Saturday, March 31, 2018

Three Films Make A Post: A journey that begins where everything ends!

Roger Dodger (2002): As all films about the horrible plight of being a (r)aging full-time asshole, Dylan Kidd’s film quickly came to a point for me where the question arose why I should care about this guy (or, for that matter, for his Jesse Eisenbergian – fortunately played by Eisenberg or things would be awkward - sixteen year old nephew who comes to him for explanations regarding the nature and habits of those strange creatures male filmmakers just never quite seem to be able to see as people, “women”), and listen to the film letting him drone on and on and on and on and on and on and on (and on)? For my compassion, the film doesn’t put any work in; for my derision, Campbell Scott’s Roger isn’t interesting enough; my mockery, I save for targets who do harm to more than themselves and my ears. See me shrug.

A Silent Voice aka Koe no Katachi (2016): And yet, it isn’t actually all that difficult to make me care about a pretty unlikeable character, as the protagonist of Naoko Yamada’s and Norihiro Tomiita’s anime demonstrates. This is after all a teenager who bullies a deaf female student to an inordinate degree. Of course, he is eventually ostracized by everyone around him for this, even by the people surrounding him who weren’t much better at all, and spends the next couple of years not just suffering from a bad consciensce but actually doing something about it. The film complicates what could be a too simplistic tale of redemption that could end in romance by insisting on giving every character involved a complex inner life, exploring the moments when easy solutions and even easy moral judgements stop working, as well as getting closer to actual feelings of teenage loneliness, yet never falling into the trap of pretending everything must end as badly as possible.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006): In comparison, Mamoru Hosoda’s anime adapatation of Tsutsui Yasutaka’s much adapted novel is a bit conventional. This doesn’t mean this time-travelling tale of various kinds of heightened teenage emotions and the cusp of what we laughingly call growing up isn’t highly effective in most everything it does, be it jerking tears or producing guffaws. It’s just not quite as complicated, insightful or honest as Yamada’s and Tomiita’s film, going for love, laughter, pain and bittersweetness of a more generic and safe variety. It’s a very well done safe variety, mind you, presented beautifully and feeling satisfying. Plus, there’s no asshole holding horrible monologues for hours on end.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Past Misdeeds: The Imperial Swordsman (1972)

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.

As always, the Chinese Emperor is in trouble. The high-ranking official Fu Bing-Zhong (Cheng Miu), who is supposed to guard the Empire's eastern borders, is planning to attack the capital with the help of a bandit army and his Mongol allies. When the Emperor finds out about Fu's treasonous ways, he relieves him of his posts, and orders him to return to the capital. Fu pretends to go along with the Imperial edict, and starts off in the direction of the capital on foot and only accompanied by a lone servant. In truth, he's carrying his attack plan on the capital and a list of names of generals in his pack to bring that information to the heavily fortified mountain base of his army of bandits.

Lord Sun (Lee Pang-Fei), whoever he might be, somehow knows what Fu's plans are and sends out four imperial bodyguards - the sisters Shi Xue-Lan (Shu Pei-Pei) and Shi Xue-Mei (Yue Wai), and the rather dubious looking couple of Zhi Yu (Lee Wan-Chung) and Gu Wan (Liu Wai) - to kill the traitor and get a hold of his plans, and if need be to infiltrate the mountain base of their enemy and break all resistance there. If possible, they are to team up with imperial swordsman Yin Shu-Tang (Chuen Yuen), who walks around the countryside being rude to people while dressing a lot like a certain character out of Yojimbo, and a small group of men lead by Jin Zhi-Ping (Tung Li) who have infiltrated parts of the bandit organization. At least I think that's what the plan is - the film sure isn't making that point very clear, and in the beginning, the characters tend to act in a way that doesn't fit too well with what they are out to achieve. The Shi sisters, for example, pretend to be a pair of sisters on the run from a marriage, and hunted by Zhi and Gu, which certainly makes a degree (but only a degree) of sense as long as they are interacting with Fu and trying to look harmless but doesn't make a lick of sense when they do it towards Yin too.

Be that as it may, before long, everybody knows more or less on which side he or she stands, and a desperate battle can begin.

For the first forty minutes of its running time, Lam Fook-Dei's The Imperial Swordsman seems like a rather minor Shaw Brothers wuxia that features some promising fight scenes but more often than not shoots itself in the foot with a lack of narrative clarity that is remarkable even for a film in a genre not exactly known for such a clarity. The longer it goes on, though, the less interested the film seems in being needlessly confusing (not to be confused with the needed confusion of a Chor Yuen film), and the more interested it becomes in being awesome.

Once the protagonists start their attack on Fu's base, the whole film turns into a long (about thirty to forty minutes), and incredibly intense series of fights and pitched battles that is as good as anything of its type I've seen. Lam (with whose body of work apart from The Imperial Swordsman I am disappointingly unfamiliar) shows a fantastic ability to not only increase the action's intensity from moment to moment, even when he's juggling three or four fights happening parallel to each other in different parts of the base, but to show it in ever changing imaginative ways that at times seem heavily influenced by the way Japanese chambara films used to frame their action. The Imperial Swordsman's fights are often as much about the parts of the fights Lam's camera doesn't show as about those it shows, trading a bit of clarity of choreography (which was by the way created by Leung Siu-Chung) for the ability to surprise from shot to shot.

Lam again and again does things like going from standard wuxia camera set-ups to thirty sudden seconds of a static shot looking from outside into a corridor into and out of which the fighters move, so that we only ever see parts of the battle surrounding the camera's point of view, which again is replaced by a more close and more dynamic set-up for a short interlude with a more individual (and therefore more personal) fight. Somehow, Lam's creative style never gives the impression of belonging to a director just wanting to show off, and never breaks the all-important rhythm - wuxias of course having a lot in common with musicals - of the film. It's a fantastic and altogether unexpected thing to witness in a film that began merely being solidly done.

