyard, there was the camcorder revolution that provided many a young horror film withe means to do the same, just with less yellow. Not surprisingly, many of these films are pretty unwatchable and/or devoid of any charm, which is easily excused when you keep the films’ amateur pedigrees in mind. However, as with the slightly more professional arm of SOV horror, there are quite a few of these films worth watching if you can find them. Though sometimes, I’m convinced, they actually find you.

For my tastes, Shreck certainly belongs to this elite group of kind of awesome films. Obviously, little about it is professional, but as the product of people who at that time had little going for them than the ambition to just make a damn movie, it’s quite charming, somewhat coherent and even features some pretty good ideas that might not make sense but which are fun and interesting if you prefer your entertainment dream-like. The bedsheet ghosts, for example, are obviously a supremely silly idea but they are executed with verve and earnestness, their appearance marking the point where the film leaves the world of your run-of-the-mill backyard slasher and becomes something more goofy as well as something more interesting.

Director Carl Denham (with a name that suggests a movie fan nom de plum, and no further credits despite his partners in crime here later turning up making movies, or turning into Jim Wynorski, I’d not be surprised if he did work under a different name or were indeed a group name for his writing partners Don Adams and Harry James Picardi) avoids the lengthy scenes of nothing happening these kinds of films often have and achieves a nice flow of weird shit happening with pleasant frequency. Even though the camera set-ups tend to the static side of the tracks, there’s clearly some thought put at least into the effective framing of the static shots, so there’s generally a degree of atmosphere that fits a film that does clever if awkward things like providing its exposition via an awkward self-made video made by one of its protagonists.

On the crazy front, Shreck also provides with its bedsheet ghosts, a very specific idea of time travel, a decapitation by swastika ventilator, and the final murder contraption Shreck builds, a thing that combines the basic idea of sack racing with murder. All in all, not a bad achievement for something made on someone’s grandmother’s farm.

Friday, February 27, 2015

On ExB: La Vendetta di Lady Morgan (1965)

Many of the lesser entries into the Italian Gothic Horror cycle tend to be a bit – or often rather a lot – on the boring side, with little visible effort put into making the things actually entertaining.

Massimo Pupillo’s tale of the vengeance of Lady Morgan is a bit different there. Not that it’s a good film or anything exalted of that kind, but it certainly is a very entertaining one, and most certainly one that’s working hard for its audience. Let me tell you more about it over in my column on Exploder Button.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015


Perfect Friday (1970): On paper, Peter Hall’s caper film is a fun proposition, with three leads in David Warner, Ursula Andress and Stanley Baker who have actual chemistry going on between them, and a friendly caper plot where no outside body gets hurt. The thing is, it’s all just a bit too fluffy, with too many moments of the film basically going “look delightfully clever I am, dear audience” yet not really delivering on the promised cleverness.

There’s also the glaring suspicion that there’s not actually much going on in the film, Hall distracting from the rather too simple heist at the film’s centre by filming around it stylishly and complicatedly, yet never really interested in revealing much about the characters beyond the basics. It’s certainly a good enough time as long as the movie’s running, but afterwards, it’s hard to find anything about the film that warrants thought or memory beyond two or three funny lines and David Warner’s wardrobe.

Birdemic 2: The Resurrection (2013): I think I’ve heard this joke before, and that one, and that one, and that one too. They were funny the first time, but now, not so much anymore.

I Want Him Dead aka La voglio morto (1968): Paolo Bianchini’s Spaghetti Western about Craig Hill taking revenge for the death of his sister and incidentally thwarting a plan to prolong the US Civil War is a bit more run of the mill than the last half of this description suggest. That’s on account of Bianchini’s inability (or unwillingness) to make anything out of the opportunities that part of the plot could have afforded him. The film treats these things so generically, they might just as well have been replaced with “evil people are up to no good by doing evil” and kept the same flavour, or rather lack of flavour. Politically, we learn that capitalists are evil (breaking news!).

Having said that, the film’s still perfectly serviceable entertainment: people shoot at each other, innocents die, Craig Hill scrunches his face up, a generically cool Spaghetti Western score plays, and Bianchini does keep things moving along at a nice pace.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

In short: Fist of the North Star (1995)

If there is something to suggest director Tony Randel’s adaptation of ultra-violent fight manga (and sometimes anime) Fist of the North Star is faithful to the original, then it is the fact it has left me with the same impression of utter confusion the anime left me with when I watched that ages ago.

