Tuesday, September 29, 2015

In short: World War Dead: Rise of the Fallen (2015)

So, what’s an inevitably doomed documentary film crew – yup, we’re in POV horror territory again – to do to get themselves killed this time? Farting around on the battlefields of the Somme, traipsing after the trail of a potentially imaginary, cursed South African regiment, until some ill-advised corpse robbing causes the local zombie population to rise and do what local zombie populations are wont to do is what. Though it might be the zombies are just as annoyed by these bickering clowns as I was. Hooray for zombies! If only they’d eat faster.

So yes, I’m not too fond of directing duo Freddie Hutton-Mills’s and Bart Ruspoli’s adorably titled World War Dead: Rise of the Fallen. It’s another one of these films I find difficult to actually call bad because I find it too technically competent for that description (things are in focus when they’re meant to be, the sound’s audible, and so on), and features a perfectly professional cast that probably could have done something with a mildly more audacious (as in, containing at least two ideas I’ve only seen in ten other movies before) script. Alas, it is also much too boring, lacking in originality as well as any actual spark of life that could help me over the fact I’ve seen this all before. Changing the war in which the zombies died isn’t a creative achievement, and otherwise, there’s just so little here even worth talking about.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Invasion U.S.A. (1985)

Evil Soviet bad guy Mikhail Rostov (Richard Lynch) has an evil plan to finally bring down the Land of the Free™. He’s going to bring in a bunch of international people of evil, and have them start a mass of terrorist attacks, preferably staged in such a way the divergent social groups of the country will be set at each other’s throats and people will start to learn to distrust authority (gasp!). Alternatively, these attacks are set against Christmas trees, American flags, white little girls and shopping malls. Yup, that’s the titular invasion, even though it’s not actually an invasion in a classic Cannon manoeuvre.

The only thing Rostov fears is former CIA agent Matt Hunter (Chuck Norris). Hunter, you see, once nearly killed Rostov and only turned a deadly shot into a show-off martial artist kick because his higher-ups said so. Lucky for Rostov, Hunter has quit his job and is now living somewhere in the swamps of Florida, eating frogs and petting an armadillo, and even when asked to return to go after Rostov, he grumpily declines. Alas, Rostov’s Chuckophobia convinces him a preventive attack on our hero’s (oh gawd) home is the best way to go; of course, that only kills Hunter’s native American buddy (and possibly the armadillo), and makes the man righteously angry, which is to say induces mild muscular movement in his face and turns him into a torturing, murdering sadist now very pleased to hunt murdering, torturing sadist Rostov and his men down. What a patriot!

Cannon’s Invasion U.S.A. takes a particularly honoured place in the line-up of ultra-jingoistic US action movies of the 80s because it is raving so wildly it is at times difficult to discern if Joseph Zito’s film is in fact an expression of the right-wing frothing of its time or indeed a parody through hyperbole. Of course, given Chuck Norris’s well-known politics, and the fact he is actually listed as a screenwriter, it’s probably right-wing raving that accidentally turns into parody, even though I do find it rather improbable nobody involved realized that the film’s hero is a creepy sociopath who really, really loves to kill and torture people.

Part of the rather disturbing impression Norris makes here is the fault of the way the script writes around his flaws as an actor, namely, that he can’t emote at all, and that his delivery of any piece of dialogue longer than a one-liner is usually just wrong and often utterly bizarre. What choice is there than to make him a guy who has no friends, doesn’t actually talk to people (not even an “are you alright?” for innocent bystanders), and who prowls the nightly streets of your random South Eastern US city like a serial killer looking for prey? It doesn’t help that the Norris school (and its most horrifying brother, the Seagal school) of action heroics never lets its hero show weakness at all, so where JCVD or Lundgren, or even Michael Dudikoff (the future Matt Hunter, even though the characters share nothing beyond the South and a talent for violence) from time to time get a beat down or seem actually perturbed and aggravated by the violence around them, Norris just robotically and effortlessly murders his enemies.

On the positive side, Norris is the ideal opposite to Richard Lynch’s high-strung and weaselly performance, his often hilarious joy at destroying suburbs, school busses, and whatever else “typically American” making him easy to love (hate?), his every twitch turning him into the Anti-Norris. And yeah, I was sort of rooting for him to at least take Chuck with him.

Lynch isn’t the only one showing great enthusiasm for destruction though. Zito’s direction takes all the crassness, the stupidity, and the plain weirdness of the script and turns it into the one true kind of poetry action cinema knows, motion and explosions, using every editing trick, every suspense technique, and every loud noise in the book to create a real magnum opus of the stupidly overblown, on a Cannon budget. And while the film’s politics are dubious at best, and its lead actor isn’t up to snuff, Invasion U.S.A. is such an unapologetic bit of action cinema I can’t help but love it.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

In short: Eden Log (2007)

A man (Clovis Cornillac) wakes up in a cavernous underground complex. He’s beaten and bruised, disoriented and amnesiac, and the darkness and strangeness of his surroundings don’t exactly help with any of these states either.

Slowly, he works his way outwards and upwards, on the way learning in bits and pieces what the hell is going on around him. Basically, he is in a giant underground factory harvesting energy from the roots of a gigantic tree, but something seems to have gone horribly wrong: mutants roam the caverns and corridors, and a paramilitary force has been sent down to not only fight the mutants but to suppress some kind of revolt among the place’s technicians. Worse still, something’s not right with our protagonist himself. He can neither trust his memories nor his perceptions; the only thing he knows is that he needs to travel upwards.