Lam also shows a fine eye for shooting some well-known Shaw Brothers cave sets in ways I haven't seen before, making the very familiar look new and exciting again. I also approve of a bit of obvious but beautiful miniature work that stands in for locations nobody working for the Shaws could ever have afforded to shoot in; there are some of the standard outside locations every regular viewer of these films know by heart, but the artifice of model work is in many cases better - at least moodier - than nature in any case.

The Imperial Swordsman's mood is somewhat gritty, with an emphasis on decorative blood spatters and some pretty gruesome - yet great - ideas for action set pieces, like the fight where one of the Shi sisters has to avoid being run through with her own sword that's sticking in the belly of her opponent. As that example should make clear, Lam's film may be on the more bloody and gritty side of the Shaw Brothers' output, but it sure is preferring fun gritty violence to the more realistic type. It is, of course, a directorial decision that's right up my alley, especially when the film's idea of fun leads to moments like the one when Xue-Mei gets rid of a whole corridor (there are a lot of corridors in this movie) of guards with the help of her trusty throwing darts, as demonstrated by some fast cuts, a few swishing noises and a lot of falling bodies. And really, that's the thing about The Imperial Swordsman's second half: it's so full of exciting little moments like this, of outrageous ideas and imagination I could go on for another thousand words or so just listing every single one of them.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Random Gushing about Die Hard (1988)

Because this is a childhood (well, teenhood) classic for me and has held up through repeated viewings nearly on the level of the original Star Wars trilogy, I’m making even less of a pretence to objectivity (which I don’t actually believe in when talking about any kind of human expression) than usual. So this is more a list of various bits and pieces I particularly enjoyed and found interesting  or just thought about while watching Die Hard this time around.

For those among my imaginary readers who haven’t seen this (even though I suspect these are even more imaginary then the rest of you): this is one of the three or four best US big budget action films of the last century, featuring Bruce Willis in his absolute prime, the true spirit of Christmas (which has a lot to do with explosions), Jan de Bont doing what he’s actually good at (hint: it is not directing, and certainly not Shirley Jackson adaptations) and brilliant action movie filmmaking by John McTiernan, also in his absolute prime.

This is certainly one of the godfathers of the non-brain-dead blockbuster style action movie. Now, I’m not pretending Die Hard is a film of infinite depths, but it’s certainly not treating its audience as zombies like the Michael Bay school of this sort of thing demands. To wit: watch how much of the film is actually conscious of the concept of class and how it plays out in practice, and how much of it is a paean to the working stiff which is kinda, well, socialist, really, given how all people in class-based authority are either evil or utterly incompetent, and how a deeply working class cop helped by the voice of another cop at the bottom rung of the ladder (in a lovely performance by Reginald VelJohnson) saves the day.

Feeding into this is that Willis is never portrayed as an unstoppable killing machine, not just because Willis’s kind of charisma at this point, following a long stint as mostly a comedic actor, is a very human one. He’s also the rare action hero who sweats and bleeds a lot, losing as much of his clothing as the film can get away with, and coming over as genuinely tired, in danger, and heartily sick of the whole affair, only coming through via the very working class virtue of tenacity. This also makes the film a good fit for the more American reading of being about the lone guy who puts things right with elbow grease and conviction, but then, the country as it is was founded by protestants, with whom this sort of thing particularly resonates.

It’s also pretty interesting that the script is interested enough in social reality to have little moments like the one where the insufferable Deputy Police Chief introduces himself to the African American FBI agent while calling him “man”, and is rebuked simply but effectively. These bits of reality standing beside broad caricature make all of the film’s awesome implausibilities (German Alan Rickman! Crazy FBI cowboys!) more believable and even more fun. Also, explosions are pretty.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The Passage (1979)

Some time during World War II. The resistance against the Germans hires a nameless grumpy old Basque shepherd (grumpy old Anthony Quinn, wearing the appropriate beret to prove his basqueness) to lead a Swedish scientist (James Mason, a very Swedish gentleman, as we all well know) sought by the Nazis through the Pyrenees. Of course, things will turn out more complicated than that. Firstly, it becomes soon clear the good Professor isn’t going to come alone but is bringing his whole family – his ill wife (Patricia Neal), his rebellious teenage son (Paul Clemens) and his soon-to be raped by Nazis daughter (Kay Lenz).

That’s enough to make the Basque even grumpier, but what’s worse is that the Germans have sent a guy after them who is insane even by the standards of the SS – Captain von Berkow (Malcolm McDowell), wearer of swastika underwear, torturer by kitchen implement and all-around murderous crazy bastard. And the whole “crossing the Pyrenees” bit? Well, the Basque will spend large parts of the film getting the family there from Paris.

If you’re interested in a film where the sensibilities of the more sensible of Charles Bronson’s main directors, J. Lee Thompson, seem to have magically turned into those of that other Bronson favourite, old sleazebag Michael Winner, this is the film to watch. Given the quality of the cast, one would expect The Passage to be a pretty serious adventure movie with moments of earnest drama; instead it is a lurid concoction of crazy ideas, bizarre bullshit, scenes right out of a Nazisploitation movie, and a couple of scenes one might buy as earnest if not for the tone of everything surrounding them, like a certain heroic sacrifice late in the film.

The most bizarre and the most entertaining part of the whole thing is certainly Malcolm McDowell’s performance. McDowell portrays his crazy cartoon Nazi as if his Alex from A Clockwork Orange had found a place and time where he truly belonged, torturing people, having at least four different kinds of murderous hissy fits, gloating, presenting his swastika underwear with crazy laughter, imitating Hitler in front of a mirror, and so on and so forth. Of course, the way the film goes, the laughter and amusement McDowell’s crazy capering produces crashes right into moments of intense discomfort. His very special underwear, for example, is positioned right in the middle of the scenes in which he first humiliates Lenz’s character and then rapes her. There’s also a comparable scene where cartoon Nazi strutting ends with an actually horrific massacre of the family of Christopher Lee’s character (inevitably, given the way this one casts nobody in an appropriate role, playing the leader of a group of Romani). It’s as if Thompson is doing his damndest to make a viewer uncomfortable in their enjoyment of evil cartoon Nazis.

