Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Accidental TV Movie Week: Bridge Across Time (1985)

aka Terror at London Bridge

Accidental TV Movie Week is what happens when I read the excellent “Are You in the House Alone?” edited by blogger and podcaster Amanda Reyes and spend a week only watching the sort of US TV movie treated in the book. Don’t be afraid.

In the 60s, good old London Bridge was dismantled and parts of it shipped off to Arizona to become part of a partial reconstruction of the bridge using the original masonry crossing Lake Havasu. That’s the actual version of events; for the film at hand, the bridge was re-erected in Arizona stone for stone. Well, all but one stone that dropped into the Thames together with Jack the Ripper during a police chase, that is. Now, in 1985, this final stone has been found in London and is added to the Arizona version of the bridge with great fanfare. Alas, a female tourist bleeding on the stone revives old Jack who gets back to his old ways - except he’s not murdering prostitutes anymore but whatever woman he can find, has gone off the mutilation trip, even hides one of his victims, and well, honestly, doesn’t act like Jack the Ripper at all.

Anyway, the only criminological genius available in Lake Havasu’s Podunk tourist hellhole to solve the case is fresh Chicago import Don Gregory (David Hasselhoff). Don has the trauma obligatory to all cops after 1982 in his past, which in this case mean he shot a black kid he thought was holding a gun but who of course didn’t. For some reason (this is sarcasm, dear reader) Don didn’t land in prison but got a one month suspension for it. However, our protagonist turned out to actually have one of those conscience thingies police unions advise against, so he can’t cope with having to deal with guns anymore and left Chicago for supposedly more peaceful shores. Solving the pretty insane case and his trauma will of course not be Don’s only problem: the town fathers have a bad case of the Mayor of Amity, his boss (Clu Gulager) doesn’t like him (I can only assume he’s jealous of the Hoff Hair), and his new love interest (Stepfanie Kramer) is clearly only in the movie to be threatened by Jack in the end.

Given that this was written by well regarded horror writer William F. Nolan, it is a bit of a surprise that the weakest part Terror at London Bridge is indeed its writing. The script starts with a goofy idea, adds a barrel of clichés that were as ancient in 1985 as they are today, and can’t even get up to make its dialogue terribly amusing. The plot also suffers from having its protagonist stumbling around trying to find out things the audience knows from the beginning, resulting in quite a few moments where I mostly felt impatient for the Hoff to finally catch up. It’s not that this sort of structure cannot work, but it actually needs some element to keep an audience’s interest in the plot up, and there’s little of that to be found here.

That the film is still generally more entertaining than not is mostly thanks to its director E.W. Swackhammer. While Swackhammer may “only” have been a competent craftsman who shot whatever TV piece came his way, he’s an experienced hand at making decent entertainment out of the best parts of dubious material, so the handful of suspense scenes the script gives him are much more effective, at times even atmospheric, than they are goofy, and the obvious red herring character may be obvious, but is also presented as the sort of fun crazy person we all like to enliven movies of dubious intelligence.

Speaking of crazy, Hasselhoff does a pretty decent job throughout, clearly committing fully to the clichéd background of his character and laying his various emotional outbursts on so thick they are at least entertaining to watch throughout, be it when he makes the bug eyes of growing obsession, the bug eyes of Big Drama, or the bug eyes of love. His love interest as played by Kramer is alas pretty much a non-entity here (also thanks again to the script), while the more experienced actors – there are also Adrienne Barbeau as Kramer’s librarian-friend, and Lane Smith as the Mayor of Amity – do what they can to give their underwritten parts some punch.

And honestly, how couldn’t I be at least a little entertained by a film about the Knight Rider himself fighting Jack the Ripper in Arizona?

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Accidental TV Movie Week: The Night Stalker (1972)

aka Kolchak: The Night Stalker

Accidental TV Movie Week is what happens when I read the excellent “Are You in the House Alone?” edited by blogger and podcaster Amanda Reyes and spend a week only watching the sort of US TV movie treated in the book. Don’t be afraid.

Let’s start this thing off with a classic, one of the handful of US TV movies known and loved even by those horror fans who have little interest in or knowledge of this specific side of the genre. As is often the case, find myself in between, by the way, a dabbler but neither completely clueless about nor a full-blooded fan of the classic US TV movie.

The Night Stalker’s plot is simple and to the point: dedicated reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) has been exiled to Las Vegas for his unwillingness to play politics as much as for his love for purposefully pissing off any authority figure he might encounter. Investigating a series of murders of young women that leave the victims without blood, many curious facts begin to add up to a crazy conviction – the killer is an actual vampire. The fact that the police will only ever half believe what is going on even once they have repeatedly encountered an inhumanly strong man impervious to bullets, and even if they do, won’t let any of this get in front of the eyes of the public (vampires are apparently bad for business), just might turn Kolchak into an improbable vampire hunter.

Apart from being straightforward (which doesn’t mean stupid, mind you), The Night Stalker’s plot has the distinction of being point-perfectly executed. Scripted by the great Richard Matheson (and produced by Dan Curtis, the patron saint of US TV horror of the 70s), the film is as tightly written as possible, exclusively consisting of scenes that move forward the plot and reveal character and explore the film’s themes, with no filler whatsoever. The dialogue, while always absolutely of its time, is always sharp, often funny, and provides information and flavour at the same time. Because this is Matheson at his very best, at least every second scene features an absolutely brilliant idea, just as brilliantly executed. If that sounds as if I’m laying it on a bit thick here, I’m not – this is as flawless a script as a viewer can ever hope to encounter, the sort of thing you’d wish any prospective writer of genre films would study closely.

Even better, the TV gods put the script in the hands of one of the most talented TV directors (whom I have once or twist in the past inexcusably belittled as merely dependable, but who was actually as brilliant a stylist as the rules of TV and TV production of the 70s allowed), John Llewellyn Moxey, a man who apparently recognized gold when he found it and treated it appropriately. So Matheson’s brilliance is treated with all the respect it deserves here, with Moxey delivering a series of very effective horror set pieces (the climax in the vampire’s genuinely creepy house with one particularly creepy detail being a particular favourite of mine), sharply shot dialogue scenes, and buckets of drive and atmosphere. The vampire (Barry Atwater) is genuinely wonderful too, with effective corpse-like make-up and even presenting a high degree of physical menace when he isn’t out-running cars or eating bullets.

The acting – featuring mainstays like Carol Lynley (as Kolchak’s girlfriend Gail, who has the distinction of having a brain as well as of not being threatened by the vampire in the end), Simon Oakland, Ralph Meeker, Elisha Cook Jr and Claude Akins – is absolutely on the level of the script too. McGavin’s portrayal of Kolchak is fantastic, managing to keep the guy likeable while also being honest about how much of a pain in the butt he must be for everyone around him. Usually, a character who is right about everything and very loud about it should be perfectly insufferable, speaking truth to power or not, but Kolchak even at his smuggest also has a difficult to define quality of vulnerability under all of his swagger, created by McGavin and Matheson in concert.

So obviously, I think The Night Stalker is the masterpiece everyone says it is. Much of the rest of films I’ll talk about during this week (and the overflow of TV movies you can expect coming up during the next half year or so) of TV movies won’t be able to hold up to these standards to various degrees, but that’s nothing for anyone to be ashamed or disappointed about, for when it comes to intelligent yet pulpy 70s horror, this is one of the touchstones.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Beyond Skyline (2017)

Warning: I’ll not be able to help myself and spoil all sorts of things this time around!

Remember the eminently forgettable invasion of Los Angeles (which in this sort of film is the world, because who cares about the rest of us, right?) that took place in the decided non-classic Skyline? Well, Beyond Skyline takes place on the eve of that very same invasion, but instead of some hipster yuppies, we follow the adventures of Mark (Frank Grillo), cop on leave with a tragic past. First, he only has to get his son Trent (Jonny Weston) out of custody again, but then the invasion strikes and he needs to go all out fighting for his life and the life of his son, teaming up with subway train driver Audrey (Bojana Novakovic), homeless blind war vet Sarge (Antonio Fargas!) and other people who get killed too early for me to care to keep track of their names.

And that’s just before the really weird stuff happens, which includes misadventures on the alien ship, a team-up with the protagonist of the first Skyline who is basically an ickier Kamen Rider without the motorcycle and the henshin now, and a crash-landing in an Indonesian action flick with Iko Uwais, Yayan Ruhian and Pamelyn Chee. Apparently, if you really want to fight back an alien invasion, get them to Indonesia.

This is The Purge all over again: just like with that other franchise, a pedestrian, unoriginal and just a bit boring first movie is followed by a sequel that is a box of candy-coloured, internationally minded fun and Frank Grillo.

Now, obviously, Liam O’Donnell’s (who wrote the first Skyline) film won’t impress people looking for an intelligent, incisive alien invasion film, because it is the purest popcorn cinema. If you want to call a film pure that not only uses elements of most of the alien invasion flicks of the last twenty years (without any “they are among us” elements, of course, because that’d need subtlety), and lets them collide with Indonesian style action cinema – while showing the good taste to hire the right actors for that part of the film – but also shows an ever increasing influence by tokusatsu and even has a mecha battle in its finale. That’s before the film’s epilogue which promises space opera for the probably never coming sequel.