Franck Vestiel’s unfortunately until now only directing credit is quite the thing. Clearly made on a tight budget, Eden Log still manages to build a confusing, sometimes surreal world of its own out of monochromatic colours, darkness, and sets that all help give the film a disorienting feel. In a sense, the film’s approach to Science Fiction, the way the more hard science fictional parts and its visionary elements intersect, seems deeply French to me, reminding me of francophone comics in its eye for the disorienting (the future is a strange place at the best of times, after all) detail – like the mouth in a recording of a technician projected onto the mouth of its corpse while expositioning – and its willingness to not get bogged down in explanations. Ambiguity counts.

This doesn’t mean Eden Log doesn’t have any clear plot at all, for it very much follows a simple travelogue structure in which the protagonist learns about himself through the interaction with utter strangeness. It’s just the “utter strangeness” part that might throw people, particularly since the film’s more daring uses of Christian mythology paired with elements we know from survival horror and so on isn’t what you’d call an obvious pairing. Which, of course, is exactly one of the reasons for Eden Log’s quite hypnotic power. There’s nothing quite as riveting as the non-obvious consequently used.

The other reasons for the film’s power are the highly effective electronic score by Seppuku Paradigm that further emphasises the strangeness of our surroundings and provides Eden Log as a place an aural identity quite befitting its visual one; and Clovis Cornillac’s full body performance as our nameless protagonist, projecting vulnerability as well as violent craziness without much need for the few moments of dialogue he gets. Without this, the film’s protagonist might have become too much of an empty place at the film’s heart, but thanks to Cornillac, there’s a relatable humanity to a character that might just not be quite so human anymore at all.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

In short: Poltergeist (2015)

I’m not a very great admirer of the Spielberg/Hooper joint, so in principle, I shouldn’t harbour any strong feelings against a remake. On the other hand, what director Gil Kenan delivers here is such a bland, pointless and tepid outing I honestly don’t understand why anyone should bother with it when there’s an original that’s much better at being Poltergeist and so many other films much better at being horror films. The latter problem comes up specifically because the film borrows so many highly generic bits and pieces from other movies without ever actually making something out of them apart from a series of basically competent but uninvolving versions of more interesting things.

Additionally, Kenan shows little talent for setting up creepy scenes, nor for making effective use of the loud special effects sequences. The effects for their part are just uninspired in conception and frankly more than a little boring.

You’d think at least the film’s gestures towards grounding itself in another time than the original might lead somewhere, but the few nods towards modern technology and technological culture don’t have much of a point, and its idea of its central family having come down economically suffers from the simple fact that incessant complaints about only being able to afford a really big house (one must assume they were inhabiting Buckingham Palace before) and one credit card makes the characters sound like rich whiners more than like people in actual financial trouble. Oh noes, Mum might have to work! And like with pretty much anything else in Poltergeist 2015, there’s actually little point to the economical sub plot anyway, with no thematic tissue connecting it to anything else going on, most certainly not the central haunting. It’s something that’s in the film to help fill out the running time without actually meaning anything.

The cast, all the while, is absolutely overqualified for the things the script by David Lindsay-Abaire has them to. The actors are certainly not putting any more work in than the film actually asks from them in performances that aren’t exactly indifferent but certainly don’t show much enthusiasm or creativity. Like everything else about Poltergeist 2015, the acting is basically competent yet bland.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Three Films Make A Post: All they had was a skill for violence and nothing to lose but their lives!

The Stranger (2014): This Chilean film concerns s a very interesting variation on the right now second-most overused horror monster, and, if nothing else, proves you can do something worthwhile with it still; at least if you’re the film’s director Guillermo Amoedo. Amoedo not only manages to do something interesting and at least half-way original with his monster but also finds a place where the naturalistic portrayal of pretty shitty lives and a dream-like mood aren’t mutually exclusive approaches.

The fact that the film, mostly cast with Chilean actors speaking their English with more or less obvious accents, takes place in what seems to be supposed to be a US small town (I think), actually furthers the weird mood of proceedings for my tastes, locating the film not in a place as in the idea of a place. However, it is, like The Stranger’s somewhat peculiar pacing, certainly a point that’ll annoy some viewers to no end.

The House of Hanging aka Byoinzaka no kubikukuri no ie (1979): Kon Ichikawa is one of the big Japanese directors outside the pure arthouse realm I often find myself having the most trouble with. It’s not that I don’t think some of his film’s are masterpieces, but he seems – at least for my tastes – to have rather more films like this adaptation of one of the adventures of private detective Kosuke Kindaichi (in this case embodied by Koji Ishizaka) than I’d like. Films that fluctuate in tone so heavily and so (in)consistently – in this case between stuffy comedy and handwringing melodrama – it becomes difficult to ascertain what tone the director is actually going for; films where for every brilliantly and complex staged scene there’s another one bland, boring and lifeless, and a further one where Ichikawa just seems to be showing off; films where contrasts neither rub productively against one another nor seem to have another reason to be there.

In House of Hanging’s case, these problems are exacerbated by one typical flaw of late 70s biggish prestige productions from Japan, needless length that makes a film feel rather bloated and slow, particularly one which really could have been improved mightily by having various scenes of “comically” inept cops removed, and various plot strands tightened.

Mystery on Monster Island aka Misterio en la isla de los monstruos (1981): I don’t loathe Juan Piquer Simón’s family adventure movie quite as much as parts of the Net do, but then, that’s because I’m trying very hard to ignore the odious comic relief taking up half of the film, the idiotic twist ending (which actually is Jules Verne’s fault as author of the novel the film adapts), the plodding pacing, the expected (because nobody in his right mind will expect a production like this to actually afford many shooting days from these gentlemen) underuse of Peter Cushing and Terence Stamp, the film’s dubious racial politics, on account of this being a rather naive children’s film I did indeed enjoy when I was a kid.

