Sunday, March 29, 2015

SyFy vs. The Mynd: Sharknado 2: The Second One (2014)

Well, one really can’t say Anthony C. Ferrante and his The Asylum brethren aren’t doing their damndest to top the first film here, with triple the sharknados, quadruple the useless cameos, New York replacing Los Angeles, and about ten times about as much stupidity included (which certainly must have taken special effort). The resulting film perhaps doesn’t have ten times the entertainment value, but if you can roll with the over-excited, a few times somewhat smug, stupidity of an opus that starts out with a sharknado induced near-plane crash that gets its “near” pre-fix from the first film’s returning surfer dudes hero’s first act of improbable (even in context of, you know, sharknados and the head of the Statue of Liberty running amuck) heroism, and gets increasingly deranged from there.

Apart from all the fighting against flying sharks (and one lone bonus New York Sewer alligator, though not a flying one), there’s a lot of the sort of cliché New Yorker-dom you expect from this sort of thing, the usual stuff about cab drivers, how awesome New York is supposed to be, and so on. Every second minor character is a cameo by someone from the freakshow by-ways of American popular culture, so expect sightings of mythical creatures like Kurt Angle, Andy Dick and Billy Ray Cyrus while Vivica A. Fox, Ian Ziering and Kari Wuhrer – A-list material all from this perspective - are trying to keep their faces straight.

The real surprise to me here is how watchable and entertaining the whole load of crap stays despite the cameos of people you really don’t want to be reminded of (though I as a European at least get the kick of pointing and laughing at those exotic whacky Americans here), though I’m pretty sure the third Sharknado later this year will be a piling steam of self-satisfied smugness and completely unwatchable. This one though, it’s easy enough to have fun with.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Three Films Make A Post: One Cop. One Vigilante. Alone, they're unstoppable. Together, they're invincible!

Hugo (2011): Now, it would be quite easy to put on my cynical hat here and treat this as your typical Oscar bait movie, seeing as it contains children, is a heart-warming hymn on the art of film making, and has a very self-conscious happy end where everyone and everything wins. However, that’s not at all how Hugo feels to me. Instead, I see a heart-felt film made with all the love Scorsese so obviously feels for the history of movies and specifically Georges Méliès, created with a loving hand primarily for the eyes of his daughter. It’s a film whose happy end incorporates the sides of life that aren’t happy at all, a film that implies one of the things that makes us love art is its ability to fix the wrongs and injustices of life in it, seeing cinema’s happy ends as a way to push us into making happy ends in the world too.

Out of the Dark (2014): Director Lluís Quílez’s attempt to crack the US market is certainly a technically accomplished film but for a movie featuring the basic creepy menace of ghost children with rags on their faces, it feels surprisingly harmless, with little content that could actually disturb. That might be on account of the highly basic nature of its characterizations (seriously, could Julia Stiles and Scott Speedman be any blander?), and the obvious and predictable nature of every little thing that happens in it.

While I don’t exactly need everything grim and gritty (as my appreciation of Hugo shows), I’d also have wished for the film’s resolution to have felt less like an afternoon special and more like something with actual emotional impact, but then, that would – again – have needed some actual character work or depth, and that’s not something this particular film seems comfortable with.

The ABCs of Death 2 (2014): As a concept, this anthology movie series really is difficult to beat, because while you won’t like everything in here, the shortness of each single piece makes it difficult to become too annoyed by the ones you don’t like. Among the 26 short films here, there’s the stupid, the silly, the misanthropic, the clever, the disquieting and the gosh-darn bizarre, mixed via the awesome powers of the alphabet, and created by directors from all over the globe. To my tastes, there’s a lot more to like than to dislike here. At least, I found myself in turn laughing, shaking my head, looking puzzled and feeling mildly disgusted, and what more could I ask from a project like this?

Friday, March 27, 2015

Jungleground (1995)

Vice police Lieutenant Jake Cornell (Roddy Piper) takes part in an undercover operation in the part of his city that is so bad, people call it “Jungleground”. The operation goes very bad indeed, Jake’s colleagues are killed, and Jake finds himself the object of the tender mercies of the leader of a local gang who has been killing off drug dealers as well as his colleagues left and right, the Ragna Rockers.

