Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Star of Midnight (1935)

Clay “Dal” Dalzell (William Powell) is a slightly soused to pretty drunk upperclass lawyer in New York. Dal’s even a bit famous, though not for his lawyering (or, surprisingly, his drinking) but for his talent at amateur sleuthing. Sometime between drinking and trying to playfully fend off the attempts of socialite Donna Mantin (Ginger Rogers) to tug him from the cocktail bar into the harbour of marriage (where there’s also a cocktail bar, I’m pretty sure), he does, as all amateur sleuths are wont to, stumble onto a case. Elements of said case include a reporter getting shot right inside of Dalzell’s parlour, a mysterious singer who only works wearing a mask (the titular “Star of Midnight”) and who may or may not be the vanished girlfriend of one of Dal’s friends, gangsters (some friendly, some un-), as well as lots of cocktails, of course.

Fortunately, Donna and Dal make for a perfect crime-solving (and drinking) team.

It should be obvious even to mere dabblers in 30s Hollywood cinema like me that Stephen Roberts’s pretty delightful Star of Midnight is RKO’s attempt at catching some of that Thin Man magic/money (two words usually interchangeable in Hollywood, I believe). And why not, really? If you can get William Powell, who is brilliant at everything from the ironic double-take to the ironic drinking of cocktails, buy some mystery novel to fill with Thin Man-style interactions and funny dialogue (not quite on the level of the first Thin Man but probably more enjoyable than in later films of that series), and find the proper actress to pair up with Powell, this sort of thing seems logical as well as plain sensible. That partner here is Ginger Rogers, and while her chemistry with Powell isn’t quite as fun as the interplay between Powell and Loy, at this stage in her career, she was usually great at projecting erotic-ironic affection for men quite a few years her senior, as it is here. That Rogers at this point is just as good at shooting off the screwball-style dialogue as Powell hardly needs mentioning. The she also looks as cute as humanly possible in mid 30’s movie fashion are simple facts of classic Hollywood.

So, the romance and comedy element of the film is great fun even eighty years later. The mystery, for its part, is mostly used to keep our heroine and hero moving so not every scene takes place in Dal’s parlour and to motivate some of the drinking and the flirting. Otherwise, it’s not a terribly exciting case, but – quite in the Thin Man tradition again – it does contain enough basic mystery stuff to perhaps keep an audience away from the realization it’s really only watching to see and hear Powell and Rogers talking and drinking. Which would be a criticism if Powell and Rogers talking and drinking weren’t entertaining enough, but since this core aspect works as well as it does, there’s no problem with the actual plot being somewhat…well, there.

This brings us directly to Stephen Roberts’s direction. It’s also sort of there for most of the time, delivering a perfectly okay mid-30s style environment for the characters to move around in, keeping the pace up, and otherwise letting the actors and the script do their thing without either getting in the way or enhancing what they do much. Well, to be fair, there is at least one creatively staged bit concerning the positioning of a mirror and a play with character/audience perspective in the scene of the unmasking of the killer.

As an added bit of bonus strangeness, the killer also turns out to be cross-dressing for the unmasking – or their attempt to kill our heroes – for no reason I could actually make out, and without any of the characters reacting much to it. Now that I think about it, this end sequence is pretty damn proto-gialloesque – so much so that I wouldn’t be surprised Bava or Argento knew the film.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

In short: When I Was Alive (2014)

Original title: Quando Eu Era Vivo

A middle-aged man we will only ever be introduced to as Junior (Marat Descartes in a performance in turns sad, creepy, and infuriating) has hit rock bottom. His wife has thrown him out, he has lost his job, and his sanity is hanging by a thread. Things are so bad, Junior has to move back in with Senior (Antônio Fagundes), a father who neither loves nor understands him and his unloved and misunderstood right back. Things are uncomfortable enough between the two the situation wouldn’t exactly need Junior’s deeply awkward and somewhat creepy attempts at flirting with his father’s tenant, music student Bruna (Sandy).

But that’s really just the beginning. In the old home, Junior’s already precarious mental state devolves rather quickly. His fixation on Bruna becomes increasingly uncomfortable (at least for the viewer, her reaction will be rather more ambivalent than you at first expect). He’s trying to change his father’s interior decorations back to the state they were in when his mother was still alive and increasingly devolves into a childlike mental state, complete with moving into a womb-like space in the house. He also discovers a mysterious song among his mother’s old things, a song that may have an occult meaning.

Brazilian Marco Dutra’s When I Was Alive belongs right into the zone of contemporary films of quiet, slow, intelligent and ambiguous horror that have one foot in the arthouse and the other, well, not in the grindhouse but certainly in genre filmmaking. When you make a film about a man who regresses into his past so much it becomes a peculiar kind of possession by the past, the borders between arthouse and genre blur quite naturally, as the question of the actual reality of the film’s occult elements seem rather beside the point mattering little for much of the film’s running time.

Don’t worry, midcore horror fans, the film does actually take an unambiguous turn into the – metaphorically fitting – occult, with a final couple of scenes nobody with two brain cells to rub against one another would explain with human psychology, however aberrant it may be. They are, of course, also rather fitting expressions of the metaphorical layer of the film, its scratching at the question of family, of closeness as possession and of the horrible lure of the dead past to those among us who have troubles surviving in the present.

All this – as careful, observant and atmospherically directed as it is by Dutra – will not be the sort of thing that’ll engage everyone. If you’re looking for much outward action or blood, or even just a typical thriller structure, When I Was Alive will probably not make you happy; it’s just not that kind of film. I do think it is very good at being the kind of film it wants to be, a metaphorically loaded, psychological piece of occult horror.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Restless (2012)

The 70s. Ruth Gilmartin (Michelle Dockery) is worried about her mother Sally (Charlotte Rampling). Sally seems to develop something of a paranoid strain, talking about people watching her from the woods surrounding her country home. She’s giving Sally an autobiographical manuscript to read, promising it will explain everything. From it, Sally learns that her mother is actually an exile Russian named Eva Delectorskaya (in the flashbacks that make up two thirds of the two-part movie played by Hayley Atwell).

After the murder of her brother by French fascists in the 30s, Eva learns that her brother was working as a British spy for one Lucas Romer (Rufus Sewell). Romer hires on Eva, too. He’s responsible for a subset of British intelligence trying to bring the USA into the fold of the war against Germany, by means more foul than fair.

Eva turns out to be a rather exceptional spy, but there’s a reason why decades later, she’s not living under her own name and always watching her back. She will need the help of her daughter to finish something that started more than thirty years earlier.

This BBC two-parter directed by Edward Hall based on a novel by William Boyd (who also scripted the films) is not completely successful. I’ve heard the novel is quite a bit better than the movie, but I can’t vouch for it, because I have still not read every interesting book ever written, unfortunately. The film’s strengths are obvious: the cast is top-notch, the BBC has a knack for historical productions that seem authentic on a TV budget (even a comparatively high one), and the plot is certainly not lacking in the good stuff of spy business, paranoia and romance. Alas, even some of these strengths don’t quite work as well for the film as they could. While Atwell and Rampling are great as always, it’s also difficult to take the idea seriously that Atwell will age into Rampling. Indeed, I have difficulty imagining two actresses who look less alike. This may sound like a minor problem, but I found the regular shifts between the two actresses rather jolting and not really helpful for immersion.

That isn’t exactly something that is helped by the 70s part of the film. Where the 30s do look authentic enough in a “look, it’s a classy TV reproduction of the time” manner, there’s little of believable temporal flavour visible in that part of the movie. Again, this isn’t a terrible problem but does make the movie’s ability to convince of its world somewhat shaky. There’s also the fact that Hall’s direction is often a bit bland, demonstrating an approach to direction that seems rather too fond of coasting on the achievements of actors and production designers but not always doing enough to with them. There are, however, a handful of very capably realized suspense sequences – particularly in the second part – that are alone good enough to make the films worthwhile as spy movies.

The script isn’t without its troubles too. The 70s parts of the film are – in general – just not terribly interesting, taking up too much of the film’s running time and slowing it down for what often feels like no good reason at all. I’m also not terribly happy with the way the flashbacks and the way their information influences Ruth are handled, seeing as it heavily suggest she’s the slowest reader ever, even when confronted with the sort of manuscript any sane person would dive into in one sitting.

However, the elements of the two-parter that do work, do work rather well. There are the the already mentioned suspense sequences, our lead actresses (as well as Sewell and the usual British bunch of absurdly talented minor actors), as well as a handful of moments of delightful paranoia and distrust. Restless’s problem to my eyes isn’t so much that it isn’t good, but that its flaws seem so obvious and so eminently fixable (and are supposedly much better handled in the novel), one can’t help but ask oneself why they weren’t fixed.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Three Films Make A Post: Seclusion. Seduction. Survival.

The Detained aka Deadly Detention (2017): Ah, detention horror, the more high-school-y sub-genre of the corridor runner. Well, usually, it is. In the case of Blair Hayes’s The Detained, the corridors our detained high school kids run up and down and forwards and backwards and around in, above or under belong to a closed-down prison, for their high school has been closed because of an opossum infestation. Yup, this is one of those films that excuses all sorts of lame (and perhaps a wee bit lazy) aspects of its script by being all ironic and shit. So the main characters aren’t walking and talking clichés but ironic walking and talking clichés. We all know the drill by now. Does the “irony” add anything to the film? Does it help uncover any interesting insights? Of course not. To be fair, I have seen much worse in ironic horror, and much worse corridor runners. At least, the acting is decent, about every tenth cheesy joke is actually funny, and the basic aspects of filmmaking are perfectly competent. Hooray?