The thing is, I’m honestly not sure at all if Thompson is doing this one purpose, perhaps trying the make a point about our enjoyment of atrocities in cinema if it is only presented with a wink, if McDowell is sabotaging/saving the film, or what the hell was going on behind the scenes here. It certainly is never boring to witness, but instead at times funny, at times unpleasant and at times bewildering. For the last one, there’s for example a highly peculiar fake-out ending that suggest a whopper of a 70s downer only to then explain that the combined powers of Quinn and Mason’s fatherly voices can put a dying Nazi into a hallucinatory state. I have no idea why that bit is in there, what anyone involved was thinking, or honestly, what the hell I was watching for half of the time.

Ironically enough, given how crazy parts of the film are, the cast apart from McDowell (who is not from planet Earth) makes usually surprisingly naturalistic acting choices for their surroundings, while Thompson works a lot with hand-held camera and set-ups that suggest a naturalistic/documentarian approach. Which, as should be obvious by now, is another choice that makes little sense whatsoever, but in the most interesting way possible. From time to time, Thompson also manages to slip in a couple of perfectly straightforward action and suspense sequences, as if this were your typical World War II adventure movie.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

In short: Grave Secrets: The Legacy of Hilltop Drive (1992)

Because it’s the 90s, this made-for-TV haunted house tale directed by John Patterson is supposedly based on a true story, though the damn Warrens were apparently – and fortunately – not involved. Some charming Southern family – Patty Duke as the matriarch and David Selby as the patriarch cursed with the somewhat eyebrow-raising first name of “Shag” – builds a new house in some charming Southern area where the land is surprisingly cheap. Alas, they are soon haunted by a truckload of supernatural phenomena, starting with the particular obsession of American TV movie ghosts, the ghostly flushing of toilets, but certainly moving into more interesting, gruesome, or weird directions, too. I turns out the piece of land they built on was once part of a graveyard for former slaves.

Alas, at about that point, the film starts losing steam quickly, developing an unfortunate interest in the pre-judicial proceedings between the family, their neighbours, and the (probably evil) real estate company that sold them the land. In fact, the film’s losing drive so quickly, even the ghost induced deadly heart attack of a daughter doesn’t get the dramatic emphasis it – as the actual climax of the story – should have. Grave Secrets suffers from what I can be now call “true ghost story syndrome”, so that is can’t really bring itself to end in a dramatically satisfying climax, because true ghost stories just never have that sort of thing. That it mostly wastes the opportunity to metaphorically examine white Southern guilt despite a set-up that basically screams for it is par for the course. But then, if a film can’t even milk ghost-induced cancer and heart attacks properly, asking for depth might be a bit much.

It is something of a shame, though, for some of the ghostly manifestations are genuinely creepy, strange, and even upsetting. There’s a pretty cool (and unpleasant) moment where the family’s birds are apparently killed by insects that works very well, later followed by a wonderfully strange bit where the (of course sceptical) Shag suddenly turns around and sees the bird cage and the birds looking alive and well at their old place, only to have them disappear again once he turns on the lights. I’m also fond of the moment where Patty Duke’s character witnesses their garage door first opening for a snake to slither through, and then politely closing behind the animal. Unfortunately, Grave Secrets seems more interested in the horror of ghosts costing families “their investment” than in the ghosts and what they might mean.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Deathline (1997)

aka Redline

aka Armageddon

aka The Syndicate

We are in some sort of mildly cyberpunk-y future where everybody’s a bit of a freak. Aging tough guy John Anderson Wade (Rutger Hauer, not doing much, but doing it like Rutger Hauer, which is what we came to see) is smuggling some kind of virtual reality implants into Russia. Alas, he is betrayed by his girlfriend (Yvonne Sciò) and his partner Merrick (Mark Dacascos). Not that his girlfriend has much joy of it, for Merrick guns her down right after Wade.

Wade’s corpse is recovered by corrupt elements of the Russian authorities who use some kind of experimental technique on him to revive him. I’m still not quite sure why, and am not willing to even start thinking about the how, but there you are. Anyway, once Wade’s alive and awake again, he quickly manages to escape captivity and goes on a murderous rampage, I mean, subtly tries to find and take vengeance on Merrick. Only without the subtlety. Merrick for his part is now a middle-sized wheel that would like to be a big one in criminal and corrupt circles, so there are goons to shoot before him.

Wade’s good at that sort of thing, though, so no biggie there. He also quickly acquires the help of one Marina K. (also Yvonne Sciò), who not only happens to look exactly like his late girlfriend but also shares her taste in older men. Oh, and she’s handy with guns and face-kicking, too.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if someone told me that an earlier script version of Deathline explained all of the weirdness going on in it by most of its plot being an Incident at Owl Creek Bridge-style fantasy in the brain of a dead man. As it stands, the finished version of Tibor Takács film doesn’t explain or excuse any of its weird shit at all; as a matter of fact, it doesn’t even bother to explain much of its plot. Which is fair enough, given that most of what’s going on is only meant to set up various pretty okay action scenes, some hideously bad CGI effects, and a really, really, really long sex scene.