While parts of his multi-racial gang think they are indeed drug dealer murdering vigilantes (that’d be the Punisher Rockers, guys), their leader Odin (JR Bourne), as he’s not surprisingly called, is actually planning to just put the whole local drug business in better hands, namely his own. Still, he enjoys a good little sadist game, so instead of just killing Jake, he goes all most dangerous game on him, setting our hero loose unarmed and underdressed in Jungleground, and putting a team lead by one Dragon (Peter Williams) on his trail. As an added incentive, Odin has put two of his men on Jake’s girlfriend, sculptor and surprise woman of action Sammy Woods (Torri Higginson). If Jake doesn’t reach her, and the safe part of down, before sunrise, she’s going to die.

I am sure, a Most Dangerous Game/The Warriors variant with a bit of ye olde “white man caught in the ghetto” added to the mix is exactly what the Canadian youth was clamouring after – though, I suspect they did that rather a few years before director Don Allan finally made these dreams finally come true in the glorious year of 1995.

Snark aside, for what it is, Jungleground is a perfectly entertaining film, crafted reasonably well as it is, and starring the always agreeable “Rowdy” Roddy Piper in the main ass-kicking role as it does. Because it’s a Canadian film, it also gives the object of Roddy’s rescue aspirations a bit more agency and personality than usual in direct-to-video action fodder, delighting its audience (well, me) with a really fun scene where she laughs a gallery owner with casting couch aspirations out of her studio, and a MacGyver style interlude concerning an escape attempt from the baddies, which might not sound like much – or sensible – but does give Higginson’s Sammy about three times as much personality as is typical of these kinds of roles. I also couldn’t help but notice that the film’s evil gang isn’t just multi-racial but also practicing gender equality outside of its leading circle, and because I’m all about absurd essentialist explanations today, that’s now officially part of Jungleground’s Canadian-ness too.

Apart from that, the film consists of a series of decent action scenes taking place in crummy sets and on dark, crummy streets, some scenery chewing by Bourne, Piper doing Piper as well as he always does, and from time to time a bit of enjoyable nonsense. Of the last, I particularly liked the delectable way in which the Ragna Rockers (at least gang name of the month) execute one of their own, namely by driving a car through the window of their warehouse headquarters (of course called Valhalla), throwing a plate-o’-spikes onto the car’s roof, and then throwing their intended victim onto that now spiked roof. It’s certainly a thing. If there’s something I really dislike about this comparatively pleasant little movie, then it’s the fact that it doesn’t have too many elements quite as silly as that scene. Add another comment on the film’s supposed Canadianness here, if you like.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

In short: Stonehearst Asylum (2014)

aka Eliza Graves

Following the incredible Session 9, Brad Anderson’s directing career has a series of ups and downs in film as well as on TV, with nothing I’ve seen quite up to the level of a film that might feel like a bit of a millstone around the neck of anyone who made it. It has always been obvious, though, that Anderson is a director very much in control of his material, with a sense of style and mood, just not always provided with the right scripts - and one can’t help but speculate the right circumstances – to make the most of his talents.

Stonehearst Asylum again isn’t quite up to the level of Session 9 but is still quite a delightful experience. Now, it might be possible my huge enjoyment of the film is based on it hitting so many of my pleasure buttons, what with it being freely “based on” (which means, taking a basic idea and doing something completely different with it) a Poe story, exploring the realm between “madness” and “mental health” in a way that is at once conscious of the constructedness of these descriptors as of the actual pains of suffering from a mental illness. I’m also quite fond of the way it uses sensationalized ideas of mental illness and psychiatry in a playful manner that always makes clear scriptwriter Joe Gangemi and Anderson do know they are using the popular ideas of psychiatry and mental illness rather than the things themselves, sometimes letting very different interpretations of what they mean collide, which probably will offend someone somewhere, but so will everything.