So, plot-wise, I can tell you that the world has ended, and that evil martial artists master Shin (Costas Mandylor) is trying to unite those few parts of the rest of humanity he and his men aren’t killing, while his arch enemy Kenshiro (Gary Daniels) of an opposing school that is never supposed to fight with his first needs the repeated visits of the ghost of his dead dad Ryuken (Malcolm McDowell) – in form of Mal Mc, of a zombie, and of a levitating little boy, respectively – to be properly motivated for doing good. There’s also some business about Shin having taken Kenny’s girlfriend Julia (Isako Washio). Otherwise, people explode because they were hit, Chris Penn is evil and has a head only held together with leather straps after Kenny hit him with some of his kung fu, and Clint Howard’s character seems to be named Stalin. Yeah.

So yes, obviously, Randel’s film is a pretty fucking bizarre thing, where all people with Asian names are played by Caucasians, while Julia is Japanese, where our hero’s ultra-death attack looks lamer than anything else he does in his fights – which says something because Randel seems so clueless about how to film a martial arts fight attractively that even a dependable screen fighter like Gary Daniels looks lame – and where random minor characters we would probably know from the manga do stuff that makes little sense and has trouble even reaching the definition of “a series of events”, let’s not even use the word plot.

On the plus side, everything here is so random and so needlessly bizarre I found it difficult to look away from the screen, in fear of missing another shot of Mandylor tossing his luscious luscious hair, random gore, Malcolm McDowell’s voice speaking out of a levitating kid or the low-rent sets that are supposed to be post-apocalyptica. It’s certainly something, though I’m not at all sure what exactly that may be.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Atticus Institute (2015)

What we have here is a fine little horror movie that uses the fake documentary format (the kind with talking heads, suggestive music, archival footage yet no commentary) to tell the tale of the horrible end of its titular little institute for paranormal research in the 70s.

After a string of failures and worse, the institute’s lead parapsychologist, Henry West (William Mapother) strikes what looks at first like gold with mental patient Judith Winstead (Rya Kihlstedt), whose various paranormal powers are ridiculously huge, particularly compared with the relatively small statistical changes most of the work of West and his people has been about before. However, apart from her abilities in telekinesis and such, something else isn’t right with Judith at all. She seems more than just disturbed, and the longer her stay at the institute takes, the more bad things begin to happen around her, her paranormal feats taking on a malevolent quality, as if she were trying to get into the researchers’ minds in the most threatening ways.

It becomes so bad, West’s colleague Marcus Wheeler (whom we mostly see in later interviews and played by John Rubinstein) decides to call in the government. Not surprisingly, from then on, bad things happen even more frequently, and not necessarily only at the lab anymore, with everyone involved getting closer and closer to some kind of breakdown. Soon, it’s quite clear to everyone that Judith isn’t some kind of super mutant but possessed by a demon. Of course, this being 1976 and this kind of movie, our government friends decide to attempt to weaponize her/it. Which turns out to be a very bad idea.

As I said, Chris Sparling’s film is a very fine movie. It tells an in principle utterly preposterous tale with great earnestness and conviction, using practically no jump scares (hooray), instead working with more advanced techniques like foreshadowing of doom, an escalating atmosphere of dread built from suggestions and suppositions, and demonstrates a fine sense for the ways to present an agency that’s actually Evil with a capital e. As the film tells it, there’s an inevitability to its story that doesn’t weaken its impact like it sometimes does in films that confuse the inevitable and the obvious but strengthens it, playing with the audience’s imagination in just the right ways, using the subtle shifts in the apparent film stocks it uses and generally believable original footage to make the whole story plausible. Even the reaction of the government to an actual proof for demonic possession seems plausible in the context it is presented here – the film is actually speaking about the hubris of power more than just reproducing a cliché, incorporating exactly the sort of phrases people in power have excused their unethical and irresponsible behaviour for quite some time now and using audience knowledge about the mood of the time The Atticus Institute takes place in.

It’s all very convincing – also thanks to a quality of unshowy acting in the talking heads sequences you get when you hire experienced character players of one kind or another for these kind of parts - and adds a further frisson to the film. This again demonstrates quite a sense for telling details and an ability to use clichés in productive and effective ways to create an oppressive and deservedly creepy mood. And I say that as somebody who generally finds religious possession movies rather yawn-inducing. My reaction might of course have something to do with the film’s decision to underplay the theological tones of its central horror – you don’t need to be a Christian to get freaked out by conscious malevolence after all. And hey, easy to please as I sometimes am, I’m also pretty happy with Sparling’s decision to not have his possessed float in a ceiling corner like a particularly inconvenient insect.

In hindsight, it’s also quietly impressive how effectively the movie draws you into its world despite using so many techniques – the talking heads, the “original” footage that mostly consists of non-private moments and therefore can only do its character work via the body language and positioning of the characters - that could/should distance the audience from what’s going on. In fact, the calm, after-the-fact way The Atticus Institute tells its story seems to make it more effective to me, turning its events into something feeling closer to the factual and real. Of course an effect many fake documentaries and POV horror films strive for, but also one that is often quite elusive.