Everything that’s going on between these scenes feels like variously successful attempts by the filmmakers to distract themselves and their audience from the most basic of plots and the vagaries of working on a small budget (but at least shooting in Hungary where you get somewhat more bang for your miniscule buck) by throwing as much random crap on the screen and at the audience as possible. It’s a time-honoured technique which can help enhance a film with snarky dialogue, bizarre satire, or just with a bunch of sight gags. Quite a few Roger Corman productions from the 70s and 80s became at least minor classics of various genres this way. Deathline never manages to do anything quite this successful, but for an action film that obviously can’t afford much action – and even less martial arts action despite casting Dacascos – its general weirdness and distractibility keeps it pretty entertaining. At least if you enjoy stuff like “The House of Culture” being a bordello, a TV re-enactment of Wade’s crimes that shows him gunning down a baby in its cart in a play on exactly the scene you’re thinking about just now, only with a pretty tiny flight of stairs, bizarre dream sequences that feel like set-ups for future psychological depth which will never arrive, and so on.

Too bad that Takács’s direction is atypically bland for most of the time, but I still had a reasonable amount of fun with Deathline.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Three Films Make A Post: Sometimes love is a strange and wicked game.

Atomic Blonde (2017): This action-heavy spy movie is a pretty big disappointment, managing to waste the enormous talents of a great cast (though the usually great Charlize Theron is about as British as Donald Trump, but then, her character never feels British in any way either), and a seldom used setting on a series of empty gestures that suggests the film wants to be a smart, POP! version of the spy genre but only ever reaches the smug and the arbitrary. The setting of Berlin just before the fall of the Wall is neither authentic nor inauthentic in interesting ways, instead a series of lame clichés presented with the same self-congratulatory gestures the film uses for everything. Unfortunately, there’s really no substance here, no point, no philosophy, no interesting character arcs; and when it comes to the style and surface values, director David Leitch is clearly trying but it doesn’t come much of it.

The Constant Gardener (2005): This John le Carré adaptation by Fernando Meirelles on the other hand has substance, style and actual British people and combines an angry anti-colonialist subtext with deep and complex characterisation, excellent acting not just by leads Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz, and the quiet desperation you often find in le Carré. It’s particularly admirable how elegantly Meirelles mixes two very different genres, the conspiracy thriller and the scenes of a marriage type drama in a way that suggests – but never actually states – commonality between private failings of trust and public corruption and lies that goes beyond the more simple game of betrayal.

Mausoleum (1983): If you’re making it through Michael Dugan’s very silly yet highly entertaining possession horror movie (made in a time when possession horror wasn’t necessarily about exorcisms and the possessed hanging out on the ceiling) you’ll become highly acquainted with the breasts of lead actress Bobbie Bresee, in their traditional state as well as dolled up with John Buechler devised demon mouth nipples (with teeth), you will believe that eyes glow green, as well as that cursed-based possession is best cured by elderly doctors putting a crown of thorns on the possessee’s head. You will also witness Marjoe Gortner’s hilarious death face, a bewildering twist ending, and all the latex and rubber Dugan could get out of Buechler. In between, there’s even more nudity, characters who all act as if they were in a porn movie, and some pretty damn funny 80s style deaths. Obviously, it’s not a good movie in a traditional sense (at least if you’re like me and expect mood, character or narrative of one) but it certainly never bores even for a second.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Past Misdeeds: Sennentuntschi (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  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.

1975. Just after a small village in the Swiss Alps has buried its sacristan following his suicide, a bloody and battered young woman (Roxane Mesquida) appears in town. The woman doesn't seem to be able to speak, and is clearly either heavily traumatized or mentally ill, but the villagers at once blame her for the sacristan's death. After all, one of the villagers saw what he thinks was a woman in a monk's robe in the mountains the day before, so witchcraft must be afoot! This must make some kind of sense to the villagers, even though it's the sort of logic that's only logical if you're a surrealist. It sure doesn't help improve the situation when the local priest brandishes his crucifix in the poor woman's face and provokes her into a fit of panic.

Confronted with that sort of superstition, and a little bit infatuated with the mysterious stranger, the local constable Reusch (Nicholas Ofczarek), seemingly the only man in town who isn't batshit insane, takes charge of the woman and attempts to find out who she is and where she came from. He stumbles upon something strange: his new ward looks exactly like a woman who disappeared twenty-five years ago during the burning of a mountain cabin that killed three men.

While Reusch is away talking to the retired cop who worked the case in the 50s, the priest attacks the nameless girl with a knife, and drives her to flight. On her way, she accidentally causes a miscarriage (her fear of crosses is again to blame) in Reusch's former girlfriend (now the mayor's wife), which conclusively proves to anyone not Reusch that she is in fact a witch.

Next time we see the girl again, she arrives at the mountain cabin of farmer Erwin (Andrea Zogg), his son-who-thinks-he's-his-nephew Albert (Joel Basman), and their newly arrived helper Martin (Carlos Leal), who is on the run for the murder of his wife, and therefore just as insane as everyone else in the movie. Because they were just having an orgy with home-made absinth, the men kinda-sorta assume the girl's a Sennentuntschi like in the old tale about a straw doll brought to life by the devil. Clearly, the girl's suffering won't end with her arrival.

All the while, Reusch discovers the dark secret of his village.

So, the classic continental European artful exploitation movie, horror department, is alive and well and living in Switzerland, it seems. Even though director Michael Steiner deconstructs most (yet not quite all) potential supernatural aspects of his story and the Sennentuntschi legend, he's doing everything else I've come to expect in and hope from this kind of film.

As the plot synopsis should have made clear, the film is heavily over-written, full of preposterous plot ideas (only about half of which I've mentioned) and melodramatic explanations for everything that's happening, populated by (predominantly male) characters who are all so clearly out of their minds as to make a girl who can't speak, acts like a child and turns dead guys into straw dolls look positively normal. In addition Sennentuntschi is told with a structural trick I'm not going to spoil that I don't think makes the film any better, but clearly makes it a hell of a lot weirder; in fact, I'm utterly unsure if Steiner wants his audience to be surprised by that trick or not - his film is sending very mixed messages about it.