Jackals (2017): Plotwise, Kevin Greutert’s 80s set movie about the members of a family and a deprogrammer having to fight off a siege by a group of rather creepy cult members from whom they’ve stolen the family’s son back, is a very sparse film. The characters aren’t terribly deep either, but they are brought to life by a fine cast – Deborah Kara Unger, Johnathon Schaech, Stephen Dorff among them – and Greutert has an eye for using character archetypes in just the right way for the kind of film this is. Visually, Jackals is very atmospheric, and there are quite a few clever little touches: the cult’s use of animal masks and Greutert’s tendency to shoot them in silhouette is a prime example of how to make your antagonists feel ever so slightly worse than human. The pacing is excellent, and while I hoped in vain for an escalation in the direction of the supernatural, the whole film is just a tight, exciting little package in the best low budget movie tradition. Why, I even liked the kicker ending!

Wendy and Lucy (2008): This Kelly Reichardt film featuring Michelle Williams and a dog named Lucy might be among the saddest films I have seen in a long time. Plot-wise, it’s not about much more than an impoverished woman and her dog stranding on their way to Alaska in some horrible little town, with little outwardly happening, and that slowly. In truth, it’s a film about a personal apocalypse, a life that has turned to a dead end without the woman living it having quite noticed it (or perhaps rather admitted to herself), a society that replaces kindness with an insistence on proper procedures, bureaucracy, and money, and can’t even imagine not filtering everything through the lenses of these things. It’s also a film about what it means to be poor in the western world today (well, 2008, and things haven’t exactly improved, have they?), and how the worst cruelty is inflicted on people by other people who probably can’t even see it. There’s also an absolutely horrifying encounter with a half-crazed man played by Larry Fessenden that puts further emphasis on the way poor women have it even worse. It all adds up to something so sad, filmed and acted with such care, words – my words at least – can’t really do the film justice.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Past Misdeeds: The Power (1968)

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 presented with only the most basic re-writes and 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.

Professor Jim Tanner (George Hamilton) is the scientist in charge of a project researching pain to make NASA's astronauts more durable. During a meeting that is supposed to introduce their new government contact, Arthur Nordlund (Michael Rennie), to the team, notorious crackpot Professor Hallson (Arthur O'Connell) gets a wee bit hysterical about the results of some intelligence tests he made with the members of the group. It looks like one of the scientists has climbed some additional steps on the evolutionary letter, and has an improbable IQ as well as the obvious perks that go with something like that, like mind control and telekinetic powers (of course). The other scientists, including Tanner and his girlfriend Professor Lansing (Suzanne Pleshette), are more than just a little sceptical concerning their colleague's ideas, but when Hallson convinces everyone to concentrate on rotating a piece of paper with the power of their minds, and the thing actually begins to rotate, they are proven wrong. Looks like one of them really must be the homo superior.

That very same night, the mysterious mutant kills Hallson with his or her mental powers. The scientist only leaves behind a note with the name "Adam Hart" on it, a name his wife (Yvonne De Carlo) will later remember to have something to do with her husband's childhood. While he's at it, the guy who definitely isn't Professor X casts enough doubt on Tanner for the police to see the scientist as the main suspect for the Hallson's murder. Hart (to go with that name for him), seemingly having a rather unhealthy sense of humour, then proceeds to turn Tanner's very real academic credentials into fakes, which costs the Professor his job pretty quickly. Not satisfied with that, Hart then tries to kill Tanner (in what may very well be the film's weirdest scene) with the help of a carousel.

Somehow, Tanner manages to survive the mutant's attack. The events have made it quite clear to him that he can't expect help from anyone, and that he certainly can't trust his colleagues anymore, for one of them must be his hidden enemy. So the scientist sets upon the only course still open to him: trying to find Hart's trace in Hallson's hometown. Obviously, dangers to life and sanity, and Aldo Ray await him.

Byron Haskin's George Pal-produced The Power is a surprisingly peculiar tale that uses its SF thriller plot to create a film that unites elements of the pre-70s conspiracy thriller with scenes of a gleefully bizarre nature, and a generally pessimistic view of human nature, resulting in something halfway between Alfred Hitchcock and an acid trip.

Casting George Hamilton of all people as a scientist of some renown may sound more bizarre than clever, but his special brand of absent-minded vacuity works here as well as it would later do in Curtis Harrington's The Dead Don't Diepresenting the character as someone in whose shoes most every viewer would be able to feel comfortable, even if said viewer is less pretty and well-groomed. As we all know, this sort of thriller works well with an everyman character for audience identification in the lead role, and if Hitchcock could cast Cary Grant accordingly, Haskins could do the same with George Hamilton.

Haskin's direction is interesting, but also a bit all over the place. The Power's main draft is the Hitchcockian thriller - some scenes seem to directly and deliberately echo The Man Who Knew Too Much and North by Northwest, especially, and a many of the film's techniques for creating suspense are taken directly from Hitchcock's playbook - yet Haskin also has a tendency to include moments of broadest-stroke satire that always threaten to turn into melodramatic horror, and scenes that are mock-surrealist enough to belong into an Italian film from the 70s (see especially Hart's fun fair attempt at killing our hero or the very strange final confrontation between hero and villain). However, there are also moments of truly disquieting nuance to be found here, like the moment when Yvonne De Carlo's "funny"-drunk and oversexed middle-aged woman begins to show the cracks that Hart's powers have left in her mind, or the emotionless, matter-of-fact way Aldo Ray's character discusses that he's been on the lookout for people asking for Hart so that he can kill them for these last ten years. These moments also go a long way to demonstrate how important a good supporting cast is to a) make a film better and b) help someone with a limited acting range like Hamilton look good. These performances and what they stand for are also where the film's rather pessimistic and paranoid stance regarding human nature can be seen most clearly. In The Power's world, every character has mental breaking points and cracks that make it easy for them to be dominated by someone like Hart; everyone is corruptible and nobody is save from harm from the people surrounding him. This is not a position the film ever states outright, yet it is hidden in plain sight in every scene right until the end when a big question mark half-heartedly pretends to be a happy ending.

Less good than the supporting cast are the film's special effects, or rather, their execution is more ropey than you'd expect from a film made in 1968. Unfortunately, the effects in the film's grand finale are its weakest, with some very cartoony animation, a rotating skeleton and George Hamilton's floating head standing in for a mental duel that would have worked better if the actors had just stared at each other while Miklós Rózsa's dramatic music played. In The Power's case, we call them "special" effects for a reason.

Fortunately, a handful of badly executed special effects in conceptually interesting scenes is not enough to drag down a film as interesting and peculiar as The Power is. As a matter of fact, this is exactly the sort of imperfection that makes a film even more itself by revealing a humanity you don't usually encounter in things that are perfect.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

In short: (The) Guyver (1991)

Trying to help out his crush Mizky (Vivian Wu), Sean Barker (Jack Armstrong) stumbles into the way of the plans of an evil corporation connected to ancient aliens using monstered-up people to do classical evil stuff like murdering Mizky’s father. During the proceedings, Sean fuses with an ancient organic battlesuit known as The Guyver, which will turn out to be very useful, kinda awkward, and a bit icky. Government man Max Reed (Mark Hamill) assists.

Quite a few of the people involved behind the camera – particularly co-director Steve Wang and the stunt team – of this Charles Band production would be or were involved in the US versions of Kamen Rider and various Super Sentai shows, so it comes as no surprise that this is very much an attempt at making an American tokusatsu (even with Japanese involvement on the production side). Since Wang’s co-director is special effects maniac Screaming Mad George, the monster design and some of the transformation designs (just watch what happens to poor Mark Hamill!) are often on the very grotesque and bizarre side with a bit of body horror thrown in. That’s most definitely one of the film’s strong points, as is the generally tokusatsu-level fighting.

Problems arise whenever nothing transforms or fights – Armstrong and Wu might as well not be on screen, so little about their performances is memorable, the dialogue is horrible throughout, and there’s a line of painfully unfunny humour running through everything. A particular low point in that regard is the character of Striker (Jimmie Walker), a borderline racist “black guy who randomly raps, even when he is transforming into a monster” caricature, someone involved in the production must really have liked, so often he pops in to make a viewer cringe, curse, or shake their fists at the screen.

On the positive side, there is a lot of transforming and fighting going on, so things never become completely unbearable. People like me will also be happy about the presence of Michael Berryman and a smaller role for that maddest of scientists, Jeffrey Combs, indeed playing a mad scientist, as well as dear old Linnea Quigley.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

District 13: Ultimatum (2009)

Original title: Banlieue 13: Ultimatum

A couple of years after the first movie, not much has changed for the people of Banlieue 13. There might be a new President (Philippe Torreton) governing France, but the place is still cut off from the outside world by a large wall that makes moving in and out of the place akin to travelling to another country, and dominated by racially segregated gangs who – in absence of actual government – are the only form of order around.

Of our two heroes from the first film, Damien (Cyril Raffaelli) is still working as the the apparently only decent cop in Paris, while Leito (David Belle) seems to spend his time on more or less minor acts of violent resistance. They will team up again to thwart a conspiracy by evil secret services to provoke the President – who will turn out to actually be the kind of guy who firmly believes in the principles of the French constitution – into razing the Banlieue to the ground so an evil company can build some nice white, middle-class, apartments where it once stood.

