Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Witch: A New-England Folktale (2015)

New England around 1630. The family of William (Ralph Ineson) and Katherine (Kate Dickie) goes into voluntary exile from their main settlement for theological reasons I never got a grasp on and which the film might have kept purposefully vague, given how focused and clear everything else about it is, even its ambiguities.

In this place and time, this means the family goes right into the wilderness, settling down near a patch of woods. Things don’t go well at all for the family. Katherine’s baby disappears into the woods while Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the family’s eldest and the closest we have to a main protagonist, is playing with it near the woods. The child is just silently taken when Thomasin closes her eyes while playing peek-a-boo with it. William tries to explain the inexplicable with what we must imagine to be the sneakiest wolf in existence, but in truth, it was taken by the witch living in the woods to do what witches traditionally do with babies.

The loss of the child throws Katherine into deepest depression and certainly doesn’t make for an easy relationship between her and Thomasin. All the while the family’s crops are hit by some kind of sickness and during his attempts at providing meat, William doesn’t turn out to be much of a hunter – or the woods are against him. There’s even worse waiting for the family, and things will truly fall apart.

Generally, stating that a film isn’t for everyone is stating pretty much the obvious, yet I still feel the need to explain that Robert Eggers’s The Witch will most certainly not be for everyone, though for those of us who can appreciate it, this is an incredibly affecting and effective movie. If you’re going into the film expecting something even vaguely following the rules of modern mainstream or the slightly different ones of much of modern indie horror, you might be sorely disappointed, for this is a film that seems very little interested in genre conventions good or bad. In fact, for parts of the running time, The Witch approaches its horrors from the perspective of a historical psychodrama, though one that tries its hardest to share in the historical views of its characters concerning the supernatural.

Herein lies one of the film’s biggest strengths: while all of the supernatural or possibly supernatural occurrences here can be explained as outward manifestations of/metaphors for all the fears the characters’ faith brings with it and/or (the film is very conscious of the fact it is both) just barely helps them cope with, and everything they repress and leave unsaid, they are also presented through the mind set of the film’s characters. For them witches do exist as a matter of course and a black he-goat might in fact be the devil, so the film does indeed show us witches and the supernatural the way the family sees them. Eggers keeps to this approach stringently, successfully putting quite a bit of effort into making beliefs that are a difficult pill for most of its prospective audience to swallow real, even trying to keep the film’s dialogue as close to the written sources of the time to add a further level of authenticity and strangeness.

At the same time, the film – clearly very consciously – avoids treating characters who are deeply religious and superstitious in a way that can sound just plain insane to you or me as the Other, people for us to gawk or snigger at and feel superior to. Not just by sharing their view of the supernatural world for ninety minutes, but also by approaching them with a psychological realism that turns what might be difficult to relate to into something deeply human, with this only further pushing the audience into nearly sharing the characters beliefs and world view and understanding them for ninety minutes or so. These people may believe in things that sound strange or outright insane to us, yet there’s quite a bit less dividing them and us than we might pretend. With this understanding quite naturally also comes empathy, and with empathy comes an intense emotional wallop once things become increasingly intense and horrifying for the characters, who are not only beset by a witch but also their own failings. And, going by William’s Puritanical conviction of the essential sinfulness of everyone, those failings are as myriad as they are painfully human.

In this context, as a (non-New) atheist, I found it incredibly refreshing that the film neither just assumes an audience will (or needs to) share its own spiritual assumptions nor goes the route where beliefs we don’t share are things made for ridicule that make those carrying them less than human. It is very uncommon for a film to show characters like these as anything other than mere fanatics, and fanatics exclusively, so it is particularly affecting how clear the The Witch is about this being a loving family, with William not the clichéd religious patriarch who rules with an iron fist, but a decent man who truly loves his family and cares for them while struggling to keep with the demands of his faith and the harsh life he has damned them to. Of course, love doesn’t necessarily save anyone or anything.

I was also deeply impressed by the actors, who have to bring life to dialogue written in – and at least partially quoted from – the style of the time and place as it has come down to us in primary sources and need to go through intense, often painful, emotional scenes without sliding into the melodramatic or overly artificial. Anya Taylor-Joy is absolutely brilliant, and even the younger kids – Harvey Scrimshaw in particular - do some fantastic tour de force stuff here.

Eggers’s direction is on the same level as his script and the actors are, bringing all kinds of feelings to life – the loneliness and oppression of the woods (a place that can’t help but suggest the supernatural), the hard life the characters live even without folkloric witches besetting them, but also the moments of joy and love. There’s so much going on here without the film ever feeling overloaded that it’s a joy to watch. Or rather, a harrowing experience full of emotional tension and horrors, but you know what I mean.

The Witch also happens to be rather brilliant at being a horror film, creating a world so real – even if it is very much un-real – its horrors become just as real, even if they are as strange as those in the film’s folkloric sources. I, at least, won’t forget this one quickly.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

In short: Sounds of Silence (1989)

Peter Mitchell (Peter Nelson) inherits a house in Sweden from an aunt he never heard about before. Instead of just selling the place off from back home in LA, he packs in his girlfriend writer and grown-up of the relationship Sarah (Kristen Jensen) and her deaf-mute son Dennis (Dennis Castillo) for a nice little holiday on his new Swedish property.

The “house” turns out to be rather large mansion situated near the sort of village where horrible secrets of the past are buried, and guests from afar are treated with communal silence in the village pub. At least Dennis finds a friend rather quickly. Admittedly, little Bill (Jonas Ivarsson) is dressed in rags, blue in the face, the son of the dead aunt and a ghost but BFFs are BFFs, right? As it goes with the more personable type of ghost Bill certainly belongs to, the dead boy needs help with disclosing above-mentioned secrets which have something to do with the death of all the children of Bill’s orphanage decades ago, or rather, the people actually responsible for that. That, and bloody ghostly revenge, of course.

Peter Borg’s Swedish/American co-production (with a heavy emphasis on the Swedish part) is a nice little bit of ghostly horror. It is neither subtle nor original, but it tells its generic story earnestly and convincingly enough for it to become enjoyable, and manages to finish on a strong and atmospheric finale. In between, there’s lots of dry ice, some serious “Man is the greatest monster of them all” business, a perfectly crap synthesizer soundtrack, and many a scene which greatly resembles other books and movies without Sounds of Silence ever becoming a complete rip-off of other films.

Rather, it plays out as a traditionalist film out to tell a traditional ghost story with pleasant directness; as it sometimes happens with this kind of film, it stumbles on a moody shot, a creepy scene or an interesting variation of the usual rather often, and ends up a pleasant way to while away an evening in the lonesome October.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Past Misdeeds: Night of Horror (1978)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

When I was talking about Curse of the Cannibal Confederates some years ago I could hardly suspect that film to be its director's Tony Malanowski's more commercial (aka containing zombies) remake of his earth-shattering first movie, Night of Horror.

Fortunately, Stephen Thrower's wonderful book "Nightmare USA" cured me of my ignorance, and now, finally, the time has come to for me to take a look at Malanowski's debut.

So, there's this guy, sitting with his back to the camera in the bar of his hobby cellar until another guy arrives, who will sometimes turn his face far enough in the direction of the camera that we will be able to see it in profile. They begin to mumble to each other, half of their dialogue impenetrable, the other half unfortunately not - there's something about guy one being in a band. Or something. We are allowed to experience the dullness and emptiness of their lives for quite a while, until guy number one begins to tell his friend a true story (which a block o' text appearing before the movie promised to be entertaining; you can never trust those darn lying text blocks). Some months ago, following the death of his dad (stepdad?), guy number one packed his half-brother and two girls into a caravan, drove around in it and drove around in it and drove around in it until he fell in love with one of the girls - named Colleen -  for the terrible things she did to a Poe poem. Then they drove around some more. Days and days of real-time driving later, Colleen saw the ghost of a dead confederate soldier.