And because that’s clearly not enough for one film, it also makes merry use of all kinds of gothic romance elements – often twisted in fun and clever ways and always used with just the right tone and in just the right mood - and (slightly ironic) Romantic nonsense about the curative powers of love, thinks about the troubles of building a utopia when you’re surrounded by fallible human beings who need to eat and be warm and when you yourself are a rather hurt human being too, even carries some mildly feminist elements (if you want to read them that way, that is), and, finally, reaches an improbable but perfectly likeable and deserved kind of happy end. And, thanks to the film’s Gothic structure and Anderson’s general brilliance, Stonehearst Asylum does makes this overload of ideas and concepts work, more often than not dance, with one another, as if it were the easiest thing in the world.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

In short: The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

Fifteen years ago, this would have been quite a good superhero movie. Now, after a glut of films in that particular genre you don’t need to use phrases like “good for a superhero movie” for, it’s a decent one at best, though one that has a fine and fun final phase (take that, Mr Lee) that makes me wish the rest of the film would have been as sure of itself too, because then, I’d actually have seen why we needed a Spider-Man reboot.

As it stands, the film’s beginning two acts are unfocused and seem unsure what kind of hero this version of Spider-Man is supposed to be as well as about how to get the character there. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone (the oldest high school kids alive) do a well enough job with the little the script gives them but still Amazing never really gets to the point where the characters become convincing or loveable. I even think that Stone’s Gwen is the only element here actually handled better than the respective element in the Raimi movies, Mary Jane, with a better integration into the main plot and gutsier acting.

The film also doesn’t manage to set up Curt Connors/the Lizard as the tragic villain he’s supposed to be, the script never quite managing to juggle the origin plot, the pointless stuff about Peter’s parents, and Connors’s experiments in a way that makes Peter and Connors interesting antagonists, or connected by anything more profound than the mere whims of the scripting gods. There’s a lack of thematic coherence here that’s rather frustrating because, if you ask me, characters as iconic as Spider-Man and superheroes as a whole are all about theme: about the way the plots reflect them, and vice versa, about the way the heroes and the villains play off each other. Sure, there’s a bit of the most obvious stuff about responsibility in here, but the film doesn’t seem to have much of a clue about what it wants to actually say about responsibility, either, nor what the Lizard has to do with it. I’m also not quite clear why the CGI Lizard has to look quite as bad as it does, with a boring creature design and little weight to its appearances, but then I wouldn’t put this particular character into Spidey’s origin story at all, so what do I know?

So it’s no surprise the final act is actually the part of the film that’s fun too watch, because here, director Marc Webb can concentrate on the less complicated things, like superhero action and the very particular kind of melodrama the genre thrives on, and going by the entertaining way he handles this part of the film, I suspect he should have been able to manage a worthwhile first hour.

But at least, I want to rewatch Sam Raimi’s first two Spider-Man movies now, so that’s a success, right?

Sunday, March 22, 2015

In short: Bloodstone (1988)

Absurdly annoying US couple Sandy (Brett Stimely) and Stephanie (Anna Nicholas) McVey are going on their honeymoon in India. A train acquaintance (Jack Kehler) from their trip to Bangalore drops a humungous stolen ruby off in Stephanie’s luggage, because quite a few people are after the thing. In particular, there are the henchpeople – among them India’s favourite henchman Bob Christo himself! – of one Van Hoeven (Christopher Neame) to mention, as well as obnoxious comic relief cop Inspector Ramesh (Charlie Brill). Soon, Bob Christo and his buddies kidnap Stephanie to exchange her against the ruby. Ironically, the McVeys never actually touched the damned thing, and it has quickly landed in the hands of four-fisted (because two-fisted just wouldn’t be enough fists) taxi driver and outlaw Shyam Sabu (Superstar Rajnikanth). Shyam has a bit of honour as well as plans of his own, so he helps Sandy in his attempts to free Stephanie.

Or really, does most of the work while the film pretends anybody watching actually gives a crap about Brett Stimely (whoever he is). Not that many members of the suspected US audience of this US-led US/Indian co-production would probably have known about the awesome powers of Telugu’s finest Rajnikanth, but it’s pretty impossible to watch this movie and not come away with the idea that Rajnikanth is the only one (well, okay, there’s also Bob Christo) on screen with actual charisma, screen presence and talent. His reduction to a slightly higher class of sidekick at the side of boring non-talent pretty much sums up what’s wrong with the film: the US side of the production sucks, and clearly has little idea what to do with its Indian partners.