Again written by Luc Besson and produced by good old EuropaCorp, this sequel directed by Patrick Alessandrin carries some of the hallmarks of the company’s – and therefore Besson’s - films. Apart from the tragic absence of some grizzled Hollywood veteran, this is very typical EC fare at least on the writing side: the script at times seems to unnecessarily go out of its way to be pretty darn dumb – there’s even a risible moment where the protagonists criticize a particularly idiotic bit of the bad guys’ plans instead of Besson just writing something more sensible –, physics do not work the way they do even in a semi-real world, and human psychology does not exist, not even in its action movie version. The action, on the other hand, is done with great verve by an experienced team, with nice scenes of Raffaelli kicking people in the faces and those of Belle doing his parkours thing in a pretty spectacular manner providing the film with a nice diversity in action styles. To change things up, there are also explosions, a feature fight for Elodie Yung (who pops in for the film’s last third when the Banlieue’s gangs of racial caricatures unite behind our heroes to kick evil awkwardly secret agent butt).

This time around, you can even admire the very fine achievements of actors, action choreographers and stunt teams, for – unlike an EC director like Olivier Megaton – Alessandrin apparently prefers to film and edit his action so the audience can actually see what’s going on, using the camera to enhance the action instead of obfuscating it (the latter tendency particularly frustrating in EuropaCorp movies where nobody involved in the stunts needs this sort of trick to obfuscate their failings).

Sure, the quality of the action doesn’t make the plot less forgettable, but at least the script does have its cartoonish heart in the right place (on the left, that is), preferring solidarity among the poor of all colours in ass-kicking, yet also showing an adorably dishonest believe in somebody in power actually caring about their purported principles. Or shall we call the latter an Utopian hope? Anyway, where more than a few other Besson scripts do annoy me quite a bit even after years and years of watching his output and even loving other parts of it, this one seems to so honestly revel in its cartoonishness, it is impossible for me not to be charmed by it. It does certainly build an entertaining base for the action, and what more can I ask of an action movie?

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

In short: Hide-and-Never-Seek (2015)

aka One-Man Tag

Original title: 혼숨

Ya-gwang aka Glow (Ryu Deok-hwan) is the moderator of an internet show concerning itself with the debunking of supposed paranormal phenomena. Glow combines the obnoxiousness of a Twitch streamer with the blinkered arrogance of the professional debunker (says a guy who doesn’t believe in any of that paranormal stuff but sees no reason to be an asshole about it), and ass-clownish tendencies all of his own. He and his producer Park (Jo Bok-rae) really want their show to be “epic” and “legendary”, as they never stop telling anybody who does or does not want to hear it.

And wouldn’t you know it, a video of a schoolgirl playing but not properly finishing a game of good old Japanese Hitori Kakurenbo (or one-man hide and seek/tag) on a library toilet leads them onto the path of becoming legends…urban legends that is.

Formally, Lee Doo-hwan’s feature film debut as a director is yet another entry into the good old POV horror genre, though one that assumes its producers of commercial video to be actually able to shoot stuff competently, making the whole affair look not quite as nausea and/or squint inducing as is sub-genre tradition. It still isn’t an original film, of course: movies about ghost hunting etc show hosts encountering the actual supernatural are a dime a dozen, and even Hitori Kakurenbo has featured in a couple of films already.

However, as I always say, originality isn’t everything. There is often something to be said for a film reproducing the same old but doing it well, with conviction, verve, style, or just tiny twists on the formula. Hide-and-Never-Seek indeed manages to be a rather entertaining movie, at least. In part, it works because it manages to re-create the feel of watching (or witnessing with disgust) a Twitch or YouTube-style streamer with ambitions of grandeur rather well. Ryu provides Glow with just the right kind of obnoxiousness to make watching his antics interesting even for the stretches of the movie when little of dramatic impact is happening, and inducing at least in this viewer pleasant fantasies of seeing the guy getting mauled by ghosts. Surprisingly, he also sells a late movie face turn so that it works surprisingly well.

I also found myself rather fond of the film’s directness. This is not a story of complicated twists and turns or the too calculated shock effects of (too) much of contemporary US mainstream horror, but the sort of spooky tale you could actually imagine being told around a computer screen – the modern campfire, always in need of new tales.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

The House on Pine Street (2015)

Seven months pregnant Jennifer (Emily Goss in a nuanced tour-de-force performance of a type you don’t usually expect to find in your indie horror and whose absence would have ruined this particular film) and her husband Luke (Taylor Bottles) are moving from Chicago to the town in Kansas where Jennifer grew up. Unfortunately, this also means for Jennifer to return into the sphere of influence of her horrible, horrible mother (Cathy Barnett). Something the film will only ever talk around instead about for much of its running time concerning Jennifer’s mental health and the life of her foetus happened in Chicago, and the move is supposed to help her getting over it. Because returning to a place you hate always makes things better, or something. Well, and Ma’s got a job for Luke that’s better than bar keeping, so there’s that.

At least, the couple is now living in a surprisingly big, surprisingly cheap home. Exactly this home will turn out to be a rather large problem though, for shortly after they have moved in, Jennifer starts to see and hear all the typical signs of a movie haunting: doors bang, invisible forces knock, and some particularly nasty manifestations surround the bedroom cupboard, as these things do. Alas, only Jennifer hears and sees these things, so Luke quickly starts to think that the nasty things from Chicago that are not meant to be explained are happening again. He also seems, just like Jennifer’s mother, to be the type who thinks that berating the mentally ill as if they’d picked their problems is a good way to help them. Consequently, Jennifer becomes more and more isolated and more and more fixated on the manifestations, which in turn increase. Things can only end badly.

At its surface, Aaron and Austin Keeling’s The House on Pine Street behaves like a very traditional modern movie about a haunting. The film’s supernatural manifestations are not only highly typical of modern ghost horror movies – though the film very pointedly and for a good reason doesn’t really show any ghosts – but the most traditional ones you can find beyond the dragging of chains. Unlike a lot of modern ghost movies good or bad, Pine Street doesn’t much go for jump scares, though. This is a film that’s much more interested in showing the increasing dread and horror of its protagonist when confronted with a cupboard door that meaningfully opens and closes at will than having it shut with a loud bang (though it does that too, of course).

That’s because below the surface, the film is modelled on a different style of ghost story, the kind where the spooky manifestations are generally realized in the appropriately spooky and creepy ways, but where they are also there to mirror and explicate what’s going on in the characters, in this case Jennifer. The ghosts or whatever is haunting the house, you see, are the movie-real manifestations of Jennifer’s fear of her pregnancy, of unwanted change, of her feeling of having lost control over a life she cherished before her pregnancy, of her growing estrangement from Luke. This doesn’t necessarily mean Jennifer is indeed seeing horrors where there aren’t any, but it does mean that she and the horrors are very much belonging together and very much saying something about each other.

This isn’t news in horror films, of course, but the Keelings’ film truly does put the emphasis straight on this element, even using an explanation for the haunting that’s increasing the connection between Jennifer’s life and what’s going on in the house, walking the often problematic line between the idea of the haunting as metaphor and the haunting only as metaphor (the latter a form of haunting I find rather irritating thanks to its closeness to that most horrible thing in the world of art, allegory) like the Great Valerio before he fell.

It’s not all perfect, though. The film’s final twenty minutes feel curiously draggy, as if the film couldn’t quite decide how to properly end proceedings (though I do approve of it not going the most obvious way there in the end), and the hauntings are sometimes a bit too conservative for my tastes. Fortunately, these things only mildly distract from what is a surprisingly intelligent, and actually psychological haunted house movie.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Three Films Make A Post: Are you a watcher or a player?

American Ultra (2015): Stoner and slacker Mike (Jesse Eisenberg) learns that he is in fact a government super spy experiment when an overacting idiot (Topher Grace) and his gang of spy goons start burning down his home town to murder him and his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart). Despite being written by only one guy, Nima Nourizadeh’s action comedy thing is pretty much a mess of tones and forms that neither belong nor fit together. But then, that writer is Max Landis, whose own films and scripts tend to be messes (sometimes hot ones). So expect a film that wavers between Mark Millar-style cynical low-brow violence humour, nerdy playfulness, indie rom com and random crap without sense or much of a point, with acting performances that suggest a director who didn’t tell anyone in front of the camera for what he was going, and scenes that are sometimes good as standalones but never come together to form an actual film. Plus, this is a film that tries to sell me the idea that being allowed to work as a killer for an organization that tried to murder you is some kind of a happy ending. Seriously.

I Bury the Living (1958): Albert Band’s gothic and somewhat Twilight Zone-ish tale of a new part-time cemetery director - played by Richard Boone in a nice tour-de-force performance that allows his character to be rather more fragile than typical of male leads of this time - who comes to the conviction that changing the pin colours on a wall map of the cemetery kills people is for the longest time a fine low budget film. In its mood of increasing (melodramatic) dread and use of expressionist techniques and a bit of early Sam Fuller-style tackiness, it’s a film rather atypical for US genre cinema of its time, particularly those set in the contemporary USA.

Unfortunately, the status as a lost classic one could imagine for the film is badly served by a “natural explanation” so preposterous and illogical even the writers responsible for quite a few of today’s lame twist endings would be embarrassed by it.