I’m not going to pretend O’Donnell creates this Frankenstein monster-like film with taste (well, neither did the good Doctor), but there’s enough panache and sheer fun with cheese, silliness and all the good stuff of cool violence in cinema on the screen to make up for much greater sins. Plus, once Beyond Skyline really gets going, it doesn’t pause for a second anymore, so that a finale – taking place in front of very picturesque Indonesian temple ruins – that features Iko Uwais hacking aliens into pieces, Yayan Ruhian fighting on even when he’s lost an arm (one supposes it was just a scratch), a tiny mass panic and a just as tiny mass battle, a bad piloted organic mecha and a good piloted mecha slugging it out, a chosen child with vague genetic powers (oh, did I not mention the “save the baby” plotline?), and Frank Grillo being nearly as awesome as Uwais, just feels like the logical consequence of what came before. Well, perhaps not logical, but you know what I mean.

Given its comparatively small budget of apparently around 15 million dollars (which as it seems – and alas – it did not pull back, at least in the US), the special effects are pretty fantastic (if you’re okay with bargain basement Giger design, and who wouldn’t be?), as is the action choreography. What really had me grinning with delight for most of the running time, though, was the sheer willingness of the thing to just go there (as well as to Indonesia for the production value and the Uwais star power) and put a lurid, enthusiastic pulp fantasy on display that by all rights should be loved by anyone who loves classic genre movie values.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Three Films Make A Post: It's Great...It's Grand...It's Glorious!

Flatliners (2017): The best thing I can say about this remake of the Joel Schumacher joint is that it does make the original movie look quite a bit better than it actually is. Schumacher’s film does at least have a sense of style (even if it is tacky and pretty nonsensical) whereas Niels Arden Oplev’s version of the tale of insipid supposed medical students making deeply idiotic afterlife experiments they wouldn’t have gotten away with in a 60s Italian Gothic is just boringly slick – generally boring too at that – without much of a point beside some hand-wavy moralizing that comes over about as convincing and honest as a used car salesman, and lacking in any kind of personality. This is the sort of film that could have been written and directed by basically everyone and comes as close to anonymous filmmaking as you’ll get. It is also just not very interesting.

Hotarubo no Mori e aka Light of a Firefly Forest (2011): Ironically, enough, the two drawn main characters in this short anime by Takahiro Omori, are much more convincing as people than the underused cast of Flatliners 2017. At its core this is a melancholic story about unhappy love, a girl growing up, and yokai, filling its forty minute running time with a soft sense of visual poetry and light, and actual emotions that aren’t at all in conflict with the magic at the core of the tale. It is very much inspired by folklore, suffused by a nostalgic longing for the wonders of the countryside but where this sort of thing could easily feel conservative and a bit lifeless, Omori reaches an air of timelessness without even seeming to have to try very hard.

The Harrow (2016): Not bad at all is this Southern low key psychological ghost story directed by Kevin Stocklin. It’s clearly made on an actual indie budget (I’m not talking Miramax here), but the acting is always at least decent, often better, the pacing is slow but in a properly thought-through manner, and the script – even though it contains a plot twist – is intelligent if not overly original.

It’s the sort of film that seems perfectly knowledgeable of which of its potential ambitions it can actually fulfil and goes for that, and only that, ambition with the kind of focus that gives a film grace even if its budget is showing from time to time.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Past Misdeeds: Grave Encounters (2011)

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  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.

(Don't) stop me if you've heard this one before. The footage Grave Encounters consists of is purportedly edited down from footage shot by the team of the ghost hunting TV show "Grave Encounters" during the filming of their rather fatal sixth episode.

An appropriately smug and somewhat cynical team of five (Sean Rogerson, Ashleigh Gryzko, Merwin Mondesir, Mackenzie Gray and Juan Riedinger) sets out to spend a night locked in one of those creepy former asylums for the mentally ill that dot the US landscape (at least if I can believe what the horror movies - who clearly wouldn't lie to me - tell me). The ghost hunters don't go in expecting to actually find anything supernatural, obviously, but as long as they can pretend to be creeped out, it'll be good, successful reality TV, right?

Fortunately for the movie's audience, and very unfortunately for the film's protagonists, they will encounter quite a bit more paranormal activity than they ever could have expected or wished for. And while the things the crew first encounters, like doors moving by themselves, may only be a little creepy, later developments have a much more dangerous and disturbing bend. Clearly, not everybody - if anybody - will make it out of the place alive.

By now, I think, there are enough found footage/fake documentary/POV horror movies about ghost hunting TV people around to make up their own little sub-sub-genre. Unlike the other films of this sort I had the dubious honour of watching, Grave Encounters is actually a pretty good film.

The film does of course have its share of flaws. I think the interview parts before the crew is locked in could have been cut down a little, to make the film's start a little pacier. As it stands, the actual meat of the narrative begins about forty minutes into the film, just at the point when I was beginning to lose my patience with it a little.

I also could have gone without the overuse of the jerky zoom lens style in the interview sequences - it's the sort of thing nobody holding a camera in a professional or semi-professional capacity actually does (not even the directors of photography of ghost hunting reality shows), and it threatens the poor helpless audience with seasickness. Once the interview segments are over, the zoom lens is fortunately retired forever, so I'm not even sure why it's used this extensively early on at all.

Grave Encounter's biggest problem is probably the quality of its special effects. About half of the effects do actually look pretty decent to my eyes, but the other half (let me just say big-mouthed ghosts) looks too much like bad digital fakery and too little like terrible things from beyond. On the other hand, it is pretty clear that this is strictly a low budget affair, and even when the execution of the effects seems problematic, they're usually trying to show something creepy or conceptually interesting. When in doubt, I take a badly realized but interesting thing over something that looks slick but is basically boring.

As far as flaws in independently produced horror go, these are rather minor ones, and they are overshadowed by the things Grave Encounters' directors - going under the somewhat silly moniker The Vicious Brothers - do right.

Prime among things that the film does right is the way it treats its characters. Even though they are presented as slightly pompous and deeply dishonest towards their audience (I think this is what people call realism), the film still allows them more than enough sympathetic traits to make it easy for an audience (or at least me) to empathize with them. I'm not talking great character depth here - I doubt great character depth is anything POV horror can even achieve - but enough depth to make the characters human. The script certainly gets help here by actors who may be a little broad in their approach sometimes but are pretty good at switching from their early on-camera ghost hunting pomposity to people completely out of their depth and scared out of their wits.

Some of the things our not so intrepid protagonists have to face are pretty scary on a conceptual and on a concrete level, but even when they only encounter standard ghosts, these are standard ghosts doing ghostly things thematically appropriate for an empty asylum setting. These activities can't help but add a historical dimension to the ghosts, making them not just disquieting or frightening for the things they do to others, but also the things that have been done to them; a victim turned into a monster by outside forces is often more effective than a mere monster.

Aside from ghosts, though, there are also a few things making the protagonists' lives harder that come from the Weirder side of the tracks than mere dead people walking around being rude. The Vicious Brothers do some very effective things with temporal and spatial anomalies that suggest the influence of Daniel Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves. It's exactly elements like these nods to Danielewski what most films of the contemporary (post-crappy-Paranormal-Activity, in contrast to the post-Blair Witch one) POV horror genre are too often missing for my taste. Hauntings of this kind are visually cheap to realize and give a film an added dimension of the frighteningly strange and unreal that rubs nicely against the hyper-realism of the POV-form, but I'm afraid too many horror directors working right now are in love with the straightforwardly scary.

Consequently, I'm glad that Grave Encounters dares to be this decisive bit different from its brethren. Now, where did I leave that EMP-meter?

Thursday, February 22, 2018

In short: The Hunted (1948)

Warning: there will be spoilers for this 70 year old film!

Four years ago, Los Angeles cop Johnny Saxon (Preston Foster), arrested his girlfriend Laura Mead (Belita, apparently a British ice skater turned actress, which leads to the more typical noir scene of the female lead huskily singing a torch song being replaced by an ice skating number) for a diamond robbery. Laura always has been adamant she didn’t commit the crime, but the jewels were found in her apartment, and clearly, that’s enough for a guy like Saxon and for the law of the land, even if they have no other proof whatsoever. Before she went down, Laura swore to murder Johnny as well as her attorney (Pierre Watkin), so now that she is getting out of the slammer on parole, Johnny and the attorney are becoming somewhat sweaty.

Though, to be fair, Johnny has been sweating ever since Laura was declared guilty, his conscience poking him, if rather late in the game. Why, now she’s out, he’s even helping her get a job and a place to live. He’s also following her around with the mildly creepy expression of a jilted lover, clearly now having fallen in love with her even more. After some back and forth, Laura – insanely – even reciprocates, but once she’s under suspicion for a crime again, he’s quickly back to his old shitty ways.

For my taste, Jack Bernhard’s The Hunted is only a very minor noir. As a matter of fact, I’m not even sure I’d call it a true noir, given that is uses only some of the non-genre’s tropes and little of its philosophy. On the positive side, this does also mean there for once isn’t anything amounting to a femme fatale in this one – the true moral villain is Johnny, a guy who likes to talk a lot about duty but seems to have no concept of personal loyalty to the people he supposedly loves at all. Unfortunately, the film really doesn’t do enough with this, nor does it bother to give the audience any reason to believe Laura would actually want to get back together with him – “sorry, for putting you in prison, honey” somehow doesn’t quite cut it.