For us grown-ups, even for those of us used to “bad” movies, the whole thing just might be pretty unpalatable, but then, it isn’t actually meant for us.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Universal Van Damme: Sudden Death (1995)

After a little girl dies in his arms, super fireman Darren McCord (Jean-Claude Van Damme) has a bit of a breakdown. Now, some undisclosed time later, he’s beginning to work again as a fire marshal in the stadium of the Pittsburgh Penguins, an ice hockey team, or so the film tells me. He manages to get a couple of cards for his little son and daughter for the Stanley Cup finale (whatever that may be).

Unfortunately, the Vice President (Raymond J. Barry) is also visiting that day, and a gang of international evil doers lead by the fussy and rather cruel Joshua Foss (Powers Boothe) has taken it upon themselves to take the VP hostage as the first step in a rather violent and explosion-rich scheme for monetary gain. Because the Secret Service under one Agent Hallmark (Dorian Harewood) is really rather horrible at its job, the VP is soon taken, and the stadium all rigged to blow.

The only thing standing between ice hockey and catastrophe is McCord, who becomes particularly involved once the bad guys kidnap his daughter. Turns out, US firemen not only know a lot about the disarming of bombs but are also really capable killers.

In my recent write-up of director Peter Hyams’s Outland, I mentioned something along the line of Hyams being able to take an exceedingly silly script and make an exceedingly silly as well as exciting film out of it. Sudden Death is to my eyes irrefutable proof of that assertion. This is, after all, a film whose first major action scene consists of JCVD having a fight with an ice hockey mascot using all manner of commercial kitchen utensils in ways that really demonstrate how dangerous of a working place that is, and that gets more bizarre from there on out, finally ending on a physics and logic defying duel between JCVD and a helicopter.

Which, obviously, is a very good thing for the sort of film this is, because a Die Hard variation taking place in an ice hockey stadium with sensible or (ugh) realistic action would probably be boring as well as point out how little sense any of its plot points make. Fortunately, Hyams has things well in hand, with an imaginative array of absurdist action that actually does remind me of the all-out approach of the best of Hong Kong action cinema, not in its directorial approach (Hyams’s way to film action is clear, straight, and exciting but eschews any kind of stylization) but in its shameless willingness to trade in believability for excitement, as well as in its imagination.

Other highlights are a son who doesn’t move even when the stadium breaks down around him (that’s JCVD parenting, folks), a daughter stamping everyone becoming a plot point, Powers Boothe having a lot of fun being a slimy sadist prick whose plans probably would work out better if he’d be less violent, and the fact that there’s pretty much never a dull moment – and only few moments that make much sense – once the film really hits its stride.

Jean-Claude for his part is at the point in his career where his basic acting skills are perfectly fit for the job at hand; and because his character actually does things like bleed and sweat and breathe heavily he’s on the right side of the US action hero equation, where a degree of humanity reigns. Something you particularly learn to appreciate if you’ve seen a bunch of Chuck Norris films in the last few weeks, where anything even vaguely human in its hero seems to be treated as a weakness, even though it’s actually these things that make a viewer root for a hero. Well, that or his parenting skills, obviously.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

In short: Storm Catcher (1999)

Major Jack Holloway (Dolph Lundgren), one of only two men able to fly a new-fangled experimental super stealth jet, is framed for the theft of said jet in the most ridiculous manner possible. When the people actually responsible for the deed violently break him out of a prison transport only to attempt to kill him afterwards themselves, Jack reacts a bit violently himself. Hunted by the authorities (not that they ever play much of role) and the bad guys, our hero tries to find out what’s really going on by shooting a lot of people.

Turns out, the whole thing is part of a planned military coup masterminded by Jack’s superior General Jacobs (Robert Miano), a guy evil enough to threaten the life of Jack’s little daughter. Clearly, violence is the answer to this one too.

As should be obvious, Storm Catcher isn’t the most clever of movies, but when the last Dolph Lundgren film one has seen was Agent Red (a film that just happens to cannibalize one of the scenes of this one), even the bad guys’ pretty fucking nonsensical plan to take control of the USA here sounds somewhat sensible, even though the whole “let’s frame Dolph!” angle seems rather pointless, particularly once they start to send out totally unsuspicious squads of well-armed soldiers to take him down. But hey, at least the film’s houses look like houses, its stealth jet is a stealth jet, and so on.

Plus, unlike Damien Lee and Jim Wynorski, Storm Catcher’s Anthony Hickox is a low budget movie pro who is at least always trying to make decent movie with the possibilities at hand. Given the script and the film’s budgetary limitations, Hickox does quite a fine job here too, putting more thought into adding something memorable to most of the film’s dramatic scenes (just look at the lighting and the not-throne our bad guy sits on in the final verbal confrontation between Dolph and Miano!). Of course, there’s also a bit of the mandatory low budget action movie weirdness, some dubious yet entertaining acting in the minor roles (the people playing the CIA agents are rather…special), as well as some moments when Hickox over-directs to near hilarity. In particular, the scene when Dolph brings his wife to the hospital is rather hilarious/cringe-inducing in its editing and sheer overblown camera work, but then, it certainly isn’t boring.

The action’s pretty okay too, with little that really sticks out. There’s a lot of serviceable, solid action that might not blow anyone away yet did satisfy me alright. Which is not the worst thing that can happen when you encounter a film starring The Dolph made during the 90s.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

On ExB: Dark Was the Night (2014)

As you know, Jim, I do like me some traditional small town monster movies. I like it even more when they are any good, which leads us to the subject of my newest column over at the sometimes disturbingly hairy Exploder Button. It concerns Dark Was the Night, a traditional small town monster movie that is pretty damn great.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

In short: X Moor (2014)

American hobby cryptozoologist Georgia (Melia Kreiling) and her cameraman boyfriend Matt (Nick Blood, confusingly enough doing what I suppose is to be meant an American accent) go on a trip on the moors of Devon (as played by the moors of Ireland) to find one of the purported large wild cats prowling there. After a bit of random violence has established that everyone in the UK is crazy, they meet up with an old friend of Georgia’s, the experienced hunter Fox (Mark Bonnar) to help them get the cat. Too bad he seems to be rather crazy too.