Friday, February 20, 2015

In short: The Quiet Ones (2014)

By my count, John Pogue’s (spoiler) possession horror “based on true events” whose plot I find too tedious to synopsize, is by far the worst film the undead new version of Hammer studios brought out since it got serious about the whole filmmaking gig. (Of course, I wrote this before having seen The Woman in Black 2, my editing persona who has seen that film now adds with a shudder).

I do not base this assessment on Pogue’s technical abilities – the film’s a pleasure to look at, and while I don’t buy the POV horror parts as authentically made during the 70s, they mostly don’t fall into the worst traps of the style. In this case, it’s really all the script’s fault. The credits inform it’s by Craig Rosenberg, Oren Moverman, Pogue and “based on” the screenplay by Tom de Ville, which already suggests what the resulting film really turns out to be – a film full of undead parts of earlier drafts of the whole affair walking around without a good reason, and clearly without the involvement of anyone willing or able to clean the mess up and bring it to coherence.

So if you want to watch a film that knows what its theme is, you’re really shit out of luck here because there are suggestions of half a dozen thematic bases here none of which will then be actually explored or brought together with the other one’s in any shape or form. Thanks to this, The Quiet Ones is less a narrative but a series of false beginnings that never lead anywhere, with the film’s main interest clearly in providing some cheap, seldom bloody scares. It’s just too bad that scares can mean only little in a film that doesn’t have any actual context for them, a picture full of one-note characters who never act with any internal logic (I’m not against people under stress acting irrationally in movies but people’s irrationality is still connected to their personality, which the film’s characters alas just don’t have), and are slaves to the terrible whims of many a moments of It’s In The Script writing. Because it’s clearly more important to a film to put in some stupid plot twist, or three dozen loud jump scares, than to work from a script that is internally consistent, or meaningful.

Not surprisingly, the resulting movie is an exercise in frustration, with single scenes sometimes working quite well if you look at them as standing on their own but never cohering to anything, not even an interesting kind of incoherence, the supernatural here being about as anti-rational as a piece of soap.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

In short: Animal (2014)

The by now for all practical purposes proverbial quintet of young, attractive friends (let’s just list Keke Palmer and Elizabeth Gillies) are making a short, day-long hike into the deep dark woods. Alas, when night breaks, an ugly, hungry monster makes its presence known, and soon the quintet’s not a quintet anymore. The thing chases the friends into the just as proverbial cabin in the woods. They are not alone in there, though, for the thing has already chased earlier victims into it who in their turn had already found parts of the house barricaded. Some of these people are even still alive, so everything’s set for a little siege scenario where every one of the character’s plans is thwarted and their numbers are slowly whittled down.

On the surface – and very often below it too – Brett Simmons’s Animal looks like a very generic monster movie like you might see on the SyFy Channel if their films had better photography. However, as I might have said before (and before, and before that) with this sort of traditional approach to horror film, a film wins or loses my eyes and heart with how well it executes the traditions. On that point, Animal does very well, with Simmons making excellent use of the claustrophobic situation, working from an exceedingly well paced script.

The character work is often a bit crude but I think something deeper and more complex would actually hurt this particular movie by slowing it down too much. At least, the characters are generally likeable (except for the one who isn’t supposed to be likeable at all), so I didn’t find myself rooting for the monster, and while there’s not really the feeling of watching real human beings under horrible pressure, they do engage one on more than just the level of pure monster fodder. Okay, there’s one strangely misplaced scene where Paul Iacono’s Sean feels the need to confess he had a crush on one of the other characters’ boyfriend that puzzles me by the sheer virtue of its uselessness for the proceedings, but if that’s the worst the film gets up to, I’m fine with it. And while the characterisation isn’t exactly original – at best slightly updating the spam in a cabin character clichés for 2014 – the film does take care to change up little things like the order in which they bite the bucket, even going as far as playing with who our actual hero is.

It’s, as I already said, not deep stuff, but it does keep Animal lively even when there’s no monster attack going on. And, since the monster attacks themselves are all engaging (and even fun), that’s all the character work needs to do.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Hideous Sun Demon (1959)

While “making new isotopes”, slightly sleazy nuclear physicist (one supposes) Dr Gilbert McKenna (Robert Clarke who also directs) is having an off-screen accident that shoots him up with an unhealthy dose of very special radiation. At first, things seem to have gone surprisingly well for the scientist. Apart from a spot of unconsciousness, he seems perfectly fine. However, once Gilbert is exposed to sunlight, he turns into what his doctor will (in a little slide show he has prepared in his office for some reason that includes “mutated insects” that look just like insects to me, apart from a proto-punk haircut on a fly) explain as a sort of evolutionary regression. Cue stuff about embryos going through all evolutionary stages of mankind. Well, McKenna’s doctor does of course not use the word “regression” because that’d be too high-falutin’ for the film at hand, but hey.