This may sound as if Sennentuntschi weren't a good movie at all, but the opposite is true. There's a lot to be said for the film's over-serious rediscovery of much of what was good about European genre cinema of the 70s, the rediscovery of a combination of strangeness, metaphorical overload, and classic exploitational values, as well as for its the willingness to be nasty and cruel to its characters, even those it clearly doesn't hate. I, for one, can't help but respect a film that gives up clarity for the possibility of surprising its audience. But then, that's what I would say.

On the film's metaphorical level, Steiner seems to be quite obsessed with dualities. At least, the film is stuffed full with them, from the boring man-woman and rationality-superstition ones to the structural one I'm still not willing to spoil. As is good and well-loved tradition, the film's narrative logic and the reasons for its narrative logic can get a bit confusing, which seems to be a fitting way to construct a narrative about characters who are all not exactly mentally healthy.

Not confusing at all is Steiner's visual mastership. The director uses the impressive Swiss landscape to build a mood of overwhelming strangeness, and to intensify the already over-heated feelings of his characters, grounding the strangeness of what is happening in the very real, yet also very strange mountain landscape of a place whose harshness seems to influence the state of mind of the characters populating it for the worse.

I also found myself very impressed by Roxane Mesquida's performance. Her combination of childlike body language, the visible remnants of hurt and pain, a peculiarly innocent sexuality and a very calm sort of madness dominate the film's best moments without being showy. If not for Mesquida's performance, the part of the film's metaphorical level that's all about contrasting "maleness" and "femaleness" would probably be quite annoying, but the actress turns what could be a mere symbol - and a symbol of various conflicting things, by the way - into a person. Plus, most of the male characters' problem isn't their maleness, but their being murderous rapist assholes, a fact the film seems to realize about half of the time. Which again puts Sennentuntschi directly in the tradition of classic European exploitation movies, where the subversive, the uncomfortable and the conservative have always been entwined in the most interesting, yet also often very uncomfortable, manner.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

In short: Big Bad Wolf (2006)

Teenagers in cabins. Does is ever end well? Sensitive teen Derek Cowley (Trevor Duke) really wants to get into the student fraternity his deceased father – who died from having a leg ripped off by a werewolf while on a hunting trip in Africa, though his son doesn’t know that – belonged to at his age. So he has to agree when a couple of his future frat bros and their girlfriends ask him to host them for a weekend in the cabin in the woods belonging to his awful, abusive step father Mitch (Richard Tyson). In need of reinforcements, Derek also invites his friend and crush Sam (Kimberly J. Brown). A good decision, as it will turn out, for her solidly developed survival skills will save both of their asses when the cabin is attacked by a quipping werewolf who won’t ever shut up with rape jokes. Sam and Derek are the only survivors.

Back home, the two soon develop a terrible suspicion: Mitchell might not just be abusive, he’s a werewolf!

Lance W. Dreesen’s Big Bad Wolf is a frustrating movie, mixing sleaze, terribly unfunny humour, quite a bit (which is to say, too much) rapiness, solid filmmaking, good effects and some enticing ideas that attempt to treat the werewolf as a symbol for abusive men.

The last bit is obviously what I find interesting about the film. There are a couple of scenes which – also thanks to Tyson’s good performance – indeed seem to want to say something about what regular abuse – be it verbal or physical – does to its victims as well as to the humanity of its perpetrators. Unfortunately, these moments and the film’s sense of humour are no fit at all, seeing as it is a rather difficult proposition to seriously thematize abuse and its psychological consequences while making rape joke. It’s a bit as if Dreesen (who also wrote the script) was mashing two werewolf films of rather incompatible tones randomly together, weakening the interesting one decisively with the heap of bad decisions that is the other.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Haunted (1991)

When the Smurl family – mother Janet (Sally Kirkland), father Jack (Jeffrey DeMunn and quite a bit of facial hair), a couple of grandparents and an ever increasing number of children – first move into their shiny new house, a couple of horrifying things happen: a hammer disappears, a toaster starts burning, and, well, I suppose some socks don’t make their way back from the washer, but nobody mentions it. Anyway, over the course of the following years, lots of small things make the life of the Smurls more difficult, inducing the make-up department to paint quite some shadows under poor Sally Kirkland’s eyes.

Supernatural activity does increase over time, until black shadows have a bit of a float around, someone makes bathing noises, someone invisible “uses foul language” in Janet’s voice (the horror! the horror!) and so on and so forth. Things turn so bad, Janet becomes convinced the house is haunted. It takes quite some time, but once Jack has the opportunity to hear the whispers coming out of Janet’s pillow, he’s convinced of it, too. Eventually, the Smurls call in Ed and Lorraine Warren (Stephen Markle and Diane Baker), who will, as is their wont, not actually be terribly much help to anyone, as won’t the Catholic Church, who is unwilling to exorcise the Smurls and their house even after the Warrens have churned out their usual diagnosis of “It’s demons! And ghosts!”. There’s other rambling stuff to come, some escalation of the hauntings, but if you are hoping for some form of a dramatic climax, all you’ll get is a prayer meeting and the slow fizzling out of a plot that wasn’t terribly interesting in the first place.

Which is of course not a terribly surprising problem in a film that sells itself on being “based on a true story” and actually means it, for the sort of manifestations generally reported from actual hauntings (full disclosure: I don’t believe in the authenticity of any of this, but I’m perfectly willing to play) tend to be, well, a bit boring, really, so if you have a pretence of realism, you’ll have mostly boring manifestations too, as well as a non-ending where nothing is resolved or explained. However, the film – it was produced for FOX television, after all - does feature some rather spectacular elements. Dad is raped by a demon, after all, and Janet gets up to a bit of levitation action, so there’s really no reason for the film to not also come up with a decent climax or an ending.