Alas, they soon enough don’t stumble upon an aggressive cat but the dumping grounds of a serial killer. Turns out he is what Fox has been hunting all along, he just didn’t tell our heroes this is a vigilante expedition because, umm, yeah, it’s in the script. For the same reason, our heroes go along with this brilliant new plan of hunting a serial killer in the woods while carrying a single gun and having one actual wilderness survival expert. Various twists of increasing implausibility and annoyance happen.

I know, I know, I’ve complained here often enough about horror films not having any ambitions and just trotting around the most well-worn paths imaginable, so it’s somewhat ironic that I’m now criticizing Luke Hyams’s X Moor (and its horrible title) for trying the opposite. The emphasis though lies on the trying: as long as X Moor is a film about a bunch of walking dead trying to hunt down a monster, it’s reasonably effective, with Hyams promising a safe grip on the usual suspense techniques, a decent cast, and some moody landscape shots (which I am a sucker for).

However, once it becomes a twists and turns movie, X Moor loses most of that in favour of random jump scares, random (in the sense of “not being actually prepared by the script”) twists, and characters acting ever more stupid in a way that can’t be explained anymore by them being panicked but only by them being horror movie characters, while the actors are becoming increasingly ineffective because they have to react to random crap in improbable ways. Where most films of the sort do at least have a planned increase of suspense and tension, this one has just stuff that happens because any twist is good as long as it makes no sense in the context of what came before, right?

And so, a harmless, yet competent little movie turns into a mess that’s bound to annoy.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Hellbound (1994)

Big city cop Frank Shatter (Chuck Norris) and his incredibly odious (so much so I find it difficult to not see the treatment of the character as racist, but them’s the breaks) comic relief sidekick Calvin Jackson (Calvin Levels) stumble unto one of a series of murders that’s part of the evil plans of one Pro Satanis (the spelling of the character name just might be me being ironic, he is in any case played by Christopher Neame) to finally get that Apocalypse rolling. For some reason (is that theologically sound?) that seems to be a bad thing, so our heroes find themselves quite outside their usual realms of expertise of pushing around pimps and dealers and in the world saving business instead. Even a bit of travel to Israel is in their future.

I think I have already gone on record with the fact that I don’t have much time for Chuck Norris, seeing as I find his politics abhorrent, Chuck Norris jokes deeply unfunny, his acting bad in a very boring way, and his screen fighting skills not all that exciting. If I want to say something nice about him, I mostly go for “at least he’s not Steven Seagal”, which is obviously true.

This of course doesn’t mean I’m never going to watch a Norris film, or that I hate his whole body of work on principle and won’t enjoy a movie of his even when it’s actually decent, but it doesn’t exactly induce me to run out and watch all of his films. This has of course resulted in some disturbing holes in my US 80s and 90s semi-mainstream action movie education, and that sort of thing just can’t stand.

Hellbound – directed by younger Norris brother Aaron and not to be confused with the Hellraiser film, which nobody would – in particular always sounded like the sort of thing I would enjoy as a genre mix between action and kinda-sorta horror. Alas, now that I’ve seen it (well, seen it again, because I must have watched it once during the 90s and forgotten all about it), I can’t help but find myself being disappointed by a film that’s wasting so much of its potential for fun for no visible reason.

It’s not necessarily Chuck Norris’s fault, though the fact that he didn’t learn anything about acting from 1972 to 1994 isn’t exactly something to be proud of, and certainly doesn’t help the film, but what really kills the whole thing are the reams and reams of bad, unfunny, never-ending humour that’s based on Jackson being an idiot and Shatter treating him like a little child. This crap breaks up all of the possible tension you should have in a film where a demonic villain (given with some pleasure by Neame) goes around ripping out hearts to get together a sceptre that’ll make the Apocalypse (evangelical Christian version, one presumes) happen, with a handful of decent action scenes in between, and the younger Norris even putting some effort in to make things moody in an appropriately cheesy way. Unfortunately, for every five minutes of fun, there are ten of “comedy”, never ending, painful, soul-sucking “comedy”, all expertly set to destroy much of the film that would otherwise be actually somewhat awesome and definitely highly entertaining in a cheesy kind of way. There’s also a painfully underdeveloped “romance” between Norris and Sheree J. Wilson’s character, but between the way the script treats this as hated yet perfunctory necessity, and its need to convince us that Norris is really, really hot, there’s not much joy – though a degree of hilarity – to find there either.

It’s not even too difficult to imagine a better, comedy-free version of Hellbound; unfortunately, none of the people involved did.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

In short: Next of Kin (1982)

Following the death of her mother, Linda (Jacki Kerin, in a wonderful tour de force performance) inherits the private and rather understaffed – we’re talking herself, one nurse and a regularly visiting doctor here – retirement home her mother and her – also dead – sister had turned the family mansion into to actually be able to repair and keep it. For Linda, inheriting the home means moving back to a place she left a long time ago to do something she doesn’t seem too sure she actually wants to do.

The finances of the place are less than ideal, too, but these things will quickly turn out to be lesser problems. Someone (or is it something?) seems to haunt the house, perhaps echoing things that happened in the home a long time ago, slowly and at first subtly suggesting secrets and threats to Linda. Of course, it’s also possible she’s just losing it.

Given the quality of Next of Kin – an Aussie/Kiwi co-production – it’s quite a disappointment its director Tony Williams didn’t have a career in feature film afterwards, for the film suggests an exceptional talent for the thriller and horror genres.