Anyway, Gilbert may or may not go on a minor off-screen rampage on his first sun bath but he soon – also off-screen – turns back to his usual human form. Then, he’s put on a long-term vacation from work and spends his days whining how he can’t go out by day lest he turn into a monster, and spends his nights finally putting real energy into his career as an alcoholic. He also starts a kinda-sorta relationship with a gangster-owned bar singer, which might be supposed to mirror parts of Dr Jekyll and Mister Hyde for a time that can bring itself to use words like “prostitute” even less than the Victorian Age could. Obviously, it’ll all end, after much dragging of feet, scientists shaking their heads and Clarke shouting a lot, in a very minor rampage and death.

I really, really, wish I’d like The Hideous Sun Demon more, or that it just were a better movie than it actually is, because it has a lot of interesting angles to it that might have resulted in an actually good and intelligent monster movie if it had only had a decent script and a budget, or just had been made ten years later. As it stands, this is a film that promises to be a clever variation on various werewolf and Jekyll and Hyde angles that never follows any idea through, be it the simple reversal of a were-creature (and that’s what McKenna is, really) turning creature by sunlight, the attempts at mirroring Stevenson’s short novel in certain regards, or the suggested parallels between alcoholism and turning into a monster. Or the simple fact that our supposed monster really isn’t all that monstrous, doing more grunting and snarling and looking adorable than actual damage – unless you’re a collie or a rat, or somebody trying to shoot him, that is. Yet still the film never really manages to sell itself as a tragedy either, mostly because Clarke really doesn’t seem to have a handle on this whole directing lark, and most certainly not the ability to shoot around budget limitations that could make showing scenes like McKenna’s initial accident instead of telling it impossible.

It sure doesn’t help the film’s case that most of the acting is sub par even for a late 50’s monster cheap-o, with Clarke the only one on screen who puts actual effort in, effort that is completely misguided and probably faintly ridiculous (but then what isn’t?) but at least enthusiastic, and demonstrating an honest wish to play this thing straight. It is rather unfortunate that much of the film is so boring, with neither the monster movie bits nor the pseudo-noir sequences of McKenna’s nightclub-that-doesn’t-look-like-a-nightclub adventures ever coming together very well. Sure, the film has moments that’ll get a giggle or three out of most viewers but there are many more that are perfect invitations to yawns.

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Sunday, February 15, 2015

In short: Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991)

aka You Wish

aka Please Make It Stop

aka The Film That Shouldn’t Be

aka Whyyyyyyyyy!?

No, seriously, with this film, the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise really reached the point where it’s difficult for me to pretend that what I have encountered is an actual movie made by actual people. Surely, “director” Rachel Talalay and “writer” Michael De Luca only gave their names for this one, while in truth, this piece of utter crap spontaneously came into being as an attempt by one or the other of the Great Old Ones to win themselves a few new followers via movie-induced insanity. To reach that goal, they made the worst Warner Brothers cartoon ever, full of scenes that play out like extended comedy skits that are about as funny as getting one’s head cut off, a script so lazy it does even less to set up its kill fodder than even the worst of the Friday the 13th films, barely a minute going by that isn’t offensively stupid.

Honestly, it’s hard to put into words how much I loathe this thing, and if I hadn’t put myself into the position of having to watch these slasher sequels to the bitter end, I’d have cut my losses after twenty minutes of this film-shaped object and never spoken or – hopefully – thought of it again. Alas, that wasn’t meant to be, therefore this blog post made out of bile and terrible jokes that still are much, much better than those The Final Nightmare makes. I’d add the usual sentence about the wasted ideas in this one but it is so obvious nobody involved in this production would actually have had the interest or possibly even the talent to make something of them I’m not blaming them for that. After all, you don’t blame your garbage can for being full of crap.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Thursday, February 12, 2015

In short: G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009)

US soldiers Duke (Channing Tatum) and Ripcord (Marlon Wayans) and their team are transporting some frightfully effective new nano weapons made by the company of one McCullen (Christopher Eccleston armed with the Scottish accent to end all Scottish accents) when they are ambushed by a group of masked, futuristically armed soldiers lead by Ana (Sienna Miller) the woman Duke would have married if not for Traumatic Flashback happenings, though for practical reasons, it’s best to call Ana the Baroness from now on.

Fortunately, another group of futuristically armed soldiers – hey, it’s our heroes of G.I. Joe (among them Rachel Nichols, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje and Ray “Snake Eyes” Park) – swoops in to the rescue at the last moment and manage to keep the Baroness and her men from getting the nanomites (I’m so sorry, I didn’t write the script, though). Duke and Ripcord are eager to join up with the group, and they’ll have important contributions to make once it turns out that McCullen himself is actually behind the attempted theft of his own merchandise, the bad guys attack the Joes secret headquarters, and a lot of things explode while also ninja stuff and mad science happens.