The film’s true problem, I think, lies in the direction of Robert Mandel. A better director could have managed to milk the more quotidian moments for chills pretty well, but in Mandel’s hands, there’s a blandness to much of the proceedings. There is, to be fair, a tense sequence where Janet follows the bathing sounds through darkened corridors that really works wonders, and the business with Janet’s talking pillows is handled rather well, too. The rest, though, just doesn’t work at all. The demon rape sequence is so awkwardly done, it’s even funny, something no rape scene should ever be. In that particular case, it doesn’t help the film’s case at all that DeMunn underplays his character’s reaction afterwards terribly. Apparently, demon rape is not a big thing for him (happens all the time in suburbia, once presumes). The film’s pacing is just off, too, with too many scenes wasted on business like the family calling in the press only to then complain that the press is besieging their house. What did they expect – exorcism by journalists?

The most interesting aspect of this whole thing is probably its connection to a certain rather popular mainstream horror franchise. This is an earlier example of the Warren businesses’ media-savvy, somehow managing to rope perfectly normal filmmakers into making feature length ads for them, though it curiously enough suffers from the same problems that – to my eyes – haunt the The Conjuring films, too. It’s not just the holier-than-though aspect of the characters, or their really boring version of Christian mythology, that makes their popularity in fictional films a bit puzzling to me, it’s also how boring their emphasis on being “normal” makes them as characters. If there were demons in the real world, I very much suspect the people fighting them would be a lot more interesting than these non-entities. Another curious parallel to the The Conjuring films is of how little use the couple actually is to the people they are supposedly helping. They are not quite on the low level of LeFanu’s Martin Hesselius but are generally portrayed as pretty ineffectual in anything they do before a film’s finale rolls around, even though the films themselves never seem to actually realized this and talk throughout as if they were badass conservative demon fighters. A problem The Haunted exacerbates by not having an actual finale.

So, unless you really need to watch all Warren-related horror movies, this is one to avoid.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

In short: Night Terror (1977)

aka Night Drive

Through various twists of fate, Carol Turner (Valerie Harper) finds herself alone on a night drive through the US desert states. Usually, Carol is disorganized and seems a little helpless when confronted with the vagaries of her daily life, a state I believe is certainly not helped by a husband (Michael Tolan) who presents with all the hallmarks of 70s TV husbands. He’s a bit of a belittling arse, is what I’m saying. So our heroine seems to be a terrible fit for the situation she finds herself in when she witnesses the murder of a highway patrol officer by a mute killer (Richard Romanus). She doesn’t actually see the killer’s face, but still finds herself chased by him through endless, dark miles of highway, having to outthink and outmanoeuvre him throughout the night.

This fine thriller directed by TV veteran and mainstay E.W. Swackhammer is clearly somewhat inspired by Spielberg’s Duel but it’s not so much a case of straight-out copying the other film than taking the basic set-up, and adding variations that get it onto a different lane in the end. Swackhammer makes a lot out of very simple and straightforward suspense set-ups. A particular favourite is the sequence where our heroine has to break into a gas station where she encounters a series of interlocking obstacles, pretty much like in an old adventure game. Scene like this could in lesser hands feel a bit tedious, perhaps even silly but are usually so well paced on so organically staged they are rather on the nail-biting side.

Harper is – as usual it seems – convincing at portraying Carol’s change from the mentally scattered housewife to a woman capably and effectively fighting for her life. There’s an obvious – unobtrusive – feminist bent to this, where Carol, when taken outside of the zone society (and her husband – shudder) prescribe her, finds strengths and talents she probably never realized she had. I also liked how believable her mistakes are, not the slasher sort where the lamb is basically running into the blade of its slaughterer, but ones perfectly fitting to a woman confronted with a situation nobody sane expects or would be mentally prepared for.

Romanus makes a rather striking villain, achieving creepiness through physical menace, his relative muteness – sometimes he uses a larynx microphone to communicate - a very effective replacement for gloating speeches. You might add a mental digression about the problematic use of his disability as part of his creepiness, or you might shrug about this sort of thing in what is a pulp-style kind of entertainment made four decades ago. Personally, I don’t see much use in the former, but as always, your mileage may very well vary.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Stone Killer (1973)

After a public outcry following his having killed a black teenager in actual self defence (!), experienced New York police lieutenant Lou Torrey (Charles Bronson) loses his job (!) and moves to another big city police department “on the Coast” (that’s at least how all characters will describe the place). A couple of years later, a professional yet drug-addled mafia killer is murdered in Torrey’s custody while he’s bringing him from the Coast to New York. His following investigations put Torrey on the track of a plan to murder the heads of the Mafia. Mafiosi Al Vescari (Martin Balsam) has a plan of vengeance forty years in the making. In a stroke of genius, he has hired and trained a small army of military veterans, thrown away by society after using them, as his kill squad.

As I’ve explained a couple of times here, I’m usually not terribly satisfied with the filmic output of regular Charles Bronson director Michael Winner. However, there are a couple of films in his filmography where he used all his powers of cheap cynicism and his lurid sensibilities for good, resulting in films that are as good as anything in the crime, thriller and action genres they belong to. For my tastes, The Stone Killer is such a film. It is not quite as great as The Mechanic but still is a brilliant series of action scenes and more set in front of the backdrop of all sorts of grimy 70s places Winner grimed up a bit more.

There’s something more to the film, too, for while you can see the beginnings of the classic Bronson character he would increasingly live in after the first Death Wish, Torrey is actually an interesting mix of a character. There are elements of the Dirty Harry style cop who doesn’t seem to think twice about using violence to reach his goals, beating people up and getting into public shoot-outs, but Bronson also gives the character a world-weariness not based on the law not allowing him to shoot more people. As a matter of fact, this is a Bronson character who seems to support gun control (!!!), who tempers casual racism in his language (though he interestingly enough very consciously does not use the N-word, unlike other characters) with actually fair behaviour towards black people. The film even sees him having a decent relationship with the local Black Panthers, and usually preferring de-escalation as a police tactic. Why, the film even suggests Torrey is feeling bad even for the people he kills in self defence. It’s not the sort of thing that you’d expect in a Bronson/Winner film – even this early in their partnership – but it turns Torrey into a character who is more interesting than a perfect killing machine would have been.