Former pulp writer Steve Fisher’s script has its moments, for sure – it is certainly well paced, and some of the dialogue (particularly Laura being sarcastic and standoffish early on) is witty enough. The problem is that there’s so much less going on here than it at first appears, Laura and Johnny’s early interactions promising an emotional and perhaps moral complexity the film isn’t going to deliver later on. It certainly doesn’t help that The Hunted ends in what it apparently wants us to treat as a happy end, but which really doesn’t solve the central point of Johnny being a complete dick at all.

Don’t get me wrong, this is still a perfectly entertaining film of its time, going by snappily, featuring decent actors doing their stuff, decently, but there’s too much of the better film about trust and obsession inside of it shining through to make it terribly satisfying.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Evilspeak (1981)

Warning: the final paragraph is full of spoilers for the film’s ending, which is just too transcendental not to talk about

Stanley Coopersmith (Clint Howard) has lost badly at the roulette of chances in life. He’s a student at a military academy where he’s at best treated as the poor relation by the teachers, if he’s not outright bullied by them, and is brutally bullied and abused by the other students. Stanley does, after all, look kinda funny, is socially awkward, poor, is an orphan and therefor  has now grown-ups to back him up at least emotionally, and is really bad at keeping his head down far enough not to be noticed (which would basically be underground anyway). So there are many reasons he’s the perfect victim especially for main school bully Bubba (Don Stark) – whom I can’t help but imagine having become the complete bully he is to distract from his eminently hilarious name. Stanley’s only friend is the apparently only black student of the place, and you can imagine how much that’s helping either of them on the crappy social ladder of the hellhole that’s supposed to make expert killersheroic patriots out of them.

Things certainly start to change for our protagonist when he accidentally stumbles upon a hidden room in the school’s cellar, where he finds the grimoire of Father Esteban (Richard Moll), a devil-worshipper from the place’s past. Stanley is fascinated by the tome, managing to translate its Latin text through the super translation powers of the school computer. Nest step is starting to work on a ritual for acquiring the power of Satan. The thing is, while he’s the local punching bag, Stanley is also a genuinely decent kid without a cruel bone in his body, so a lot of additional horrible stuff will have to happen to him before he snaps. A lot of additional horrible stuff does indeed happen, and it’s not as if the damn grimoire wouldn’t have plans of its own.

Eric Weston’s Evilspeak is a prime argument for the closeness of the outright goofy to the perfectly clever in horror, as well as for the fact that a film might start as a bit of a rip-off of Carrie but can end up a thing all its own. Quite a few of the film’s elements, when seen from the wrong angle, are highly mockable. Take, for example, the whole bit where Stanley uses a very 1981 idea of a computer for his ritual and its preparations. On the one hand, this is not how computers – even demonically possessed computers one presumes – actually worked at the time (though Google would probably kill for the translation algorithm that puts out perfectly idiomatic translations). On the other, it’s also a perfect and clever way to mix the old-fashioned gothic element of the evil magic book with something utterly contemporary as of 1981; that this contemporary elements looks possibly even more quaint than the grimoire to our eyes in 2018 isn’t really anyone’s fault.

One could also argue the characters surrounding Stanley – particularly the grown-ups – are drawn with somewhat too broad strokes. However, when you’re a kid, particularly a bullied and crapped on by destiny one like Stanley, the people inflicting all manners of cruelty and indignity on you do indeed look like caricatures of actual human beings, and since we see most of what happens – apart from a couple of deaths to fill the murder quota and scenes setting them up, really – through the eyes of Stanley, it makes total sense we get to see them as caricatures too.

Weston is particularly good at escalating Stanley’s troubles, not really hiding under the film’s eccentric veneer he’s quite conscious of the mechanics of bullying as well as the things the victim of bullies fears the most. So the things that should help get Stanley through – a puppy, a companionable working-class cook, a girl that doesn’t outright mock him for his existence – will in the end just set him up for even worse troubles, and while that may not be a realistic portrayal of life, it sure as hell is one of the fears a kid like Stanley has.

The film has other strengths too: Weston is highly inventive when it comes to setting up the film’s scares and murders, using religious symbols – often also connected to things Stanley fears interestingly enough – in ways subtle and unsubtle (the death of the priest has to be seen to be believed, for example). Why, one might think someone involved in the film has a somewhat displeased connection to religion in his background. While the editing seems sometimes rough, the film is well-paced, looks good, and is generally atmospheric, with even its most lurid moments breathing a sense of place that helps sell them. There’s a bunch of character actors (other than the already mentioned ones for example R.G. Armstrong and Charles Tyner) working their magic on the exalted characters they are playing, and young Howard is pretty much the perfect guy to play Stanley.

And that’s all before we even come to the film’s finale which takes some elements of Carrie and blows them up into dimensions of inspired grotesquerie, big “what the fuck!?”s swirling in the speech bubbles about viewers’ heads when they witness a series of scenes where a priest’s death by a nail from a bleeding and moving Jesus statue is really only the beginning. For the following sequence will also contain a levitating Clint Howard with electrified hair decapitating people with a broadsword, demon killer pigs (making a return from an earlier scene) and a random zombie ripping a heart out. It’s gotta be seen to believed, and once you’ve seen it, you can’t but love it.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

In short: Busting (1974)

Keneely (Elliott Gould) and Farrel (Robert Blake) are your prototypical 70s New York low-rung vice cops, spending their time busting hookers and invading gay clubs. Not surprisingly, this is at best useless work that’ll change exactly nothing at all about any actual problems a society may have. It has made the couple cynical and slobby and frankly rather unpleasant. What they are not is corrupt, surprisingly enough, so when they pretty randomly acquire a trick book from a prostitute containing names from many a higher up on various ladders in it, they don’t heed the various attempts of their Lieutenant – himself of course following orders from above – to reign them in.

In fact, they soon aim for a rather big fish involved in drugs, prostitution and all kinds of nasty stuff, one Carl Rizzo (Allen Garfield). Of course, being the kind of guys these cops are, they don’t do much that could be called investigating, and instead spend most of the film following Rizzo around annoying him, committing minor acts of vandalism, not dissuaded by shoot-outs or huge black men (in a scene we’d call “problematic” today, I believe) beating them up.

Peter Hyams’s Busting is a highly fascinating film. For one, it works excellently as a semi-realistic portrayal of the seedy underbelly™ New York’s in 1974, picturing the places its protagonists walk through with more confusion and fascination than with loathing. It certainly sees the place as a mess, but while it doesn’t treat persons of colour, homosexuals and prostitutes well, it clearly doesn’t treat them as if they were at fault for the world they live in. In fact, there’s a surprising scene, following a raid on a gay club that is played half-comedically and features the other f-bomb from the mouth of one of our protagonists, in which two gay transvestites are humiliated by a judge in front of a whistling and laughing public where the film’s sympathies are completely on the couple’s side, giving them a dignity that is very uncommon in 70s filmmaking, and utterly convincing and heart-breaking.

Heart-breaking is one of Busting’s watchwords as a whole. Nominally, this is a comedy – and from time to time it is indeed a funny movie – but it is a crime comedy about failure, a film about two working class guys facing the realization that nothing they do actually matters in the world, and that what looks like a chance to actually change even the tiniest thing about it is just them fighting windmills like a certain Spaniard, for everyone around them has either arranged themselves with the world or has found a cosy place for themselves in it. If anyone ever asks how utter defeat looks, I’d recommend the last shot of Gould’s face.

Because this is a Peter Hyams joint, there are also three brilliant action scenes to marvel at. They are kinetic, tight, brutal, and shot in ways as clever as they are atypcial for the way action scenes are traditionally shot. Hyams arranges the action like Gould and Blake approach their roles, with an off-handed but also intelligently skewed brilliance.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Bullet Train (1975)

Original title: Shinkansen daubakuha

This write-up concerns the full 152 minute version of the film. The various international cuts of 90 to 100 minutes length leave out so much that’s important for the film it’s not even funny.

A small group of desperate and despondent men under the leadership of Tetsuo Okita (Ken Takakura) hide a bomb on a Japanese bullet train. It’s an interesting construction that certainly would not be borrowed by a later US movie about a speeding bus at all, oh no, for it activates when the train goes over the speed of 80 km/h and will blow up once it falls under that limit again. Okita and his men attempt to blackmail a considerable amount of money from the train company, seeing the operation as a crime where nobody will get hurt.

Unfortunately, the police do their best to get as many people hurt as possible, or so it seems, first killing the youngest of Okita’s men during a fake money handover, later heavily wounding but letting escape Okita’s other partner in the next one, and not really getting anywhere with their other inquiries.

While the cops are mishandling the situation, the chief of operations for the shinkansen trains, Kuramochi (Ken Utsui), and an increasingly sweaty and desperate train driver (Shinichi “Sonny” Chiba) try to find the bomb, keep increasingly crazed passengers sane, and resolve the whole situation before the higher political echelons decide that 1,500 people dying on an exploding train an hour earlier than they otherwise would is a perfectly reasonable exchange for the infrastructural costs of having it explode at a station.