What is particularly effective about Next of Kin is for how long and how thoughtfully it avoids laying its cards on the table as to what exact sub-genre it belongs to, keeping the audience adeptly insecure: is it a slasher? A ghost story? A film whose main character will turn out to be the movie equivalent of an unreliable narrator? Or is it a “drive the heiress insane” type of thriller? I’m certainly not going to spoil the answer, so let’s just leave it at pointing out how good the film truly is at keeping its audience guessing until the (somewhat overeager) finale comes along. This puts audience is in a situation comparable to that of Linda, who also has to work from assumptions, suggestions, and hints that all just may turn out to be wrong, so it becomes even more easy to identify with her.

Stylistically, Williams keeps things interesting by taking bits and pieces from everywhere. There are moments reminding of the more classy arm of the slasher, a big dollop of the giallo (though without the sleaze), and quite a few moments that – just like the plotting – reminded me a lot of Hammer’s post-Psycho thrillers. In quite an impressive show of magic, Williams also manages to make these on paper somewhat disparate elements come together organically – he’s really using certain stylistic elements to achieve a goal in his own way, and not just quoting other films.

Next of Kin is truly a wonderful film, and one that doesn’t lose more than the first moment of delight once you’ve seen it and know what’s going on.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

The House on Sorority Row (1983)

A mean-spirited prank a handful of senior sorority sisters play on their much hated (and rather mean-spirited bordering on crazy) house mother Mrs. Slater (Lois Kelso Hunt), ends up deadly for the poor woman. The girls, lead in this decision by queen bee Vicki (Eileen Davidson) decide the best thing to do in this sort of situation is to throw the body in the dirty, unused swimming pool of the house, go through with their goodbye party, and find a better place for the body afterwards. Only obvious final girl Katherine (Kate McNeil) thinks calling the police might be in order, but she’s outvoted and easily convinced to take part in this stupid plan to end all stupid plans.

Of course, things go very wrong, very soon. First, Mrs. Slater’s body pops in and out and really gets around for a dead body; then, one after the other, the girls disappear while they try to get rid of the body again without their party guests realizing something’s going on. The girls only understand that a murderer (apart from them) is going around much later.

The history of slasher movies is – even more so than my beloved horror genre as a whole - so rich in movies that just suck in all possible and thought impossible ways that coming upon a film like The House on Sorority Row is like finding a well in the desert, even though it shouldn’t actually be a movie that’ll make anyone jump for joy.

However, in the context of its genre, its time of increasingly desperate attempts to somehow catch that elusive Friday the 13th gold, The House really feels pretty golden. It does, after all, have a plot that makes – in the borders of giving its characters a reason to die – somewhat sense (we all have accidentally killed people and tried to get away with it, right?), features performances that are often pretty good and tend even in their more awkward moments to the charming instead of the dumb, a script that actually seems to know what it wants to do and where to go, and last but not least a goodly amount of that red stuff we all like so much as long as it is fake.

First time director and writer Mark Rosman (who would go on to longish and not particularly distinguished looking TV career after a few other films I’ve now become quite interested in) does a pretty fine job in many respects too. There’s little of the usual feet dragging that mars a lot of the lesser slashers, little odious comic relief, and generally no scene that isn’t either set up to create characters and motivation for them, or working at producing suspense. It’s the film’s emphasis on suspense that particularly won me over – sure, there’s blood and there are jump scares, but much of the film’s effect rests on techniques that have come down at least from Hitchcock (though in this case Carpenter seems the most obvious source). Rosman’s quite good at escalation too: the murders and the blood escalate, the characters’ hysteria escalates, and the surrounding madness escalates too, until you can’t even trust an authority figure anymore. Go figure.

Particularly in the film’s second half, Rosman also creates moments that reminded me more of the giallo than of the slasher, with some particularly fine moments of cheap yet effective strangeness via coloured lights and hallucinations once our heroine has been drugged up, and a simple yet cool finale that puts the extra effort in to draw various elements of what happened earlier in the film together.

It’s pretty great for just another slasher movie.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

In short: Harbinger Down (2015)

I’d really, really love to heap praise upon the film film made by the practical effects studio booted out of that floundering The Thing re-make/re-boot/whatever that went to Kickstarter to make a practical effects-based movie in the spirit of Carpenter’s original. Alas, it’s much too bad for that, and it really looks to be much more in the spirit of Italian rip-offs of The Thing, just realized without any of that spark of insanity that in their best moments made these films watchable and worthwhile despite things like bad acting, ridiculous scripts, and so on and so forth.

Harbinger Down does keep the bad acting – with the obvious exception of Lance Henriksen (who’d really deserve to be cast in a decent movie or ten in his old age again) and Camille Balsamo, who is merely mediocre – the thespians involved unable (and perhaps even not competent enough) to give life to the idiotic and mostly highly annoying one-note characters the script gives them to play.

Even apart from the non-characters, Harbinger Down’s script is the sort of catastrophe area that wouldn’t cut it as a SyFy Channel Original (nope, not even one of the bad ones), with no actual plot, no suspense, no theme, and certainly no emotional involvement ever threatening to appear. In other words – the film contains not a single constituting element of the movies it is claiming to be in the spirit of apart from some body horror special effects.

Though, quite ironically in a film selling itself on them, the practical effects aren’t much to write home about either. They’re not original in their conception, they’re not well-filmed (which fits the rest of Alec Gillis’s direction and its lack of visual imagination and flair perfectly), and there aren’t even all that many of them.

