Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Mangler (1995)

Warning: there may be one or two last act spoilers hidden away in the text, because some things are just too good not to mention them. Plus, it’s Halloween.

Horrible things are happening in the early industrial age looking industrial laundry of evil old capitalist Bill Gartley (Robert Englund in peculiar age make-up giving a performance permanently fluctuating between the ridiculous and the ridiculously inspired): gothic looking mangler number 6 is mutilating and killing off members of the female workforce in accidents that don’t look so much like accidents but rather as if the machine had an evil mind of its own. In a normal place, the mangler would be shut down right quick, but Gartley’s the most powerful man in town, and he only cackles evilly about death and mutilation, so on the mangler mangles.

Only police officer John Hunton (Ted Levine as a bitter, shouty, sweaty and irascible hull of a man with a peculiar haircut) cares. His investigation, involving the help of his “theoretical parapsychologist” neighbour and buddy Mark (Daniel Matmor), quickly leads to the assumption the mangler is indeed possessed by a demon. Finding that out and doing something about it are quite different things, particularly as our heroes take quite some time to make the connection between demons, pacts, powerful evil old men, and sacrifices of the virginal kind.

Like all films Tobe Hooper ever made not called Texas Chainsaw Massacre, this (sort of) adaptation of a Stephen King short story is not well loved; like some of these films, it can be a worthwhile viewing if approached from the right angle.

The sympathetic viewer will need to bring along a patience for the weird, a love for the artificial, and a tolerance for the blindingly obvious yet circumspectly told when it comes to plotting. In other words, this is Hooper’s early 80s Italian-style horror movie, with all the silliness, the gooey blood and the just plain inexplicable stuff this suggests. Of course, in my house, being an early 80s Italian-style horror movie is a good thing, and Hooper is rather good at the whole business too. I, at least, can only appreciate a film with two perfectly silly looking and rather unnecessary cases of old age make-up (well, it’s not difficult to imagine Englund’s there because of his horror idol value), a main monster that is somewhat hindered in being all that threatening by virtue of not being able to frigging move, yet that still finds victims willing to step really close even after corpse number three or so, a script that contains grand ideas like pretending Frazer’s “The Golden Bough” is some kind of magical handbook, and so on and so forth. And let’s not forget the utterly crazy finale when the mangler turns into some sort of organic mecha thing - a fire-breathing organic mecha thing to be more precise.

Hooper presents the glorious mess in a tone of hysterical artificiality that – apart from the Italian angle – mostly reminds me of his own Eaten Alive and Spontaneous Combustion, films that also share the off-beat – and again rather on the hysterical side – approach to performances, not exactly logical plotting and a political subtext so blunt you can scratch the sub right away (doesn’t mean Hooper’s wrong, though). There’s a lot of dry ice fog pretending to be steam so that people have a reason to sweat a lot, harsh blue and red light coming from places where blue and red light have no business coming from, production design right out of the industrial gothic handbook, and camera angles that eschew any idea of realism for the full-time grotesque.

The same goes for the bloody stuff: like in comparable Italian movies, believability or the facts of human anatomy or physics belong to areas Hooper seems to have no regard for or interest in, so people get mangled in pretty damn strange ways completely in tune with the visual language and all around bizarre tone of the rest of the film.

Following the fashion, the haircuts, the cars and the way people talk in the film, it is also impossible to pinpoint when exactly The Mangler is supposed to take place; or rather, it is clear it’s not supposed to take place at a precise point in time at all but in a grotesque nightmare space born out of the corrupting influences of power and money, a place and time that combines 40s movie accents, Italian gore, industrial gothic and random elements of the year the film was actually produced in with wild abandon. It’s not so much a place as a state of mind turned visual. Again, the political subtext about the way capitalism turns everything into ruined shadows of its own seems pretty clear to me.

But, my imaginary reader will ask (what ever did I do before I made you up?), is The Mangler entertaining? Well, to me it is, but I can see how somebody could get bored or annoyed by it easily. It is, after all artificial, grotesque, more than just a bit silly, and most problematic at all, it seems to be the kind of horror film that’s not actually putting much (or any) work into being frightening, or creepy, or suspenseful, using all its energy for the grotesque mood, to bring a bit of weirdness on screen, and to talk politics, so if you go in expecting to be frightened, or shocked, you’ll probably hate it with a passion, and you won’t be wrong about it.

Me, on the other hand, love to wallow in a film that’s all weirdness and grotesqueness all the time, and if the price for that is a horror not very effective at horrifying me, I’m more than willing to pay it, even on Halloween.

Friday, October 30, 2015

On ExB: Tales That Witness Madness (1973)

Amicus wasn’t the only company making British horror anthology movies during the 70s, of course. Where there’s money to be made, there’s an imitator, particularly if said imitator can just hire a lot of the same people in front of and behind the camera.

Read all about how this particular Freddie Francis film turned out over at my column on the penny-farthing-riding website for the tasteful set, Exploder Button.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Howl (2015)

Not that Howl, it’s the October-fit one.

British train guard Joe (Ed Speleers) does not have a very good day. For one, he’s a train guard; then there’s the fact he’s just learned he hasn’t got the promotion to supervisor role he applied for. The actual new supervisor is a little prick who’ll lord it over him forever, and already starts with giving him a double shift - which means night train duty. Last but not least, Ellen (Holly Weston), the woman on food trolley services (I’m sure there’s a proper term for that on British rails, but I’ll be damned if I can find it) he’s got a crush on doesn’t seem to reciprocate.

Things actually go downhill from there, for right in the middle of Thornton Forest, the train comes to a halt. When Joe and Ellen try to find out what’s going on, they find the driver (Sean Pertwee saying hi for a few minutes) missing. The audience knows he’s been eaten by a werewolf while examining what exactly he just crashed into.

Not surprisingly, nobody else on board knows how to drive a train. Help won’t be coming too soon, either, for there is – of course – no cell reception, and the very weak connection to the train emergency services can only promise help in about four hours, and then falls into the big black hole of things whose existence the film will just ignore.

Four hours is much too long for the passengers, especially banker asshole Adrian (Elliot Cowan), so soon, everybody trudges through the dark woods in the direction of the next station. For a short while, that is, because soon the werewolf attacks, and the travellers will just have to barricade themselves in the train. It’s going to be a long night.

Given this time of year always makes me even more hungry for all things containing monsters than is my usual state of mind, and that I’ve a bit of a thing for stories set on trains, Paul Hyett’s werewolves on a train movie Howl has its work really cut out for it when it comes to this viewer. The film doesn’t disappoint me either, seeing as it features its monster early and often, doesn’t balk from killing off more sympathetic cast members comparatively early, and does make good use of its train.

There are, of course, all the typical elements of your siege movie, too, with barely avoided ingresses of the monster, panicked fights in confined spaces, people (well, bankers) being the worst monsters of them all, other people cracking up in various appropriate ways as portrayed by a bunch of capable and sympathetic actors, while others find their inner strength in adversity. It’s not very original, to say the least, but the film’s script goes through these standards with verve and conviction, adds elements and character traits that situate the proceedings very concretely on the British Isles in the 2010s (local flavour is always important), and does very clearly understand the structure it uses well enough to know which parts it needs to change for the situation at hand and which ones to keep. That last one might sound like a curious element to praise but I’ve seen a lot of movies in my time that shoot themselves in the foot (camera?) by missing out on the fact that certain things that work in a sheriff’s office don’t work so well on a space station, for example.