Junya Sato’s highly melodramatic crime thriller shouldn’t work at all. It seems, on first look, overly long, with two and a half hours of train stuff, flashbacks to the past of Okita and his people, a birth on board the train that ends badly, and many, many scenes of actors looking dramatically at switchboards and such. However, Sato and his cast treat nearly every single moment of the film with immense intensity, with everyone’s emotions permanently dialled up to eleven and staying there throughout. This larger than life quality to all emotions is perhaps straddling the line to self-parody, but for my taste, it never stumbles over it, and instead uses bigness as a way to grab its audience emotionally in any way it can.

Plus, if you have Sonny Chiba and not decide to let him beat anyone up, you’ll at least need to have him sweat a lot and lose his emotional cool in ways huge enough for him (side note: he’s actually playing a bit less over the top than he usually does, just ends up still taking up the space of two normal actors, or five Tom Cruises); if you hire Ken Takakura, you of course need to have a lot of close-ups on his sad eyes and provide him with a tragic backstory for his new life of crime that even manages to sell his death in the end (as always with these cops, by shots in the back probably fired because they were too lazy to run after an unarmed man) as something bad, despite him having risked the lives of 1,500 people and indirectly killed a baby.

The true moral centre and hero of the film though is Kuramochi, portrayed by Utsui as a man who mixes professionalism with deep emotional involvement and a huge sense of integrity. He is, therefor, the character who most obviously makes various of the film’s ethical arguments. For yes, it turns out this big, loud, melodramatic film also has some remarks to make about the way destiny always seems to kick the little guy when he’s already down, and the unpreparedness of then contemporary Japanese (and not only there and then) society to pick up the universe’s slack. Also under angry scrutiny is the concept of the lesser evil (the movie’s not a fan).

If all this still sounds like a bit much for one film – it isn’t. Sato manages to hold the necessary tension for it all to work throughout, with nary a boring minute. Best of all, he seems in full control of his small army of plot threads and characters, knowing when he can shuffle between them regularly and when it’s time to keep us longer in a sequence. While the director generally doesn’t show the more eccentric, psychedelic and avant-garde tendencies of Japanese 70s genre cinema, this is still a technically very convincing film, with action sequences choreographed to the point, and demonstrating the often nearly uncanny way even the lesser directors of this era in Japanese cinema had with the blocking of scenes.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Three Films Make A Post: Can You Take It? More Startling . . . More Blood-Curdling Than Anything You've Ever Seen!

The Disappointments Room (2016): I dunno, but unlike much of the rest of the internet, I think D.J. Caruso’s movie about a family escaping a tragedy to a supposed rural dream home, only to have the mother (played by a surprisingly effective and human Kate Beckinsale) start seeing ghosts, is a perfectly acceptable bit of contemporary mainstream horror, with perfectly okay ghost bits. There’s also a semi-competent effort at updating the old “is the woman MAD?” trope into something more palatable, perhaps even meaningful to contemporary eyes. It’s not quite as feminist as it probably thinks it is in its approach there, but like the rest of the film, it’s thoughtful and interesting enough to get a vague thumbs up from me.

The Go-Getter (2007): Martin Hynes film concerning a teenager (Lou Taylor Pucci) going on a road trip in a stolen car to find his long-time absent brother, meeting strange people, falling in love with the owner of the car (Zooey Deschanel), and perhaps doing some growing up in the progress on the other hand is more than just deserving of a vague thumbs up. Stylistically, it’s very much inside of the indie mainstream of its time, but Hynes uses the genre (and believe me, this sort of thing is just as much part of a “genre” as is a slasher or a vampire movie) with warmth, a sense of poetry and obvious liking for his characters – including their fault lines and flaws – while getting fine performances out of Pucci, Deschanel and usual suspects like Judy Greer and Jena Malone.

Le parapluies de Cherbourg aka The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964): Jacques Demy’s musical is of course a stone cold classic, applying things learned from the nouvelle vague and the director’s very personal idiosyncrasies to a conception of the musical that seems – also thanks to the sung dialogue – to try to apply approaches of the opera to the kind of people most traditional opera doesn’t care about, consequently also using quite a different kind of music. Compared to his next musical, the surface-friendlier Young Girls of Rochefort (which I slightly prefer) the material’s dark elements aren’t pretending to be as light (Rochefort doesn’t even make a deep emotional thing out of a serial killer). This is the sort of musical romance that doesn’t get a traditional happy ending because life usually doesn’t have one, and it is one that really wants to talk about actual life in an artistically heightened way. It also happens to be a film that is so drop dead gorgeous (and not just because its actors are) in sound, shape, and movement, the “realistic” sadness of its ending seems to be the least interesting thing about it.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Past Misdeeds: Magic of the Universe (1986)

aka The Magician

Original title: Salamangkero

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  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.

Stage magician Professor - we never learn Professor of what, though I do suspect trundling through the jungle to be his main area of expertise - Jamir (Michael De Mesa) loses his little daughter Freza (Sunshine Dizon) when he's doing a standard disappearing act. The little girl disappears well enough but she doesn't reappear again when she should. Looking not quite as worried as the situation would suggest, Jamir, his wife and his pudgy little boy assistant (Tom Tom) go off to visit a friendly black magician, hoping he can explain what happened to Freza. Alas, despite some tasteful licking of raw monkey brains (I don't think no animals were harmed in the making of this movie), there's not much concrete to be gotten from the magician, except some mutterings about Jamir being in terrible danger and some vague hints pointing the family in the direction of another jungle village.

Once arrived there, the family has nothing better to do than to stage another show (that is the sort of thing you do to find your disappeared daughter, right?), during which Mum disappears too. While Jamir and the pudgy boy start to get a bit depressed now, Mum finds herself reunited with Freza - as captives of an evil witch named Mikula (Armida Siguion-Reyna) who lives with a horde of child prisoners, some horned pig people and a cross between a gremlin, a toad, your worst nightmares and a TV in a palace in the jungle. Mikula finally deigns to do some exposition, so we learn that she has kidnapped the Jamir women to avenge herself on Jamir's dead great grandfather, who was her teacher at magic but cursed her with growing a big, pulsating head once he realized how evil she was.

Jamir hears about the same story from the ghost of said great grandfather the very same night, because now it's finally exposition time, the film just can't stop itself anymore. Gramps also adds that Jamir needs to find some magical doodad to be able to fight Mikula, else he and his family will die and Mikula will rule the world.

The rest of the film sees Jamir and the pudgy boy wander aimlessly through the jungle, getting saved from the attentions of a guy with a very big sword by the Guardian of the Woods (whose power is shooting cartoon laser beams from her eyes, if you need to ask) and impress a tribe of feral little people with the old pigeon trick. Then the boy is kidnapped too and the film spends most of its time with everyone not Jamir escaping from Mikula, meeting strange things and people and getting kidnapped again, until it is time for Jamir to become undeservedly powerful and win the day with his own new cartoon lightning beams. What a hero!

I suspect Filipino Magic of the Universe to be one of those at least part-time disturbing kids movies all Asian countries seem to excel at, though its combination of naive and round-about plotting, bad rubber masks, cruelty to adorable little monkeys, freakish creatures making even more freakish noises, and little children (sort of) saving the day might just as well be explained by everyone involved in the production being batshit insane or hopped up on snorting crystallized EC comics; actually, now having thought about it for a few seconds longer, it's probably all three.

Connoisseurs of this sort of movie - the little sister genre to my beloved weird fu genre - will pretty much know what to expect from Magic: awkward and somewhat dull direction (by Tata Esteban); a primitive - possibly borrowed from somewhere - synth soundtrack that fluctuates between the trite and the disquieting (the latter is especially awesome here in the fight scene between Tom Tom and a demonic kung fu kid, or whatever he/she/it is supposed to be); editing of the rough and tumble kind; ideas and concepts so disturbing most Western movies for grown-ups wouldn't dare use them (that poor monkey at the beginning or the Guardian of Forest's head being eaten to give Mikula more magic power, anyone?) presented with shoulder-shrugging nonchalance; a lack of explanation for a lot of things (what is Mikula doing with all these children?); an English dub job so atrocious one can't help but think it was done by random tourists who were kidnapped and locked up in the cellar of the film's producers as a cheap alternative to professional voice actors.

All that and more is there and accounted for in a film that does its best to sabotage its rather mind-blowing effects with somewhat ponderous pacing and a hero of utmost incompetence (he's really just wandering around until he points a stick at his nemesis), but that just can't be anything less than entertaining as long as it is adding one weird and wondrous thing after the next. When the film's not actively disturbing you with Mikula's increasingly pulsating head, it's weirding you out with a sudden monster synth rock party (Mikula has her own band, just like a Bollywood villain, although the film lacks a scene where Jamir pretends to be part of a dance troupe), or throwing in a random easily depressed swamp monster and a woman turned to stone for good measure.

I don't really like ending a write-up on a "you'll like this thing if you like this sort of thing" note, but what can a boy do when confronted with a movie whose main achievement apart from being oh so very strange is that nobody making it does seem to have just stopped for a moment and said "what are we doing here, guys?"?

Thursday, February 15, 2018

In short: One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942)

World War II. The crew of a British bomber damaged while bombing the Daimler factory in Stuttgart has to bail over Holland. They have to make their way through the occupied country to reach the North Sea. Fortunately, the Dutch – at least in the movie, I don’t know enough about resistance against the Nazis in the Netherlands to comment on how truthful the film is – have developed various ways to sabotage the works of the Nazis, and are happy to help the British along. Once they’ve found proof the protagonists are indeed British and not a Nazi plan to find resistance cells.