After some more talking and driving, our heroes decided to hold a séance to conjure him and a few dead friends up. The dead soldier then proceeded to slowly, oh so slowly, mumble-snarl through a long and pointless story my at this point in the proceedings mushy brain wasn't able to comprehend anymore. I'm sure it was terribly important though, important enough to warrant a lot of documentary footage from a US Civil War re-enactment, something that's probably supposed to be a country rock ballad, and some more mumbling, all commented on by an off-monologue by cellar guy number one.

Umm, where was I? Oh, right, the friends dug out the skull of the soldiers commanding officer and we're back in the cellar. The end.

As my inability to concentrate on anything about Night of Horror's (and seldom has a film had a more fitting title) plot or "plot" suggests, the film is one of those strange and peculiar examples of the art of filmmaking that completely defies anything, be it basic human decency, the rules of filmmaking or human comprehension, and aims for a very different part of a viewer's brain than more grounded movies do. It's mostly the part of the mind that is hypnotised by static shots of human backs and profiles and/or complete darkness, caravans driving-driving-driving, and the half-comprehensible mumbling from the off of lopsided sentences of great dramatic importance to their author.

In other words, if you are looking for anything resembling a movie as the larger part of humanity (yes, even those people who watched Hot Tub Time Machine) understands it, you are not just in the wrong place, you are on the wrong planet, possibly the wrong dimension and should try your luck somewhere else.

If, on the other hand, you always thought that - say - Manos, the Hand of Fate is a mighty fine example of non-conservative filmmaking, you might probably get something out of Night of Horror, although I can't promise it'll be more than a brain aneurysm.

There's something utterly, freakishly compelling about a movie like this that can't be called a "bad movie" anymore, because it has left simple concepts like "badness" or "being a movie" far behind in the process of becoming something different, possibly an attempt at changing its viewer's brain chemistry than anything else.

Some people probably would call Malanowski's direction inept and his artistic goals dubious at best and would then begin to do a point-and-laugh take-down of his movie, but that would mean ignoring the film's insistent strangeness, the droning, empty feeling watching it for more than five minutes creates in one's brain (quite like the droning and empty delivery of the actors) or the shock of excitement one feels when Malanowski manages to shoot a frame in an even slightly conventional or logical manner. It would also deny the hypnotic power of Night of Horror's emptiness, very much akin to the power of a certain abyss one should not gaze into for too long, just with more US Civil War re-enactments.

Although the film is (if one wants to follow boring facts) just a technically very badly done film made by a small handful of inexperienced people, there is something profoundly different about it, as if these people had in fact conjured up something from a place "normal" filmmaking can't reach, a fleeting feeling of transcendental emptiness that has more to do with Beckett than with "bad movies". I'm not saying that Malanowski and friends intended that feeling to be in their movie, nor am I saying that it is there if you aren't susceptible to it, I'm just saying that I felt and saw it in the movie, its objective existence or non-existence be damned.

As it stands, I'm a little in awe of Night of Horror as a movie fearlessly exploring places neither narrative nor experimental filmmaking usually even attempt to touch, with nothing but the conviction that everything in filmmaking - be it comprehensible dialogue, be it the visibility of actors' faces - is absolutely optional; nothing is true, everything is allowed.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Harper’s Island (2009)

In this thirteen part limited run TV series, a bunch of out-of-towners with a history with the place descend on small Harper’s Island for the wedding of rich girl Trish Wellington (Katie Cassidy) and poor boy Henry Dunn (Christopher Gorham), because everyone involved had such a beautiful time there once. The fun mostly happened before a brutal series of murders committed by one John Wakefield on the island seven years ago, mind you.

The memories of these murders make the return for former local and our designated heroine Abby Mills (Elaine Cassidy) particularly difficult, since one of the victims Wakefield hung from what I must assume was his favourite tree was her mother. Still, Abby might just find the opportunity to hook up with her old love Jimmy (C.J. Thomason) and rebuild the relationship with her Dad Charlie (Jim Beaver) who is also the local sheriff and the guy who shot Wakefield and let him drop off a cliff. Well, she’ll do that, and try to survive the ensuing madness when people start to disappear (or, as we the audience know, get violently killed by a mysterious assailant and fan of death traps).

The CBS (but looking, feeling and featuring a cast that makes it look like a CW project) series Harper’s Island – with the sometimes excellent Jeffrey Bell as show runner - is the ungodly mixture of soap opera, “Ten Little Whatever” style whodunit and slasher you didn’t know you needed in your life. It’s not the ironic kind of slasher most TV attempts at the slasher form are either: while there’s a perfectly appropriate macabre sense of humour running through the show that’s best exemplified by episode titles like “Whap” or my personal favourite “Thrack, Splat, Sizzle” which do indeed onomatopoetically hint at (some of the) murders occurring in the episode, the show is playing things without the safety of ironic distance, so the slasher parts are indeed slasher parts and not parts about the slasher genre or the series’ assumed superiority over it.

Harper’s Island is also clever enough to realize that you can’t blow up the slasher format to a TV show without adding extra genre ingredients to it, so we get the Agatha Christie style whodunit – though one unable to construct red herrings that’ll confuse anyone but its literally terminally stupid characters – and the soap operatics. The last bit turns out to be a bit of a challenge in the first five episodes or so, at least for me, who really does not care about the plotline explaining how Rich Girl’s Dad (Richard Burgi) doesn’t want her to marry her fiancée and has taken his dear time to do anything about it, as well as other subplots I vaguely remember from Dallas. Particularly since the cast isn’t exactly full of interesting and likeable characters, for rather a lot of them are your standard soap opera types, and the melodramatic parts of the writing mostly work well only in the episodes Bell writes. On the plus side, if there’s a character you’re annoyed by, there’s more than just a good chance you’ll see him or her find a gruesome end, for even if the show is only marginally gory, the body count is insanely high and the death methods are created with a loving sense for detail and – probably evil – fun. And, hey, at least the victims aren’t slasher stereotypes.

Once the show gets going, and despite its heavy reliance on standard clichés, it becomes rather a lot of fun, showing the appropriate ruthlessness towards most of its characters, and really pulls off so many twists and fun little set pieces I can’t imagine anyone who likes even one of the genres involved won’t have fun with it.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Misterios de ultratumba (1959)

aka The Black Pit of Dr. M

Some time in what I assume to be the late 19th or early 20th Century, or both at the same time. Psychiatrists Dr. Mazali (Rafael Bertrand) and Dr. Aldama (Antonio Raxel) have made a very scientific - as the film never gets tired to emphasize even though there’s nothing scientific at all to find there - pact: whosoever of them is going to die first will send news from the afterlife in a séance and then help the survivor to die, to experience the afterlife, and then to come back to life, which  somehow may or may not make the returner immortal. Science, I tell you, it’s science!

It is certainly an interesting plan, and when Aldama dies he does indeed appear to Mazali during a séance (that takes place right during Aldama’s funeral, because scientists don’t go to their friends’ funerals, I guess). Alas, he doesn’t have a helpful manual entitled “how to get into the afterlife and back” in hand, but utters cryptic warnings and explains that Mazali will have his way in exactly three months, when a door will inevitably open. Mazali decides that ignoring the warnings and looking forward to the dying is the way to go.

From here on out, the plot becomes increasingly strange (okay, even stranger), for Aldama’s ghost also decides to do the daughter he left behind when she was but a babe a good turn. Being dead and all, he does this in the most creepy way imaginable, of course, entwining his daughter’s fate needlessly with the one God (in his Old Testament guise as a right prick) has in mind for Mazali for tampering in his domain, etc. Also featured are acid-induced madness, a crazy woman with a thing for music and the old chestnut of coming back from the dead in the wrong body (while still playing a mean violin).