The werewolves are in fine shape too, sharing a basic form but showing individuality as well as expressiveness, and – once we get to that part of the film – are really fine (and rather fun) caricatures of the people they once were, adding monsters(!) to the generally fine impression this werewolf train siege epic made on me.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Seven Dead in the Cat’s Eye (1973)

Original title: La morte negli occhi del gatto

Freshly thrown out of school, young Corringa (Jane Birkin) arrives at the MacGrieff family castle in Scotland after years of absence to meet up with her mother Lady Alicia (Dana Ghia) who is in her turn there to visit her sister, Lady Mary (Françoise Christophe). It’s going to be a rather interesting holiday there, for soon Lady Alicia is murdered in what turns out to be only the first in a series of killings, and it more or less falls on Corringa’s shoulders to find the murderer

Alas, Corringa’s not exactly the most capable of heroines, a problem that is further exacerbated by the fact that the castle is populated by more suspicious weirdoes than an Edgar Wallace krimi. There’s Mary, who could really use the money of Alicia’s – or now Corringa’s – side of the family, her son James (Hiram Keller), who is mad, mad, I tell you, James’s pet gorilla James (some dude in the rattiest gorilla suit this side of the 30s), Mary’s lover Dr. Franz (Anton Diffring), a falsifier of death certificates, a liar, and a cheat, Suzanne (Doris Kunstmann), the “French teacher” Franz and Mary hired to seduce/cure James (Freud is blamed) and who is of course actually a lesbian, a priest (Venantino Venantini) so friendly he’s just as suspicious as the rest, and last but not least a bunch of servants of exactly the skulking and secretive type the skulking and secretive rest of the cast deserve. Oh, and the local police inspector is played by Serge Gainsbourg dubbed with a truly frightening “Scottish” accent.

And that’s before we come to the family curse that says inter-familial murder will turn the victim into a vampire, and the adorable fluffy cat present at all of the murders.

Antonio Margheriti’s Seven Dead in the Cat’s Eye is a giallo dressed in the set design and costumes of Italian gothic horror (though the film seems to take place in the 1920s, I guess?), and as a film directed by one of my favourite directors working in two of my favourite genres, you’d expect me to be rather happy with it.

And I sort of am, or rather, I am deeply pleased by the enthusiasm with which the film hits all the beats of its two chosen genres, and even adds a fake gorilla, but I gotta state the obvious for people not-me in emphasising the resulting film isn’t exactly a great one, certainly not as phantasmagorical as Margheriti’s best gothics, and just lacking in the depth these Italian genres generally achieve through a judicious mix of exploitation and style as substance.

Sure, Seven Dead does play around a little with changed mental states, some tiny suggestions of incestual feeling and starts from the deeply giallo-esque foundation that all rich people – perhaps except for certain slightly outsider-ish ones - are decadent shits, but all this doesn’t amount to as much as one might hope for. Instead, the film really is just a series of set pieces dressed in pretty colours and fashionably dubious yet excellent gowns worn by pretty people of dubious acting acumen but excellent build, with some wonderfully garish blood and a cute kitty, and nary a thought spent on anything not having to do with everything looking pretty in a decadent and somewhat morbid way.

If you’re into this sort of thing as I am, Seven Dead is a lot like falling into a very pretty and very comfy bed for a pleasant dream of nudity, random violence and gorilla costumes (of course accompanied by a dramatic Riz Ortolani soundtrack), and that’s a fine state of mind for a movie to produce, I think. However, there’s something not quite quantifiable missing here – perhaps danger, perhaps subversion, or perhaps the nastiness that never was Margheriti’s specialty (even some of his jungle action films are a bit friendly, for their genre); the thing that would turn this from a very pleasant diversion into the giallo/gothic mash up of my dreams.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

La casa del fin de los tiempos (2013)

aka The House at the End of Time

Warning: even though I’m keeping things as vague as I can here, deeply spoiler averse readers might want to avert their eyes, because while I’m as always loathe to disclose a film’s last act, I don’t think I can avoid it completely in this case.

Dulce (Ruddy Rodríguez) has spent thirty years in prison for the murder of her husband Juan José (Gonzalo Cubero) and the disappearance of one of her sons, Leopoldo (Rosmel Bustamante). The film’s first scene will certainly suggest to the audience there was actually something stranger and most probably supernatural going on in the creepy old house the family lived in that night Dulce supposedly did the deed.

Thirty years after the deed, a now elderly via unconvincing age make-up Dulce is transferred into a very old school form of house arrest in said creepy old house (which hasn’t gotten less creepy since). There are no electronic shenanigans here, but two cops sitting in front of the building house all day, which seems a rather ineffective use of police time to me. Be that as it may, in flashbacks, partially told to a priest (Guillermo García) who doesn’t completely believe the official version of what happened that night thirty years ago, Dulce and the film reveal what truly happened. It all started with the poisonous combination of a marriage gone bitter with time and poverty (the family only living where they did thanks to a government program selling empty living spaces to the poor), and the second-most traditional kind of ghostly manifestation I know – nightly, very loud rattling of door handles and knocking on doors. From there on out, things turned in turn complicated, tragic, and creepy, and it seems as if the house doesn’t deem Dulce’s tale to be quite finished yet.

Venezuelan director/writer/producer/editor Alejandro Hidalgo’s debut feature is quite the thing. It starts out as an effective traditional ghost story crossed with a just as effective kitchen sink drama, and eventually turns into something more complicated, perhaps less clear and certainly much more ambitious than that, and this in a deeply satisfying way.

Hidalgo’s trick here is that he has mastered the language of the genres he then diverts from quite wonderfully, portraying the life of his characters in a non-fussy, focused way on the kitchen sink side, and going to town quite effectively with the hauntings, the latter again proving you can use very old hats of the spooking business and still give a theoretically jaded viewer a bit of a fright if you only get the timing and the mood right, which Hidalgo does quite excellently. Of course, the specific old hats Hidalgo uses here are old and well-worn because they touch on something raw in a lot of us, the feeling of nakedness and helplessness we feel when imagining to be threatened alone in our beds, the dread of the place you live in turning strange and potentially dangerous on you, and so on.

What distinguishes the film further, though, is how well Hidalgo handles things once he deviates from the traditional and the pretty much universal, once all the things happen I would call twists if they weren’t organic parts of the film’s narrative structure and thematic interests. Because this, ladies and gentlemen, is very much a film about people haunting themselves, both in a literal as well as more metaphorical meaning of the phrase (and how potent is this as a metaphor for our connection to our own pasts?), surely driven by an outside supernatural influence but not controlled by it as they are by their feelings, in particular their love.

What begins as a ghost story eventually turns out to be a canticle for motherly love in a rather conservative view. You know, the love that is willing to give the whole of her life to her children, the sort of thing I’m willing to believe in for the duration of the film mostly because the film itself and its cast are working so hard to convince me. Still, the film’s sort-of happy end does carry more than just a bittersweet streak, because Dulce will really have given everything she can give to save her son, all the time of her life, and horribly, she will always have done it already, leaving free will on the wayside next to a Doctor Who episode.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Apostles (2014)

Original title: 詭鎮

Ever since she had a car accident, writer Lu Yun (Josie Ho) has suffered from selective memory loss, obsessive-compulsive tendencies, and nightmares in survival horror videogame style about pig people and a guy who has no resemblance to Pyramid Head at all, no sir. Her mental health certainly doesn’t improve when her husband Zhang Shiquan dies in a plane crash while returning from what Lu Yun believes to have been a business trip (though she isn’t quite clear on the kind of business her hubby was actually in).