Negative (2017): While its plot certainly isn’t terribly plausible (unless you compare it to the ending of I Bury the Living), Joshua Caldwell’s tale of a hapless photographer (Simon Quarterman) being drawn into the desert road movie style flight of a former British spy (Katia Winter) is good low budget spy movie fun. The film recommends itself with stylish and atmospheric shots of the desert, two lead characters who for once in a movie of this kind don’t fall in love but whose actors do work well together, a nice line in sarcastic dialogue, and a handful of more than decent action and suspense sequences.

It’s certainly not a film that’ll change anyone’s life (unless by chance) but it is worth watching.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Past Misdeeds: Heroic Trio (1993)

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 presented with only the most basic re-writes and 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.

An invisible villain is stealing babies from their cribs and out of hospitals! The evildoer even mocks the police by announcing his or her victims beforehand. Not even the son of Hong Kong's chief of police is safe, as hard as the policeman responsible for the case, Inspector Lau (Damian Lau), is trying. Eventually, the local superheroine (Anita Mui) - depending on the version of your subtitles either called the copyright-endangered The Wonder Woman or the incredibly boring "Super Heroine" - takes an interest in the case, which may or may not have something to do with her being Lau's wife Tung when she's not fighting evil while wearing a mask. But alone, not even she is able to catch the invisible fiend.

Said fiend is a woman named Ching (Michelle Yeoh), using an experimental invisibility device that is still in development created by a scientist she's shacking up with. Ching is in the service of someone only known as Evil Master or Old Bastard (Yen Shi-Kwan). Evil Master is a person of dubious gender (so probably supposed to be a eunuch) with a most excellent plan: make one of the stolen babies - all of whom are astrologically destined to greatness - the emperor of China and turn the rest of them into his cannibal assassins. It's quite obvious that Ching is conflicted about the whole baby stealing business, but years of brainwashing are difficult to get rid of.

Once the police chief's baby has been stolen, another costumed heroine appears. Chat aka The Thief Catcher aka Seventh Chan is more of a bounty hunter than Wonder Woman is, preferably - though not exclusively - working for money. Chat is also an escapee of the Old Bastard's assassin program, and an old friend of Ching's, who once let her friend live when Evil Master told her to kill Chat.

As a heroine, Chat is of the rather reckless sort, prepared to pull stupid stunts like kidnapping a baby herself to provoke the invisible baby stealer into action. That's the sort of plan that in a Hong Kong movie has a good chance to end with a dead baby, which it does. However, this does at least bring Chat into contact with Tung and lets the bounty hunter realize who is stealing all the babies and why. Eventually - but not before it is revealed that Tung and Ching have a common past too - the three women will throw their lots in with one another and give the Old Bastard what he's got coming.

Before Johnnie To had his own production house, he was working as a director for hire like just about anyone else in Hong Kong's industry. Most of his films of this period don't show as much of the hand of their auteur as we are accustomed from him now, and are instead realized in the directorial style of the minute in Hong Kong, making them decidedly professional and strangely impersonal affairs.

Nonetheless, some of To's movies of that time period are pretty great movies, or are even, as is the case with Heroic Trio, minor classics of their kind. Heroic Trio might be an impersonal effort by the standards of its director, but it also features action directed by the great Ching Siu-Tung, and perfectly adapts nearly everything that is great about early 90s wire fu movies to the superhero genre that wasn't exactly filled with great movies at a point in time when Tim Burton's Batman movies seemed to be as good as superheroes could get on film.

The wire fu film's combination of the insane, the bizarrely violent, the poetry of bodies in motion, the slapstick-y and the melodramatic always had clear parallels to what's great about the superhero genre (one could even argue that wuxia heroes are old-timey superheroes with swords), so making a wire fu superhero movie seems like an obvious direction to take the genre in.

Of course, obvious directions don't always lead to watchable films. In Heroic Trio's case, though, they do. Even though you can criticize To's direction as being strictly inside the parameters of early 90s wire fu, with all the Dutch angles, wobbly zooms and dramatic slow motion shots that implies, one would have to be a soulless monster not to enjoy this style of filmmaking, especially when the action sequences between the scenes of melodramatic slo-mo crying are choreographed by someone like Ching who knows how to let non-martial artists like Anita Mui and Maggie Cheung look more or less convincing in a fight, or at least as convincing as is necessary in this sort of film. Michelle Yeoh for her part doesn't need anyone to let her look good in an action scene, of course.

It's also a true joy to watch a movie featuring three female superheroes where the heroines' competence is never questioned by anyone. "But you're a girl" is just not a sentence that belongs in a film coming from a wuxia tradition so rich in female heroes, so nobody ever utters it. On a slightly more superficial level, and one slightly less feminism-compatible one, seeing our competent heroines played by Mui, Yeoh and Cheung is the sort of experience that can distract a guy from a movie's flaws quite well, too.

Truth be told, I'm not even sure I should call Heroic Trio's problems flaws at all. Perhaps, interpreting them as simple markers of their place and time would be much fairer, especially given how much more enjoyable they make the movie at hand. How, after all, can I resist a script that turns a decidedly simple basic plot into a more or less labyrinthine construction of flashbacks, side plots and contrived connections between characters? And how could I not approve of a superhero movie actually willing to kill a baby, even if it's only to give Mui the opportunity to cry some very decorative tears? And how could I not enjoy Heroic Trio's sudden, generous, bursts of ridiculous, awesome nonsense like Anthony Wong (playing the original cannibal assassin) munching on his own cut off finger, or the great moment in the film's finale when the Big Bad has been reduced to a skeleton and decides to ride Yeoh's body like a bony puppeteer? How not to love a film morally dubious enough to throw in a scene of one of its heroines mercy-killing a bunch of cannibal toddlers for no good reason at all?

If Heroic Trio is one thing, it truly is the embodiment of the whole of Hong Kong wire fu filmmaking in 1993.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

In short: Blast of Silence (1961)

Frankie Bono (director Allen Baron) has made his way from an orphanage somewhere in New York into the profession of a contract killer for organized crime working from Cleveland. He’s very good at his job, for he is very good at being alone – or so the hard-boiled second person off-screen narration spoken by Lionel Stander tells him and us, repeatedly. As a matter of fact, Frankie is lonely. Yet the killer is also half out of step with the world around him when it comes to things not concerning being a hitman; at times, he seems barely able to communicate. So his well-oiled killing plans begin to stumble when a job finds him returning to New York at Christmas time and chance or fate push him into having to interact with people. Accidentally, Frankie comes back into contact with Lori (Molly McCarthy), whom he knows and loves from their shared orphanage days, while his local arms dealer Big Ralph (Larry Tucker) gets nosy.

Allen Baron’s independently produced, minimalist crime movie is a little wonder. It was clearly shot on a low budget, Baron solving the typical problems of not having any money or clout for shooting permits by working guerrilla style and with the help of whoever was available or just happened to be in the background of a shot. This is often an approach that saves a movie at least as a time capsule, but Blast of Silence actually suggests a director who was either incredibly lucky with the background scenes he found to shoot, or just very good at finding them. While Frankie’s crime story and his awkward attempts at being a human being go on in the foreground, the film’s backgrounds suggest a wider world, not just one of people going about their lives quite ignorant of the story the movie’s audience is watching, but also one full of slight quirks of the sort that never quite become surreal but breathe the strangeness of life. It’s certainly an effect that parallels elements of the French nouvelle vague, though Baron lacks the tendency to intellectualize his film’s surface, which is pretty much what the nouvelle vague guys would have hoped for from an American. To sound rather French myself, there’s a sense of poetry (of he sort the titular character in Paterson would understand quite well) to the film that seems wholly unconscious, and if it isn’t, Blast of Silence is rather excellent at pretending it is.

Baron does have an eye for the telling detail even when he’s completely staging a scene, however, providing characters with personality and minor quirks that save the minimalist tale from becoming too reduced. Big Ralph’s rats may not outright tell us much about him, but they do suggest things about his character. And apart from the narration, this is a film that lives and breathes suggestions, things Frankie can’t quite put into words – and perhaps even not into thoughts – and which the narrator is ignoring because he is too focused on being hard-boiled and existentialist.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Graveyard Shift (1990)

John Hall (David Andrews) – a drifter running away from a tragic past in the traditional American style – comes to an equally traditional American small town looking for work. In what will turn out not to be too lucky a circumstance, he hires on in the local textile mill run by one Mr Warwick (Stephen Macht, going for a truly bizarre line delivery/voice).

The place is a rat infested crap-hole and Warwick’s a tyrannical sleazebag who’d get me-too’d right quick just now, but a job’s a job, right? Unfortunately, there’s even worse going on than just the worst boss ever and a rat problem the Vietnam vet (of course) exterminator (Brad Dourif) can’t bring under control. When John and some colleagues are sent to clean up the mill’s basement on the Fourth of July weekend, they’ll soon encounter the thing that has been eating various characters while nobody but the audience was looking for the last forty minutes or so.

Ralph S. Singleton’s Graveyard Shift, based on a short story by Stephen King, is generally treated as one of the lesser King adaptations. It’s not difficult to see why: Singleton’s not really the sort of director capable of smoothing out too many budgetary rough edges; indeed, his style is pretty freaking bland. The script, while containing some good ideas, doesn’t really seem to know how to effectively use them, nor how to bring the short story to feature length beyond following the old horror writer adage of “add more murders”, which doesn’t exactly help the pacing along either. The special effects are all over the place: some do look cool and/or effective, and the main monster’s nature does at least win points via its sheer grotesqueness, but a lot of what’s on screen does neither work terribly well nor look interesting enough to make one ignore its somewhat shaky quality.