At least in its original form (I don’t even want to know what the US cut and dub did to the film), Fernando Méndez’s Misterios de ultratumba is a wonderful example of the Mexican Gothic, the great time when Mexican genre cinema really put its own twist on Universal-style horror from a decade or two earlier, just without the loathing for its audience that mars too much of the Universal output past the handful of certified classics and a few hangers-on. It also gets even weirder than Universal ever dared to be outside the day when the Creature asked for the brain of a little girl.

With the Universal comparison, I don’t necessarily mean to say that Méndez as a director is quite on the level of the best of the Universal guys, but he’s certainly giving the film his all, turning it into a – sometimes crass in its insistence – model of bright lights and stark shadows, creepy close-ups and sets of dream-like artificiality. He’s certainly not subtle with it at all, but Méndez’s use of these expressionist techniques is so unrelenting it becomes effective again, turning everything you’ll see so strange and unreal the whole film feels like a very curious dream. Which is of course highly appropriate for a film that features characters that act (scientifically!) on strange portents, as well as others that have seen each other repeatedly in dreams before they ever met, and whose plot doesn’t seem to follow a straight line so much as circle around repeatedly, telling some very peculiar Catholic cautionary tale in the least logical manner possible.

The film is rather magical in this way, overcoming my general distaste for horror that is quite this earnestly outspoken about its Catholic moralizing – or moralizing in general - by the sheer power of a strangeness that turns even a short dance number into something that looks like a particularly loopy dream, and which never ever stops feeling and looking like a thing made of dream stuff, curiously enough not even in those scenes shot in a bright, natural daylight nobody ever dreams of.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

In short: The Den (2013)

Thanks to a not too clearly defined grant to study the habits of the users of web cam chat site Chat Roulette The Den, Elizabeth (Melanie Papalia) is spending most of her time glued to the screen, recording her interactions and seeing way too many unasked for male genitalia. Things become outright dangerous to more than just her sanity when she repeatedly encounters a chat partner apparently without a working webcam or microphone. After some mildly puzzling and slightly weird interactions, the mystery person shows Elizabeth a video of the murder of a woman – and it doesn’t look fake.

Elizabeth calls in the police, but the gentlemen are less than helpful, and become even less so when Elizabeth herself becomes increasingly more directly threatened: someone hacks into her computer and shoots footage of her and her boyfriend having sex he then sends to her university, and soon after that, her boyfriend disappears, while her other loved become increasingly short-lived in attacks that let the usual internet lynch mob look like a fun time in comparison.

Zachary Donohue’s The Den is quite a bit better a movie than I expected going in. The film is shot in a POV horror format that mostly takes place via Elizabeth’s computer screen but later on, when that conceit just wouldn’t work anymore Donohue uses other somewhat more typical found footage styles – surprisingly enough in a way that actually makes sense as part of the film’s plot, so this isn’t Open Windows (fortunately). This time around, even the dire question of “how would a movie using this type of actual footage ever be made?” is answered, if that’s the sort of thing you’re into.

Not that this sort of question is one I usually care too much about in my POV horror films – if I can buy into the idea of ghosts and ghoulies and the witch of Blair I certainly can buy into people who just keep filming and theatrical features consisting exclusively of horrifying last footage of actual people dying – but this amount of care is typical for the rest of Donohue’s film too. Unlike your generic POV horror film, this is a tightly plotted affair that uses what amounts to a novelty set-up to build an intense and nasty little thrill ride, and that manages to create suspense specifically out of this set-up and its technical and dramatic challenges. It’s pretty fantastic, and the resulting film is as exciting as it is creepy.

The Den is also a rather dark – in the way that some of the best 70s horror films were dark – movie that uses a sensationalized version of contemporary fears to give its audience a really good/bad time. It doesn’t happen too often to me anymore, but this one actually got to me on more than just a surface level, producing a feeling of disturbance a film can get out of me when it is ruthless without seeming in love with its own darkness.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Dead Girls (1990)

Brooke (Ilene B. Singer), the younger sister of Gina – aka Berta Beirut – main songwriter of death-themed manufactured all girls with a boy drummer rock band Deadgirls, is the only survivor of an attempted group suicide inspired by the band’s music (it’s just that bad). Gina, plagued by curious nightmares, decides that the thing to do is to visit her old home, have hilariously dramatic shouting matches with her crazy bigoted aunt and the local preacher who also happens to own a pair of most disturbing eyebrows, and pack up her little sister, an obnoxious nurse any sane person would have fired after five minutes, her bickering band consisting of total weirdoes, and their porn-moustached security guy, to drive off to a cabin in the woods, so that Brooke can get some rest.

Which just might sound like a rather dubious idea even if you ignore the fact that the Deadgirls are also followed by a killer in a skull mask wearing a stylish hat who finds inspiration for his murder weapons in their song lyrics.

Ah, it does take a certain mind set to enjoy the beauty and horror of late 80s/early 90s direct-to-video ultra-cheapo horror that may or may not have been shot on video but certainly looks that way. One really needs to leave useless concepts like good taste out of the picture for ninety minutes or so, learn to respect a film that keeps everyone correctly in frame as technically sound (and enjoy every filmmaking trick that goes beyond this as an example of Art), and roll with amateur acting, a dubious script, and so on and so forth.

If you can’t, yet still watch this stuff, the only thing it’ll ever get you is the opportunity to call perfectly innocent movies “the worst film ever” on the IMDB.

This doesn’t mean there’s no good or bad in direct-to-video horror in this style, but what’s good to one person actually in the market for enjoying this sort of thing at all might still look very bad indeed to another one. Some of us who enjoy this stuff go in for the gore, others for bizarre dialogue, again others for films that break as many rules of filmmaking as humanly possible.

Me, I’ve found joy in every single one of these things, but what can really get me about one of these films is a display of enthusiasm. Which, finally, brings me back to Dennis Devine’s (who is still shooting cheap horror, surprisingly enough) Dead Girls, a cheapo slasher that oozes enthusiasm throughout most of its running time, with nary a second in it that isn’t in the business of having fun – be it with the awesome mixture of naivety and sarcasm about the shock rock business of the first ten minutes or so (including a “Yugoslavian journalist” who dresses like a cliché librarian), the bizarre nature of a band whose members include a heavily armed survivalist gal who’ll philosophize about “the void” as well as karma later on and a brother/sister duo with a heavy incestual vibe, or the absurd yet awesome series of plot twists based on the fact that most everyone in the film is absolutely bonkers the whole thing ends on.

In between, there are strangely likeable acting performances, a handful of killings made by a guy who looks a bit like Rorschach, some impressively awkward sexy times, one of the worst acting portrayals of a mentally disabled man I’ve ever had the joy to see, moments of editing perhaps done with an axe, surprise moments of authentically atmospheric shots or even scenes, dialogue that’s too snarkily funny to be called dumb, and from time to time outbreaks of hysterically dramatic acting of exactly the overdone amateurish type that can truly warm my heart.

I have no idea what more I could ask of a film.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

In short: Babysitter Wanted (2008)

Young catholic Angie Albright (Sarah Thompson) has just left her home town and her mother (Nana Visitor in a tiny cameo) to study art history in a decidedly unglamorous city quite some ways away. There’s obviously a degree of culture shock involved for Angie. However, culture shock just might not be the only reason for the fact that ever since she’s left home she feels as if somebody is watching her, stalking her – at least, the audience sees the shadow of a large man (Monty Bane) lurking around her, and we’re not watching Haute Tension.

Because she’s poor, Angie has to take up work basically the moment she arrives in town. A babysitting gig somewhere in the rural outskirts is just the ticket. And whatever could go wrong when babysitting Sam (Kai Caster), the little son of Violet (Kristen Dalton) and Jim Stanton (Bruce Thomas)? Well, for one, someone might just decide to upgrade from stalking to something more dangerous. But there are also other, more unexpected directions from where death might strike at our heroine.