Speaking of killing, the film is a rather interesting portrait of its time, not just because Winner shoots in quite a few authentic looking, atmospheric locations, and works from a script full of fantastic hard-boiled dialogue for his 70s character actors to chew on. There are also a lot of snide – this is still a Michael Winner joint – remarks about the mental health of US society of the time (with obvious parallels to the now, if you look for them), particularly in the film’s suggestion that shipping off a whole generation of young, poor people to war, letting them suffer through traumatizing events and teach them how to kill and then ignore their problems once they come back home, might just not be a terribly healthy idea, particularly not in a society quite this fixated on violent solutions to all problems. As it will turn out, in 1973, not even Charles Bronson’s violent solutions resulted in more than a change of leadership for the great and the corrupt.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Three Films Make A Post: Nothing's more dangerous than a man with nothing to lose.

American Violence (2017): This thing, directed by Timothy Woodward Jr., is what they called a “stinker” in the olden times when I still had all my hair and teeth. It’s an overly ambitious movie that makes big gestures towards exploring the nature of violence and evil through a thriller lens but actually spends its running time regurgitating all serial killer thriller clichés you may or may not remember, presenting them through hilariously po-faced direction, tone-deaf dialogue of the “how not terribly clever people think intelligent people speak” type, and actors who just aren’t good enough to sell any of it. Seriously, when your best thespian is Denise Richards (adding a psychologist to her nuclear physicist etc roles), you have yourself a problem.

Patema Inverted aka Sakasama no Patema (2013): This anime directed and written by Yasuhiro Yoshiura, on the other hand, is really rather great. It concerns the adventures of (of course) two teenagers on a post-apocalyptic Earth where some people live with an inverted gravitational direction. That’s of course a pretty damn silly idea, but it drives the film to moments of true awe and wonder, and adds ingenious little twists to help a plot that at its core is as generic as they come feel as vibrant and alive as the animation itself.

There’s also a rather potent metaphorical level to a tale of two people coming from very different places with opposite gravitational pulls falling in love that should speak to romantics of all ages and places.

Cherish (2002): Finn Taylor’s comedy/thriller/whatever does remind me a bit of the films of Jonathan Demme when their genre descriptions were equally vague/all-encompassing. It’s not as good as Demme at his best – there’s a bit too much calculated twee-ness in here for that – but there are moments in here when the film truly sings with a mix of honest eccentricity, surprising ideas, and unpredictable tonal shifts that are indeed the actual tone of the film.

The whole high strangeness of the film is centred around a disarmingly charming main performance by Robin Tunney and an able supporting cast (among others Brad Hunt as an improbable love interest, and Ricardo Gil as our heroine’s gay, wheel-chair bound, little person neighbour who isn’t at all the caricature that description may suggest), whose performances organically shift and change with the film.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Past Misdeeds: Mr Wrong (1986)

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.

Meg (Heather Bolton perfectly embodying a mixture of inexperience/naivety and hidden strength) has left her country home for the big city (I'd insert a joke about what "big city" means in New Zealand here, but that would be oh so inappropriate seeing where I live), where she works in an antiquities store. To make it easier to visit her parents over the weekends - and probably as a symbol of her freshly won independence - the young woman buys a used Jaguar.

Her first long drive with the car does not go quite as well as Meg would have hoped for. When she stops by the side of the road to take a night nap, she's awoken by hard and pretty unhealthy sounding breathing noises from the back seat of the car that start whenever she turns off the interior lights. Worse, or at least even more frightening to her, there's nothing and nobody to see on the back seat.

After that experience, Meg becomes increasingly nervous and afraid of the car, a state of affairs that is certainly not improved by further peculiar happenings surrounding it. After Meg has had a nightmare centring on a long-haired woman, she sees the exact same woman standing by the side of the road trying to hitch a ride in her waking life. For whatever reason, Meg stops for her.

However, the woman isn't alone. A man (David Letch) gets in together with her, but he doesn't seem to actually be together with the woman as Meg assumes. In fact, he doesn't seem to know about the woman's presence at all, which becomes understandable but not exactly less peculiar when she suddenly just disappears from the car. The guy is more than just a bit creepy too, and Meg has a hard time getting rid of him.

This experience is nearly enough to convince Meg of getting rid of her car as soon as possible, and when she learns that its last owner was a young woman about her age who was murdered, and whose killer has never been caught, our heroine does indeed try to sell it off.

That, however, is much easier said than done, for the car begins to sabotage Meg's efforts in ways that could be explained away by bad luck, if it weren't clear to the young woman her car was haunted.

While all this is going on, a mysterious someone begins to send Meg roses - surely, this won't have anything to do with the rather more horrible things going on in her life right now?

I know little about the movie scene in New Zealand (with the exception of being quite intimate with the films of Peter Jackson and Jane Campion and some random bits and bobs here and there), so I can't really say how typical Gaylene Preston's Mr Wrong is for the cinematic output of the country in the mid-80s. What I can say is that it is a pretty fantastic little film in mode and mood of the clever - and quite weird - ghost story. Given that this is based on one of the handful of supernatural tales Elizabeth Jane Howard wrote, the "clever and weird" part isn't too much of a surprise; it is, however, quite a positive surprise how well the Weirdness of Howard's story and Preston's naturalistic eye on the New Zealand of the 80s complement each other.