Consequently, Rajnikanth has to tone down his usual ultra-manly shouting, finger-pointing and his superheroics so that a boring sop doesn’t look too bad next to him, the action sequences never dare to go even the least bit over the top (though here – again – there’s also the problem only Rajnikanth and the Indian bit players actually know how to act in an action scene, over the top or not), and whenever the film threatens to become actually entertaining and starts to take on the speed of a good adventure movie, it very quickly stops dead for some “comedy” shenanigans by an American in brown face playing a racist stereotype. And don’t ask me why you’d even cast an American in Ramesh’s role when you have access to all the horrifying film comedians of India. In a turn of events I’d never have expected, Brill’s performance isn’t just offensive, annoying, and practically killing the movie dead, it also makes me think wistfully of Johnnie Walker and his cohorts.

So unfortunately, Bloodstone doesn’t provide at all what one might hope for, and apart from it suggesting a view of one of Rajnikanth’s telugu films or three, there’s nothing at all to recommend Dwight H. Little’s movie.

In short: What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

It looks like I need to rethink this blog’s stated stance regarding the intrinsic crappiness of horror comedies. At least, the last few years have found me encountering too many horror comedies that are actually worthwhile and can’t in all honesty continue to prophylactically dismiss the whole sub-genre until a given film can conquer my prejudices.

Case in point is Jemaine Clement’s and Taika Waititi’s (both also acting, writing and producing) fake documentary about a group of vampire flat-sharers in Wellington New Zealand, which is as good as anything you’ll get to see, comedy or not. It is – see also that whole “comedy” thing – a very funny movie that just happens to also have a lot of thoughtful things to say about life at large, the need to accept change, the nature of outsider-dom and probably half a dozen other things. All of it is realized without any preachiness, without the film ever feeling the need to look at the audience to explain that it isn’t a mere horror comedy but actually a film out to say IMPORTANT THINGS, most probably because its makers seem not to see any difference between these two things; having seen What We Do, I don’t see one either.

While the film’s at it, it also does some really clever stuff with standards of vampire mythology, finding its humour in the absurd and the slightly off yet just as often by just taking various versions of vampire lore at face value, working on the logical assumption that a life that goes on long enough will turn into a farce sooner or later. Even though the film does make fun of its characters in various ways, its position is less one of superiority than of a sort of slightly exasperated sympathy, the kind of approach you’ll have towards a friend with a tendency to just fuck things up, or, if you’re lucky with these things, towards your own flaws. Consequently, the film – despite containing a fine amount of pressure pump blood bursts (aka The Japanese Blood Fountain) – carries not a single cynical bone in its body. It’s difficult not to use the term “heart-warming” here for me, given how much the film made me smile at its characters whose not exactly quotidian (yet also clearly very quotidian for them) travails do mirror those we non-blood drinkers go through quite a bit, at least those of us who don’t fit very well into society’s ideas of matureness, sense, or sanity.

By the by, the directors also do a lot with the little money they have available, gathering a wonderful cast (including themselves) using special effects from the ridiculous to the surprisingly great (whichever is more appropriate for any given scene), adding a fun, off-beat soundtrack. It’s just an all-around fantastic achievement for living and undead alike.

Friday, March 20, 2015

On ExB: Alien Warrior (1986)

Even after aeons of inflicting the kind of film I tend to inflict on myself, these things called “movies” can still surprise me. Case in point is this film-like entity, and inexplicable – as in, I don’t want to know why - product of the stars being right.

I’ve got quite a bit to say about Alien Warrior in this week’s column over at Exploder Button, the site not afraid of submachine gun and underwear combos.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Three Films Make A Post: His acting will kill you.

Taken 3 (2014): You gotta hand it to Luc Besson and director Olivier Megaton, they really went out of their way to make Liam Neeson’s third adventure as uninvolving as possible, with a plot as predictable as the sunrise, but much less interesting. On the positive side, this time around, Liam’s female movie relatives aren’t kidnapped. Too bad the film’s alternative is to kill off Famke Janssen and have someone attempt to frame Neeson for it. The expected series of mild action scenes, a bit of waterboarding, and random melodrama ensues with little that’s thrilling or interesting to watch. The formula has grown stale, and neither Besson nor Megaton seem to have any interest in finding something interesting to replace it with.