Yes, yes, yes, I know, Stephen Sommers, the worst, did something unpleasant to my childhood, and so on and so forth but honestly, despite my general loathing for most of the films the man has made, I had quite a good time with what was the best movie adaptation of a toy I knew before I watched the sequel, though the film of course generally doesn’t come close to the mad awesomeness of Larry Hama’s classic comics.

Given the film’s toy pedigree and Sommers’s usual modus operandi, it should come as no surprise that G.I. Joe isn’t exactly on the clever side, but then it is based on the adventures of a oh so secret group of soldiers calling themselves G.I. Joe fighting an evil terrorist organization that’ll get official embassies once it has provoked the Joes into accidentally bombing them an island to annex, so I don’t think that’s something I want to blame Sommers for. For a single movie, it’s clearly best to stick with the whole franchise as a delivery system for loud action, explosions, ninjas, bad jokes, and random weirdness, and as such, it’s pretty effective, though I don’t think any of the actual changes the film makes to franchise canon is one for the better.

Sure, the action is not very convincing for most of the time but at least it’s crazy, and unlike the sort of stuff you see in a Michael Bay film, shot in a way that’s actually meant to provide its audience with the appropriate amount of eye candy. Plus, things explode and there are ninjas, underwater bases, mini-mech suites and stuff, so my inner twelve-year-old (and he’s the guy this was made for, I’m positive) was pretty satisfied with the proceedings.

Because why not, the film’s basically infested with actors who are utterly overqualified for the material (apart from those already mentioned, there are also Lee Byung-hun, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Arnold Vosloo and Dennis Quaid doing their respective things), most of them seeming perfectly willing to pretend it’s all perfectly dramatic and exciting, some chewing scenery like champs, some doing horrible accents, everyone buying into the silliness around them with perfect dignity, as it should be.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Megaforce (1982)

The secret international military force MEGAFORCE (whose name just might be a tiny bit of overcompensation) fights the good fight against evil. Yep, that’s their mandate, so when the military leader (Edward Mulhare already in Knight Rider mode of pretending he’s not surrounded by utter bullshit) and the president’s daughter (Persis Khambatta) of one beleaguered state somewhere ask for help against some sort of revolutionaries that went and hired themselves the mercenaries of one Duke Guerera (Henry Silva), their answer is of course hell yes.

After a romance subplot between Khambatta and MEGAFORCE commander Ace Hunter (Barry Bostwick), there’s a tiny little night raid followed by some sort of betrayal by POLITICIANS(!) (ewww), and MEGAFORCE has to fight their way out, because, umm, seriously, the film’s ideas of politics and military tactics don’t make a lick of sense, so you’re on your own here.

If this hadn’t been made in 1982 just when the toy line was re-configured, I’d have sworn this was Golden Harvest’s and some unlucky US investors’ attempt at jumping on the G.I. Joe bandwagon without the help of minor geniuses like Larry Hama, so I suppose something like this was just in the air. Of course, where some of the G.I. Joe stuff (at the very least Hama’s comics) was actually a whole lot of fun, Hal “Smokey and the Bandit”’ Needham’s Megaforce just looks like a turkey to my eyes.

I know, the film does by now have some minor cult film reputation in the camp-loving part of the community but I don’t really see it. At least, I’ve seen many a film a lot better at being bad and without Megaforce’s long stretches of boredom. The film’s first half in particular is just a terrible drag, with little of interest happening beyond the film repeatedly telling the audience how awesome MEGAFORCE is supposed to be without ever laying down anything that makes you believe their awesomeness or doing it so badly you’ll find yourself laughing or even a tiny bit interested in their hilarious misadventures (of nothing happening). Sure, everything about and around MEGAFORCE is patently ridiculous, from their stupid motorcycles to their stealth mode dune buggies, but the film isn’t very good at actually making use of that in any interesting way, instead letting actors deliver horrible dialogue, play absurdly “rousing” music, and show nothing that’s actually worse seeing apart from Persis Khambatta’s legs, and those aren’t reason enough to drag yourself through awesome plot developments like Ace Hunter (tee-hee) testing her for her ability to work with MEGAFORCE, she making the grade, he don’t taking her anyway, and so they both deciding to go to a London hotel once the film is through, which is a) stupid, b) time-hogging and c) not a very good distraction from the fact that there’s little of interest happening.