However, there are some interesting and worthwhile elements on screen. First and foremost, this – like Tobe Hooper’s equally loathed but actually much superior King short story adaptation The Mangler – is another King adaptation that does go the – still not terribly common in horror – road of using working class characters, instead of white collar people, as its central protagonists, automatically winning at least a degree of thematic resonance by entwining its unnatural threat with the more quotidian one of economical exploitation. Of course, the film does tend to fall back on so much standard clichéd shortcuts about how working class people behave, and can’t help itself but give its hero a college degree, so it’s difficult to make out if anyone involved is talking about the plight of the working class on purpose, or only because they were too lazy to change King’s set-up. But hey, it’s still more than The Conjuring has to say.

Depending on your taste, another aspect of the film will either be a great turn-on or turn you off of this completely: it’s the performances by Macht and Dourif. Now, we all know that beloved horror icon Brad Dourif does tend to chew as much scenery as a director will allow him, having learned early on that these are the sort of calories that don’t make a guy fat (unless he’s Orson Welles). Singleton must have told him to go all out or something of that manner, for even Dourif seldom delivers scenery chewing quite as intense as he does here. His Vietnam rat story (and his tobacco chewing) alone is either – if you’re like me - worth the price of admission, or going to drive you batty. Add to that Macht, who here always seems to chomp a cigar even when he has nothing at all in his mouth, and goes for the sort of line delivery that’d make Christopher Walken go “whoa”, and you’re either in heaven, or running away screaming. I suspect you’re not going to scream as entertainingly as Macht does, once he gets really mad, though.

Graveyard Shift also features some scattered moments of actual effective horror (obviously following the nugget theory of horror proposed by King in “Danse Macabre”). There’s one late character death that does indeed come as a bit of a surprise and a shock, for one, but even better is the “Rats in the Wall”-style underground bone hill parts of the finale take place on.

That’s probably not enough to put this into the highlights of anyone’s horror watching year, but I find myself thinking rather fondly of Singleton’s only feature film despite its major flaws.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

In short: The Mechanic (1972)

Arthur Bishop (Charles Bronson) is working as a hitman for a large, secretive criminal organization. He is specialized in murders prepared and executed in complicated ways that make them look like accidents. Bishop clearly prides himself on being rather good at his job, yet his late middle age has brought him some existential discontent. It’s not just that he gets bad news from his physician, nor that his latest job was killing an old friend, Big Harry (Keenan Wynn), after he asked him for help, it’s something deeper, though we can be pretty sure it’s not a “conscience” or anything silly like that.

When Bishop meets Harry’s son Steve (Jan-Michael Vincent), it is very much love at first sight between the two, as if they had recognized each other as one of a kind at once. Steve, it turns out, is a sociopath and an asshole, and as such ideal for the profession of professional killer. Arthur decides to teach him his trade.

If you have any thoughts about Simon West’s remake of this one, just banish them at once. West’s movie leaves out everything that’s interesting about this Michael Winner film, leaving an empty husk of an action film where something much more thoughtful belongs. Yes, I’m surprised myself to use the term “thoughtful” to describe a Michael Winner film – or to actually like one so much I’m tempted to call it brilliant - but in The Mechanic, the old sleazebag managed to fuse his lurid tendencies and the required men’s adventure style violence with well-formed observations concerning the nature and character of his protagonist and his apprentice. Why, the longer the film goes on, the more it turns out to be deeply interested in questions of ethics, in the rules men of violence observe or not, and in exploring the conceptual borders between order and chaos. There’s also quite a bit about generational differences to be found here.

All that while his film also delivers on the fronts one typically would expect of a Winner/Bronson joint: there’s quite a bit of action, of course, though it is much less sloppily directed than typical of Winner. There are also some moments that made this viewer deeply uncomfortable – particularly the suicide sequence comes to mind – but for once, these moments are in a Winner movie for a thematic reason, making points about these men and their world where no woman even has an actual character name (the homosexual subtext hardly bothering with the sub at all). It’s not at all what I’ve come to expect of Winner.

Bronson and Vincent are perfect for their roles. Bronson uses his calm presence acting in the best way possible, applying nuances of posture and scowling in ways that often suggest much about the things his character would never be able to say to anyone. Vincent’s cocky smugness is terrifically on point here, suggesting that where Bishop has hidden depths and a hole he doesn’t know how to fill, Steve just has a hole that doesn’t need filling.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Bright (2017)

Los Angeles, in an Urban Fantasy world humanity shares with orc, elves and other typical fantasy creatures, and where some Dark Lord or other did Dark Lord-y things two thousand years ago, with only the orcs taking his side (a decision that has hounded their descendants ever since). Somehow, the place is still the same LA we know from a thousand movies and TV shows – with some very minor changes - but that’s Urban Fantasy, the least imaginative sub-genre concerned with the fantastic for you. Street cop Daryl Ward (Will Smith) is just returning from sick leave following getting shot, and he’s not a happy man. Being partnered up with the first orc managing to become a police officer, Nick Jakoby (the great Joel Edgerton) hadn’t been exactly to Ward’s taste already, but Nick’s inability to apprehend the orc who shot Ward really makes the always pretty grumpy human extra-grumpy.

To be fair to the man, Ward is probably the least orc-racist cop in town. Jakoby for his part doesn’t just have to cope with daily racism by humans but also with the fact that his nature as an “unblooded” orc (even filing down his excellent orc teeth “to fit in”) and a cop makes him anathema to orc society too. But, since this is a buddy cop movie, there will soon come quite a bit of outward pressure to turn the squabbling cops into a proper couple: they stumble onto the trail of a lost magic wand (in this world about as dangerous as an H-bomb), the elf who stole it (Lucy Fry), and the evil sorceress who actually owns it (Noomi Rapace, giving one of her by now patented fun villain performances), among other things. Lots of violence ensues, one-liners are uttered.

I’ve seen Bright described as one of the worst films of 2017 by more than one critic, which rather suggests these guys and gals haven’t seen all that many films during the year, or aren’t able to appreciate David Ayer’s Netflix big budget film for what it is: a pretty traditional buddy cop action movie (with a bit of comedy mixed in, of course) that just happens to include fantasy elements to mix things up a little. As such, it’s not terribly intelligent a movie, and its explorations of racism and police violence are paper thin, but that’s really not what this sort of film is about. Rather, it belongs to a genre all about men who can only express their tender feelings towards one another via squabbling, one-liners, and physical violence, and the quality of whose films is consequently measured by the fun-ness of the squabbling, the hilarity (intentional or un) of the one-liners, and the quality of the action sequences.

And I have to say, the squabbling is pretty fun – in part thanks to the delivery of old squabbling pro Will Smith and the always delightful Joel Edgerton –, the one-liners are cheesy, and the action set pieces are loud, varied, and sometimes downright exciting (turns out evil elves/elfs are pretty much supervillains while our poor heroes are only normally human/orcish, and not even the Batman kind of normal). That Ayer knows how to direct an action sequence was what made the last third of his generally misguided Suicide Squad watchable; here, the action is embedded in a script that may lack in depth but which certainly is much more focused than that of the DC movie (at least it knows what the film at hand is actually supposed to be about), providing Ayers with a much better environment to work to his strengths in this regard, something he does well and repeatedly.

There’s really not much more to Bright, but for my tastes, it ends up a thoroughly entertaining bit of popcorn cinema.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Three Films Make A Post: The Super-Beast Battle of the Century

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958): If there’s any better way to delight one’s inner child than this classic Ray Harryhausen effects spectacular directed by dependable Nathan Juran, I don’t know it. There’s little not to enjoy about this lovely piece of Hollywood Arabian Nights fluff. Harryhausen’s effects are a joy (and would only get better in the future), while also showing the typical variety of his work; from here on out Harryhausen would seldom use one stop motion monster in more than two sequences when he could create another one, and my imagination thanks him for it. Apart from the effects (which are the star, obviously), this is an excellently paced, cracking 50s fantasy adventure with some choice scenery chewing by Torin Thatcher’s most excellent villain with a decent enough hero in Kerwin Mathews, and photography only a fool wouldn’t want to call colourful. Why, even Kathryn Grant’s Princess Parisa does things in the film, not something you’ll encounter often in this time and genre.

Against All Odds (1984): In theory, Taylor Hackford’s neo noir is a remake of Jacques Tourneur’s brilliant Out of the Past, but you wouldn’t really know watching it. Which is all for the better (the older film does still exist after all), for Hackford certainly is not Tourneur. While there’s nothing wrong with his direction – he’s actually perfectly decent in suspense sequences - he does have a tendency for fluffing things up into TV advertising style prettiness that never does anything as interesting as actually contrasting with the supposedly dark script. But then, the script does tend to make little sense - particular Rachel Ward’s Jessie (who never gets around to being an actual femme fatale) seems to act exclusively in service of going where the film wants her to be instead of where she has any kind of (even messed up) reason to be. There’s a superficial quality to the whole production that suggests a film going through certain surface motions of the noir but completely uninterested in the genre’s philosophy. Jeff Bridges and James Woods are fine, as far as the lack of substance lets them, but then, when aren’t they?