Leave it to Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (here both credited as directors and writers) to make a propaganda movie that still holds up decades later – and it’s not even their only one.

One of the things that distinguishes all of the Archers’ wartime films is their lack of hatred. It’s not that you could ever confuse them with fascist sympathizers, but the Germans in their films are usually recognizable as people, if people fighting for the worst of causes. In this particular case, there really aren’t any Germans on screen as characters, the film focuses on the bomber crew and the Dutch resistance, as mostly embodied in women (all played by British actresses, by the way). That these women are portrayed as eminently capable, intelligent and morally upright – the couple of big patriotic speeches here are given to them – is a particularly fascinating aspect of the film when looked upon from a time 75 years later when there are  still men so frightened of women doing important things in their entertainment they feel the pressing need to make cuts of popular space operas devoid of women. Powell and Pressburger obviously met actual women.

In general, One of Our Aircraft has a consciously mundane tone that makes the moments of pathos and the eminently effective suspense sequences all the more believable. This isn’t just a film about people being resistant to evil, but one about people being resistant to evil while still living their lives as much as it is possible as part of their resistance, as disturbed as these lives may be through war. This adds up wonderfully with the film’s general interest in small gestures, actors suggesting swathes of emotion mostly through looks, and does of course fit nicely with the mythical stiff upper lip the film not so much preaches for as shows practiced. Most heroism here is of the quiet sort; that doesn’t mean it isn’t still heroism.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Out for Justice (1991)

Minor mafia player Richie Madano (William Forsythe) – the kind of guy even too unsubtle to have any chance of ever becoming a made man – goes on a crack-fuelled rampage of murder and rape through the still gritty streets of New York. Since his first victim is a cop he grew up with – classily shot in broad daylight in front of his wife and children - and the partner of Detective Gino Felino (Steven Seagal), things become personal. Which is to say, Gino – after popping in and making nice with the local mafia boss who will still send his own independent hit team for Richie – goes on a revenge-fuelled rampage of murder and Seagallian attempts at acting. When he’s not murdering or crippling people, Gino also finds the time to investigate the inciting incident of Richie’s spree.

By 1991, the great John Flynn, one of the underrated great directors of the 70s – if you haven’t, do yourself a favour and watch Rolling Thunder, The Outfit and Defiance before you go anywhere near his later films – had been reduced to directing Steven Seagal vehicles. This was the period when US action movies were still a thing happening in the cinemas, though, and Seagal was at least a minor star of the genre, so it’s not quite as terrible as it may sound on paper. Or rather, it wouldn’t be if this didn’t mean Flynn has to work with a lead who – sorry, Seagal fans – just can’t act at all, even for an action star, and who projects a personality that to me feels smug and unpleasant to a degree I’d rather enjoy watching in a villain but can’t really abide too well in a hero. Characterisation-wise, Gino is typically schizophrenic: on the one hand, he’s protecting prostitutes from getting beaten up by pimps even when it costs him a big drug bust, and saves puppies from puppy death (seriously); on the other hand, these attempts to humanize him stop completely whenever he gets into a fight, where he generally crushes all before him with way too much violence for the occasion – and because he’s such a bad winner and his enemies are never allowed to see eye to eye with him on the level of their fighting skills, he comes off as a bully much more than the hero and protector of the little people the film wants to see him.

Even if we try to ignore these usual Seagal problems, Out for Justice also suffers from a mass of clunky and often plain stupid dialogue, mostly spoken in various cringeworthy would-be Italian American New Yorker accents by long-suffering character actors.

Yet still, the whole affair, plagued with my least favourite US action hero, action scenes that often make things much too easy for said hero, and the babbling of idiots, is still highly watchable, proving Flynn to be an old pro who may not be able to make actual gold out of the crap he’s given but certainly gilding it pretty nicely. For while none of the action ever feels dangerous (indestructible heroes will do that), Flynn does shoot it in an incredibly lurid style, pumping up the grittiness and violence you’d expect from a film taking place in the New York of this era to a nearly phantasmagorical degree. Out for Justice doesn’t just feel like an action movie with a nasty streak but always seems to teeter on the edge of actual sadism (which of course does fit Gino’s bullying ways rather nicely). And while the dramatic scenes are sabotaged by dialogue quality, script, and Seagal, Flynn stages them with the highest melodramatic intensity, as if this shit were the pulp version of Shakespeare.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

A little rant about The Harvest (2013)

Plot twists. Plot twists are hell. Or, as in the case of this attempted return to horror by venerated but dreadfully inconsistent director John McNaughton, twists ruin a perfectly promising bit of American Gothic by the sheer power of their cack-handed stupidity. For if there’s one thing contemporary scriptwriting schools seem to teach their victims, it’s that not only does every script (yes, every single one) need to contain plot twists, it is of vital importance that these twists are as ruinous for the believability of everything that came before as possible and make a mockery of character motivations. If character reactions to the twists are preposterous, too, that’s worth a gold star.

Of course, given this particular film’s love for increasingly dumb plot twists (a lot like McNaughton’s very own Wild Things without the mainstream sleaze, come to think of it), there’s little use in making the characters complex, so everyone is an absurd one-note character whose behaviour is driven exclusively by the needs of lazy plotting, which is a bit of a problem in what at its core seems to be supposed to be a psychologically based thriller. The actors, particularly Samantha Morton, do their best with what they are given, but I’m pretty tired of the old Crazy Clutching Abusive Mom, the Weak Husband, The Woman on The Side, The Sick Kid, The Lonely Nosy Kid, particularly when that’s all they ever are. It’s a rogue’s gallery not really all that different from what you’ll find in a slasher movie, just that nobody’s going to get her tits out (a viewer has to decide for themselves if this is a plus or a minus), and the film they are in could actually use more complex characters.

But hey, plot twists.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Bad Day for the Cut (2017)

Warning: I’m going to disclose elements of the film’s ending below!

Aging Irish farmer Donal (Nigel O’Neill) lives with his mother (Stella McCusker) on the farm she bought when he was still a kid. Donal clearly isn’t a terribly happy man, without friends or lovers, with that air of dissatisfaction and disconnection that comes with this sort of thing. One night, while Donal’s in the shed sleeping off a couple of beers, someone breaks into the farmhouse and murders his mother. Donal sees one of the two killers well enough to give a decent description, but there doesn’t really seem to be too much of a police follow up. A bit later, two – this time masked – men break in again, this time aiming to murder Donal while making it look like a suicide.

Because these guys aren’t exactly oozing competence, Donal manages to fight them off, killing one of them. The farmer’s not going to bother with the police this time around, apparently, and interrogates the surviving attacker, a very young Pole named Bartosz (Józef Pawloski), himself. The thing is, Bartosz is far from being a professional killer, and has been pressed into service with a threat to the life of his sister whom the people he is working for have enslaved as a prostitute. Donal’s got a heart, so he decides to join forces with Bartosz working his way up the totem pole of criminals to find out who killed his mother and gave the orders to kill him, and rescuing the kid’s sister. Later, the question of why Donal’s mother was killed will become increasingly important, too.

As always with this kind of set-up, one could argue that Chris Baugh’s film does lack in originality. I’d say that originality really isn’t the big point of Bad Day for the Cut. This is a film seeking and finding nuances in its vengeance tale, and saying something about circles of violence as a whole and the one repeating itself in Ireland again and again. It is also a film that does avoid the typical endings of its genre. Neither is its protagonist going to ride off triumphantly into the sunset once his deed is done, nor is he bleeding to death while clasping the throat of his enemy. Instead, he’s sitting, helpless, sad, on a beach, full of guilt and indirectly with innocent blood on his hands, having seen and done too much, unable to decide on the way to proceed. Further violence will only be another turn of the same old wheel, but what’s left otherwise? All of which, obviously, isn’t only the question Donal has to ask himself but also the film talking about Ireland after the Troubles, itself somewhat helpless in front of the question how a society can proceed after a low level civil war that has gone on for as long anyone alive can remember, and – depending on one’s interpretation – had been going on for much, much longer before that.

While this may sound as if Bad Day for the Cut were a rather po-faced and tragic affair, it is actually an unexpected and highly effective mixture of tones: there certainly is the sadness and tragedy of the film’s background (this not being the kind of film that finds dead parents to be terribly funny), as well as the grittiness of its violence, but there’s also a line of dry and very dark humour running through the film. Bad Day is very conscious of the absurd and awkward aspects of violence, and even though it is not one that tends to turn its acts of violence into actual slapstick, it does treat them with a grim sense of humour that is not so much meant to lighten what’s going on but to put it on human feet. We humans are, after all, rather absurd creatures.

Baugh’s direction treats everything with a high degree of clarity. It’s a style one is tempted to call straightforward, but once you start really looking at the film, you realize Baugh is doing much to support, enhance and strengthen his film’s mood as well as its point. He only does so in a way which never points itself out, a method I enjoy nearly as much as the style as substance approach of the giallo.

Which is something that could be said about the acting too: there’s a lot of unspoken subtext to Nigel O’Neill’s performance, for example, just presented, like the rest of the film, with the lack of grand gestures that makes this tale as effective and complex as it actually is. The only one among the actors going a bit bigger is Susan Lynch, whose Frankie Pierce does seem to owe quite a bit to Joe Pesci; however, with Frankie, going slightly larger than life actually makes sense.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Three Films Make A Post: Every house has a history. This one has a legend.