Jonas Barnes’s and Michael Manasseri’s Babysitter Wanted is a rather ideal Halloween kind of horror movie, with a plot that seems inspired by urban legends and creepypasta – or in the very least shows the same spirit. So this isn’t the deep and thoughtful kind of horror but the sort of thing that mostly wants to create a fun thrill ride of a time for its audience. It does so exceedingly well, too, which is of course the most important point when taking this approach to horror. You don’t want to end up with a film that wants to be fun but doesn’t deliver – unlike with films that aim for depth, there’s no “interesting” for a thrill ride that doesn’t work.

Not being a deep film doesn’t mean it’s a stupid one, though – the directing duo has put quite a bit of love and care into the look and feel of things. There’s a late 70s/early 80s (that is, before neon colours) look to the film, with the appropriate muted yet present colours (unlike the more typical 2008 look of colours so muted a film is nearly colourless) that to my eyes tend to give a film a gritty and real feel. The editing is as tight as it should be in a film effectively using many a traditional trick of suspense and thriller cinema, and the directors build tension quickly and well.

I also found myself very much enjoying the film’s two-third twist. It’s not exactly surprising (except for Angie who doesn’t know she’s in a horror film) but the film handles it and the following scenes with such a disarming sense of sardonic and macabre humour, the twist becomes fun instead of trite. The twist also inspires Bruce Thomas to a performance that finds the sweet spot between the funny and the creepy.

All of this turns what could be an exercise in taking an audience to places it has been before a dozen times and bore it to desperation into a fun, fast, and clever low budget horror film.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Past Misdeeds: Deadly Manor (1990)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

A group of ex-teenagers is planning a nice outdoors vacation at a lake with a quite unpronounceable name, situated, it seems, somewhere in the deep dark woods of New York State.

The friends pick up the shady yet helpful hitchhiker Jack (Clark Tufts). The new-found acquaintance informs them that they have gotten themselves a little lost and are still hours away from their destination. Everybody's getting a bit cranky and stressed out now, and the odious comic relief is beginning to get to them too, so the friends decide to look for a place to hole up in for the night.

After a bit of driving, they do indeed find an old, dark and seemingly abandoned house in the middle of the woods (as you do) and decide to try their luck there.

It's a peculiar place. What must once have been the building's garden is now dominated by a wrecked car that is propped up on a marble slab as if it were some sort of shrine. One of the friends, Helen (Claudia Franjul), is prone to hunches - and would be a clear candidate for being the final girl in most other slashers - and declines categorically to enter the house that frightens her with its "aura of evil". Her friends, not even her boyfriend Tony (Greg Rhodes), don't care much about what she says, so Helen decides to make her way back to the road in the hope to hitch a ride with one of the millions of cars that must be driving around in the woods. That's the last anyone will see of her alive.

The rest of the merry band decides to break into the house through its barn. Inside, the place is even more peculiar than from the outside. In a cellar that connects the barn to the main house are two empty coffins, yet that's still not enough to dissuade the rather dense friends from getting the hell away from there.

The main house isn't any less creepy. Most of its walls are plastered with (frequently nude) photos of a dark-haired woman (Jennifer Delora) in strangely disquieting poses. A little later, the friends find a cupboard full of human scalps.

It also seems as if someone had been living in the house just the day before. Still, they being in a horror film and all, the young people decide to stay the night. It's cold outside after all, and who wants to sleep in a car?

It's not a very good decision. Throughout the night, ever more peculiar things begin to happen. Someone uses the horn of the enshrined car outside, a coffin opens, Tony finds a photo album full of pictures of the neatly posed corpses of bikers and then dreams (but is it a dream?) of having sex with the creepy woman from walls. A masked woman sneaks around. A crack opens in one of the walls. And finally, someone starts to murder the friends.

Deadly Manor is the next to last film in the long and difficult career of Spanish genre film specialist Jose Ramon Larraz (probably best known for the most disturbing of all Lesbian vampire films, Vampyres). At this late point in his career, Larraz had the usual problems of interesting genre filmmakers of his generation in scratching together enough money to realize any movie at all, so making something that could be interpreted as a slasher movie must have sounded like a good idea at that time to him and his producers. Commercially speaking, it wasn't. The film turned out to be a hard sell to distributors and was never widely seen.

It's quite a shame, really, because Larraz does a few interesting thing with the tired slasher movie formula. Of course, getting surprising inside the context of the slasher isn't too difficult a proposition. The sub-genre is so heavily codified, so set in its ways that even the most minimal of variations feels fresh and exciting - at least to someone who has inflicted as many of these films on himself as I have over the years. A film like this one, in which what would be the final girl dies early on, and in which people die in an order that goes quite against slasher rules, feels like a real breath of fresh air.

Larraz also adds neat little flourishes of realism (for a slasher movie), with scenes of body transportation that seem to hint at the director putting a bit of thought into the logistics of his killings.

The logistics of dragging bodies around aren't the only thing Larraz has put a bit more thought into than usual in this sub-genre. I wouldn't go as far as to call the film's characters deep, but where the usual slasher kiddie is just a one-note victim, the characters here show signs of being people. Except for their staying in the house of doom, they even tend to act halfway believably. The acting is quite alright too, and only helps to strengthen this aspect of the film.

Of course, being a bit better thought-through than the typical late-period slasher movie doesn't make a movie that interesting for anyone outside of the genre completist. Surprisingly enough (or not, when you keep the experience of its director in mind), Deadly Manor has a lot more going for it than just that.

Although parts of the film are trying to be a little more believable than usual, the other half of the film, what I'd call its heart, comes from a completely different direction. Larraz, old hand at the slow, slow build-up of atmosphere and the cinema of the weird, seems to have set his mind onto the re-weirdification of the slasher formula. Too many films of the sub-genre are satisfied with just fulfilling the requirements of formula, losing the ability to be truly disquieting in the process and not getting much (by 1990 not even an audience anymore) in exchange. Larraz' film isn't. Instead, the director piles on the strangeness once his characters have left the prosaic world and entered the house, giving his movie a very dream-like/nightmarish mood slasher movies seldom consciously try to evoke. There's something about the way Larraz films his old dark house, branches scratching against windows and the photos that fill the house that puts the film as much into the tradition of the director's older European horror movies as in that of the slasher. One could also argue that the interest in mood before anything else closely connects the film to proto-slasher movies like Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre or the earliest full-grown slashers like Halloween, and that might well be true.

Still, I think even that part of the American slasher tradition is only a thin veneer of paint put on top of something strange and frightening very much Larraz' own.

This, however, is only Deadly Manor's strength if you want it to be. Go in expecting a quick revue of kills and excitement, and you will probably be terribly disappointed by the film's sedate pacing, and its insistence on creating a mood of the weird more than one of outright horror. But if you give the film a chance at being the more personal creature it is, you can find much to like in it.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

In short: Jeepers Creepers II (2003)

A few days after his happy adventures in Jeepers Creepers, and just a day before the end of his 23-day eating orgy, the Creeper (Jonathan Breck) naps the younger son of of farmer Jack Taggart (Ray Wise). Take note, for Jack’ll build a custom harpoon cannon later on.

But before we get to Jack and his harpoon cannon, we get to witness the monster’s stalking of and attacks on a busload of jocks and three cheerleaders. I can barely tell these people apart, except that some guys are black, one white dude with little pig eyes is a racist and a homophobe, and one of the cheerleaders (Nicki Aycox) develops some clairvoyant powers to take care of exposition duties. There’s a bit of a sidestep into would-be Lord of the Flies territory that doesn’t even manage the standard of early The 100, and a bit of monster fighting until the film devolves/culminates in about half an hour of increasingly silly action sequences featuring Ray “Harpoon Farmer” Wise.