When a guy named Han Bin (Xia Fan) whose wife (Zhou Chu-Chu) has died in the same plane crash finds Zhang Shiquan’s cellphone among his wife’s belongings and manages to get at the cell’s data, he learns that she and Zhang Shiquan’s husband must have had an affair. Han Bin decides to travel to the small village the cell data points to, in the hope of finding out what was actually going on between the two. He invites Lu Yun along, in what sounds either like a Very Bad Idea or the set-up for an awkward romance movie. Not surprisingly, weird, disturbing and inadvertently hilarious things start happening.

I honestly don’t know if Joe Chie(n)’s horror/melodrama/SF/boondocks horror/weird shit/mindfuck genre-bender is actually meant to be taken seriously; what I do know is that it is a pleasant return to Chinese genre cinema being bat-shit insane and more than just a bit incoherent, something I’ve rather missed in the many failed attempts at retooling Chinese and Hong Kong cinema into putting out things that look and feel exactly like Hollywood blockbusters, but worse.

It is not, on paper, what you’d call a good movie, seeing as it just seems to just throw every element of multiple genres it can think of at the wall in the hope something of it will stick, quite disinterested in building up, if not a coherent plot, then a coherent mood. Tonally, this is wildly fluctuating between awkward attempts at psychological horror, random action, videogame-y dream sequences, and finally moments that reminded me a bit of the Inframan approach to supernatural threats just without the henshin hero (or sense). If that sounds pretty awesome and entertaining to you, you’ll be probably be entertained, and often wildly surprised by the random turn events take next, until everything culminates in a preposterous double twist that doesn’t even go through the motions of pulling everything together decently. However, at that point, the film does achieve a small wonder by reaching the curious success of letting a “it was all a dream/hallucination” ending sound much more reasonable in the context of what came before than the stuff we actually get. Doesn’t mean I wasn’t giggling with glee throughout, which is not a reaction I usually have to incompetently set up twist endings.

Visually, the film is all over the place. Sometimes, Chie manages to build an effective sense of place, or makes the dream sequences and break-ins of complete weirdness feel truly dream-like and truly strange. At other times, the film’s just a mess of sloppy editing and bad CGI. Of course, given the random and incoherent tone of everything the director – and writer, so he only has to blame himself - has to turn into pictures here, it’s hardly avoidable that things do not cohere. In fact, I can imagine the film actually losing something of his exhilarating-by-sheer-bone-headedness effect if it were more consistent on the visual side; it’s after all three or four different movies rammed together in a crash, so it makes sense that it does look that way, too.

While all the randomness and weird crap is going on around her, Josie Ho (one of the actresses in China and Hong Kong of her generation most variable in her roles and consistent in her ability to portray them, if you ask me), really gets her teeth into her role, sometimes reacting to the stuff and nonsense surrounding her with absolutely believable confusion, at other times ranting and raving and breaking down with the best of them, her panicked and wounded expression building the only consistent element in the film, the one thing that actually feels real about the beautiful mess that is The Apostles.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Hybrid (2014)

aka Scintilla

A mysterious corporation buys mercenary boss Powell (John Lynch) out of a rather nasty African prison. They have a mission for him and his former team (among its members are Ned Dennehy and Antonia Thomas): escort scientist Healy (Morjana Alaoui) to a secret research facility in a civil war-torn former Soviet state to retrieve research material and specimens. To make things a bit more interesting, a warlord and his army are sitting right above the underground complex, so the merry band will really have to come up with a plan, unless they wish to take on a force quite superior in numbers.

But even when and if our heroes will make it to the lab, the things awaiting them there just might be even worse than the bunch of crazy, heavily armed guys with a mean disposition they just avoided, for the science that has been going on down there is clearly of the mad persuasion, and the “specimens” they are to collect are that old mainstay of unsafe scientific practices, alien/human hybrids. So whatever could go wrong, right?

Despite having seen most of the bits and pieces the film is assembled from in other movies, I rather liked Billy O’Brien’s (of the fine Isolation and the decidedly less fine Ferocious Planet) horror/sf/merc movie Hybrid (see what I did there?).

This is one of those low budget movies that make a lot out of a handful of locations and a tight special effects budget, so much so that I hardly noticed this is basically another “running through corridors and some industrial ruins” movie – just with a bit of sunlight in the first act and the last few minutes – for O’Brien really puts the extra effort into decorating the place simply and effectively, making particularly good use of bright colours and bits of decaying Soviet chic that turn a cheap location and sets into places with a mood. More often than not, it’s even a consistently creepy mood.

The production is quite evocative as a whole, with many a clever little bit of production design or an acting decision turning the trite creepy or at least interesting: just look at the unnerving helmet shapes of the mad scientists’ protectors, and how they prefigure the really rather creepy eyes of our alien hybrids, the not-quite-there body language of the hybrids that again gives an effective impression of strangeness through simple means. These, by the way, are generally exactly the things the films I scorn as “boringly competent” never get right, whereas a film like Hybrid adds these small yet important bits and pieces to its generally competent air and acquires a personality and a mood through them, becoming a film very much worth watching in the process.

The actors are game, too – and are a well cast bunch of character actors to boot – which just might have something to do with the fact that most of their characters’ behaviours and motivations – though not too complex - actually make sense, and there’s no truly embarrassing dialogue to utter either; while not too complex, characters and plot never become too simple either.

All this might once again sound like I’m damning another film with faint praise. However, The Hybrid is a really fine example of the kind of low budget genre film that knows exactly what it and its audience want, what it can afford, and how to make something from there that’s engaging and very actively not stupid (except for the science, but you gotta give a film that, or you’ll end up as one of those people complaining for half an hour about “what film X got wrong about science” never realizing it’s not actually a film about science, or a documentary, or what it gets right about anything else). To my eyes, that’s quite an achievement.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Cazador de Demonios (1983)

aka Demon Hunter

A peasant I don’t think whose name we ever learn is convinced Indio sorcerer Tobias (Jose Tablas) is responsible for the dead birth of his son. Seeing as how Tobias chased away the praying women surrounding her and slaughtered and bled out a cock over her belly while her husband was away fetching town doctor José Luis (Rafael Sánchez Navarro), there just might be something to the theory.

Our peasant friend doesn’t take this too well and murders the sorcerer a short time later. Unfortunately, this rather seems to help the guy more than hinder him, for Tobias now turns into a nahual, which in the interpretation of this film is an undead, Satanist were-animal (I never could puzzle out which kind of animal it’s supposed to be exactly). The peasant, ineffectively trying to make up for his badly done job, is the monster’s first victim, but soon enough, it starts to slaughter the sheep of “mayor” (which amounts to “town owner” here) Franco (Andrés García), as well as a few people a night. The former makes Franco very angry, so he puts police chief Aguilar (Roberto Montiel) – a basically decent man clearly chafing against being owned by this particular rich arse – on the job to kill the animal responsible right quick, or else…

The Aguilar’s problem is that he – somewhat reasonably - believes the killer to be an animal and not a monster, and it will take him quite some time to come around to the truth and more effective action. José Luis on the other hand, despite being a scientist, rather quickly teams up with the town’s rather fire and brimstone priest Padre Martín (Tito Junco) to put an end to the horror with the power of God (as embodied in a snazzy dagger with the suffering Christ as a handle, which seems rather dubious to my irreligious eyes, but what do I know) and bullets made out of a communion cup. He’s getting particularly zealous once the monster has realized killing alone just isn’t any fun and kidnaps the doctor’s wife Rosa (Roxana Chávez) for reasons of procreation.