The Black Hole (1979): I’m usually a sucker for Disney in their dark/weird phase, but Gary Nelson’s leadenly directed science fiction feels like an overpriced TV movie, and not a good one at that. Perhaps it’s the cast of tired looking veterans (some of whom I usually love) that gives this impression, or dialogue so leaden it’ll give US SF cinema of the 50s a run for its money, or the script that randomly cobbles together elements of Star Wars, the pulp SF that influenced that film (but without George Lucas’s understanding of the form), 2001 and any old crap the writers could come up with.

In any case, the handful of good, dark and interesting ideas here and the sometimes brilliant production design can’t make up for characters whose actions don’t even make sense if you interpret them as walking talking clichés, desperately lame action sequences (the worst actually a laser gun fight between our heroes and a bunch of robots standing unmoving in one line), and the film’s complete failure to create a coherent tone.

Mayhem (2017): Joe Lynch’s horror comedy about a corporate lawyer (Steven Yeun) and a woman with foreclosure troubles (Samara Weaving) using the automatic get out of jail free card of an outbreak of a rage-inducing virus to murder their way up to the executive floor of his company on the other hand does know exactly what tone it is going for. It’s mildly cynical carnage, pretty people bathing in the blood of their enemies and some very obvious satire of the evils of capitalism (as embodied by Steven Brand and his underlings). It’s a pretty fun time, if you’re okay with a bit of slaughter (and who isn’t). It is well paced, sometimes funny enough for a series of guffaws, and certainly acted with full involvement by everyone on screen. I do wish its capitalism critique were a bit more nuanced/interesting/unobvious, though I am not completely certain the sort of angry, bloody slapstick this is going for could actually carry more depth.

Eve’s Bayou (1997): Last but pretty much the opposite of least, there’s Kasi Lemmons’s brilliant black southern gothic movie that camouflages as magical realism for the the mainstream viewer. It’s a sumptuously (but never the kind that’s just for show) styled tale of a black upper middle-class family in the Bayous of Louisiana, of the way secrets and lies are as much part of what forms a family as is love and understanding, of the ways we construct memory regardless of what’s the factual truth about things and persons and perhaps even about the things we did or were done to us. It’s heady stuff, told with great assuredness, and full of small and large complexities and ambiguities in the ways its characters behave and relate that feel truthful to the way actual human beings are.

At the same time as she’s being honest about people, Lemmons gives the film’s gothic melodrama quite a bit of oomph, using her brilliant ensemble cast (of exclusively African American actors, but the film doesn’t make a big thing out of that, as it shouldn’t need to) for gestures grand and small.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Past Misdeeds: The Invisible Man vs. The Human Fly (1957)

aka The Transparent Man vs. The Fly Man

aka Tomei Ningen To Hae Otoko

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  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.

A strange and increasingly violent series of burglaries and murders shakes Japan. The victims are usually found stabbed in the back, and killed in tightly controlled or completely locked places. Or on an airplane toilet. Additionally, nobody ever sees or hears any sign of the perpetrator or perpetrators. Why, you could think the killer is invisible! That's at least what the lead investigator of the case, well-respected young cop Wakabayashi, says in a moment of weakness.

When the policeman utters this rather absurd theory while interviewing some scientists he is friendly with about the airplane toilet business one of them witnessed, they aren't laughing about his flights of fancy. Ironically, the men are working on some scientific ray stuff whose by-product is invisibility, or, as they prefer it to be called, imperceptibility. They haven't tested it on a human being yet, though, out of fear it might be dangerous.

Apart from putting the idea of an invisible copper into his brain, this isn't getting Wakabayashi anywhere right now. Fortunately, the continuing murder spree gives our hero and his team a lot to distract them. The last few victims have been pointing in the air and swatting at something during their last moments, and witnesses heard the buzzing of a fly. Why, you could think the killer can turn into a fly! Which is nearly, but not quite what is happening. In truth, the killer is using an experimental reagent made during the war to facilitate his escapes. This reagent, you see, can shrink down a man until he is not quite as small as a fly. As SCIENCE(!) teaches, all small creatures are able to float through the air while making the buzzing noise of a fly, so that's the explanation for the noises the witnesses heard.

About half of the murders are connected by this reagent too, because the victims have all been part in the war crimes committed during its creation, though none of them have been punished for them. This part of the killing spree is vengeance for and by the only man who did get punished, and is now using a rather mad gentleman with an addiction to the reagent to commit the murders. The other half of the killings has something to do with the madman's obsession with a nightclub singer on whom he likes to perv when he is shrunk down, but let's not go there.

Obviously, this is the sort of case that can only be cracked if someone is willing to take the risk of becoming an invisible man.

Even though this plot description sounds as awesome as it is dumb, Daiei's IM vs HF is not quite as awe-inspiring as I would have liked it to be. The film has two major problems it is only just able to conquer to my satisfaction. The first one is scriptwriter Hajime Takaiwa's peculiar decision to frame much of the movie's first two thirds as a slightly weird police procedural, with many scenes of earnest looking men doing earnest police business that are only from time to time broken up by the insanity that waits in the plot's background. The second problem is also one belonging to the script. Takaiwa seems hell-bent to stuff Human Fly as full of elements of the police procedural, the slightly sleazy exploitationer and the mad science horror film as possible. This, however, leaves even the more patient viewer (like me) with a film full of ideas and plot-threads that are never really explored nor explained and in the end more often than not just stop with a hand-waving gesture when Takaiwa is getting bored of them.

Characterization-wise, there's never a clear through-line for why people act like they do. Just to take some obvious examples, why does the film's villain suddenly turn from a man out for vengeance and a bit of money into the sort of bad guy more fitting into an issue of The Spider? What does he need the invisibility ray for when he already can turn into a flying, buzzing little man? And, while I'm at it, why doesn't he just steal it (he is the Human Fly, after all) instead of going for a semi-apocalyptic blackmail plan? And why does the elder scientist's daughter decide that the invisible scientist already at work isn't enough and turns into the invisible woman?

I sure could make up some reasons for the characters' behaviour, and some of the film's obvious plot holes, but I do think that's the responsibility of the script, not the audience’s. Especially the film's last third gives the impression of Takaiwa giving up and just making stuff up as it goes along without any thought for coherence or sense. Come to think of it, my favourite hero pulp The Spider with its usually heated and sloppily constructed narratives seems like an excellent point of comparison to what Taikawa does here writing-wise.

Also comparable to The Spider, the writing flaws that hinder IM vs HF from becoming the good SF/crime/horror hybrid movie with a subtextual line about the violence committed by war-touched people in post-war Japan it could have been, are also making it enjoyably nutty and near impossible to dislike for viewers like me who can get excited about a film that's just full of silly stuff for no good reason other than the clear awesomeness of all silly stuff. This is, after all a film that doesn't want to realize that flies have wings for a reason, a film that also makes up some nonsense about face and hands of an invisible person getting visible quite fast again because of the rays of the sun while the rest of doesn't (no nudity for Japanese people who want to turn visible again, it seems), only to then forget that for the rest of its running time. It also presents turning back from invisibility by means of SCIENCE(!) as very dangerous, until it's time to wrap everything up, when it's not only possible to turn visible again and live, but to seemingly go from one state to the other at will. It's all very dumb, and reeks of lazy writing as much as any modern blockbuster I've seen, but it sure is fun to watch what nonsense Takaiwa is going to come up with next.

The film's other big plus point is Mitsuo Murayama's (whom I know as one of the Japanese directors who'd go on to work a bit for Hong Kong's Shaw Brothers) direction. For my taste, Murayama isn't a very consistent stylist, but he is the kind of director always going for the most interesting angle from which to shoot the more boring police procedural scenes, making the parts of IM vs HF most in need of not looking square and boring look much weirder than their actual content and context deserve; if you're the generous type, you might even suggest Murayama is hinting at the strangeness surrounding his square policemen right from the beginning by way of his stylistic tics. Be that as it may, Murayama's often peculiarly cramped, close-up and Dutch angle heavy visual style keeps the movie's rather slow beginning interesting, and helps the mess that is its script stay a mess that is fun to watch even in its worst moments.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

In short: Guyver: Dark Hero (1994)

Sean Barker (now played by the voice of Solid Snake himself, David Hayter) is still fused with the alien bio-armor called the Guyver. Despite apparently having destroyed the evil mutant thingies of the first film, the Guyver still pushes Sean into going out at night to commit bloody violence on more or less deserving criminals. Sean, not a killer at heart, feels very unhappy with a situation that doesn’t just put a lot of blood on his hands – certainly not all of it shed in self-defence or the defence of innocents – but now also costs him his relationship to movie number one’s love interest Mizky.

So he’s actually rather okay with following strange feelings, symbols on a cave wall, and a sensationalist TV report to an archaeological dig in a pretty attractive wooded mountain region. And wouldn’t you know it, the film gods have also put an obvious new love interest (Kathy Christopherson) in his way, as well as the realization that he might not have beaten his enemies quite as successfully as he thought. At least, there’s something really strange going on at the dig, what with a potential werewolf roaming the area, and way too much well-armed security hanging around. Oh, and a UFO right out of the third Quatermass film. Perhaps this is the right place to find out the truth about the Guyver unit.