Usually, I’m all for sequels that aren’t exact copies of their originals, and I’m most certainly for them escalating things appropriately. Alas, the second Jeepers Creepers, again directed and – unfortunately - this time around also written by Victor Salva, is the kind of sequel that throws the baby out with the bathwater, completely misunderstanding and ignoring what was good about the first film and mostly doing the opposite. Which leads to a slightly more upmarket SyFy Original movie, and a film I probably would have enjoyed more if it – being a sequel – had not automatically invited direct comparison to the first film.

So where the first Jeepers was a film that used its monster as a mystery with increasingly bizarre powers, whose mixture of the generic and the very strange turns it into something threatening and surprising the sequel treats it as a permanently flying, mugging – Freddy Krueger style wise-cracking can’t be far off – dude in a monster suit off-handedly taking on a busload of non-entities that can replace the first one’s siblings only in number and getting into a harpoon fight with a just as wildly mugging Ray Wise (whom I buy about as much as a farmer as I’d buy myself in the role). Where the first film is actually creepy and clever, this one starts silly and becomes outright stupid early on, culminating in the whole harpoon fight sequence, which has to be seen to be believed.

Now, I’m not saying it’s not fun watching this kind of nonsense – it certainly is, particularly since Salva may not care about recreating anything of the mood of the first film but sure as hell still knows how to shoot a pretty looking picture – it’s just that this sort of nonsense is a terrible sequel to Jeepers Creepers.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Jeepers Creepers (2001)

Siblings Trish (Gina Philips) and Darry (Justin Long) are road-tripping through Florida. After a nasty encounter with a peculiar looking truck, they accidentally witness the shadowy driver (Jonathan Breck) dropping what might very well be a packaged human body into a large pipe beside an abandoned church, driving off again afterwards. Especially Darry is pretty sure the bundle was indeed a human being; he manages to convince Trish to have a look inside.

So down the pipe Darry drops. Below, there’s a serial killer arts and crafts cave, with numerous prepared dead bodies plastered to the ceiling and wells. And the bundle? Well, it does indeed contain a young guy who dies in Darry’s arms. Surprisingly enough, the siblings manage to get away scot free, and – unlike quite a few horror movie characters – the first thing they think about is informing the police. Unfortunately, this unprecedented example of sense won’t save them from a very bad night, for the driver isn’t just your run-of-the-mill serial killer, but a supernatural threat deeply unimpressed by quotidian problems like armed police officers. Worse still, the thing has gotten a nose full of the siblings’ smell, and it very much likes what it smells on one of them.

Victor Salva’s Jeepers Creepers is a long-time personal favourite of mine I’ve somehow (like a lot of long-time personal favourites, actually) never gotten around to writing up. At the time when this came out, the more mainstream parts of horror were still very much doing the whole pseudo-ironic teen slasher thing we can – and do – blame Wes Craven’s Scream for, with lots of films that were very intent on demonstrating their ironic superiority over their own material instead of putting work into improving the things they were feeling so damn superior about. These weren’t happy horror movie fan times for me, I have to admit.

So Jeepers Creepers, a film bathed in love for traditional horror things from the 50s to the 70s that didn’t feel the need to get all ironic about everything and instead delivered a clever, fun, and creepy monster movie while still showing quite a bit of knowledge of the genre it was working in, just not so much of it that it couldn’t move anymore, felt like a breath of fresh (well, appropriately mouldy) air to me. In fact, it still does, particularly since a lot of what Salva does with it is based on a fine eye for detail that has let the film age well. Or rather, standing somewhat outside of what was typical for the genre of its period, Jeepers Creepers has something of a timeless quality to it.

There is, still, quite a bit of genre love on display, it’s just not primarily used as a basis for jokes but seems to spurn the film on to do things a bit better than would be typical, acknowledging things on eye level. So this is a film where the heroine has enough genre knowledge to know that the killer is going to get up again once hit by a car and proceeds to drive over him again and again, but it is one which plays the scene straight instead of just pointing out the trope to the audience yet still using it unchanged.

Apart from this, Salva does many things just right: the sibling squabbles between Trish and Darry actually read as believable instead as annoying and manage to tell us more about the closeness between the two than long, melodramatic “I love you, brother/sister” exchanges would; the monster is creepy, creative and a bit silly, while staying original and unobvious; Florida here feels very Southern Gothic, the kind of place where a random clairvoyant and bodypart-stealing monsters make sense; and the set and production design is beautiful, atmospheric, and feels just right, the film embracing the dream-like and slightly off whole-heartedly.

Which turns Jeepers Creepers into a small classic in my book.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

In short: Invasion of the Undead (2015)

aka The Neon Dead

When Allison (Marie Barker) encounters a zombie in the bathroom of her freshly inherited house, she follows the suggestion of an annoying girl scout to call in paranormal exterminators Desmond (Greg Garrison) and Jake (Dylan Schettina). Given that Desmond and Jake have day jobs in a combined video and grocery store (the USA are weird, and what’s a video store?) you wouldn’t expect them to be all that great at their other job.

But surprisingly enough, zombie number one is quickly dispatched. Unfortunately, Allison’s house has more than just a little zombie problem, for there’s a veritable invasion of the undead serving a demon certainly not called Xanax (it’s Z’athax, actually) who’d really rather like to achieve world domination, and it’s the all the fault of one of Allison’s black magician ancestors. Fortunately, Allison herself is tougher than expected and together with the paranormal investigators (well, one of them, and one paranormal investigator head) she just might be able to save the world. There’s also a “romance” involved, but let’s not talk about that.

Unlike a lot of indie horror comedies that bow before the altar of 80s and early 90s horror, Torey Haas’s Invasion of the Undead generally manages to hit the spot where things aren’t trapped in perpetual wackiness. That isn’t to say the film isn’t silly, but it’s silly in a personable and likeable way that seems to have little interest in being ironic about genre conventions nor in being completely random nor in doing that long drawn-out comedy style based on general awkwardness and a lack of punch lines I honestly don’t get. So, while I found myself not laughing uproariously at everything here, the film did provoke a series of little grins, smiles, and even chuckles, all packed into a very cute little 80s horror tale, the proper blue and red (and a little green) lighting, cheap yet fun special effects and performances that are mostly likeable.

It may sound like a strange sort of praise for a horror comedy, but Invasion is a pretty charming little film, sweet even in its bloodier jokes, and completely lacking in the cynicism more typical of horror comedies. If the film were a teenager, I’d call it a great kid and lend it some horror novels.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990)

Relationship-troubled couple Michelle (Kate Hodge) and Ryan (William Butler) are driving across the USA, bringing the car of Michelle’s dad to Florida. Right now, they are smack dab in the middle of Nowhere, Texas.

Some time after passing a police investigation digging up a mass grave, they end up at a gas station in the middle of the desert, meet a reasonably friendly and charming cowboy (Viggo Mortensen) and find themselves threatened with a shotgun by the crazy gas station owner (Joe Unger), which drives them to flight on a rather suspect road, chased by someone in a truck who throws a dead dog at them. Then follows a hectic attempt to change one of their car’s tires with only a flashlight for lighting; and a head on collision with the car of the improbable Benny (Ken Foree, hooray). Improbable, because he’s a black survivalist, and an actually decent guy to boot. Be that as it may, this is a very bad place for anyone to crash one’s car, and soon everyone is hunted by good old Leatherface (R.A. Mihailoff) and his new and improved cannibal family. Unpleasantness ensues.

I think Jeff Burr’s sequel to/reboot of  the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre based on a script by David J. Schow (perhaps known to you as the guy who coined the term Splatterpunk, and a pretty fine writer of fiction) is rather unfairly maligned. Of course, this film doesn’t have the visceral punch of Hooper’s original, and it didn’t change (or try to change) the direction of the horror film as a whole, but then, if I’d set the hurdle a genre film has to jump this high, I’d hardly ever get to enjoy one. For a New Line Cinema – “the place where horror franchises go to die” was their motto, I believe - horror sequel this is surprisingly engaging stuff.