And really, that’s mostly how the rest of this thing plays out too: the scenes of military action mostly consist of music, smoke, and if you’re really lucky some explosions, but excitement really dwells somewhere else; the plot is about as exciting (let’s not even start on the logic) as watching dough rise; and the “humour” is courtesy of the director of films like Smokey and the Bandit. To my eyes, it’s the sort of cult film you enthuse about when you haven’t encountered the actual good stuff, and pretty much a waste of anyone’s time.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

In short: Bridge of Dragons (1999)

In some sort of geographically and temporally unsound place and time that enables the good people of NuImage to wildly throw various costumes and props they found squirreled away somewhere together without any care for coherence or unity of mood and theme. Evil warlord General Ruechang (the inevitable Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) has been reigning over an unnamed kingdom for years now, just waiting for Princess Halo (Valerie “Rachel Shane” Chow) to get old enough for him to marry her.

Of course, Ruechang is responsible for the “accident” that killed Halo’s parents, and of course, she only learns about this shortly before her marriage. Not that she wanted to marry the crazy military dictator before, but now she’s so pissed she rides off on her wedding day. Ruechang sends Warchild (Dolph Lundgren), his best man, after Halo. Yet, while retrieving Halo and rescuing the kidnapping-prone woman from rapists and kidnappers, Warchild finds himself soon with divided loyalties, for he and the princess fall in love.

For a film directed by the saintly champion of awesome low budget action Isaac Florentine, and starring the paragon of Dolphness, Dolph Lundgren, Bridge of Dragons (I have, by the way, not the faintest idea why the film’s called this, nor is the film telling) is a rather mild pleasure.

It’s neither the fault of Florentine’s handling of the action, which is impressive as always, nor of Dolph, who had a rather good month when shooting this and has seldom looked more mobile in his fight scenes. The problem lies with a script that really doesn’t seem to know what it’s doing nor what it wants to do, slowly shuffling Warchild and Halo (and seriously, what’s with the names?) to one place only to take them back to a different place one or two scenes later, with little that’s a proper or useful set-up for the action sequences. For most of the film’s running time, the script is dithering, introducing a lame rebel army only to slaughter it in a minor assault five minutes later, introducing Halo as a secret stick fighting badass only to find her kidnapped four to six – depending on your count – times, and always making one step forward and one step back, presenting itself as utterly unable to give Florentine a frame on which to hang the things he does best.

I would like to blame Dolph and Chow for the tepid and anti-septic air of their Great Romantic Love but again, the script doesn’t provide much – if anything – for them to work with; but what do I expect of a movie that doesn’t even properly use Tagawa’s well-known scenery-chewing abilities as it should?

Usually, I’d argue that an action movie doesn’t need that deep a script, particularly not when the action is in the right hands. Bridge of Dragons, however, truly suffers from the failings of its writing, with hardly a scene going by where something potentially awesome isn’t wasted through an improper set-up or through feet-dragging of a kind I’ve seen in no other Florentine film. I don’t care much that the film is dumb, but I care a lot about the fact it seems to sabotage everything that could be fun in it, never deciding on a tone or a theme it isn’t going to ignore at least two scenes later completely.

Saturday, February 7, 2015


The Fighting O’Flynn (1949): I suspect Arthur Pierson’s swashbuckler featuring Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as former Irish mercenary protecting Ireland (and the United Kingdom) from a Napoleonic plot, mostly doing so to woo Helena Carter, won’t be on anybody’s list of favourite swashbucklers, or even favourite swashbucklers with Fairbanks. It’s a bit slight even for a genre that doesn’t usually go for too much depth anyway, with nary a moment that actually feels dangerous for our hero and a tone that comes down slightly too much on the comedic side of the genre, undermining the melodrama and romance a little. The film is completely fluffy good fun, though, with Fairbanks giving an enthusiastic cliché Irishman that might even count as a racist stereotype, the plot zipping alone nicely, and boredom a faint memory while watching. So even though there’s little I’d call actually memorable about the film, it’s a very nice way to spend a lazy, too warm winter evening.

Der Fluch der gelben Schlange (1963): I probably should be all over Franz Joseph Gottlieb’s very pulpy Rialto Edgar Wallace krimi because of its pulpiness but it’s rather difficult to appreciate a film this unrelentingly racist. I know, it’s trying to shape itself after the Fu Manchu films and other Yellow Peril stuff but in a film made in 1963, this sort of thing just leaves a very bad aftertaste in the mouth particularly because the film doesn’t just use unexamined racist tropes like a lot of comparable material does, but seems really enthusiastic about its racial politics. That’s not much of a surprise in a German film, really, given the kind of racist wonderland Germany still is even 50 years later, with your typical German bourgeois losing all of the liberality he pretends to be so proud of when confronted with anybody who isn’t white, but that doesn’t mean I’ll be able (or willing) to enjoy it. It doesn’t help that Evil Eurasian™ Pinkas Braun’s yellowface is quite this egregiously bad, making even Christopher Lee’s version of Fu Manchu look authentic, that our heroine is a wet blanket even for a Wallace film, nor that our supposed hero Joachim Fuchsberger is as rude as he is racist. It’s all just so very unpleasant I really didn’t even found myself wanting to overlook the bullshit watching it.