The second and final Guyver film is directed by Steve Wang alone, Screaming Mad George having taken his particular kind of effects work and his co-directing skills wherever Screaming Mad Georges go. Consequently, the monsters in this one aren’t as awesomely grotesque as some of the best ones in the first film and follow more the standard rubber suit ways of tokusatsu. Which, mind you, is still a little grotesque and very nice to look at in action.

The film also loses the horrible humour of the first part, going for your typical dark superhero feel and heroic inner turmoil (was Zack Snyder taking notes?) without borderline racist characters wasting the audience’s time making horrible jokes. Hayter is also a huge improvement over Jack Armstrong. He may not exactly radiate charisma like the sun, but he has proper camera presence and is able to actually express the emotions the script asks him to express; plus, his moodiness doesn’t feel like a little kid sulking. Why, I found myself even liking this version of Sean instead of tolerating him. The villains are an improvement too, hamming it up nicely and given the Guyver more than enough reason for punching and elbow blade sticking.

Speaking of violence, the action scenes are excellent US tokusatsu with drive and the appropriate amount of imaginative silliness, and staged with the sort of sugar high energy this sort of action thrives on.

The film will be a bit too long and starting somewhat too slow for some, but I found myself enjoying its attempts at building its own mythology out of bits and pieces found in other pop culture nearly as much as the fighting, making the second Guyver movie by far the superior piece of entertainment. And unlike more than many a Japanese tokusatsu of the last fifteen years or so, Dark Hero never feels as if it puts selling toys before being an entertaining film.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Breakdown (1997)

After their brand new car breaks down on a desert highway, married couple Amy (Kathleen Quinlan) and Jeff Taylor (Kurt Russell) feel lucky when a friendly trucker (J.T. Walsh) pops up only a couple of moments later. Because the car is full with their stuff (they are moving), the plan is for Amy to let the trucker drive her to a relatively close diner where she can organize help while Jeff stays by the car.

Alas, Amy never returns, and the Taylors’ car trouble turns out to be suspiciously easy to solve once Jeff looks at the right place. You know, it looks just like the sort of thing somebody could have done to a car while its owners where away paying for gas. With his freshly self-repaired car, Jeff makes his way to the diner, but nobody there has seen his wife, the trucker, or knows anything about anything, really. After some back and forth with the locals and the unhelpful police, all of which increases his paranoia mightily, Jeff will learn that his wife has been kidnapped by that nice trucker and some of his friends, who have their own brand of highway robbery going on. Fortunately, Jeff is played by Kurt Russell.

If one were of a mind too - and I have indeed read this in a couple of older write-ups of the film - one could certainly be annoyed about the way Jonathan Mostow’s Breakdown uses Kathleen Quinlan’s character mostly as a McGuffin in its plot instead of a character with much agency. But then, it’s mostly the bad guys here who actually treat her this way (and one could argue that her dropping a truck on J.T. Walsh at the end demonstrates Amy’s feelings concerning this matter quite well) – Jeff just goes to bat for a person he loves in the only way that seems open to him. Mostow also couldn’t really avoid this kind of accusation without making a completely different film, for showing Amy doing things to free herself, or really showing anything of what happens to her, would open up the limited perspective the audience and Jeff share, and on which much of the film’s initial tension is based on. As a matter of fact, Amy does certain things to stay alive longer; how this affects Jeff, the film rather elegantly demonstrates later on in practice.

But enough about that, for most of my very mild annoyance about the kidnapped woman trope stopped early on thanks to the sheer conviction of Mostow’s film. There’s such an elegant flow, and such a believable tension coming with the escalation of Jeff’s troubles and emotional state – from confusion, to anger, to total paranoia, to increasing violence – that more abstract considerations just stopped for me after half an hour or so. Breakdown is full of clever little moments and gestures to show how much out of his depth Jeff is. The early film portrays him as your typical upper middle-class guy who has trouble effectively communicating with anyone from the working class beyond economical transactions, sending out exactly the wrong signals to everyone he meets and seemingly unable to read those around him. In fact, the film hints it is this behaviour that has gotten the Taylors in trouble at first. It will, however, turn out it isn’t a backwoods horror family threatening them but just a couple of guys with a disturbingly casual relationship to violence who see the Taylors as easy prey because of quite different signals sent by both of them.

Which then leads to a tense, expertly timed, and tightly staged series of escalating chase and action sequences that should really bring anyone watching right onto the proverbial edges of their seats. Breakdown is as good a mid-budget action thriller as you’ll probably encounter, tight and clever, changing pace and shape with verve and always at just the right moment, further improved by a fine cast in a very good mood.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

In short: Cult of Chucky (2017)

After the events of Curse of Chucky, surviving heroine Nica (Fiona Dourif) has been shipped off into an institution for the criminally insane. Supposedly, she is responsible for all the deaths in that movie actually committed by everyone’s favourite living murder doll Chucky (as always voiced by Brad Dourif). Clearly, we are not in a CSI show. By now, Nica’s creepy psychiatrist Dr. Foley (Michael Therriault) has her convinced there was indeed no living doll involved in the murders, and that she’s totally bonkers. As a reward for that “insight”, Foley brings Nica to a less strict institution.

Of course, Chucky is very real indeed, and uses the opportunity to make Nica’s life miserable again. Also involved are good old Andy Barclay (Alex Vincent), Chucky’s wife and murder-partner Tiffany (Jennifer Tilly), various caricatures of the mentally ill, and a new trick Chucky has learned. Let’s just say the film might as well have been called Army of Chucky.

To be able to enjoy the newest of Don Mancini’s Child’s Play/Chucky movies, the interested viewer needs to be clear about one thing: this is not a movie at all interested in even pretending to take place in the real world. So psychiatric clinics do not work even the tiniest bit like they do in the real world, mental illnesses only have the vaguest connection to any you’d find around here, not to speak of security measures or rescue plans.

If you’re able to get over that – I certainly am – you just might find a lot here to enjoy. Mancini mostly manages to create a mood of proper weirdness, interspersed with quite a few good suspense sequences and bunch of sardonic bloody murders. The pacing is a little off sometimes, particularly when it comes to the scenes with Andy which turn out to be too much build-up to a whole lot of nothing, but there’s always something pleasantly bizarre, outrageous and fun just waiting around the corner of the next scene. Brad Dourif and Jennifer Tilly and their excellent doll bodies are as always a macabre joy, while Fiona Dourif manages to give the whole affair at least some grounding in relatable humanity in what’s a bit of an ultimate straight woman performance, as the supposedly mad (mad!, I tell you) woman who is actually the only sane person in the whole of the film, an irony she and Mancini’s script obviously realize.

This is fun horror of a right now somewhat old-fashioned style that neither properly fits into the realm of slow horror (I’ll call it “post-horror” only if I’m getting paid for that) nor the ultra-calculated house of horrors style of the The Conjuring films and their ilk; despite being the hundredth film in a franchise, this a curiously individual film.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Mindhunters (2004)

Warning: there are some structural spoilers ahead!

Controversial FBI profiling guru Jake Harris (Val Kilmer) is just about through with the newest bunch of psychologically highly volatiles trainees trying to become profilers. Their final test after training exercises that seem to have fuck all to do with profiling (which is a somewhat dubious “science” anyhow, but I digress) is to be dumped on an island for a weekend where they are supposed to hunt a fake serial killer.

The can of meat (Christian Slater, Kathryn Morris, Jonny Lee Miller, Will Kemp, Clifton Collins Jr., Eion Bailey, and Patricia Velasquez with bonus LL Cool J as a cop who’s there as an observer) will soon learn that that there’s something more going on than just a training exercise when a real serial killer starts picking them off one by one, apparently following their greatest strengths, or weaknesses or whatever. Will they soon turn on one another in the way that makes the least possible sense? You betcha!

Ah, the early oughts serial killer thriller, a genre that has caused more pain and suffering than the fictional serial killers in it ever could. How many films about improbably competent killers murdering a bunch of people in absurd and contrived ways do you need to screw in a light bulb, exactly? Clearly, director Renny Harlin wasn’t too sure about the genre being enough to carry another film either, so his Mindhunters does go on a spree of crosspollination with other genres. Most obviously, this is also a bit of a mystery in the And Then There Were None manner, bringing together a bunch of characters in an isolated place trying to figure out who is killing them off one by one. Just without characterisation, which is replaced by rather more unconvincing digital body parts flying hither and yon than you usually encounter in Aggie Christie’s work. And with no butlers in sight. The killings, though very much in the same spirit as Saw - which may or may not be a coincidence, since both films must have been shot at about the same time – also from time to time suggest the way Death in the Final Destination series works, only without the supernatural agency that makes their complicated and contrived manner plausible.

Because that’s clearly not enough of a melange, Mindhunters also aspires to be a twist-laden thriller, with mixed results. On one hand, one early character death in the spirit of Psycho does play well with an audience’s expectations about who is the lead character and star in this particular piece, when the film kills off the character that must seem most threatening to the killer first. On the other hand, the final twist regarding the identity of the killer is absolutely idiotic, making the way LL Cool J’s character acts in the scenes just before that completely inexplicable. That’s a sort of thing all too common in twist-heavy thrillers, but here it seems particularly egregious because it’s not just preparing the final sting but the actual finale. A finale, by the way, that consists mostly of two characters having a shoot-out underwater, for of course, there’s a bit of Renny Harlin-style action movie in the film too.