I’ve read in various places online (hopefully not all working from the same wrong source) that Schow’s initial concept for the script was to treat the plot as the truth behind the urban legend that then created the Hooper original, which explains why Leatherface here has a new family that sort of but not completely resembles the old one, and why the parallels and nods towards the original play out as they do. It doesn’t explain a starting text scroll that suggests the first film did indeed happen (Schow, the scroll, and I prefer to pretend the Hooper’s second TCM never happened, which is good for everyone’s sanity), but I’d bet that’s just useless studio meddling, particularly since the “truth behind the massacre” idea makes perfect sense if you ignore that scroll. In any case, Schow delivers a playful but generally not campy variation of the original, including some elements that look glaringly late-80s/early 90s horror to my eyes. This works particularly well in the film’s first half or so, somewhat less so – yet still enough - in the finale when things become a bit too late-80s/early 90s action movie to be taken seriously anymore, and not at all in the pretty damn stupid final five minutes. But all in all the plot makes sense, and the film flows.

It does so of course also because Jeff Burr is one of the truly capable journeyman filmmakers of this particular time in the genre, with a nice hand for suspense – and much of Leatherface is focused on suspense and hits thriller beats more than strict horror ones – and the ability and knowledge to shoot relatively generic scenes in ways that aren’t always totally generic and obvious. This may not sound like much of an achievement but it really puts Leatherface miles above most horror sequels of its time. It feels like the work of people with a degree of respect for their audience and the genre they are working in, and that’s not at all something you can expect from any kind of sequel.

If I were in a criticizing mind, I’d remark that the glossy sheen of filmmaking of this time doesn’t jibe too well with the grime the material asks for but I’m not in that kind of mood tonight.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

In short: Sleepwalker (1984)

Well-off siblings Alex (Bill Douglas) and Marion (Heather Page) Britain – subtle, the subtext is not – live and loathe each other in a rather broken home out somewhere in the country. Alex suffers from sleepwalking attacks coupled with violent outbursts, and Marion clearly isn’t a fountain of mental stability either. Tonight, Marion has invited Angela Paradise (Joanna David) – clearly friend of the Victorian adage that women should be seen and not heard and probably not seen either - and her utterly vile upperclass yuppie husband Richard (Nickolas Grace) for dinner and to stay the night. Marion befriended Angela “in the hospital”, and Angela is clearly feeling the need to do Marion some kind of good turn.

Dinner doesn’t go terribly well: Richard might just be the shittiest product of Thatcherite yuppiedom imaginable – with a side-line in homophobia – which makes Alex as a proponent of gentility liberalism quite, quite angry; Marion flirts outrageously with Richard (eww) and uses every opportunity to antagonize her brother with hints at their past the others can only vaguely comprehend; Angela pretends everything’s perfectly alright; and Alex grows increasingly unhinged.

So it’s not much of a surprise the following night will end in a bloodbath.

Saxon Logan’s long lost Sleepwalker is really quite the thing, and nearly as brilliant as its more excitable proponents suggest it to be. Some of the film’s strength is certainly drawn from the conciseness that comes from it being a fifty minute short feature, so there’s no space for filler or time for losing focus, and Logan certainly doesn’t ever lose it.

This is obviously very much a film of its time, mind you, a film that wears (a perfectly appropriate to the times and place) anger on its sleeves and whose politics are generally as subtle as a sledgehammer to the face. But then, some things are better spoken of unsubtly and with great vigour, which Sleepwalker does.

It is rather difficult to dislike a film that starts out as an angry – and sometimes also quite funny – rant at 80s conservatism (under whose children we of course still suffer) with added bits and bobs that remind me of the sub-genre of the giallo that mostly concerns itself with unpleasant rich people being violent and shitty to one another, and ends as a blue-lit slasher that nicely nods in the direction of Dario Argento’s kind of giallo. It’s even more difficult to dislike it when it is note for note so good at all this genre-mixing, providing what could be chaos with aesthetic unity, style and panache.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Past Misdeeds: And God Said To Cain (1970)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

After ten years of forced labour, Gary Hamilton (Klaus Kinski) is pardoned by the state governor. As it goes with protagonists of movies, Gary has been framed for the crime he has supposedly committed, and has not exactly mellowed towards the people responsible for his plight.

So Gary gets into the next stagecoach to return to the little Western town where his troubles began. With him in the coach is Dick Acombar (Antonio Cantafori), a soldier who is just returning home after two years of absence. As destiny (and it is destiny responsible in this particular film, and not luck) will have it, Dick is the son of the main target of Gary's vengeance. Gary gets out of the coach a bit before town, because he still needs to buy a weapon and a horse from the mandatory old blabbermouth, but he asks Dick to tell Acombar that he'll be around for a visit in the evening.

Dick's father (Peter Carsten) has become the head honcho of the town, ruling it with an iron fist and a veritable army of gunmen, yet has somehow been able to hide his rather dubious character from his son. Acombar and those of his henchmen in the know seem rather disturbed when they hear the news of Gary's impending arrival.

Because the patriarch still wants to hide the nature of his affairs from his son (for whom he has great plans including buying him the presidency), he sends his men out into town to kill Gary before Gary can learn the truth of the business between them. That's easier said than done, though. Gary arrives at nightfall, together with a tornado that might just have metaphorical dimensions, and he shows a nearly supernatural ability at hiding and striking at his enemies from the shadows, slowly working his way closer to Acombar throughout the night. Of course, all that racket in town can't help but send a clever young man like Dick searching for explanations.

After my last Spaghetti Western experience with Ferdinando Baldi's clichéd and unfocused Django, Prepare A Coffin!, it is especially nice to stumble onto a film as focused and tight (though not lacking in clichés) as Antonio Margheriti's And God Said To Cain, the product of a director not only in control of his visuals but also one having quite specific ideas about dramatic unity Aristotle-style. Tightness and focus aren't usually words I tend to connect with Margheriti's name, but And God Said To Cain makes it quite obvious that the director could do tight and focussed if he wanted to.

Now, Margheriti is of course one of my special favourites among Italian genre filmmakers, yet I usually tend to praise him for those of his films that live on sheer gleeful silliness and a sense of good fun like his post-Indiana Jones adventure movies or - strangely enough - his jungle action films. One tends to forget that Margheriti was also quite at home in the Gothic horror genre - a part of the cinematic landscape where one won't find much glee - and did in fact produce some very fine films there.

And God Said To Cain is Margheriti's successful attempt at stitching the stylish and elegant head of the Gothic onto the stinking, unwashed and possibly flea-bitten body of the Spaghetti Western, creating a monster made out of ringing church bells, howling wind, shoot-outs and vengeance taken right out of the Old Testament. In a sense, mixing the typically elegant Gothic horror with the typically rude Spaghetti Western shouldn't work, what with the Gothic being a film genre of night and fog and the Spaghetti being one of daylight and too stark sunshine.

Fortunately, Margheriti makes some deft directorial choices, taking the mood (and therefore the night) from the Gothic and the nature of his hero and the way violence works in provoking ever more violence from the Spaghetti. The director also emphasises the common ground of the two genres he is trying to fuse: both can be high on the melodrama (although the Spaghetti Western not always is) and both love to tell stories of vengeance and the way the sins of the father tend to fall back on the sons, as will inevitably happen to Dick Acombar in the end here.

It comes with the vengeance territory that both genres tend to believe in destiny (or the grim god of the Old Testament working through the gun of a film's protagonist) and so like to end on a scene of a cursed building burning down. And God Said To Cain is certainly no exception to this rule, ending a final confrontation in a room full of mirrors (of course also a visual tell of both the Gothic genre and the Spaghetti Western) with a burning villa.