Gallows Hill aka The Damned (2013): Victor García’s “stranded in an old house with a possessive witch” movie (that’s a sub-genre, right?) is perfectly fine entertainment for the 90 minutes or so it goes on. The acting’s fine all around, García knows how to pace this sort of thing, and the film does some neat things with the bilingual nature of some of its characters. Despite these virtues, I can’t say the film really grabbed me. The nature of its central evil is just a bit too played out right now, and the additional twist of a possessor who always hops into the body of the person who killed it doesn’t sit right with me, and feels more like a way to crank up the drama in easy ways than something that fits the monster’s background organically. I was also rather miffed by the film’s very clichéd hymns on family love even when it leads to Very Bad Things, and by the fact that the first act doesn’t do much work to actually prepare later character developments. It must have sounded like a good idea to have a monster that knows everyone’s dirty secrets, but it’s a wasted idea if a film never prepares these secrets but springs them on the audience with a “we needed a shocking plot twist here, so magic” gesture.

This doesn’t make Gallows Hill a bad film as much as one that wastes too many opportunities to be a great one.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

In short: Midnight Ride (1990)

Whatever mildly diverting powers this competent yet boring The Hitcher variation has can be explained by an excellently over the top performance by Mark Hamill after Star Wars but before he found his true calling as a voice actor and instead spent his time stumbling from one lame low budget film to the next. If you have a script that has clearly no clue about mental illness, and isn’t clever enough to go the iconic serial killer route where you don’t actually talk about mental illness but about the embodied fears and anxieties of a society, the best that can happen to your panto villain is a performance like Hamill’s here, all sweating, wild grimacing and various types of over-active rambling. On the more negative side, Hamill’s overacting makes Michael Dudikoff’s bland asshole hero look even more bland; and clearly, nobody involved in the film seems to actually have realized that Dudikoff’s character’s reaction to his wife leaving him (stalking, cursing, and the threat of violence) makes him not the most sympathetic of characters, to say the least.

Why, a film with a few more brain cells to rub together might have even made something out of the difference between its two male characters only being one of degrees, and made the film the story of how Lara (Savina Gersak) has to fight for her life and her identity on two fronts. Instead, director Bob Bralver pretends there’s moral clarity about who of the male characters is the hero of the piece, doesn’t do much with Lara, and concentrates on blandly competent action scenes and a minor appearance by a particularly sleepy Robert Mitchum earning a bit of whiskey money.

It’s watchable as far as this sort of low budget affair goes, but there are just too many good opportunities that would have needed not money but just a bit of imagination wasted to make for an enjoyable film for me. But then, I never was involved in a car chase against my wife (which might be explained by the absence of driver’s licence, car, or wife in my life, or because I’m not that much of an ass).

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Deliver Us from Evil (2014)

Like The Conjuring, this is “based on true events”, so watch out for demonically possessed serial killers and consult your local Catholic priest, I guess. Also, watch out which writing on what walls you read.

Anyway, tough cop Sergeant Sarchie (Eric Bana) and his obviously not long for this world self-declared adrenaline junkie partner Butler (Joel McHale) – who for some reason carries two combat knifes on the job - are having an even worse time than is usual in their jobs. There’s a series of violent crimes committed by a random assortment of people. The perpetrators don’t all fit too well into the usual scheme of normal people just losing it, and their behaviour reaches the point where “crazy” isn’t really the best explanation for their deeds anymore anymore. A family complains of the supernaturally caused noises in their cellar; and Sarchie who always had a curious sense for coming trouble now starts to have visions connected to these seemingly disconnected cases that just might be more than mere hallucinations.

Something really bad might be going on in the city’s dark streets, and formerly junkie priest Mendoza (Édgar Ramírez) might just be right with his dark mumblings about demonic possession. Of course, it’ll take a bit for Sarchie to believe this, and he himself just might be bringing more of his work home than can be good for his family.

As you know, Jim, I’m not a fan of possession horror movies but when a film is as well realized as Scott Derrickson’s Deliver Us from Evil, I am willing and able to get over myself and enjoy it, even though this particular film contains the even less well-loved element of the lapsed believer coming back into the fold because DEMONS(!).Clearly, that godhood isn’t one for subtlety. At least, unlike with The Conjuring, the relapse into religion makes psychological sense for Sarchie, and the demonic possessions as realized by Derrickson are creepy enough to convince me this is a man acting sane towards an insane world instead of one creeping back into psychological childhood. It does of course help that the film goes out of its way to portray Mendoza, our personified religious authority, as flawed and human as any of us, and does even – without outright stating it – make a convincing case as the priest for a vessel through which the powers of his godhood flow and not the one actually owning and controlling them. And while I don’t share in its theology, I really appreciate the film taking its time and space to integrate these things into the actual plot and not treating priests and exorcisms either as a deus ex machina (ha!) or some kind of superhero. This does also feed into making the main characters convincing and their doubts and suffering much more relatable by it, even if you don’t buy into their religion, or many of the tenants of the plot, at all.