Take all this together, and you end up with just another sub-par monster movie, perhaps one a bit more boring than most. Which, given that we live at a point in time where we get one of these at least once a week, isn’t doing Harbinger Down or the poor people inflicting this stuff on themselves (my Mum always says self-pity is okay when you come by it the honest way, like watching a crappy movie) any favours.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Three Films Make A Post: Know the Mark

Mystery Road (2013): I am full of admiration for Ivan Sen’s rural Australian crime movie: admiration for the photography of huge, empty spaces that suggests a lot of what they mean to the people inhabiting them; admiration for the calm way it approaches rural power structures based on racism and disinterest, somehow managing to not yell about a truth and making it even starker by just telling it; admiration for the film’s unwillingness to look down; admiration for its calm and silent empathy; admiration for the way it tells so much through small gestures, glances and avoided glances; admiration for Aaron Pedersen’s central performance; admiration for the decision to not explain the crime plot to the smallest detail but let the audience sort it out for themselves; admiration, finally, for the sheer flow Sen gives his film without ever avoiding the fact he has something important to say about a very specific time and place.

Ice Station Zebra (1968): If you thought the bloated, overlong, substance-low Hollywood film is an invention of the blockbuster age, or at least of 70s disaster movies, think again. This two and a half hour thing directed by the usually – though not this time – brilliant John Sturges (who started having quite a few off-days at this point in his career) based on the inevitable Alistair MacLean novel is basically a fun, 90 minute cold war thriller bloated up to 150 minutes, mostly by things like an overture, a musical intermission (as if Michel Legrand’s annoyingly over-present score weren’t bad enough during the actual movie), and many a scene of rousing music playing while the camera stares at an atomic submarine for no dramatic reason at all, also dithering. Just imagine the first half hour of the first Star Trek movie trampling on your face forever.

There’s a great cast with Rock Hudson, Ernest Borgnine, Jim Brown and Patrick McGoohan but following the rules of this sort of film, they basically have sod all to do, which is something of an achievement in a film this long, but then, at least it manages to achieve something.

Spores (2011? 2013?): Clearly, if study of the cheap and the curious in world cinema has taught me anything, it’s that there is such a thing as a universal human tale speaking Deep Things about the Human Condition. Like Russian director Maksim Dyachuk’s Spores, these tales are all about a bunch of young people – clichés all - going to a remote place (in this case a ruined factory building) to mostly die by something evil (in this case alien CG creatures). I’m still not quite sure what exactly this says about the Human Condition but I’m working on it.

Be that as it may, I found this Russian version of the age-old story on the more entertaining side: the acting is semi-professional at best but at least the worst actors die first; the CG monsters look bad, but at least they are not badly designed; the film has a competent flow and decent photography, and doesn’t overstay its welcome. That’s a win in my book.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

In short: Night Creature (1978)

aka Out of the Dark

While hunting a man-eating leopard, Great White Hunter – and in a turn absolutely telegraphing the film’s idea of subtlety also former war photographer, race car driver and so on – Axel MacGregor (Donald Pleasence, for reasons only known to him acting his ass off in a film that really doesn’t deserve him) is nearly killed by the beast, and mauled enough for a decoratively stiff leg. For the first time in his life, MacGregor has to admit he is feeling fear, so he does the obvious thing to restore his manhood: he pays various hunting parties to catch the animal alive, so he can let it loose on his private island and either kill it to restore his manhood or die in a really stupiddignified manner.

Alas, his half-estranged daughters Leslie (Nancy Kwan) and Georgia (Jennifer Rhodes), Georgia’s little daughter Peggy (Lesly Fine), Georgia’s bed buddy (and soon to be Leslie’s boyfriend) Ross (Ross Hagen), use just this moment for a nice family visit. So, while MacGregor is wandering through his island wilderness, the leopard has rather more tasty targets set before it, with a Yorkshire terrier as an aperitif, even.

On paper, Lee Madden’s Night Creatures does sound like a rather good idea, for the deconstruction of the Great White Hunter by confronting him with his failure as a father might not be the newest idea, but certainly is one that by all rights should be a decent base for an animal attack thriller with a bit more going below the surface.

Alas, that’s not this film, because the idea of keeping themes or ideas where someone in the audience might miss them seems to have been anathema to the people involved in the production. Consequently, the actors are permanently telling each other their inner states and the film’s themes beside the whole Pleasence/leopard duel in impossibly wooden dialogue full of bad 70s pop psychology, empty melodramatics and the kind of therapy speech that to me always suggests a complete disconnect with actual human psychology, not to speak a total absence of either believable, or beautiful, or simply effective dialogue writing.

It doesn’t help that only one of the three core actors – Pleasence, obviously - is actually good enough to deliver this dross with conviction and style, while Kwan in particular drones the nonsense with all the emotional involvement of robot, and Hagen’s only there to show off his chest and a lot of hair.

Whenever Pleasence is alone, or just stalking through the jungle, the film nearly becomes worthwhile, though Madden does his best to sabotage even these moments via judicious over-application of stylistic elements like freeze frames as well as random slow-motion and meaningful editing that is on the same level of intelligence and subtlety as the writing. Only from time to time, Madden stumbles upon a moment that actually is meaningful and effective (like the first major character death), but these moments of poignancy are, as is Pleasence’s effort, buried under so much dross I quickly found myself actually annoyed at the film’s empty gestures that only ever destroy the depth they are supposed to create.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

SyFy vs. the Mynd: Lavalantula (2015)

90s action hero Colton West (Steve Guttenberg, who is not going to be the only Police Academy alumnus in the movie) has gone on the usual career trajectory of men of his profession, and is now doing supposedly undignified one day/10.000 dollar stints in cardboard action movies (a financial situation the film seems to think horrible, which suggests the scriptwriters involved have never talked to the women scrubbing their toilets), when he isn’t tricked into working on bug-based monster films, clearly a torture for a guy who hates bugs.