I find it rather interesting how the film utilizes Kinski. Usually, directors employing the man had him do his - loveable and most excellent - Wild Man of Germany shtick, glowering, screaming and jumping up and down like the original, frightening Rumpelstilzchen, but Margheriti somehow convinces Kinski to restrain himself until he becomes a stone-faced, coolly-burning killer who shows his true emotions only through his eyes. Not surprisingly, Kinski is quite brilliant at this, too.

I was also impressed by Margheriti's restraint when it comes to showing the violence happening, often only letting us (and the increasingly panicked bad guys) see the aftermath of Kinski's killings instead of the the executions, letting the audience share something of his victims' fear of their enemy being more than just a normal human being who can be killed like anyone. Only the film's final third shows Kinski's work in more detail, and very consciously begins to show us the sheer physical strain this man must be under, making him possibly even more frightening than he was when he seemed to possess the dubious physical reality of the killer from a slasher movie. After Kinski has become something akin to a force of nature, he slowly becomes human again until he can throw away his gun in the end.

There's a mythical quality about much what happens in the film. It lies in the way in which what would be coincidences in a different world become destiny, in the dark rhythm of the film's editing, in the methodical way Kinski goes about the killing business, the silent fear he awakens in his victims and in the sparseness of information about what betrayal it is Kinski has come to take vengeance for.

This is not all the sort of Spaghetti Western one would expect Margheriti to make - and in fact, his other Spaghettis are much lighter in tone - but it should be an excellent surprise for everyone stumbling onto it.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

In short: The Black Fables (2015)

Original title: As Fábulas Negras

Four kids play and bicker in the jungle. From time to time, they tell each other stories – about the monster from the sewers that munches the fat corrupt mayor’s guts, a werewolf, the curse of a saci, violent shenanigans at a boarding school, and the gruesome, devil-inspired revenge of a betrayed wife. Blood, guts and undetermined bodily fluids flow and splatter.

For various political and cultural reasons, Brazil has always been a particularly difficult country to make horror movies in. There were of course the films of José Mojica Marins (Coffin Joe/Joe de Caixao), but otherwise, genre entries have been few and far between, and the idea of “mainstream horror” as it exists in the US, where big studios involve themselves in the genre (though usually on the cheap compared to everything else they do), seems pretty much unthinkable. So Brazilian horror generally happens independently, on lowest budgets, and probably without much fanfare, making German genre filmmaking look as if it were in a happy place.

One of the more successful – at least in so far as you can actually see his films outside of Brazil – genre filmmakers in the country is Rodrigo Aragão. Aragão is also the lead writer and instigator of this anthology film that brings together himself, Petter Baiestorf, Joel Caetano, Marcelo Castanheira, and the great José Mojica Marins himself for a film with segments based on Brazilian folk tales and dollops of gore.

Marins’s segment about the saci, exorcism, and assorted bizarrery is the film’s highlight. It’s clearly cheap, but it’s also sharp, funny, and strange, cut to the best soundtrack of the anthology and made with the sort of off-handed verve you’d forgive a director of Marins’s age not to have anymore. There is – as with some of the other segments – also still a degree of subversive, angry political subtext to Marins’s piece, a deep distrust of authority carried by the sheer joy of transgressing against the rules of polite, conservative society.
That latter part all of the segments have more or less in common. Unlike many movies featuring the sort of gloopy gore on display here, the blood and guts are not exclusively symbols of nostalgia for the 80s or the mere fulfilment of genre expectations (though they certainly are both of that too) but also a sort of rebellion against the status quo. It’s actually pretty punk rock.

Given that, it actually seems to miss the point to complain about sometimes amateurish acting or the general simplicity of the stories here – this one’s really not at all in the market for being a tasteful bit of filmmaking, but still understands horror as a thing to provoke the polite classes with. The Black Fables does generally good work with that, and it’s the kind of anthology movie where even the worst segment (that would be the werewolf one) has at least on great thing in it (that would be the reverse werewolf transformation).

I found myself enjoying The Black Fables much more than I usually do with gore-heavy movies, perhaps because the gore isn’t pointless posturing as actually part of the point here.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

House of Wax (2005)

Movie twins Carly (Elisha Cuthbert) – obvious final girl in any slasher you’d care to imagine – and Nick (Chad Michael Murray) – the bad boy brother who theoretically will turn out to be somewhat misunderstood but is introduced by kicking away a homeless man’s money cup so is still a monumental asshole in my book – and a bunch of their friends including Carly’s boyfriend Wade (Jared Padalecki) – a pretty idiot with mildly pyromaniac tendencies and a love for criminal trespassing – and her best friend Paige (Paris Hilton) – Paris Hilton, so help us god – as well as two other guys who will soon be dead, are on their merry road-tripping way to some big American Football match, or something of that sort. Unfortunately, they decide to take a short-cut that turns into a detour which in turn becomes an impromptu camping trip in exactly the wrong place.

There’s a mysterious stalker visiting their camp in the night, a threatening pick-up driver popping in for a visit, and a huge pit full of dead animals stinking in the vicinity, so things will probably not turn out too well for them. When Wade’s car breaks down, he and Carly follow a hilarious/offensive hillbilly stereotype to the next town – the sort of place not in their GPS system so nothing suspicious going on at all – in search for car parts, while the others drive off to the game (but don’t worry, they’ll come back to die rather sooner than later). Obviously, there’s creepy business in town, and not just in the titular House of Wax - which is quite literally built out of wax. Not many of our teenage heroes will survive the ensuing hours. Hooray.

When looking at remakes of older horror films, the dedicated fan often can’t help but get rather grumpy with a certain tendency to turn everything into a teen slasher. Consequently, I’ve done my time of being grumpy at Jaume Collet-Serra’s House of Wax. However, while the film certainly hits all the mandatory beats of the backwoods teen slasher early-00s style, it’s a different, more complicated and more interesting beast than this suggests.

Collet-Serra is clearly not satisfied with just doing the mandatory stuff, taking his money and riding off to greener pastures. Instead, this teen slasher finds time and space for the grotesque, becomes just plain weird at the slightest opportunity, and displays some macabre ideas I can’t help but think Guillermo del Toro is a bit miffed not having come up with himself.

A house of wax literally made out of wax may sound of dubious believability, but the film uses this for many a macabre aside, an improbable yet awesome finale, building a mood of the strange and the macabre with verve and style while indeed still providing everything expected of it as a teen slasher, including embarrassing moments of sexiness, teen dialogue no teen would ever say, and characters that are mostly unlikeable and certainly annoying.

That last part is – surprisingly enough – no too much of a complaint, though, for even the screenplay by Chad and Carey Hayes does some rather interesting and unexpected stuff: the initial splitting up of the characters actually makes sense, for example, and the film even bothers to come up with something better to solve the cellphone problem than the cellphone dead zone route. There’s also some not completely uninteresting, if not exactly deep, thematic business about good and bad twins (our heroes mirroring the villains here and vice versa), which adds further elements not generally found in teen slashers in quite this way.

The production design is a great example of the gothic-by-byways approach, the acting (ignoring Hilton who could have been much more annoying than she actually is here, too) decent enough for what this is, with Brian Van Holt making an effective villain and Cuthbert and Murray turning into a perfectly good final girl/boy pair. Collet-Serra for his part makes much out of some icky and genuinely bizarre set-pieces and seems to feel just as much at home at the more straightforward suspense bits.