Band Aid (2017): Zoe Lister-Jones’s comedy about a permanently squabbling and arguing couple (Lister-Jones herself and Adam Pally) that decide to turn their fights into songs is a very nice surprise. While there are a handful of moments that seem to come directly out of the quirky indie comedy handbook, much of the film delights by being genuinely sweet, thoughtful and funny, only to in the final act turn to a more serious tone. That switch works out as well as it does because Lister-Jones first took her time to create characters and a world a viewer can care for and believe in, and only after that really aims for more obvious depths without ever betraying what was so enjoyable about the film before. Thanks to this careful approach, the film also manages to go from the specificity of the characters’ lives to the more abstract things the writer/director has to say about being a woman in contemporary US society, the life of couples and the emotional strain following a miscarriage. Which is pretty fantastic for a quirky indie comedy.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Past Misdeeds: The Colossus of New York (1958)

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 presented with only the most basic re-writes and 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 altruistic scientific genius Jeremy Spensser (Ross Martin) is run over by a truck - which is the sort of thing that can happen when you're running onto a street chasing your son's toy plane - his father, genius brain surgeon William (Otto Kruger) takes the personal loss and the loss to humanity extremely badly. Once I had spent some on-screen time with his surviving son, the semi-genius electronics scientist Henry (John Baragrey), I could understand the old man's feelings quite well, for his father's very pronounced preference for Jeremy has turned Henry into a giant prick, and certainly not the son one wants to spend the rest of one’s life with.

So disturbed by Jeremy's loss is William that he uses his own scientific talents to steal and save his son's brain. It's all for the best of humanity, you see, and certainly hasn't anything at all to do with William's inability to face the death of his child. After some SCIENCE(!) using water tanks, electrodes and other very scientific implements, the brain is as good as new. Now it's time to build a new body for Jeremy's brain, and who better to help out there than Henry? Henry has spent the preceding months trying to take his brother's place with Jeremy's wife Anne (Mala Powers) and son Billy (Charles Herbert), but has been met with a polite indifference he has been unable to parse or wear down; Anne is drawn to the (comparatively) least prickish man in the film, Jeremy's former partner in science John Carrington (Robert Hutton), but that's not something Henry realizes. Do I even need to mention the Spenssers don't find it necessary to tell Anne they're playing with her dead husband's brain?

So William and Henry build a huge, lumbering robot body with a face like an expressionist sculpture for Jeremy, because we couldn't have the man look into a mirror and not have a breakdown, right?

Given how his brand new body looks, and that his dear family tells him his wife and son are dead, the newly mechanized Jeremy takes quite well to the whole situation. Sure, he has a complete breakdown and asks his father to destroy him until the old arse convinces him otherwise, but afterwards he starts on his new experiments that are supposed to make the poles usable for food growth, or something of that sort. Science(!), I dare say. All this does obviously take place in William's lab right in the cellar of the house Anne and Billy live in, too, but hey, when Anne hears something like the horrible screams of her husband when he first sees what he's been turned into, the charming Spenssers can just tell her she's hallucinating because of the strain she has been under, right?

But then, in a development nobody could have seen coming, Robo-Jerry develops fantastic ESP powers, like random precognition, hypnosis and later on the ability to shoot death rays out of his eyes, as you do. I'm sure he won't put the mind whammy on his father to be able to visit his own grave on the first anniversary of his death where he surely won't repeat a scene from a Frankenstein movie with his son.

And surely, the knowledge that his father and brother not only haven't bothered to build him a decent robot body but have also lied to him about his wife and kid won't turn our Jerry a wee bit mad! Man, this transplanting brains into robot bodies business really is pretty difficult.

As you know, Jim, art director and production designer Eugene Lourie did occasionally - and quite successfully - dabble in the direction of 50s giant monster movies. The "monster" in The Colossus of New York is, despite what the film's title and marketing tagline ("Towering above the skyline - an indestructible creature whose eyes rain death and destruction!") might suggest, not one of the giant kind trampling New York into tiny pieces, but rather a brother to the misunderstood creature Frankenstein created. Interestingly, Jeremy, with his ability to speak and think coherently and his planned acts of destruction late in the film is closer to the creature of Mary Shelley's original novel than the more childlike creature of the Universal movies, something that I have difficulty to see as an accident in a script as clearly literary as that Thelma Schnee delivered for the movie.

Schnee's script is a very interesting effort, managing to surround the silly parts and the plot holes you'd expect (and demand) of a film like The Colossus with more complex characters than you'd generally find in a 50s SF/horror film and some pretty poignant scenes concerning the most dysfunctional family I've seen in a genre movie from the 50s. Quite contrary to the traditions of the time, where acting the dick usually makes you the hero of the piece, The Colossus actually seems to realize how dysfunctional and horrific its characters actually are, and makes their flaws the true reason for the minor catastrophe the film's plot culminates in. Sure, there's a short discussion (acted with great gusto by Kruger, who seems to have quite a bit of fun with his mad scientist role throughout the film) about the soul early on in the film, and some of the mandatory "tampering in god's domain" speechifying at its end, but it's also clear that the film's heart isn't in these explanations. Everything bad that happens here comes from the characters' inability to treat each other like actual, complete human beings, and some choice paternalism.

Of course, a complex, yet heavily flawed (and a bit too short), script like this could be easily ruined by the wrong direction style. I'm pretty happy to report that the script at hand wasn't adapted by a poverty row point and shoot director like - say - William Beaudine, but the clearly more artful Lourie, who had no problem recognizing a Freudianized version of Frankenstein when he saw it and used the opportunity to turn his film into as much of a visual homage to early Universal horror movies as a film set in the New York of the 50s (not that we get to see much of it - most of the film takes place in three rooms and a graveyard) can be. For my tastes, Lourie is very successful at it too - at least so successful that most of his film's theoretical silliness turned out to not feel silly at all while I was watching, because the film's finely developed atmosphere turned most of what it surrounded into something serious and riveting.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Some Random Thoughts About The Grudge (2004)

While it’s certainly not an artistic success, Takashi Shimzu’s repeat-remake of his own movie – already filmed twice by him for the Japanese market - this time around for an US audience apparently thought to be incapable of withstanding looking at a film featuring only Asian faces, is at least an interesting film. Mostly interesting in how it makes one realize how comparatively small changes to a scene can turn it from something creepy into something rote and banal. That happens here again and again with horror sequences Shimizu used to creepiest effect in his Japanese movies. In this remake scenes shot in minimally different ways still lose most of their power.

It is also rather interesting to realize that a higher budget really doesn’t mean a film actually gets better bang for its buck. Just compare the sound design for the ghosts in the originals with the one here, the poor dead things losing half their creep factor despite certainly having cost much more. The increased slickness doesn’t do the film much good either, with houses and offices and so on that look too antiseptic turning what should be lived in, personal spaces for the supernatural to intrude in back into film sets, which obviously decreases the emotional weight for the audience.

Even things changed that are on paper “better” work out for the worse in this one: the narrative’s structure is much clearer but that also means it loses some of the dislocating – and therefore disturbing – effect of the Japanese originals, the film again getting slicker but much less capable of disturbing by it.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

In short: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

If you’re looking for a counter-argument to the idea that the big commercial movie universes suppress all individual directorial expression, the Guardians movies are your most obvious starting point, seeing as their tone and style fit exactly into the oeuvre of James Gunn. Witness the way crude and blunt humour sometimes hide the rather more clever jokes the film makes; or just watch how cynical little asides so often glide into moments of actual human emotion that are just as important for the film as the big set pieces and explosions are. And these are pretty damn important to the film, it’s just that Gunn clearly sees no qualitative difference between the loud and the quiet, the goofy and the clever. Blockbuster cinema here means a film that sets out to fulfil all kinds of different expectations, not to be all things to all people, but because being a bit messy and complicated and rich is what this sort of filmmaking should be about.

One might argue that the film’s thematic concerns about families of choice, of blood and of chance are not the most original ones but I suspect very much most members of the film’s audience will have found themselves involved in one or more of these kinds of families, and can certainly connect to some of what’s going on under the loud, beautiful and bonkers surface; which is more than I can say about these “universal”, important films beloved by mid-brow criticism that are inevitably about the sex life of rich people or academics. Plus, Gunn really doubles down when he uses well-worn tropes – one just has to look at the shape, form and dimension the standard “killing of the father” takes on in this film. It’s big in the best way.

But what really does make this such a wonderful film is how much care Gunn takes with the small things. It’s not just the nearly absurd number of throwaway gags going on in the background (and certainly not stopping with the end credits), it’s how tiny dialogue moments from the first Guardians are given greater meaning (and ambiguity) through just as tiny throw-away lines here, how there’s always a little more going on in every scene than the most direct reading of it suggests.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Hitman’s Bodyguard (2017)

Belarus – please don’t ask me why they didn’t use a made up country here - dictator Vladislav Dukhovich (Gary “The Russian” Oldman) is standing trial for various counts of mass murder and all that other stuff dictators tend to get up to. Alas, it looks as if he’ll go free to return to his reign of terror, for the eyewitness accounts of his victims are dismissed as “hearsay” (that’s action movie law for you), while other witnesses “mysteriously” disappear or are outright killed by gangs of heavily armed men who totally aren’t working for Dukhovich. Ironically, the only chance of seeing justice done could be the statement of imprisoned professional killer Darius Kincaid (Samuel L. Jackson, motherfuckers), who is obviously much more believable a witness (he wrote, not at all sarcastically).