But hey, at least the words “IT ENDS HERE” are on the film’s poster.

Chastity Bites (2013): John V. Knowles’s “Liz Bathory visits an American small town campus while working in the pre-marital virginity business” horror comedy, might not have Liam Neeson, or all that much of a budget, but it’s lively and the fun and funny moments highly outnumber its annoying ones. Plus, while it’s not completely original, it’s a film clearly trying to look at the classic elements it uses from its own place in time and space, subverting what seems fitting while keeping others in place. Plus, leads Allison Scagliotti, Francia Raisa and Louise Griffiths are, quite unlike Neeson, clearly putting energy and enthusiasm into their performances. I’m not too fond of the film’s more satirical parts because they tend to be built on the thing I like least in comedy – turning the kinds and classes of people the comedy writer doesn’t like into stereotypes so as to have an easier time making fun of them without hitting that pesky empathy in an audience – but for more than its running time than not, this is a fine little horror comedy.

Some Dollars for Django aka Drango: A Bullet for You (1966): I would not have pegged Paul Naschy’s frequent partner León Klimovsky as a very good Paella Western director, but the film at hand, while certainly not in the top of the Euro Western genre class, is a perfectly entertaining little thing, well-paced and energetic - which might be explained by Enzo Castellari supposedly having had a hand in the direction, but I tend to be very careful when it comes to this sort of thing. The film belongs to that part of the European Westerns that skews more to the classic US model of how such a film has to play out – just with added dubious dubbing, a bit more violence and torture and a much better musical score, of course – and even concerns itself with two very clear redemption arcs for its main characters. Not surprisingly, it doesn’t reach the heights of the best US Westerns there but it’s still pretty entertaining as well as showing Anthony Steffen and Frank Wolff in a particularly good week, the former expressing more emotion than usual, the latter making the most of the opportunity to for once be a bit more of good guy.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Digging Up the Marrow (2014)

Horror director Adam Green (in a somewhat meta move played by Digging’s director Adam Green) has been contacted by one William Dekker (Ray Wise). Dekker claims to know about a secret society of the monstrous and the deformed who have moved underground into a place he calls the Marrow, and that he’s been observing their activities from a distance ever since.

Dekker now wants Green to document his experiences, and the film we are watching is of course the supposed product of that documentary work. There are early hints – apart from his theories – that Dekker is either much crazier than he seems or lying to Green and his intrepid camera man Will Barratt (actual camera man Will Barratt about whose actual intrepidness I know nothing but hope much), but although the director catches them, he really rather wants to believe that monsters are real. Plot developments will in turn push Green in turn closer to the side of belief as well as closer to a healthy scepticism but – this being a horror movie and all – there might just be something in his future that’ll convince him which of the positions is true. Which, as it turns out, just might not be the position more conducive to his, or his wife’s Rileah’s (actual wife of Adam Green Rileah Vanderbilt) physical health.

I am, as I so often am, quite surprised by how much I enjoyed Adam Green’s fake documentary, specifically because I hated his Hatchet, loathed his Hatchet 2, and really didn’t like his Frozen at all, which is not the sort of thing that makes a boy optimistic about his encounters with a director’s further works. Digging Up the Marrow is of course quite a different film from those three, and while it shares the Hatchet movies’ love for showing off its director’s – clearly humongous – knowledge of horror history, it does not generally do this by going for the most obvious goal in the most mean-spirited manner. Where the director’s other films always felt to me like smug declarations of superiority about their own material (though I’m pretty sure they are not meant that way, going by interviews with Green), Digging Up instead feels like a love letter, in particular to the monsters of Alex Pardee (whose inspired monsters come to life a little in the final act in rather awesome form), Nightbreed, found footage movies, and probably Ray Wise, realized with just the right degree of critical distance.