It all adds up to a teenage slasher cash-in film made by people who quite obviously cared about making a good movie, going out of their way to do more than what was strictly necessary for them to do. As such, House of Wax is a genuinely fine horror film certainly located on the less subtle and deep side of the road but quite satisfying nonetheless.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

In short: The Blob (1988)

A meteorite crashes in the vicinity of your proverbial US small town (which is to my utter confusion not portrayed by locations in British Columbia). It’s got a passenger too, in form of a little blob of acidic matter with big ambitions. Soon the blob starts to eat and/or dissolve the local population, growing rather humongous in the process. The only thing standing between small town America and total destruction are Cheerleader Meg (Shawnee Smith) and local bad boy Brian (Kevin Dillon).

To make matters even worse than that, and because this is a film made in the late 80s, there are also (evil, obviously) members of the military industrial complex arriving in town right quick. And you know how those guys are. This isn’t the 50s anymore, after all.

Chuck Russell’s remake of the well-loved and deeply silly 50s monster movie brings everything together 50s monster movies and their 80s grandchildren share, leaves out what doesn’t fit, and adds a whole lot of wonderfully icky, imaginative special effects, as well as the mandatory government conspiracy. Also, slime tentacles. It’s difficult not to admire how Russell’s and Frank Darabont’s script manage to extract all the elements that make the two styles of monster movies fun, mix them, and turn them into an excellent mush of acidic goo.

The resulting film is obviously about as deep as a puddle, but it is a film that knows that puddles are made for jumping into so that things go splash (unless they are slime puddles, which make a different kind of splash altogether), and most of the time, that’s just what it does. It’s pretty much the ideal of what this kind of film is supposed to be, playing things straight while still carrying the knowledge around how silly it is, this way never ending up absurdly po-faced yet also not demonstrating the need to be all ironic and cool about everything. The pacing gets fast and furious quick, and once we’re half into the film, there’s a fun new set piece about every five minutes, with lots of beautiful blobiness, explosions, and picturesque dissolutions of man and animal.

Did I mention how fun this thing it?

Sunday, October 9, 2016

1920 London (2016)

London, in some weird-looking parallel 1920s made out of Bollywood dreams (this is not a complaint). Shivangi (Meera Chopra) lives with her husband Veer (Vishal Karwal) in a palatial estate while he studies law. Both of them are Indian royalty/nobility (don’t ask me which of the two, I’m pro French Revolution), sickeningly in love, and have a chauffeur named George, so things look rather idyllic for them.

However, when some thankful peasants or other send Veer an amulet to praise his awesomeness, he becomes possessed by the evil spirit of a witch (Meenal Kapoor). Quickly, he contorts his body into the most interesting shapes, loses his luscious hair (and wins some worms), and will soon die, for the doctors are of course baffled. And who can blame them?

Shivangi quickly realizes that her husband has been cursed – she’s pretty sure his evil stepmother is the guilty party. She returns home to India to fetch help. Finding the appropriate magician to get rid of a dead witch this strong turns out to be a bit of a problem. In fact, only exorcism specialist Jai (Sharman Joshi) has any chance of succeeding at all. Unfortunately, Jai and Shivangi have a bit of a history: namely a star-crossed love between penniless shepherd and princess that ended when Jai beat up Shivangi’s evil uncle when the bastard tried to rape her, and Shivangi renounced Jai and their love in the ensuing trial, landing him in prison. Needless to say, Jai is initially not terribly keen on helping Shivangi out. But as we all know, exorcists gotta exorcise.

If you go into an Indian horror film with mainstream Bollywood sensibilities like this and expect anything like a “proper” horror movie in the less open sense of the term, you’ll end up sorely disappointed, for Dharmendra Suresh Desai’s film really is a slightly more focused masala piece with supernatural beasties, putting as much emphasis on the melodrama as it does on its witch, possession and so on, though it does leave out the odious comic relief. To me, that’s not a bad thing, at least not in a film that is as enthusiastic about entertaining me (well, its audience) as 1920 London is.

While the horror sequences certainly won’t scare the genre-savvy, the film builds such a wonderful Bollywood gothic place out of its weirdo-20s, actual locations, dubious CGI and general horror light clichés that I found myself rather in love with it for this alone. The film demonstrates ably that there’s aesthetically a lot to be said for looking at something like the 1920s in Britain through the pop-cultural lenses of a different country (even if we ignore the particularly pleasant irony inherent to this country being a former colony of the UK). It is of course about as authentic  as the depictions of India in most western cultural artefacts (read: not at all), but it is also oh so very fun, turning everything larger than life in quite a different way than Western depictions of place and era would. Besides, authenticity is not always terribly interesting in any case.

There are also quite a few perfectly decent suspense sequences in here that are about as frightening as a fun fair ride but are generally creative in their use of clichés, excellently paced, and provided regularly. For you also can’t blame the film for wasting your time once it’s gotten going, its nearly two hours of running time flying by in a series of flashbacks, melodramatic outbreaks, decorative suffering (which Meera Chopra does quite well), and scenes of general spooky action (not always at a distance). Like all good Bollywood films, 1920 London would be ashamed of itself if you were bored for longer than half a minute while watching it.

Adding additional spice to the whole affair is surprisingly tight plotting (not generally a strength of Hindi commercial cinema, mostly, I think, because that sort of thing isn’t actually important to filmmakers and audience in India in general), and some awesomely silly ideas. You will witness a game of peek-a-boo with a possessed, suspenseful chanting of mantras, a lemon chase through a haunted house as well as other fruit and nut based magic, a spiritual knife fight, and lots of awesomeness in between.

So at least for tonight, this is the best film ever made.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

A Small Repose

Because I'm finally hitting a truly eldritch age tomorrow, and there are rituals to be held for that sort of thing that'll rob me of all powers of calling anything "boringly competent", normal blogging service here will resume on Sunday, October 9th.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

In short: Numb (2015)

Married couple Will (Jamie Bamber) and Dawn (Stefanie von Pfetten) have hit on financial hard times. Travelling to Canada’s north for Will to take up a new job seems like a beam of light but the whole thing vaporises – though Will can’t bring himself to tell Dawn. On the start of their journey home to Vancouver by car, they pick up Lee (Aleks Paunovic) and his sister Cheryl (Marie Avgeropoulos), who’d otherwise probably freeze to death in the bitter cold outside.

Lee is an ex-con and Cheryl is certainly not inexperienced in the shady side of life, so it’s not surprising it’s not exactly love at first sight for these people. Some time later, the travellers pick up someone else, an old man nearly frozen to death. Before they can get him to a hospital, the man dies. Lee and Cheryl check his pockets and find various clues that hint at the hiding place of a bag full of gold, the loot from a robbery the dead guy must have been involved in decades ago. It’s somewhere out in the snowy wilderness. It might be lucrative for everyone involved if they teamed up and grabbed the gold for themselves.

Alas, time is pressing, so our protagonists decide to go on their adventure with little equipment – Lee and Cheryl don’t even have gloves or proper clothing for sub zero temperatures – a decided lack of trust in each other, and only Will’s survival experience.

It sounds like I’m once again summoning up the shadow of boring competence when I describe Jason R. Goode’s survival thriller with phrases like “decent”, “good enough”, or “perfectly watchable”, but this time around, it’s really rather more the shadow of perfectly okay competence, the thing that falls on a film that is never more than competent yet doesn’t bore me.

Goode’s direction isn’t particularly exciting: he uses the snowy landscapes well enough, keeps a degree of tension up, and doesn’t get in his own way. It’s the sort of effort that doesn’t show much personality or style but gets the job at hand done well enough.

The same goes for the acting. Nobody involved is doing particularly riveting work, yet there’s also never anything to complain about; these are professionals being professional actors, no more and no less.
The same again would go for a script that goes through the usual beats a Treasure-of-the-Sierra-Madre-alike hits without embarrassing itself. It’s also just the important bit too polite leading to the impression that the depths at the core of these characters just aren’t all that terribly deep, and delivering its moments of violence and survival in a somewhat too polite manner to really hit.

On the other hand, I never found myself bored watching this, which isn’t something I can say about all films this heavily coming down on the side of competence.