Not surprisingly given my predilections, I don’t think the Christian mythology the film uses is as creepy as the mostly made-up one from Derrickson’s fantastic Sinister but the film is really good at convincing the audience to be in the presence of actual supernatural Evil instead of some quipping asshole that pukes green stuff because that’s what happened in The Exorcist or that someone who does that whole floating in a ceiling corner rigmarole as taken from The Last Exorcism.

There’s also the simple fact that Derrickson is just plain great at staging horror scenes, using clichés in the best possible manner, which is as a common ground between himself and his audience on which he can build whatever horrific image he has in mind. And, he does have quite a few of those in mind, often easily reaching the point – at least for me – where things truly become disturbing.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

In short: Man Without a Star (1955)

King Vidor’s western with Kirk Douglas is quite the thing. On the surface, it’s a very typical story about a cowboy who very literally can’t bear to be fenced in, adopts a young man (William Campbell), and gets into the middle of a range war; as such, it is an exciting and economically told tale, with Douglas – as was his wont – throwing himself physically into his performance like few other actors of his generation did.

However, just below the surface, is hidden something quite a bit more complex, not only in the portrayal of the psychology of Douglas’s Dempsey who at first seems to – badly – attempt to hide his humungous amount of compassion behind charm and bravado but actually hides his wounds behind all of these things. There’s an additional dimension to all of the film’s central characters – Jeanne Crain’s ruthless femme fatale turns out to be rather more complicated and human too and Dempsey’s prostitute friend Idonee (Claire Trevor) carries an analytical moral mind beyond the “whore with a heart of gold” thing (which, by the way, always seems to be one of the more humanist tropes in my eyes as far as such things go, turning the least respected members of a society into at least decent people, though unfortunately never granting them the happy ends they might deserve; but then, in Code Hollywood, only the very worst people actually get what they deserve). Okay, William Campbell’s Jeff has not dimensions beyond being a stupid kid, but then I’ve actually met a few of that type; given the film’s general tone, I don’t find it impossible it would argue he doesn’t have much of a personality because he hasn’t suffered much yet.

On the level where plot and character psychology collide, Man Without a Star makes some atypical decisions that see Dempsey in the end taking the side of the people whose fences represent all he has spent his life running away from because theirs is the only side he can pick once he realizes he can’t run away forever; on the socio-economic level as the film represents it (and yes, it actually has that level), he’s in the end fighting a kind of rampant capitalism whose greed doesn’t care that it destroys the future prospects of the things it touches. Yet afterwards, where most westerns would have their now redeemed hero settle down with a decent woman (and one written by me probably with Idonee), Dempsey takes off again; his psychological damage against the ways of Hollywood maybe alleviated but not healed.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

In short: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965)

Over the years, we have been quite lucky with the overall quality of John Le Carré adaptations, on TV as well as on the big screen. Martin Ritt’s film is the first of them all, and might very well be the best, though that’s a matter of personal taste as much as of the film’s quality.

To me, it certainly is the bleakest of them all, and therefore the one closest to the soul of the Cold War. Like all of the Smiley novels and films, The Spy is – and I think I’m repeating myself here – a film about all sorts of betrayal, betrayals of country, belief, loved ones and oneself, of betrayals crushing characters who are more often than not traitor and betrayed at the same time. The Spy in particular is a film about people – especially of course Richard Burton’s Alec Leamas who has the eyes of a man who has seen and done profoundly horrible things - who reached the point where telling themselves they do all the shabby, horrible things they do out of necessity and for some greater good just isn’t enough anymore but who are ruined for anything beyond these things by all that they’ve done and seen. Of course, and not surprisingly, any remnant of normal human feeling they still carry is exactly the thing that gets them killed, or, worse still, getting the people killed who still carry ideals which aren’t built on betrayal. At its core, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a film of people maimed, and rather more often crushed, not so much by the forces of history (that would be too friendly a thing to be crushed by) but by powers that have long divorced themselves from any moral except of the moral of expediency; actual moustache-twirling evil would also seem a much preferable thing to be crushed by.

It’s the world of international espionage as a kind of cosmic horror of the soul, realized by Ritt in a calm, unspectacular manner that makes the resulting film all the more horrible and weighty. The abyss, it turns out, is not a place of dark magic, but of the greyness of the everyday.