Like quite a few Mexican horror films from this era, fruitful director Gilberto de Anda’s very first feature film Cazador de Demonios is a bit slow-going for the course of its first act, clearly struggling with establishing the characters and their social connections while also shoving in two odious comic relief deputies, and including at least a bit of supernatural fun, all the while having to stay in a tiny budget. Consequently, there are quite few scenes that are meant to give the audience a good understanding of the way the village is built on corruption (not that this point is going to be resolved anyway) but tend to get bogged down with unimportant stuff.

Fortunately, once things do get going, the film gathers speed and drive very quickly, turning into a cheap yet highly entertaining variation on the classic werewolf tale with changes appropriate to a film taking place in the boons of Mexico. I suspect there’s the typical thing about urban filmmakers looking at country people askance going on here, too, but I might very well misreading the state of things in Mexico in the early 80s. In any case there’s much more machismo than in most werewolf movies not featuring Paul Naschy on display, a rather bloody version of Catholicism, an actively Satanist were-creature, and a deep distrust towards worldly authorities, all served up in a picturesque countryside and a very fine looking mission ruin while rather more international things like a torch-wielding peasant mob and very traditional monster stalking are happening around them.

Once he lets loose, de Anda also turns out to be an effective horror director, putting much coloured light, clever camera angles, and the traditional and always appreciated spooky play of shadow and light in the service of some surprisingly creepy scenes, like the Priest’s costly encounter with what amounts to the Devil in the nahual’s lair, the calmly yet nightmarishly staged burning of an innocent by Franco, and the suspenseful (and very pretty) final encounter between Rosa and the nahual.

It’s good stuff, much more in the tradition of that part of Mexican horror cinema that was influenced by Universal horror than I had expected going in, neatly crossed with what I always interpreted as a 70s grimness (and hey, what’s 3 years?). One just needs to be patient with the slow start.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

In short: Bordello of Blood (1996)

Caleb (Corey Feldman) the rebellious (if you’re really really old) brother of TV preacher’s assistant Katherine Verdoux (Erika Eleniak) disappears without a trace after a fight about his horrible lifestyle (consisting of the loud playing of the Devil’s music itself and wearing poser-metalhead clothing). Little does Katherine expect he’s found a sticky end at the claws and teeth of chief vampire Lilith (Angie Everhart) while visiting her secret bordello situated below a funeral parlour. Even less does she expect Lilith is actually (via some magic gizmo) forced to work for her own boss, one Reverend Current (Chris Sarandon), who uses the ancient yet rather style-less evil to murder people whose morals he doesn’t approve of.

Katherine will find out in the end, though, thanks to the help of sleazy yet boring private dick Rafe Guttman (Dennis Miller), and because this would be a rather short movie if she didn’t.

On the other hand, I’d have rather liked if Gilbert Adler’s movie spin-off of Tales from the Crypt (the TV show, not the comic, so it’s the spin-off of a spin-off) had been much shorter. Say about ten minutes or so of total running time? Because, even if you lower your standards for this one as deeply as seems appropriate for the low brow horror comedy this is supposed to be, Bordello of Blood is the living (undead?) embodiment of the word “lame”. There are lame jokes, lame one-liners, really lame acting (Angie Everhart certainly can’t deliver a line to save her life, and it’s not as if Miller or Eleniak fare any better, which becomes a problem when a film spends most of its time on them), lamer dialogue, lame direction, even lame nudity (and that in a film called Bordello of Blood). In short, what should be a dumb yet fun ride turns out to be torturous sequence of scenes that neither work nor are funny, with about one and a half good ideas (I kinda liked the cross-drawing laser gun), and what I find terribly difficult not to read as heavily misogynist subtext (particularly in a film doing so little to distract me from it).

Some of the general lameness of proceedings is easily explained by the Rule of Camp, which clearly states that everything consciously made to be campy will always turn out to be crap (see the second half of John Waters’s career, or Ken Russell on his bad days), a series of knowing winks only ever meant to demonstrate the superiority of a filmmaker over his or her material, always resulting in me not caring a lick about the results.

But hey, the special effects aren’t too bad.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

My Bloody Valentine (1981)

Ever since a crazed miner went on a killing spree some decades ago, a Canadian mining town has avoided all Valentine’s Day celebrations. Until now, that is.

Unfortunately, returning to Valentine’s Day also starts up another series of murders, and soon the Chief of Police (Don Francks) and the Mayor find themselves the receivers of seasonally appropriately packaged body parts accompanied by threats to knock off the whole Valentine’s Day Party idea or else… Which indeed they do, though without telling their loving populace the reasons for their decision, instead covering up a series of murders instead of properly investigating them. So it doesn’t come as much of a surprise when the younger members of the community decide to have their own secret party up in a building of the mine, with a visit to the actual mine for the film’s grand finale.

Of course, the killer doesn’t like this pirate Valentine’s Party at all, and so sub-plots like the love triangle between Sarah (Lori Hallier), the guy who tried to make it in the real world but couldn’t T.J. (Paul Kelman), and Axel (Neil Affleck), the guy who stayed, just might be solved by pickaxe fiat.

George Mihalka’s Canadian slasher is one of the handful of entries in the sub-genre I truly love, so it’s no surprise finally getting around to watching the uncut version of the film doesn’t change much about my opinion. For those of you who don’t know the story, nearly all of My Bloody Valentine’s very fine gore effects had to be cut by the filmmakers to avoid the irrational ire of the MPAA as well as the hypocritical distaste of its distributor Paramount who had quickly become skittish about violence in their films thanks to the fine work of said MPAA as well as very public reactions of people like censorship champion Roger Ebert to Friday the 13th et al; the film was only restored to its full, bloody glory a few years ago. Fortunately, the more tepid version we got to see all these years still worked rather well, which proves that this is an effective little horror story in any case. Just as fortunately, adding some more gruesome visuals doesn’t distract from the film’s virtues but rather adds another one to them, as well as a silly, brutal gag to the finale I didn’t know I was missing all these years.

But let’s not pretend I have even the slightest distance to this particular film, because I’d much rather list some of the elements I love so well about My Bloody Valentine and be done with it. So, I love that this is a slasher movie not about bourgeois teenagers but about still young but slightly older than those working class people; that the film doesn’t treat this is as something exotic or worthy of derision; that the love triangle is basically a Bruce Springsteen song right out of “Darkness on the Edge of Town”; how much the film’s finale improves by taking place down in a mine shaft, adding environmental dangers to the killer and the characters being in a horror movie; how the film takes only the basic slasher clichés that actually fit its plot and discards the others, even if this means we get no real final girl; the sense of place Mihalka builds, turning the mining town into more than the often very generic background of your typical slasher, and fitting the killer to the place. And last but not least, the general sense of atmosphere and of calm competence Mihalka’s filmmaking shows, with many a fine moment of tension and relief and the return of tension.

Is it any wonder I’d call this one the second best slasher ever made, just behind Carpenter’s Halloween, of course?

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Frankenstein 1970 (1958)

Welcome to (I suppose) the far-flung future of 1970. Baron Victor von Frankenstein (Boris Karloff) is the last of the Frankensteins, and secretly, he has gone into the family business after surviving Bergen-Belsen left him disfigured, crippled, and most probably just a tiny bit mad.