Colton will have to get over his fear of bugs right quick, though, because when the Santa Monica Mountains explode in a volcanic explosion, they spit out giant, lava-breathing spiders (and yeah, I know spiders aren’t insects); well, at least it’s not maggots. Because Colton’s son Wyatt (Noah Hunt) has gone off in a huff after your typical SyFy family problems, our hero will have to use all his movie-learned powers of action heroism to cross Los Angeles to save his son, rescuing random people in the process. Colton’s wife Olivia (Nia Peeples) will pretty much do the same once she has realized there actually are giant lava-breathing spiders attacking, and it’s not Colton having crawled back into the bottle.

And while the Wests are at it, they just might as well grab the crew of Colton’s last movie and save the whole of LA by themselves.

Oh, popularity of Sharknado, what hast thou wrought? Well, in the case of Mike Mendez’s Lavalantula actually nothing horrible, but a fluffy, fun, and reasonably fast monster comedy that doesn’t waste any actual time on the family trouble subplot (probably because flattening a giant spider with a military truck is proof of love enough for anyone) and instead indulges in a lot of mildly self-ironic little jokes about the more well-worn parts of the entertainment industry.

Pleasantly enough, the film does this without either becoming too cynical or indulging in the kind of entertainment culture self-pity that’d make the film hateful to anyone who thinks 10.000 dollars for one hour of work sounds like a pretty sweet deal, and quite a bit more dignified than most stuff you get paid 10 dollars or less an hour for to boot. Instead Mendez’s film is all about (not un-ironically) embracing the tacky, the desperate and the trashy as a potentially life-saving part of culture, which is an idea pretty close to my heart, though I’d add the at best uncaring cosmos to it somewhere (of course).

Anyway, the parts between the jokes are decent and generally entertaining monster movie staples, with Mendez demonstrating an eye for set pieces that feel more impressive than they necessarily should be, not too shabby CGI monsters (the explosions on the other hand do look pretty bad), and a cast that’s game for this sort of thing.

Guttenberg turns out to be a surprisingly excellent aged action hero - and his actually aged comedian identity obviously helps the whole “being funny” business - and Nia Peeples just screams for a SyFy movie where she isn’t playing second fiddle. Well, Michael Winslow is still annoying as all get out once he starts with the human noise box crap, but honestly, I found Lavalantula entertaining enough to just be able to ignore him.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

The Hole (2009)

Single mother Susan (Teri Polo) moves with her late teenage son Dane (Chris Massoglia) and her youngest Lucas (Nathan Gamble) from Brooklyn into a house in one of those proverbial peaceful small towns US horror – and perhaps parts of US society - likes to obsess about. The family is clearly moving away from something depressing that has caught up with them again and again, but what exactly that is, we’ll only learn much later.

Dane isn’t happy at all with the move (which is only one of many), not even when he insta-crushes on their neighbour Julie (Haley Bennett) who isn’t just cute and nice but also the kinda gal who is reading Dante – not the director - in her free time. Barely moved in, the kids discover a hatch secured by multitudinous locks in the cellar. They open it, and find a deep dark hole below. Some experiments suggest it’s bottomless, and utterly impossible. There’s also something living inside it, and soon Dane, Julie, and Lucas are threatened by their deepest fears. On the positive side, their ordeal should safe them from years of counselling. Well, if they survive it, that is.

Watching The Hole after Joe Dante’s newest film, the hatefully bad Burying the Ex is bound to give one whiplash, because where the later film doesn’t at all manage to be the film it wants to be (I’ll give Dante the benefit of the doubt here insofar as I’m not going to suggest the Burying that exists is the film he actually had in mind), The Hole tries to be the platonic ideal of a very specific type of teenage horror – in the sense of The Gate not of Generic PG-13 Horror Movie, The Sequel – and succeeds very well indeed.

So the film is very good at short-hand sketching quite believable teenage characters with problems, giving even the the older Dane and Julie a rest of child-like whimsy to go with their problems, and, while not exactly going out of its way to be original when it comes to their characters, avoids turning them into slasher stereotypes. Which also, quite pleasantly, results in a film whose teenage and younger characters don’t act like stupid horror movie fodder at all once the shit hits the fan. Consequently, it’s easy to root for these kids, even though they are impossibly pretty.

For the more grown-up part of the film’s audience (let’s pretend the film actually had found its audience, which it undeservedly didn’t), there are some weaknesses in the film I suspect younger viewers won’t mind. Mainly, that the most secret fears attacking the kids aren’t all that horrible to watch. Sure, psychologically, it’s all heavy stuff, but in execution, Dante rather goes for “fun” horror effects than things that are truly frightening to look at, or all that disturbing. This directly fits to my second larger problem with the film, the comparative easiness with which the characters conquer their darkest fears, suggesting that just facing your fears will automatically end them, and making it rather easy for the characters to do that too. In this film, there’s no price to be paid for conquering one’s fears, and trauma doesn’t seem something you have to learn to cope with, but something you can power through. It’s, well, a bit dishonest, even though I’m sure it’s not necessarily meant that way.

However, putting these grown-up reservations on this pleasantly teenage film isn’t exactly fair, and I might just as well praise Dante and his scriptwriter Mark L. Smith (who also wrote the coming remake of my favourite piece of New French Cruelty Martyrs) for trying to take on the more optimistic mind set of a teenager so well without being as condescending as I am right now.

And, in the end, there’s also the undeniable fact that I just had a lot of fun watching The Hole, even though I’m clearly not the target audience for Dante’s film, which I think is not something to be sneezed at.