Kincaid is willing to play ball in exchange for the freedom of his also imprisoned wife Sonia (Salma Hayek in a pretty funny cameo role). Unfortunately, there’s a mole (you’ll never guess who, cough) in Interpol, so the transport supposed to cart Kincaid from England where he is jailed to The Hague is ambushed. Only Interpol agent Amelia Roussel (Elektra, ahem, Elodie Yung) and Kincaid manage to escape and hole up in a safe house. Roussel is no dummy and knows someone inside of her organization has sold them out, so she sees only one choice to get Kincaid where he’s supposed to go: rope in her ex-boyfriend Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds and all three of his facial expressions). Until an unfortunate incident for whom he makes her responsible for no good reason, Michael was one of the best professional bodyguards in the world, and he’s certainly not corrupt, so he’s Roussel’s best bet of protecting Kincaid.

Surely, the bodyguard and the hitman who attempted to kill twenty or so of his clients will hit it off sooner or later, or after a lot of bickering and sniggering at each other.

The reluctant buddy action comedy is alive and well, apparently. At least, Patrick Hughes’s film is a perfectly fun time if you’re willing to go with a film who puts no thought or work at all into improving on any of the weaknesses of the formula. So its villain is a bizarre, mildly racist caricature (though one played with vigour and enthusiasm by Oldman, who is not one of the type of actors phoning his stuff in just because the film he’s in is rather silly), the plot only makes the vaguest bit of logical sense, the villain’s plan is even worse, and women aren’t even allowed to beat their old, slightly overweight boss  without male help (which also gives one a bit of mental whiplash if one has seen Yung’s performance as Elektra in Netflix’s Daredevil).

Of course, the first three flaws are also parts of the charm of the genre, so I’m not exactly complaining too loudly here, specifically not in a film that features such a funny central performance by Jackson. Why, it’s a performance popping off the screen so well, I hardly even noticed Reynolds and his tendency to just rotate through his book, well pamphlet, well one-sheet, well, tiny little slip, of facial expressions.

I am sounding rather more cynical towards the film than I actually feel about it: this is a slick, wickedly funny, well paced despite its considerable length (for the kind of thing it is), piece of filmmaking featuring increasingly great – and wilfully absurd – action sequences, as well as Samuel L. Jackson in what feels like an excellent mood, calling people motherfuckers left and right. Why, the film even has a heart.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Under Siege (1992)

The US Missouri – a battleship carrying nuclear armaments – is on its final trip before being decommissioned. A bunch of evildoers under the leadership of one William Strannix (Tommy Lee Jones dressed like Bruce Springsteen circa 1985) has decided this is the best moment to hijack the ship, steal the missiles and sell them to the highest bidder. Because they have the ship’s XO Commander Krill (Gary Busey) – yes, that’s really his name – on their side, the pirates manage to get on board posing as entertainers for the Captain’s surprise birthday party and are so able to ambush the ship’s crew completely unawares and lock them up quite well.

All of the crew, that is, but chief cook Casey Ryback (Steven Seagal). As it happens, Ryback is not just an apparently great cook and a smug bastard but also a badass marine, so before anyone can say “Die Hard on a battleship”, he’s already teaming up with the playmate (Erika Eleniak) the bad guys brought with them for no good reason whatsoever, and starts to solve the little situation.

Ah, the times when some people in Hollywood thought they could turn Steven Seagal into a big budget action movie carrying star instead of the guy not even cutting it in direct to home video films he turned out to be. The positive side of this foolhardy endeavour for Under Siege is that Seagal is teamed with a whole bunch of people who are actually good at their jobs. While repeat-Seagal director Andrew Davis surely will never be confused with a great artist, he was at the time a more than decent director for this sort of bread and potatoes studio action movie, able to stage convincing and fun action sequences, keeping the explosions in focus, and certainly knowledgeable of enough of the tricks of his trade to make a highly entertaining bit of action cinema that looks and feels slick and flows well.

Add to that Tommy Lee Jones and Gary Busey apparently trying to outdo each other with their expressions of cheesy action movie villainy, as well as the horrors the costume department comes up for them - Busey outdoing Jones’s Boss-style with a bit of cross-dressing that isn’t embarrassing and uncomfortable to watch at all, oh no - and the fun factor heightens considerably.

Topping off the good parts of the film is an absolutely shameless script whose silliness only begins with having the villains act as undercover entertainers like the good guys in a 70s Bollywood masala infiltrating a villain’s lair. There is also many an absurd dialogue scene to witness (Wallace’s bizarre phone conversations with the prospective buyers of the missiles need to be heard to be believed), more ridiculous plotting than one could reasonably expect from a single movie, and bonus scenes supposedly taking place in the Pentagon so hokey, the 50s are embarrassed.

The film’s only problem is Seagal. He is, as we all know, a terrible actor with a tendency to exclusively project unfounded smugness, his martial arts skills look worse than anything the actors in the film who don’t pretend they have a martial arts background present, and his line delivery is so wooden as to make Chuck Norris look like an actor. He’s even out-thesped by Eleniak, and the poor woman’s really only in the movie to show off her implants. Seagal just doesn’t work as an actor, an action hero or even just a plain heroic figure, but thanks to the efforts of everyone else involved, he’s not as painful to watch as in most of his other films. Which, given that he’s the nominal lead of the piece, is quite an achievement by Davis and co.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Three Films Make A Post: She's a fabulous, loving, caring mother, who er... ...happens to be a serial killer!

Paper Moon (1973): If you ask me, I’d argue that at the point in time when this was shot, Ryan O’Neal was usually a frightfully wooden actor with a peculiar voidal quality to him. Turns out that Peter Bogdanovich’s choice to cast him alongside his first-time acting little daughter Tatum O’Neal worked absolute wonders on that front, the rapport between the two bringing out Ryan’s personality and easing Tatum into as natural a performance as you could ask of any child actress. Their performances stand at the core of a movie that sometimes seems nostalgic for Depression era America, but never forgets the abject poverty and the other horrors of that time while still somehow managing to still be a comedy. The film carries a deep belief in the ability of people to get through the hardest times with a love it treats without any sentimentality; there’s great sadness at the core of the film, but that sadness is always smaller than the warmth of Alvin Sargent’s script and and that between the O’Neals.

The Spectacular Now (2013): I think I’ve expressed my discomfort with mainstream film critics’ and their love for coming of age films about teenage boys at the cusp of adulthood who learn some lesson or other via an encounter with The Mystery of Femininity™ – or as we here call it “desperately underwritten female characters”. James Ponsoldt’s film belonging to that genre featuring Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley does seem to deserve most of the accolades it gets, though, seeing as it never pretends its female main character Aimee is somehow completely unknowable because she’s a girl, or only interesting to the audience because she teaches the male main character Sutter something. The film does centre around Sutter, mind you, but it never forgets that he’s not the centre of the actual world. Otherwise, the film quite precisely explores the influence parents have on their children, the way love and sex and confusion intersect. It always feels honest about its own convictions and more interested in also being honest about its characters than in making a point about them. It’s also beautifully shot, and well acted, so there’s nothing here even for me to complain about.

Bottom of the World (2017): This is another one of these somewhat Twilight Zone-like small films of a type we get four or five a year of at the moment. There’s your typical for the sub-genre tendency to present mild mind-fuck ideas, a use of Americana that reminds a little of a less interesting David Lynch, and a plot resolution that seems a bit too moralizing to be fully satisfying. Douglas Smith and Jena Malone are certainly convincing enough in the main roles, and from time to time, director Richard Sears (apparently the guy who’ll direct the next Transformers film, because that’s how blockbuster cinema rolls at the moment) hits on an interesting, ambiguous element and doesn’t resolve it too clearly. Just as often, the meaning of metaphors is much too on the nose and things are just too clean and simple to make for a truly satisfying film of this sort. Well, at least I’d argue that this sort of film thrives on the elements that aren’t completely resolved and explained. It’s not a bad film, though, it’s just not a terribly satisfying one either.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Past Misdeeds: Der Frosch mit der Maske (1959)

aka Face of the Frog

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 presented with only the most basic re-writes and 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.

For over a year now, a (rather large) gang under the leadership of the mysterious masked villain only known as the Frog (played by himself, if we can believe the credits), has been terrorizing Britain with a series of robberies and break-ins, blackmail, as well as a bit of murder to make things more interesting, always leaving behind the mark of a frog at the places of their crimes. Why it's so difficult to catch the members of a gang in the habit of branding its own with the sign of the Frog in a pretty visible place I don't know.

On the case is Scotland Yard's Inspector Elk (Siegfried Lowitz, who'd later go on to play another smug and rude cop in the long-running - and pretty damn boring - TV police procedural Der Alte, in popularity only second to Derrick), a man of a smugness and rudeness as great as his success at catching the Frog is small. But even the incompetent must get lucky some time, and Elk's time comes when the Frog takes a carnal interest in a certain Ella Bennet (Eva Anthes). The villain's idea of romance is a bit peculiar: suddenly appearing masked in a lady's room at night and declaring that you'll come again to take her with you another night, whether she wants to come or not is - I think - not what Miss Lonelyhearts recommends. I'm not sure what Miss Lonelyhearts says to blackmailing the lady of your heart by pulling her improbably naive brother (Walter Wilz) into a contrived murder affair, but that's The Frog's Way of Romance™, too. Whatever happened to roses and long walks in the park?

The Frog's rather dubious handling of his romantic situation is good news for Elk, though, for it provides the inspector with ample opportunity to gather clues regarding the plans and identity of his enemy.