Science(!) is a rather costly business though, and so the Baron’s financial advisor and old friend Gottfried (Rudolph Anders) has rented use of the castle to a group of American filmmakers who are making some sort of vaguely defined documentary of dubious historical merit with sensationalist recreations of historical facts. Why, the film’s just predicted the History Channel! At first, the Baron isn’t too happy with the whole affair, but he quickly realizes  the money this earns him will let him buy the final element his experiments need to succeed: his own little nuclear reactor for his secret cellar laboratory! These TV people pay really, really well, and 70s nuclear reactor mail-order companies deliver so fast, the new gizmo appears practically instantaneously. Plus, his guests also afford the good Baron the opportunity and an audience for an inordinate number of mad science monologues, some mean organ playing, and some intensely creepy leering at the lead actress (Jana Lund).

And if one needs a replacement part or two for one’s monstrous creation, one might just have another use for one’s guests too. If only one tested the blood types of one’s potential victims before one murdered them.

There’s a lot wrong with Howard W. Koch’s curious little horror film: its deep stupidity, the non-plot, the fact it by far doesn’t make enough out of the fact that the Baron was a victim of Bergen-Belsen nor of the whole “taking place in the future” thing, a monster looking for all the world like a big guy with a bucket on his head wrapped up in white bandages (this also being a secret mummy film), the completely uninteresting American characters, and so on, and so forth.

However, there’s also something so very right with it, I find it impossible to imagine calling myself a horror fan and not enjoying it: Boris Karloff. Here, the great man is in the sort of intense, old-fashioned spooky scenery-chewing mode one tends to forget he had in him when one has seen too much of his very late work when he was often too ill (and perhaps too annoyed by material quite below his dignity) to apply himself as completely as he does here. So Karloff rants, Karloff raves, Karloff makes utterly inappropriate sexual advances, and he monologues, wringing every tiny bit of pathos and comic book spookiness out of every single line he utters, every single gesture he makes. It’s glorious, even a bit exhausting in its total abandon, and demonstrates that Karloff – while he was perfectly fantastic when he decided (or was allowed to) take on a role with nuance – was particularly brilliant when it came to creating larger than life characters, and wiling to act in a film utterly silly and applying himself with near supernatural power.

Not surprisingly, the rest of the cast can’t keep up with him at all, but then they really don’t need to, for director Koch obviously knew a good thing when he saw it and just let them step back and provide the background for Karloff being KARLOFF, homing in on the one thing about his film that was truly great. Apart from giving the man his space, Koch’s direction is okay. From time to time he hits on a gruesome image or clever transition and is a good enough filmmaker to make as much of it as possible, or throws in a creepy (in a silly way) element in when it fits, otherwise he leaves the show to Karloff, as well he should.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

In short: The Vatican Tapes (2015)

Mild-mannered Angela (Olivia Taylor Dudles) suddenly finds herself in a world of trouble – her manners start deteriorating, a raven attacks her, and she becomes rather thirsty. Before you can say “demonic possession”, she’s in a car crash, falls into a coma, and awakes two scenes later to try and drown a baby and make a cop poke his eyes out. Time for a mental institution, and later an exorcism performed by the dubiously competent and theologically unsound Cardinal Bruun (Peter Andersson).

Oh no, don’t tell me Neveldine and Taylor broke up, because this thing is directed by Mark Neveldine alone, with no involvement by Taylor at all! It’s still very much keeping in tone with the other films the man has been involved in, so it’s loud, dumb, silly, and fast. Or to say it in other words, this is very much what you’d expect from a Neveldine exorcism movie: lots of camera shaking, no time for that pesky “introducing characters” business, priest dialogue so bad you have to admire Andersson in particular for delivering it without breaking down with the giggles, and basically no second on screen wasted on building an atmosphere, a mood of dread or anything else you’d want in a horror film. Subtlety – even the very mild kind – is not a thing Neveldine does, the tiny little fact notwithstanding that a bit of it just might be absolutely necessary to make a decent horror movie.

Instead, The Vatican Tapes is basically screeching in its audience’s ears right from the start – seriously, it doesn’t even take half an hour until the attempted baby drowning, and the film gets less subtle by the second from there on out, inventing an interpretation of Catholic theology that has little to do with Catholicism and much more with the usual fixation on the Revelations so typical of US evangelicals and – alas – the last wave of exorcism films, which is a bit of a shame given how much there would be to mine in Christian mythology if filmmakers would only care to dip into other parts than those everybody else uses. Why, as Asmodexia demonstrated, you can even use the damn Revelations and still do something interesting with them if you mix them with something else. But I digress.

On the positive side, the film’s race car speed does make it impossible for it to become as boring as most other exorcism films of the last wave have been, with hardly five minutes going by without something supposedly creepy that in Neveldine’s hands turns pretty darn hilarious happening. When Dudley doesn’t contort her face and body in various impressive ways (seriously, she’s pretty unconvincing as what she’s supposed to be, but that’s probably more the fault of script and direction than anything else, and at least she’s applying herself with great enthusiasm), the priests spout the worst dialogue ever, and if that isn’t happening, something or other is telekinetically crashing into something (or other) else.

As a horror comedy with a lot of loud, dumb stuff happening, The Vatican Tapes is actually golden; it’s just too bad it isn’t supposed to be a comedy.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Ghost Snatchers (1986)

Original title: 俾鬼捉

Thanks to the help of his libidinously overactive uncle Fan Pien-Chou (Stanley Fung Sui-Fan) somewhat shlubby, chubby Chu Bong (Wong Jing – yes, that Wong Jing) has gotten a job in a new high-rise. Why, it’s even the same building his girlfriend Hsueh (Joey Wong, which isn’t exactly the actress I’d cast as a guy’s girlfriend if I want to sell him as a loser, because clearly, something must be pretty right with him) is working in, so things do seem to look up for now.

Unfortunately, the building has been built on an execution ground from the time of the Japanese occupation during World War II and is about the most haunted place imaginable, so soon, Chu Bong, Fan and Hsueh have various troubles concerning the building ghost king’s plan to finally gather enough victims to be reincarnated (and lead Japan back to imperial glory). Chu Bong and Fan are in particular danger because their horoscope is especially wrong for the place; as luck will have it, though, Hsueh’s sister – I think, she could also be an aunt given the quality of the subtitles – Ling (Joyce Godenzi) is a feng shui expert and Taoist mage, so all might not be lost (except for the future of imperial Japan).

The Ghost Snatchers’ director Lam Nai-Choi (or whichever version of his name you want to use, because he’s got a bunch of them) is one of my unsung heroes of Hong Kong filmmaking during the 80s, a guy with a surprisingly diverse portfolio of films when you keep in mind he only directed thirteen at all, and quite a talent for very different genres, from weird fu masterpiece The Seventh Curse, over the excellent rape revenge piece Her Vengeance to this cute bit of HK horror comedy.

Now, The Ghost Snatchers is probably one of the director’s lesser films, with a structure so episodic it lets The Seventh Curse look like the tightest film ever made (and a plot that is much more meandering than my write-up suggests mostly because I left out oh so many details one really doesn’t need to know to understand the gist of the film), and its lack of any character who’d make a true anchor for its plot.

This doesn’t mean the film isn’t hugely entertaining in its own way. Like many of Hong Kong’s horror comedies of the period, it changes emotional tone from one scene to the next, going from mild stupidity through complete absurdity to outright horror, with more than just a few moments of typical ickiness – of the last, we get an exploding head, a ghost who rips his own beating heart, followed by its eyes, out, and other delights, of the first a “mah-jongg ghost” embodied by a perfectly ridiculous hand doll.

These things leave little room to base much of what’s going on in the characters, so everyone is a one-note caricature: Fan is horny yet kind, Chu Bong dumb yet loveable, Hsueh is Joey Wong and a virgin, Ling the modern female magician having to cope with the trouble of having a period (which is a plot point, of course), and so on. Nobody changes, and nobody learns anything because everyone’s only there to provide an opportunity for Lam to show the audience crazy, icky stuff and make (generally low-brow) jokes. Some of the jokes, like Fan’s funeral speech at the funeral service of Hsueh’s brother, are even very funny.