On ExB: Outland (1981)

You like High Noon but wish Gary Cooper was a bit more like Sean Connery? You like space? Then you just might want to pop over to my column on the not-exploding-in-a-vacuum Exploder Button and read a bit about a treat I’ve got for you.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Firewalker (1986)

Bad-ass idiot Max Donigan (Chuck Norris) and his also pretty stupid but not quite as bad-ass buddy Leo Porter (Louis Gossett Jr.), trot the globe as graverobbers (not that the film would ever use the term) and adventurers, the kind of guys nobody informed that the whole Indiana Jones thing happened decades before (and that guy at least worked for a museum when robbing non-white cultures dry), yet who (sort of) get by being pretty (kind of) decent guys.

Things become really exciting for the two when one Patricia Goodwin (Melody Anderson) hires them to help her find an Aztec/Mayan/Spanish treasure she isn’t outright telling them she’s seen in a vision. Of course, they aren’t the only ones looking – evil shaman El Coyote (Sonny Landham) has put his single eye on the treasure too, so our heroes will have to fight low level magic, random Native Americans, Central American military and their own stupidity on a globe trotting adventure before they just might end up at the treasure of their dreams. On the way, John Rhys-Davies pops in for a few scenes, there’s the obligatory romance between Norris and Anderson, and many a corny joke is made.

One of the traditional rules of my people is “Beware of Chuck Norris trying to be funny”, and I have found that in general, it makes one’s life happier and longer to keep to it. Yet there are exceptions to every rule, and I’d actually call J. Lee Thompson’s mid-80s adventure comedy (of course produced for Cannon) one.

Now, this is not a film that subverts its genre via humour all that deeply - in fact, its treatment of everyone non-white – well, actually everyone non-Norris is as problematic as anything you’ll find in the 80s adventure movie trend though certainly presented without any actual rancour – yet it still manages to come over as so friendly in its ways, and so clearly working for the entertainment of its audience without having a single original (or good idea) it’s difficult for me to avoid simply liking it.

It does help its case that the film’s jokes may not be clever but still had me snorting a bit from time to time, the characters aren’t deep but also not without interest, and the plot merrily jumps from one cheap yet nice old-fashioned adventure set-piece to the next without shame and without ever threatening to become boring. Veteran director J. Lee Thompson doesn’t generally doesn’t get much auteur credit, but he was actually involved in quite a few interesting films, and was never less than a really dependable hired hand that could take your silly, vaguely competent script and turn it into a silly, competent, and usually entertaining film. Which is exactly what he does here, with his usual eye for pacing and a certain dry wit that keeps the film’s humour from becoming annoying instead of funny.

But what about Chuck Norris, butt of many of my jokes? Well, in the company of a charming pro like Louis Gossett, and a rather more competent and charming than I had expected actress like Melody Anderson (whose character also turns out to be rather more spunky than I had feared, a real surprise in this conservative environment), he’s actually giving an okay performance and even seems – which really is a first when it comes to me and Norris – somewhat likeable and funny enough for the film’s goals.

So, Firewalker actually turns out to be a really fun adventure comedy, and exceeds all my expectations mightily by being quite enjoyable.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

In short: Dial: Help (1988)

Original title: Minaccia d’amore

Among the most awkward possible ways to incur the interest of RCPNP (Random Crappy Paranormal Phenomena) must be how it happens to English model trying to make it in Rome Jenny Cooper (Charlotte Lewis): while she’s trying to reach the Guy Who Broke Her Heart ™, she misdials and lands on the line of a closed-down suicide hotline for the romantically disappointed. After murdering its cleaning woman for no good reason apart from the film needing a corpse in act one, the invisible force inhabiting said phone line travels from phone to phone flirting rather awkwardly with Jenny by killing her fishes, trying to hypnotize her new neighbour Riccardo (Marcello Modugno) into suicide, and murdering her friends, from time to time hypnotizing Jenny herself into acts of deeply awkward sexiness like that particular moment of phone sex where the telephone receiver also seems to work as a hair dryer. Better not to think about it.

On the plus side, the not quite evil force also shoots a would-be rapist to gory death with coins from a pay phone, so there’s a bright side to Jenny’s problems too.

Obviously, Dial: Help is a long way away from director Ruggero Deodato’s (unwatchable to me because I just can’t stomach the tone and the sheer amount of violence against animals there) magnum opus Cannibal Holocaust; its hilarious, frightening and quite puzzling attempts at the hot sexy times do pre-figure The Washing Machine somewhat, though, while the rest of the film is really a very typical example of crap Italian horror.

It’s the sort of film that just strings random scenes of generic supernatural business one after the other, attempts to break that up by what it deems to be sexy stuff but what isn’t anything like that to actual human eyes, gives its characters utterly bizarre dialogue, and tends to drift off into the pretty darn weird while mumbling stuff about emotional energy accruing in certain places and situations and taking on a mind of its own (which I think is supposed to explain what’s going on).

If you’re lucky, a film like this manages to create a dream-like mood out of its nonsense – if you’re really lucky even a thematically resonant one – if not, it becomes just boring and random. Dial: Help lands somewhere in the middle. It certainly feels too long, and more than one of its scenes of supernatural menace isn’t just silly and dumb but also a bit boring; on the other hand, there are incredible moments like the blow dryer telephone sex scene (the sort of thing you really need to see to believe anyone would put in a movie), or the sneaky telephone of Jenny’s photographer friend that only misses out on perfection by not putting a cardboard box on as a disguise (hey Konami, how about Telephone Gear Solid?), moments that really make a boy wonder what exactly the people responsible were thinking.

On a more technical level, Deodato does make decent use of your typical cold 80s aesthetics that sometimes rub in interesting ways against the rather dilapidated parts of Rome during the location shots, Claudio Simonetti provides a typical score, and the actors are doing their best (which isn’t necessarily very much) with what they are given.