Fortunately for everyone involved, Elk's not the only one the case. Cocky millionaire amateur detective (and nephew of Elk's boss) Richard Gordon (Joachim "Blackie" Fuchsberger, some time before his career as a popular TV host, or as we Germans say, "Showmaster") and his competent comic relief butler James (Eddi Arent) are inserting themselves into the investigation. Gordon's pretty damn enthusiastic about his hobby, too, at least once he's met Ella; he's also a bit more competent at the whole romance thing than the Frog.

Now, our heroes will only have to find a traitor inside of Scotland Yard (don't trust the thin 'staches and eyebrows), investigate a dubious night club, survive captivity and wait until so many of the film's human red herrings have been killed off that there's only one guy left who can be the Frog.

Watching the very first of Rialto's Edgar Wallace adaptations (this early in the proceedings still keeping comparatively close to Wallace's novel, I am told), it's becomes clear at once why the cinematic Wallace krimis took Germany by storm. Compared to just about anything else the country's cinema put out at the time, Der Frosch is pure pop cinema: a bit lurid (as lurid as you could possibly be in Germany in 1959, really, which isn't that lurid, but certainly also not coy), a bit silly, delightfully pulpy, taking itself not too seriously, yet not walking into the trap certain later Wallace movies would enter where a film takes itself seriously so little it can be read as self-hatred or as an attempt at self-destruction. It's not the sort of film you'd expect coming from German cinema at all, especially not in 1959 when pop cinema as an idea didn't really exist over here and pop culture itself had entered the slow, sad years between 1959 and 1961 when it looked as if pop itself had only been a fad.

Mainly responsible for the film's energetic (and energizing) effect is Harald Reinl's direction. Though they roughly belonged to the same generation of filmmakers who started out in the biz in the 1930s and were therefore pretty damn old for being "pop", Reinl's style is quite different from that of his Wallace adaptation colleague Alfred Vohrer - until now the only krimi director I've talked about here or over at my home base. Where Vohrer likes his acting melodramatic and his direction zooming in the direction of the surreal, Reinl seems to be going for an updated serial effect, using the much better technical and financial state of his production when compared with a serial to achieve a feeling of dynamism and intensity atypical of the usual ponderous German movie. Reinl uses a lot of separate shots for every scene (pretty much the antithesis of all German filmmaking), loves snappy (ditto) and tight editing and is no friend of scenes going on for too long. The editing is especially effective when it comes to the action scenes. As you probably know, neither the 50s nor Germany are usually praised for their action choreography, but (if you can ignore the minor fact that fists don't actually seem to connect with faces in Wallace land) Reinl and his editor Margot Jahn manage to actually make the action sequences exciting through the cinematic wonders of clever framing and speedy cuts.

Reinl's no slouch in the atmosphere department either. There are some fine examples of moody (studio) night shots to be found whenever appropriate, with some stylish uses of high contrast light and shadow play you can describe as noir-ish without having to stretch things too far.

Ironically, all that visual beauty comes from a director whose filmography shows him as a pure work for hire guy who spent his time directing whatever was thrown at him - Wallace krimis, Heimatfilme, unfunny comedies, Karl May adaptations, some Erich von Däniken "documentaries" or even (later in his career) a would-be Roger Corman Poe adaptation. Directors like Reinl never get a fair shot at being taken seriously outside of our cult movie specialist world, as if the qualities of a director were defined by the commercial situation he works in, and not by what we see on screen. This isn't to say that parts of the director's output aren't pure and simple crap - because man, they sure are – but then we should probably not decide the worth of a life's work by looking at someone's worst films.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

In short: Sleepwalker (2017)

Sarah (Ahna O’Reilly) is returning to college to be a student after some time away and a personal tragedy. Alas, she suffers from nightmares and increasingly severe bouts of the sort of sleepwalking that finds her out on the streets in her absurdly skimpy nightgown. When she goes to her university’s sleep lab and hottie (don’t ask me, guys all look the same to me, but the script says so) sleep scientist Scott White (Richard Armitage) for help, things become even worse. Details of the world around her as well as her past seem to change, only to change back again some time later. These aren’t just small details but things like her last name, or the way her husband died, or who her roommate is.

Haley Joel Osment pops up from time to time to make crazy-eyes at her too, and so on and so forth. It doesn’t take long until Sarah’s close to losing it completely, if her problems aren’t a sign of mental illness anyway. Well, at least Scott is helpful, what with him having pretty inappropriate feelings towards his patient.

The twist ending to Elliott Lester’s horror/mindfuck thriller didn’t exactly come as a complete surprise to me, but at least this is one of the films with a twist where the twist actually belongs to what we’ve seen before. The second one I’ve watched this week, even. Why, there might be hope for Hollywood still. While I still don’t think it’s a completely satisfying twist – I’d have preferred a bit of ambiguity – the film’s playing fair with its audience throughout.

Sleepwalker’s main selling point are the indeed properly dream-like dream sequences, though, and the sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle way Lester (and/or Jack Olsen’s script) shifts not the broad strokes of reality around his heroine but its important details, usually homing in on bits that are truly disquieting, little things like her changing handwriting. For most of its running time, it is an atmosphere of doubt the film thrives on, with Sarah losing her faith not just in her sanity and her memory but in what constitutes her identity.

Sleepwalker does have a bit of a melodramatic streak, particularly in Sarah’s relationship with Scott or a pretty abysmal scene where she suffers the horrors of involuntary commitment into a mental institution in a very loud and fake way (please insert your own digression into the portrayal of mental health professionals in genre movies here, imaginary reader). Now, there’s plot reasons why these elements of the film are how they are, yet an explanation isn’t necessarily an excuse.

However – at least if you like the themes of internal confusions about identity and reality in your movies – Sleepwalker’s strong parts easily make up for its weak bits, leaving a really nice surprise of a movie.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Pigs (1973)

aka Daddy’s Deadly Darling

A young, tense woman we will later learn is called Lynn (Toni Lawrence, fittingly enough the actual daughter of director, writer and male lead Marc Lawrence) ends up at the middle of nowhere, rural California, diner of former circus magician Zambrini (Marc Lawrence). As luck will have it, the place is in need of a new waitress, after the old one just up and left one day. The job offer is a bit strange, though, for it doesn’t look at all as if the place actually needs anyone apart from its owner. There is nary a guest in sight, what with the diner placed far from roads anyone actually uses, and Zambrini not being too well loved by anyone living in the area. His elderly closest neighbours for example believe that something is very wrong with Zambrini’s pigs (not to speak of the man himself). According to them, the animals regularly pop up outside of their house making an unpleasant racket. Supposedly, they are man eaters, but a special kind where the pig-eaten corpse somehow becomes a new pig. And let’s not even start on the weird dreams the ladies have about Zambrini.

Ironically enough, Zambrini does indeed feed corpses – some of which he digs up in the local graveyard – to his pigs, and he’s certainly not above murdering and turning the most annoying members of the local community to better use. He does get along rather well with Lynn though. There’s clearly something very wrong with her, too, something having to do with her father and a curious relation to sex. Still, Zambrini and Lynn fit together well, he doing his – creepy-crazy – best to be a father figure and she clearly getting into the role of being a daughter. Zambrini’s and Lynn’s respective dark secrets and that nosy outside world won’t let them end up as a Whedonesque family of choice, though.

Directed by its male lead, long-time character actor Mark Lawrence, Pigs is one of my personal favourites among the strange and lovely breed of US local independent film productions. It was apparently shot on an actual ranch in California, and is consequently set in what at first feels and looks very much like a real place. It’s not as decayed as this sort of creepy horror film rural spot usually is, but certainly looks like it is becoming a bit decrepit, lending the locations a sense of the kind of decay you only ever seem to notice out of the corner of your eye. This provides Pigs with copious amounts of instant atmosphere, as well as an air of reality that just might keep a viewer from realizing how bizarre (in all the best ways) parts of the film actually are.

And it does get bizarre: just look at the curious sequence in which Zambrini visits and threatens his nosy neighbours, dressed in the full regalia of his former magician alter ago The Great Zambrini. It is, most probably, a dream sequence expressing the ladies’ anxiety about their strange neighbour and his pigs, yet Lawrence neither starts nor ends it in any of the ways movies signal dream sequences, and their ends and beginnings to us. Given that the rest of the film is of a more than coherent and competent technical level, Lawrence surely is doing this on purpose, using the breaking of filmic rules to disquiet his audience, suggesting the seemingly naturalistic world the characters live in is deceptive, that madness or something much stranger might be closer to the surface than you’d suspect.

There are in fact quite a few intelligent directorial decisions of this kind throughout the movie, moments when small or big details suggest unsettling things, or when the bizarre (or perhaps even the Weird) nestles in among quotidian detail.

All of which elevates a film that is already a fine example of atmospheric, low budget psycho horror (with two psychos for the price of one) with a couple of scenes for the grindhouse audience, into stranger and higher realms. The main reason why this approach works out so well for the film does lie in its insistence on taking its two main characters seriously, treating what could be two cliché psychos as human beings, first securing this as a film about dysfunctional, enabling father daughter relations in extremis – with a quasi-feminist side-line, even – before adding the more exalted and the bizarre things on top.

Acting-wise, this is a nice showcase for both Lawrences, who manage to sell everything to the audience, actually making this viewer care for its two murderous main characters quite a bit. Poor Lynn at least never seems to have had much of a chance of a happy life thanks to her past as a victim of male abuse. And Zambrini? Well, what’s a guy to do when his pigs develop a taste for human flesh, and nobody leaves him and the girl he wants to protect in peace?