And when it comes to the weird stuff, Lam delivers the goods. Apart from the Mahjongg ghost, there’s also a TV ghost trying to bore one of our heroes to death and growing a pair of naked, hairy legs out of its TV when his victim tries to flee; a climactic fight against a rickety skeleton you need to see to believe; detours like the hunt for three of Fan’s ten souls (don’t ask me, I’m German) that can be found in his favourite places, like a bordello and a porn cinema; and for the finale a hellish pocket dimension mostly made out of papier-mâché, red fluids, dry ice smoke and the traditional (and always excellent) red and blue lights of supernatural Hong Kong. Also, there’s a grabby giant hand doing its grabby giant hand thing. And so on, and so forth, without much time for thought, and most certainly without any pause that could leave the audience bored or (much, much worse) thinking too much about what’s going on.

So, screw “lesser film”, this is actually grand entertainment in the 80s Hong Kong style I sorely miss.

Friday, October 16, 2015

In short: The Horror Show (1989)

Even after he has been fried in a particularly intense electric chair session, evil-bad record-winning serial killer Max Jenke (Brion James chewing the scenery of not only this film but also of at least two films next to it in a video store) is still making trouble for his arresting detective Lucas McCarthy (Lance Henriksen only chewing one and a half films and valorously attempting to add some dignity to the proceedings) beyond having traumatized him for life.

You see, it’s not just a moral and societal failure to murder people on the electric chair, it’s also tactically unsound, as parapsychologist (or whatever he’s supposed to be) Peter Campbell (Thom Bray) will explain later, because people like Jenke’ll only step over into “the other realm” when killed this way. Which in this case means that Jenke isn’t just haunting McCarthy’s dreams anymore (though he has that dream demon thing down pat like that other guy with a somewhat German looking name) but has moved into the cellar of his family home, from where he makes the man’s – and his family’s – life a living hell.

The Horror Show must have been a pretty troubled production – one of the scriptwriters uses the old Alan Smithee nom de plume, and original director David Blyth was fired some time into the production and replaced by James Isaac, the future director of Jason X. So it’s not much of a surprise the resulting film isn’t very good at being anything like a suspenseful, exciting, or coherent movie. It seems cruel to even begin to list all of its failings, really.

Fortunately for my mood in this year’s pre-Halloween celebrations (we don’t want to repeat the sickening horrors of last year’s slasher sequel marathon, after all), the film is also a cheese-fest of the highest order I found absolutely impossible not to enjoy. This is, after all, a movie where you’d be drunk after ten minutes if you started a drinking game based on the number of times our potty-mouthed supernatural serial killer says “fuck”, whose hero is arrested under suspicion of having cut in half his daughter’s boyfriend with a meat cleaver while the guy was waiting in the cellar for said daughter and some nookie - the true killer of course being James who spends a few minutes talking with Dedee Pfeiffers voice to convince the boy to undress for reasons of some choice male half nudity – and one that features a scene where its villain spends some time as a talking poultry roast, among other absurd, sometimes gory stuff the film doesn’t seem to be embarrassed about at all.

It’s not exactly the sort of thing you’d want to watch sober (this, mind you, comes from a guy who isn’t much of a drinker), or with somebody you want to convince of the intellectual value of horror, but if you’re in for what just might be the stupidest supernatural slasher film not called Freddy’s Dead – a film this one beats by a mile by virtue of being so damn entertaining – this one’s for you (and me).

Thursday, October 15, 2015

On ExB: Blood Moon (2014)

Ah, the horror western – a sub-genre I dearly love, and which has the added advantage of not being too crowded either, so a small production with a bit of talent in front of and behind the camera has a fine opportunity for making an impression.

Does the British Blood Moon belong to this wondrous category? The only way to find out is to click on through to my column over at Exploder Button, the website that isn’t getting suspiciously hairy on the night of the full moon, no sir.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Two on a Guillotine (1965)

After the mysterious disappearance of his wife Melinda (Connie Stevens), stage illusionist John Duquesne (Cesar Romero) leaves the stage behind forever, and ships his baby daughter Cassie (soon enough also to be played by Connie Stevens) off to an aunt, where she never hears from him again.

So when Duquesne dies twenty years later, Cassie isn’t quite the wreck she’d have been with a less crappy father. There’s some strange business about at his funeral though - he has promised to try and come back from the dead, so his coffin has a pretty little window in it, and he has ordered chains to be wrapped around it during the funeral for things not to become too easy for him once it’s resurrection time. In light of this it’s probably for the better Cassie is only mildly sad.

The reading of the illusionist’s will continues the peculiarity, for he bequeaths his not unremarkable fortune to Cassie only under the condition she’ll spend seven nights from midnight to dawn in his Old Dark House. Not only will the house turn out to be tricked out with a handful of practical jokes in rather dubious taste, but from time to time, there seems to be more going on there than just the post-mortem eccentricities of an old stage ham; something threatening, even. Fortunately for Cassie, strapping young reporter Val Henderson (Dean Jones) has slithered into her trust with a tiny bag of lies (Cassie’s not so bright he’d need a big one), and is – of course – very quickly falling for her, so that manly protection (depending on one’s definition of “manly” or “protection”) is available to her when push comes to shove, this not being the kind of film whose female main character is actually much good for anything.

If you don’t look at William Conrad’s (yes, that William Conrad) Two on a Guillotine too closely, you might very well assume to have encountered a lesser film of that much better William, William Castle. On the surface, the film’s really only missing some gimmick (a miniature guillotine for every audience member, perhaps, with no guarantees of safe fingers?), because otherwise, it carries a lot of the trademarks of Castle’s films.

The whole set-up with the hokey, macabre jokes in the Dark Old House is exactly the kind of matinee fodder Castle in his prime would have gone for, though in his better films, the man would also have added more room for older character actors to provide sharper, snarkier and funnier dialogue and more competent acting than the rambling nothing Stevens and Jones exchange for most of their on-screen time while being either unpleasantly chipper or wooden, respectively, the sight gags would have been much better, and the film hopefully would not have contained a randomly appearing rabbit with an inexplicable, utterly insipid, little theme music of its own. Now, I’m not against rabbits in horror movies, even the mild matinee ones like this one, but putting as much emphasis on the rabbit when a film could show us something silly and frightening seems like a waste. Particularly in a film that – another area where Conrad just can’t beat Castle – does feature a middle that might just as well have consisted out of the cast holding up placards reading “We’re shuffling our feet now for thirty minutes, thank you very much!” so little of interest, and worse, so little that’s fun to watch happens in it.

Well, there’s that scene where Francis and Jones stare at each other with the vacant eyes of ventriloquist dolls for a truly uncomfortable amount of time before they finally kiss, which is, depending on how you look at it, either rather creepy (that emptiness!) or very funny (that emptiness again!), but otherwise, the middle suffers from the film’s curious idea its audience will be interested in the romance of these two idiots. This audience certainly wasn’t.

However, Two on a Guillotine isn’t quite the waste of time this may sound like, for while it doesn’t reach the heights of Castle’s best films, Conrad’s effort does manage to touch the semi-heights of his middling ones, which means it has a lot more entertainment value than quite a few of these matinee horror films have. At least, there’s some fine photography by veteran Sam Leavitt (who worked as DP on classics like Fuller’s Shock Corridor or Cape Fear, among others), the Old Dark House is rather fun looking, and Conrad does put more than a few fun scenes between the draggy ones too, enough so that the resulting film still can be harmless, good-natured, macabre fun. Plus, the finale is genuinely bizarre enough not to be missed, with its mind-boggling explanation for what’s going on (not to spoil things but: just one letter?), a totally not realized by the film itself hint at incest, and some hot, silly guillotine action.