The main element of the film I suspect quite a few people will have their problems with (apart from the usual, “found footage sucks”, “we’ve seen this all before and it’s just not realistic” etc, blah blah that always seems curious to me in a genre where people will gladly watch the 678th Friday the 13th film about a dead killer with a hockey mask killing the same clichés as in the 677 movies before), is Green’s decision to centre the film on a fictionalized version of himself instead of a random made-up director character. I’m of a bit of two minds on this one. I can see how Green doing Green in an environment that actually is his own adds to the veracity as well as the ironic element of the film, adding that decisive bit of real documentary to the fake documentary. On the other hand, there are a few moments that seem to be a bit too self-indulgent, like the scene with Kane Hodder whose only function seems to be to demonstrate that Green hangs out with Kane Hodder, something that’s only very tangentially relevant for anything else in the movie. As an actor, Green is fortunately not too bad, so there’s no problem there; as a director, he manages to keep a film where really not much happens early on moving without piling on stuff, avoiding the pitfall of all bad and many mediocre POV horror films, the draggy first hour, while doing some clever and subtle stuff with misdirecting his audience’s attention.

Speaking of acting, a part of Digging Up’s particular charm rests on the shoulders of Ray Wise, whose performance as Dekker is absolutely fantastic, making a joy of scenes that really only consist of him talking to Green describing his monster encounters and dubious theories, scenes that could in lesser hands have turned out so silly, they could have robbed the film of all tension and believability. Not surprisingly, Wise is still great at being intense and weird, selling everything he needs to sell, the peculiarities in his behaviour the film’s narrative will never (and really can’t) explain feeling like actual parts of Dekker’s persona.

That alone is wonderful stuff, but Digging Up is additionally a rather clever film that actually has something to say about our (it’s possibly the “humanity at large”-us, even) need or want to belief, the paradox lying at the heart of wanting to believe in monsters and loving monsters like we horror fans tend to do, all expressed with degrees of elegance you don’t see every day. And would you believe it, finding what one wishes for might just see one ending up staring into a camera like the character in a Lovecraft tale scribbling his final message about a hand at his window?

In short: Big Driver (2014)

Tess Thorne (Maria Bello) is a mid-list writer of cozy mysteries about a crime-solving knitting circle. When she takes a shortcut through a lonely. wooded area after a public appearance, she drives right into the trap of a big truck-driving man (Will Harris) who first repeatedly rapes her and then drops her off in a drainage pipe next to the corpse of one of his earlier victims to die.

Somehow, Tessa manages to survive and to escape but instead of going to the police, she decides to take care of her tormentor herself. Tessa, you see, hasn’t been in the firmest state of mental health even before her ordeal, writing what the voices in her head (who seem to have horrible taste in prose) tell her to, with some visual hallucinations added to the mix. Now, she’s counselled by Doreen (Olympia Dukakis) – one of her imaginary knitting circle members – and the voice of her GPS, Tom, and she’s out for vengeance.

Turns out the Lifestyle Channel, home of many a TV movie I’m not very interested in (which is based on my specific tastes, not necessarily on the movies’ quality), or at least Big Driver’s director Mikael Salomon, does know quite perfectly how to make not just a neat little rape revenge movie but one that is actually individual enough to be interesting. It is based on a Stephen King story, and you can clearly see some of King’s typical concerns on screen: the life of the writer, the troubles with imagination, the problematic family relations between the film’s bad guys, and an idea of mental illness that might not be particularly polite but grasps the absurdity that is part and parcel of any psychological disorder excellently.

The film doesn’t really have the space to explore these elements very deeply but at the very least, they are there to spice up the film’s revenge proceedings, emphasising how Tessa’s acts are the consequences of a combination of what Lester did to her and the baggage she already brought with her, using neither fact to indict or to absolve her. Of course, giving what nasty pieces of shit Tessa’s enemies are, the audience’s sympathies still stay with her. The film’s just suggesting a bit more of the messiness of actual human psychology than is typical of this sub-genre, and it is all the more effective and human for it.

Tessa’s particular reaction to her trauma also gives Maria Bello the opportunity to really let loose with her performance. What she ends up with is a combination of genre short-hand, actual human frailty, and a perfect embodiment of the plain weirdness of mental illness. This approach perhaps does not make Tess a full character in the method acting way but one offering more than a more straightforward realistic portrayal (something I’m sure Bello could have achieved just as well if she had but wanted) could have been.