If you haven’t noticed by now, imaginary reader, Mindhunters is a film that very much wallows in the absurd and the contrived, seemingly on purpose choosing the least plausible and believable elements of all the genres it pilfers, so that Harlin can shoot them in a nearly absurdly slick mid-budget style. Turns out that adding gloss might not make anything going on in the movie more believable, but it sure makes it fun to look at.

And while the film really is as dumb as a whole congregation of rocks (having a rock party together on a rock island, I presume), it is not just fun to look at but indeed very fun to watch, for Harlin uses practically every single stupid idea in the script (and there are legions of stupid ideas in there) as the basis for some kind of exciting set piece, or at least a moment whose idiocy makes a guy like me chuckle in delighted disbelief. That last description also fits the clunky dialogue rather well, where no sentence sound good, or like anything an actual human being would say. Unless it’s a one-liner, then all bets are really off.

All these joys do make Mindhunters a highly entertaining watch, but the most glorious thing here is Jonny Lee Miller’s attempt at what I think must be meant to be some kind of US accent – Texan, perhaps? – as dreamed up by somebody who has only read about the way Americans talk. It is quite the thing to hear.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Three Films Make A Post: When Bad Puppets, turn Good

The Curse of Sleeping Beauty (2016): For the first half hour or even a bit longer, I thought Pearry Reginald Teo’s dark fantasy film was a clever entry into the dark fairy-tale subgenre, but the longer it went on the more clear it became that this is a film whose reach far exceeds its grasp, with a plot that only works because the predecessors in a cursed blood line can’t be bothered to provide needed exposition to their descendants in anything but a code that can only be deciphered very slowly by a (very slow) computer program, featuring many an idea that is brought up but never thought through, showing a wish for the apocalyptic the film’s budget just can’t provide, and finishing on an ending that feels hasty and unsatisfying. It is, as they say, still an interesting effort.

Satan’s Blade (1984): This slasher, directed by one-time director L. Scott Castillo Jr., falls into that awkward space of locally produced low budget slashers where a film is much too amateurish to actually be entertaining when watched as a straight genre entry but isn’t bad or skewed enough to be funny or to work as a bus tour into anyone’s subconscious. There are one or two pleasantly weird moments, and some of the acting might be worth a giggle, but for the most part this is your standard combination of awkward direction, bad acting by people who’ll never be in anything else, and a structure that seems based on the concept that a film’s middle needs to be as slow and boring as possible so the audience truly suffers for art.

Darr @ the Mall (2014): Curiously enough, that last point is where Castillo’s film and this Indian film made thirty years later meet. Not that the stuff surrounding the boring middle in Pawan Kripalani’s sort-of Bollywood version of Mirrors is bound to keep one awake, seeing as it does consists of a lot of really bland jump scares happening to bland characters stumbling through a world of blue colours and needlessly jittery camera but at least it’s not about said characters’ relationship life. Unlike Satan’s Blade this is of course professionally shot, yet I can’t say I had any more fun with it, not to speak of anything going beyond “fun”.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Past Misdeeds: The Incite Mill (2010)

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.

Looking at the career of director Hideo Nakata, I can't avoid the impression he had his difficulties recovering from the catastrophe that was the US The Ring 2, possibly because being responsible for that one is a shame someone with even a little bit of pride in his work would have a hard time living down.

In Nakata's case, his decline isn't as horrible as it could be. In fact, compared with Takashi Shimizu, the state of Nakata's career is absolutely golden, seeing as he's not making something called Rabbit Horror 3D, and doesn't seem to have lost all his talent while slumming in Hollywood. The Incite Mill is a clear demonstration that he still has what made me fall in love with his earlier films.

The Incite Mill is a pretty typical entry into a sub-genre of the thriller occupied with putting a bunch of characters into an artificially locked down place, having them submit to peculiar and bizarre rules and observing them fastly starting to kill each other off, in part because People Ain't No Good™, in part because the party responsible for their imprisonment does some subtle and some not so subtle things to, well, incite them to murder. In this variation, the characters have come to the place of their imprisonment out of their own volition, for the promise of a surprising amount of money for just seven days of work in a psychological experiment. Of course, they didn't expect quite as much violence, nor that they'd be the stars in one of these popular Internet shows nobody in the cast has ever heard of you only encounter in movies.

As this is a Japanese movie, the rules element is quite heavily emphasised, emphasizing one of the hobby horses of Japanese pop culture of the last ten years or so in what I presume to be a reaction to the country's still heavily restrictive and regimented society and the resulting pressures to conform on the individual.

There are also many allusions to classic manor mysteries (ten little Indians ahoy), and the Cluedo-inspiring (or Clue-inspiring for you Americans) construction of that very mechanical sub-genre.At times, Nakata seems to want to escape the heavy artificiality of his set-up by pointing it out himself. To a degree, this works pretty well, though I couldn't help but begin to question parts of the story's basic set-up I would probably not have questioned in a movie less knowingly artificial. Just to take an obvious example: how come the police hasn't gotten involved if this is not the first time this little show has been broadcast? I can believe in police laziness and incompetence without a problem, but I'm pretty sure this sort of thing would at least have been in every news show in the country, and therefore nothing the characters could not know about. And while I'm thinking about logical problems, how is it that most of the characters actually believe anyone (especially people who never ever show their faces to them) would pay enormous amounts of money for them to take part in a simple psychological experiment? I find this sort of thing much harder to believe than the existence of ghosts, aliens, and vampires, but your mileage may very well vary.

The Incite Mill's best moments are interesting enough to let me forget these doubts, however. Besides taking cues from manor mysteries and the brethren in its own sub-genre, the film also does some things that are bound to help a guy like me forget little niggles like logic problems and a lack of coherent worldbuilding. Namely, there is a slight SF element in the form of one of these new-fangled ceiling-bound robots with impressive gripper arms (as well as some useful gadgets). Even though it isn't talking or beeping melodically like a good robot should, it's still there to throw people in jail, inefficiently patrol the Paranoia House's (yes, that's how the place of the experiment is named - surely no reason to get paranoid) corridors at night, and to delight my heart to no end. After all, everything is better with robots.

I'd be remiss in my duties if I didn't mention the good ensemble cast, consisting - among others - of actual movie star Tatsuya Fujiwara (with whom Nakata has worked before on the superior Death Note spinoff L: Change the World), veteran actor Kinya Kitaoji, veteran TV actress Nagisa Katahira, and some other members of the TV actor and idol business (Haruka Ayase, Satomi Ishihara, Takura Ohno and others). All of them (yes, even the male idols) deliver performances that are generally convincing and often even quite intense. There's never the feeling that you're watching idols act. Rather, these are actors who also take part in the idol rat race, but do know about more than pushing their physical assets into the camera. There's a certain degree of overacting on display, but overacting seems to fit the hysteria-inducing situation the characters are in quite well. Plus, I prefer conscious and artful overacting to the near-catatonic blandness that is so trendy in English language cinema right now. I understand, all that botox makes one's face difficult to move, but still…

Hideo Nakata for his part has never been a flashy director, usually preferring a style that subtly influences an audience’s perception of a story and its characters to one that is always pointing at the director's technical abilities but which usually works to the detriment of the narrative. Nakata is too self-assured a director to have much of a need for showing off. If you want to see his technical accomplishments, you will find them in the careful framing of scenes, in the precise rhythms his films' editing creates, and in Nakata's strong sense for iconic imagery that works as an actual, living part of his movies. In The Incite Mill, Nakata shows that all of these talents are still alive and well in him, serving him as well in his new genre of choice as they did when he was making the horror films which made me fall in love with Japanese horror.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

In short: It (2017)

This is another case where general popularity and my taste diverge quite a bit. Supposedly, Andy Muschietti’s adaptation - which has neither the structure, nor most of the themes, nor the heart of the book by Stephen King it adapts – was one of the best horror movies of 2017. The film I watched on the other hand, was all the worst of the sort of mainstream horror filmmaking that understands the genre exclusively as a delivery mechanism for “scares” in one overlong package.

“Scares”, the film does indeed include. Way too many of them, as a matter of fact, for there’s barely a scene going by which doesn’t end on some sort of “shocking” supernatural manifestation (or at least some practical bullying). Because this is a technically well made film, for the first half an hour or so, this is okay, if a little monotonous, but the unrelenting series of shocks, jump scares, random Pennywise appearances and so on soon grow first thin, then tedious. It’s as if performing the same trick over and over and over for two hours straight does not an actual movie make.

Given the overwhelming amount of time Muschietti spends on increasingly disinteresting “horror” bits, it is no wonder the film lacks in many other regards: the characters are paper-thin one-note creatures only there to be scared and bullied and finally rally in a way the film doesn’t actually bother to prepare properly (again, no time for characterisation when you need to pop out a clown every five minutes), which is a particular shame given the brilliant book this is based on (say what you will about King, “paper-thin”, his characters aren’t). Mood-building or a sense of place are of course absent, too (guess why), as are any of the actual depths of the King novel, or even just a proper dramatic arc that doesn’t creak under its own mechanics.

In other words: I was hoping for a movie, but all I got was another lame house of horrors that clearly doesn’t even understand its source novel’s concept of evil and replaces it with an obnoxious evil clown so desperately designed to be scary he never actually is.