It’s certainly not brilliant, but Two on a Guillotine does provide at least 60 entertaining minutes out of 107.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

In short: Terror Train (1980)

Usually, I’m all for slasher movies mixing things up a bit and straying from the very small path the genre generally strolls around on until somebody takes the machete to it, but then I want these detours to go into interesting, exciting, possibly even clever and meaningful directions, and not encounter a film that replaces twenty minutes of slashing and stalking with twenty minutes of frigging David Copperfield doing magic tricks – and not just because this also means more than twenty minutes of Copperfield failing at acting.

Unfortunately, Roger Spottiswood’s Terror Train does exist, and does indeed contain that much Copperfield. To my genre definitions, it’s barely even a slasher at all, and rather a bad giallo imitation by a director who doesn’t have the style to pull it off and ends up with a pretty boring murder mystery on a train with – sporadic – body parts rolling around and Jamie Lee Curtis screaming a lot to cash in on the early slasher wave. Only the finale – what would be the final girl sequence – hews close to the better side of the slasher, what with it attempting to ape Halloween as well as it can without directly ripping it off beyond Curtis, sharp objects, and train conductor Ben Johnson standing in for Donald Pleasence. It also came much too late to get me interested in the film again.

Apart from the slashing getting the short thrift, there’s also very little to the mystery that replaces it – which has a total giallo solution just not pulled off with the correct panache and style – so much of the film is spent on various soap operatics concerning who sleeps with whom and who’s an asshole (all of ‘em), and David Copperfield, with the last being particularly onerous. Turns out card tricks really don’t film very well, a fact that nobody involved seems to have cared about. Frankly, while there are of course a few things camp aficionados will find camp (the conclusion of the “making of a slasher killer” sequence certainly will hit that spot), most of the film is rather draggy and boring, and Spottiswoode is much too bland a director to enliven things through visual magic of his own, even though the highly capable John Alcott is listed as the director of photography.The problem might be there’s just nothing very interesting to photograph in Terror Train at all.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Cub (2014)

Original title: Welp

aka Camp Evil (which really might be the worst possible title for this movie, thank you very much, German distributor)

A Flemish group of boy scouts and their three scout leaders head off to the French speaking parts of Belgium for a camping outing. Unfortunately, things are bound to get problematic: one of the leaders is a sadistic prick any sane person would keep as far away from their children as possible, and the planned camp site is blocked by a couple of rude French tweenagers so that the group heads off into the woods to make their camp.

Alas, these woods are not a good place to be for anyone. Young Sam (Maurice Luitjen), a quiet outsider with some kind of traumatic past bashed by his peers and Scout Leader Asshole, soon encounters a feral, masked and pretty naked boy child (Gill Eeckelaert) in the woods. Thinking he’s encountering a werewolf the scout leaders made up to make the trip more interesting in his day shape, Sam sort of makes friends with the mute, heavy-breathing kid. However, the boy might be more than just feral, and the woods just might be a death trap for nearly everyone stumbling into them.

Please insert a short essay about the history of horror films in Belgium here, oh knowledgeable reader. I got nothing there. Which fortunately is not a problem when it comes to Jonas Govaerts extraordinary film, because while it does make use of local specifics, its themes of the feral thing living inside of us (kids and adults alike), always threatening to break out, are, if not universal, ideas a lot of us will connect to.

If not, there’s always the clever and thoughtful way in which Govaerts uses very traditional horror themes and methods and gives them a slight twist that doesn’t turn them upside down exactly but certainly opens up unexpected perspectives on them, in quite a few moments achieving the kind of horror that isn’t of other movies but of the soul (to paraphrase some guy named Poe). Which is an overblown way of saying I found myself actually shocked by two of the film’s scenes, not because of any breaking of taboos but because Govaerts brought me as a viewer to the point where I wasn’t thinking about what was going on here as part of a genre space (though there would of course be nothing wrong with that) but took it personally.

Govaerts achieves this particular effect because he’s quite so great at the typical genre bits, really getting what’s horrifying about the woods, back country killers, brutal traps, and little boys who don’t act like most of us define little boys or humans any more, and uses this understanding to also turn Welp into a very effective backwoods slasher variation. So, even if you discount that this is a film that has a (rather dark) idea about human nature and expresses this idea rather well, you’re still left with a tight, lean, and pleasantly nasty little piece of backwoods horror, atmospherically photographed, excellently paced, neatly constructed, and very well acted.

Of course, when you’ve got a mind to, you can always play the plot hole fishing game, and quickly end up with questions like “how could the film’s killer(s) have been undiscovered for what must have been quite a while in a stretch of woods that can’t be all that big, given their obvious bodycount?”. And obviously, you wouldn’t be wrong there. However, to my eyes, this sort of question only seldom matters with horror films, unless they are so bad there’s nothing else going on in them to amuse yourself with, or when this sort of thing becomes so glaring you can’t avoid it even if you’re not actively looking for it; constructing a close imitation of reality just isn’t what horror is about for me, rather it’s the construction of a reality all of its own, built to comment on ours, make philosophical or intellectual concepts palpable through application of blood and tears, or just to scare the crap out of you.

As it turns out, I found Welp succeeding rather well at all three of those things.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

In short: Le berceau des ombres (2015)

Going by the French horror films most of us know, the genre over there is all poetic, or weird, or so violent and clever it becomes transcendent. Not surprisingly, that’s not really true, and French cinema has its own strain of indie horror films about people, tunnels, and Nazi zombies, running, being dark, and munching guts, respectively.

Okay, in the case of Jacob Jerome’s Le berceau, the zombies aren’t actually Nazi zombies but zombified Nazi experiment victims (or something of the sort), but otherwise, this is a rather typical bit of tunnel horror. A parapsychologist (Matthias Pohl) and his hangers-on are called in to find out where in an underlit tunnel system a worker has disappeared to? Has he been eaten by ghosts? Nope, it was the zombies living in the secret deeper tunnels.

What follows is the usual litany of people screeching, getting zombie-attacked, munched-on, losing incredibly important keys and trying not to get too eaten. The tunnels are dark and grimy, the acting’s not all that good (though not horrible), and there’s little – if anything at all – happening you haven’t seen before, and before that, and even before that. On the positive side, Jerome’s direction is somewhat promising: he does at least know how to pace the film (even if there’s nothing new or even just vaguely interesting in it), avoids most opportunities to be actively boring, and does manage a handful of rather effective suspense sequences that are promising decent films in his future. Which does put Le berceau des ombres at least one or two levels above the sort of thing indie horror all too often means here in Germany where usually, gore is the only thing any film ever promises.

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Thursday, October 8, 2015

Pay the Ghost (2015)

During a Halloween parade, Charlie (Jack Fulton), the seven year old son of academic Mike Lawford (Nicolas Cage) disappears without a trace after saying something about “paying the ghost”.

With the first anniversary of his disappearance closing in, Charlie is still missing. Mike and his wife Kristen (Sarah Wayne Callies) have separated, and Mike’s still – understandably – obsessing about what happened to his son, making himself an annoyance to the detective on the case (Lyriq Bent), and spending a lot of time in front of the traditional newspaper clip and photo wall every obsessed person and every serial killer in the movies calls his own. Maybe, Mike’s even going crazy, for he is beginning to have visions of his son, seeing what might be signs pointing him in the direction of a supernatural solution to the mystery.