It is this willingness to be weird and truthful rather than naturalistic that particularly endears Big Driver to me, something that adds personality to what could have easily ended up as being just the lite version of a rape revenge movie.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

In short: Shepherd II (1999)

Remember how much I loved the first Shepherd in spite of and because of all the horrible nonsense in it? Well, the Roger Corman produced sequel nobody asked for does its hardest to drive that love right away again. It’s the sort of low budget sequel that contains so much recycled footage (though in black and white) from its prequel even the least suspicious of minds can’t help but imagine someone involved didn’t actually have the budget to shoot a full movie and did everything he could to pad out the running time.

Ironically, the new footage we get to see looks even cheaper and shoddier than that in the first film, with director Eli Necakov putting all his faith and all five dollars of Corman’s money in sets that often don’t even pretend to have anything in it, VR scenes that use the same background effects as a bad early 90s house video, some truly awful VR strippers to add in the all-important breasts (though we also get a full repeat of the first film’s sex scene, because that’s the kind of film we deal with here), action scenes that don’t look a bit awkward but just bored and disinterested, and a plot there’s really no point in synopsizing, as the film spends little time on it anyway.

Of course, the thespian glories – such as they are – of ventriloquist David Carradine and priestly Rowdy Roddy Piper are absent too, and while the returning Mackenzie Gray (now spending his time in a cyber chair and wearing funny wigs in the VR world), C. Thomas Howell and Heidi von Palleske do some perfectly decent eating of scenery, things around them – even the things so silly they should provide decent entertainment value – dreg so painfully, all sense of fun I had from the first film is drained out of this one as if it were beset by fun vampires. Which would probably be an improvement over the plot the film actually has, so call me, Roger.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

In short: The Dragon Murder Case (1934)

There’s trouble at the palatial home of (now dead) ichthyologist Stamm. Mony (George Meeker), the fiancée of Stamm’s daughter Bernice (Margaret Lindsay), dives into the place’s curious half-natural pool during a party full of people hating him, and just disappears without a trace. Has his mysterious vanishing something to do with a mythical monster supposedly living in the Dragon Pool, or is it just a particularly clever murderer having a bit of fun?

Fortunately, district attorney Markham (Robert McWade), doesn’t just bring mentally challenged Sgt. Heath (Eugene Pallette) with him to solve the case but also brilliant amateur detective Philo Vance (Warren William) who proceeds to cut his intellectual way through dragon myths, obfuscations and false alibis alike.

The Dragon Murder Case is the sixth film based on the popular yet not exactly well-loved (even by critics fond of its particular mystery sub-genre) Philo Vance series by S.S. Van Dyne concerning the adventures of what just might be one of the least sympathetic detectives around. At least in the novels, that is, for the movie Vance is rather more the clever, sometimes sarcastic, always debonair man of the world kind detective than the incredibly annoying upper-class twat of the books. This goes for Warren William’s first and only appearance in the role as well. As William plays him, Vance even has a somewhat friendly rapport with odious comic relief cop Sgt. Heath, instead of just using him as a verbal punching bag.

If you’re willing to go with the film’s old-fashioned style of improbably done murders among rich people – and if you aren’t, watching a Philo Vance mystery can only lead to tears – H. Bruce Humberstone’s film is a pretty fun time. And I say that as someone who is not a big fan of “golden age” mysteries and their preoccupations. Well, except for the preoccupation with mythology, sometimes occultism, and weirdness, things The Dragon Murder Case uses with a bit of style and certainly with relish, while presenting its really not very complicated plot with verve and clarity.

That’s more than enough for me to recommend a pacy little programmer like this.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Alien Abduction (2014)

The Morris family – mother Katie (Katherine Sigismund), father Peter (Peter Holden), daughter Jillian (Jillian Clare), son Corey (Corey Eid) and autistic video camera wielding youngest son Riley (Riley Polanski) are going on a camping trips in the Brown Mountains of North Carolina. The good old Brown Mountain Lights will be the least of their problems, for the aliens responsible for said phenomenon are going on a real abduction spree in the area.

Peter is gone to wherever the aliens take their victims pretty soon, while the rest of the family manage to flee into the cabin of weird but actually rather heroic mountain man Sean (Jeff Bowser). This, of course isn’t the end of their ordeal, because even the best cabin isn’t alien proof.