In fact, the evidence for the supernatural is piling up so fast, soon Kristen, Mike’s work BFF (Veronica Ferres), and even the detective begin to believe.

Horror movies made for a mainstream audience are blessed and cursed by the fact they aren’t made for a genre-savvy audience: blessed, because they don’t have to go through the rituals of fanservice and might just look at old ideas from a different perspective; cursed, because they might not realize they are actually walking well-trodden paths, and because they aren’t allowed to dig as deeply into certain uncomfortable zones as their core genre siblings.

Uli Edel’s adaptation of a Tim Lebbon novella is more an example for the curse than for the blessing (well, it’s a horror movie after all), because boy does it avoid to actually dig into the emotional horror that losing a child must be for a parent, instead keeping to the middle-ground of okay melodrama where even the most hurtful things don’t make the people they happen to actually unattractive, and where obsessions are so mild, they can be expressed by a man posting flyers and getting slightly miffed with a cop. The film’s acting the same way when it comes to the treatment of horrible things happening to children too, never actually stopping and thinking what a series of yearly disappearances and murders of three children over centuries in the same area actually means. And no, it isn’t being subtle, it’s just avoiding the horrifying as much as it possible can.

In fact, the script is so tepid when it comes to these things, the film can count itself lucky it does at least have Nicolas Cage, who is at the same time doing his utmost to not play a cartoon character as per his more usual and really putting more effort in than the script deserves, making the film feel much more alive and human than it has any right to be. I had forgotten how good Cage can be at this sort of thing.

The rest of the cast – including Stephen McHattie in a minor role with big dreadlocks which alone would make the film worth watching at least once – is rather good too. They also just aren’t given much to get their teeth into. It’s all very professional, and competent, but totally lacking in anything comparable to actual human emotions or actions.

Uli Edel’s direction does little to help things into a more interesting (or, you know, creepy) direction – it’s slick, it’s competent, and it completely fails at making anything here resonate emotionally. He’s also just not very good at managing scare scenes, the film ending up completely unable to even stage a simple jump scare effectively, much less turn what should be the film’s moments of actual horror into anything else than a mild repetition of visual motives we all have seen in better films. It’s all very tasteful, at least, except for the finale when things become utterly ridiculous, but good taste can only get you so far with a film that by all rights should be about horrible things happening to people who not at all deserve them.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

In short: Bad Karma (2002)

Mental patient Maureen Hatcher (Patsy Kensit), violently breaks out of her cosy little hospital to finally get the opportunity for a decent get-together with her psychiatrist Dr Trey Campbell (Patrick Muldoon). You see, ever since she was kidnapped and tortured by a guy who thought he was the reincarnation of a victim of Jack the Ripper, Maureen has been convinced she is the reincarnation of Jack’s girlfriend and partner Agnes. And Trey for his part is of course supposed to be the unwitting reincarnation of Jack himself.

So off Maureen goes to the island where Trey and his family (Amy Locane and Aimee O’Sullivan) are on vacation to do a bit of psycho killing and family threatening to awaken the spirit of her beloved.

Now if you think all this does sound rather stupid, you really haven’t seen veteran director John Hough’s embarrassing presentation. It’s Hough’s final movie, and one can’t help but think it would have been less cosmically horrifying if the poor guy could have ended on a slightly less crappy note, like an episode of a soap opera or something. As the film stands, Hough – a man whose films I disliked more often than not but who clearly had all the basic competences of a filmmaker – directs the thing like a particularly bad TV movie, with no suggestion of a sense of atmosphere, going through the usual motions of the serial killer thriller without conviction or interest, adding some mild and boring sleaze to it while this long-suffering viewer can barely keep his eyes open. Not that there is much to see, mind you.

Hough’s non-efforts are further dragged into nothingness by a particularly stupid script with dialogue which finds that difficult to reach place where the insipid meets puffed up self-importance.

The only good thing about this is Patsy Kensit’s performance (how often do you expect to read that sentence anywhere?). Kensit is cheesing it up quite enthusiastically, making absurd crazy-faces, and putting extra emphasis on the most stupid parts of the dialogue, excellently wallowing in all that is wrong with the movie. Too bad the rest of the cast is so wooden and drab, because if they had been playing up the absurdity of the affair this much, too, Bad Karma might still have become an entertaining bit of nonsense, instead of the boring bit of nonsense it turned out to be.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Straight Into Darkness (2004)

It’s the tail end of World War II. After a a mine accident kills the MPs bringing them in, deserters Losey (Ryan Francis) and Deming (Scott MacDonald) are making their way through wintery Western Europe, ending up somewhere behind the frontlines. The very different, yet both traumatized men – Losey being more the soft and thoughtful type, and Deming abrasive and violent – encounter the detritus of war: corpses, ruins, and people having taken on the appearance of both. Eventually they end up in a half-ruined building that turns out to be the base of a very special guerrilla group – a bunch of mentally ill or developmentally handicapped children that have been taught the ways of war by their former teachers (David Warner and Linda Thorson).

Shortly afterwards, a troop of Nazi soldiers (including a tank) appears, and the two deserters and the child soldiers and their minders have to attempt to fight them off.

Straight Into Darkness’s director Jeff Burr has spent most of his career making second row genre movies like Pumpkinhead III or Puppet Master 3 and 4. I imagine this sort of work doesn’t exactly provide one with the opportunity to bring much of one’s personality into a movie – and it’s probably not something the producers involved would want a director to provide in a post-Corman-when-he-was-good world. On the positive side, if that sort of work doesn’t kill you, it must give you some of the chops needed to get a cheap, more personal project rolling sometime.

The film at hand – as far as I’ve read partially self-financed by Burr -clearly is such a project, and even though the slightly lower than you’d wish it had budget leads to some rough edges, it’s quite a success too. It’s a war film that turns things slightly surreal and gothic, with the outward world having gone so crazy and cruel it’s not clear anymore if it is mirroring the characters or the characters are mirroring it. With simple yet effective measures, and some classic montage techniques that I found a bit heavy-handed in their symbolism from time to time (but then that’s montage for you), Burr brings the irreality of the horrors surrounding his characters to life, portraying a world that has come completely unhinged. Despite there being no supernatural element here, there is an air of the Gothic and of the horror genre about Straight Into Darkness, using war movie tropes to make a horror film where we are the monsters, and we have driven the world and each other insane; or possibly it’s the other way around, genre-wise.

Despite being rather on the dark side (as promised by the title), Straight Into Darkness is philosophically not opposed to small traces of optimism, and the suggestion of a better future, but it is also willing to be honest about the fact that most of its characters won’t make it there, and not all who make it might deserve it if looked at morally, as it is about the fact that people will even find an excuse to make to themselves for slaughtering children (while others lose all faith in themselves for things they just couldn’t have avoided). In fact, the film’s so consequent about these things in its final act it’s not just impossible to imagine this done with even a minor mainstream budget; even I found the final twenty minutes or so pretty hard to take, but then, that’s not the film being needlessly cruel or transgressing to be transgressive but the film achieving what it set out to do. Being easily digestible in this case would mean lying to the audience to make it easier on them, and, as a wise woman once said, art isn’t supposed to look down.

(The film also gets extra credit for having post-dubbed its German soldiers by actual native speakers speaking actual German; they’re not particularly good voice actors, but the mere fact the film is doing what most major studio productions don’t is a swell example of how much the film cares about what it does).