So, it seems as if the last batch of POV (or if you prefer, “found footage”) horror movies I’ve seen has been – all bitching and moaning by the kind of film critic who’ll never avoid an opportunity to look down on all films in this particular sub-genre notwithstanding – a rather great bunch, quite a few managing to get out from under the shadow of the (still brilliant) Blair Witch Project as well as avoiding the (still pretty crap) shadow of Paranormal Activity altogether. It’s as if POV horror weren’t something you should just dismiss out of hand but, like every style and sub-genre around, full of crap and greatness and much of the in-between, too.

Matty Beckerman’s Alien Abduction might even be my favourite of the bunch. At the very least, the film makes clever use of a real (or “real”, depending on one’s preference) Fortean phenomenon as a jumping off point for its story, escalating from there in ways that aren’t exactly surprising variations on UFO lore but which are so well executed, asking for originality seems to be beside the point.

Beckerman puts real care into establishing his characters as your typical middle-class family, avoids – much to my delight – turning anyone involved into “the annoying one”, and still manages to have the hoped for weird stuff happening early on and, once things really get going about twenty minutes in, never stops for too long while still leaving space for basic yet basically believable characterisation. There’s something archetypal and elegant about the escalation of events here, the increasing desperation and trauma of the (surviving characters) whose options dwindle the more the threat they face increases, never managing to understand why they are threatened the way they are at all. One could argue this sort of thing is basic horror movie stuff, but then doing the basic stuff very well often is exactly what makes a good horror film.

Alien Abduction also is full of excellently set up fright scenes, not only turning the aliens into a real threat but also showing an eye for the more quiet frights: the shots of the empty cars in and around the mountain tunnel, or the road full of dead crows are memorable and impressive by what they suggest, and make the aliens a credible threat even before we see them in action for the first time.

I also appreciate some of the film’s slight variations of standard horror character tropes: how Sean, after starting out like your typical crazy movie hillbilly, turns out to be the kind of guy who will risk his life repeatedly for a bunch of complete strangers, and how the theoretically weakest members of the Morris family, doomed as they may be, demonstrate hidden strengths that turn them into something more interesting than just your typical disposable horror film meat.

If all that isn’t enough to make a film worth more than sighing “just another found footage horror film, oh no!” I don’t know what is.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

In short: Exists (2014)

Brothers Brian (Chris Osborn) and Matt (Samuel Davis) take their friends Dora (Dora Madison Burge), Elizabeth (Denise Williamson) and Todd (Roger Edwards) to their uncle’s cabin in the deep dark Texan woods for a weekend of mild partying. They sort of forgot to mention to their friends that they had to steal their uncle’s key, for he doesn’t want anyone to go out there anymore after he had a close encounter with a bigfoot that scared the crap out of him, though. Of course, who would believe that kind of story?

However, the young people soon find themselves repeatedly attacked by a very big, very hairy, and decidedly angry bigfoot. Since there’s no cell reception in large parts of the area, and the bigfoot takes the group’s car out first, things will become quite dangerous and bloody.

So, it looks like most critics loathe Blair Witch Project’s Eduardo Sanchez’ return to the POV/found footage style of horror filmmaking with quite the passion. I honestly can’t quite understand why. Sure, the plot reasons for this being filmed by the young people themselves seems particularly thin this time around, the characters are barely even ciphers, and there’s no depth whatsoever to be found here, but as a fast, furious, and often very suspenseful little tale of a bunch of people totally out of their depth when having to fight off a rampaging monster, Exists is really rather great.

Sanchez doesn’t use the POV style as an excuse for artless filmmaking. There are quite a few finely composed shots, and many moments where the film’s tension is sold via clever use of little dirty tricks and some excellent sound design that are far from any emulation of authenticity. And if you’re like me and like to see a film’s monster from time to time, you’ll be happy to hear that we get quite a lot of threatening shots of a guy in a cute monster suit being perfectly monstrous, for Sanchez sets many of the film’s most effective (and most monster-containing) scenes in actual daylight, and for my tastes, he more than gets away with it.

Which, honestly, is a perfectly wonderful thing for a monster movie to achieve, and if you go into Exists expecting a really good monster movie, you’ll not be disappointed, I think.