As frequent readers of my ramblings will know by now, I am an admirer of low budget films that make use of the cheapest of all special effects - local colour - to set the mood of their stories, and am even more of an admirer of films that are letting the very real of a specific place and time collide with the Weird and the peculiar, so I am predisposed to liking Mr Wrong, as it is a film whose whole modus operandi is very much based on these techniques. Even better, Preston really knows what she's doing in this regard, showing herself to be equally at home with taking a - slightly sarcastic - look at her central character's live and times (I wouldn't be too surprised if there was a certain autobiographical element at work here, either) and with slowly showing the seams and cracks of Meg's existence where the disquiet and the strange can enter through, cracks, the film seems to say, even the most unspectacular of lives has. Are, after all, Meg's life and that of her unhappy predecessor in car ownership all that different from each other? Preston doesn't overstretch the parallels between the woman and the haunt. In fact, if you don't want to see this aspect of the movie - that is most probably there to demonstrate something about the way a woman still has to fight for her independence (in the sense of self-ownership) - you will probably never notice it at all. It's always excellent when a director is subtle with the treatment of her film's metaphorical level.

From time to time, Mr Wrong is a bit rough around the edges, but it's the kind of roughness that comes with the territory of making movies for little money in a place where making a movie can't have been all that easy to begin with, and is offset by direction that can be creative and imaginative without feeling the need to show off. After all, it's clear to see for everyone that the director really knows how to use the idiom of the ghost story and the thriller without any need for her to point it out to her audience like a bad Hollywood actor trying once in a blue moon for actual acting. Instead, Preston's film impresses through an unassuming intelligence.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

In short: Summer House (2008)

aka Secrets of the Summer House

In this Canadian production for Lifetime, a somewhat likeable yuppie couple played by Lindsay Price and David Haydn-Jones (well, she’s supposed to be an artist rather than an actual yuppie, but talks a lot about art in a way that suggests her lines were written by someone who has no clue about it, and her art is terrible, so…) who like to engage in the sort of sex scenes which are neither titillating nor useful for the plot inherit the yuppie man’s ancestral home.

Turns out there’s a curse on his blood line, so ghosts are in the picture. Fortunately for the guy, his wife is hell-bent on keeping him alive and turning the place into an “artists colony” (of the blandest possible sort, don’t fret), and if that means a bit of research and some communicating with the spirit world, so be it.

Unfortunately, at least two thirds of the ghostly activity is weak even for TV movie standards, director Jean-Claude Lord clearly not having much of a hand for this sort of thing, and only stumbling on the couple of good scenes because some things are mildly entertaining even when they are directed very blandly.

Unlike today’s Lifetime movies that in my limited experience love to dial things up to camp eleven or at least make a decent try at insanity, Summer House is a bit of a sedate experience, gently strolling through plot points any sensible film would at least milk for maximum melodrama (Ghosts! Husband in a coma (it’s serious)! The shadow of slavery!). But then, this is a film where the useless and/or interesting medium demanded by trope and tradition is replaced by a helpful – but at least useless - middle aged woman with crystals, so I am probably expecting too much. On the other hand, my expectation of a film using the slave trade and assorted horrors as the inciting events of its spooking, to at least try and say something about it, seems to be perfectly reasonable.

Now having complained about all this, I also have to admit the whole affair is still perfectly watchable, exactly the type of film one might choose to inflict on oneself on a rainy Sunday afternoon when headaches prevent the watching of anything more substantial.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Devil’s Well (2017)

Warnings: spoilers ahead, I suppose!

A year ago, paranormal investigator Karla Marks (Anne-Marie Mueschke) disappeared without a trace while examining The Devil’s Well (a well in the cellar of an empty building that is supposed to be a gate to hell) together with her husband Bryan (Bryan Manley Davis). Finding nothing at all, the police decided to blame Bryan for the disappearance despite a complete lack of evidence for it, the best motive they could come up with being something along the lines of their website now having more hits.

Now, Bryan has asked his old college buddy Lucas (Chris Viemeister), who is leading another group of paranormal investigators going by the excellent acronym of S.I.G.N.S. (we never learn what that’s supposed to stand for, by the way – “Supernatural Investigations Go North, Sid”?) to return to the well with him. Lucas also invites a documentary filmmaker to produce the now mandatory documentary on the case. Things just might not turn out too well for anyone involved.

Needless to say, Kurtis Spieler’s The Devil’s Well is another POV/found footage horror film, though one that purports to be the actual documentary about the case. The film’s first act is a pretty good imitation of a cheap yet professionally done documentary, avoiding the typical first act drag of many POV horror films by providing exposition, characterisation and the general set-up concisely and through more than just showing us people who never turn off their cameras doing little of interest.

Now, I know quite a few people reading this really can’t stand the whole found footage approach to horror anymore. I still love the form to bits: it is a comparatively cheap way to make a film (and if the filmmakers are good, as Spieler certainly is, they still can smuggle in large amounts of clever and atmospheric filmmaking), it certainly can help with patching over problems coming with a low budget, and it has the immediate quality of a good campfire tale (or in 2018, a good piece of creepypasta). That the sub-genre tends to have quite a few tropes and plot beats its films hit again and again isn’t exactly something limited to POV films; slashers, just to go for the most obvious example, tend to be nearly ritualized. Basically, what the misadventures of spam in a cabin with a masked maniac are for other horror fans, POV horror is for me. However, I’d be perfectly okay with a moratorium for films that end on a character with a camera running through the woods for twenty minutes, screeching, while nothing much happens around them.

As luck will have it, The Devil’s Well doesn’t end on that note at all. In fact, there’s neither needless camera shaking at all on display, nor woods, nor all that many scenes of people running around panicking. Once death comes for the characters, it mostly comes quick, in a way that has a pleasant air of inevitability. Spieler’s script, even though it certainly uses many an element we all have encountered in other POV movies about paranormal investigators meeting their doom in an enclosed space cheap enough for a production with little money to throw at sets or costly locations, does feature quite a few small and not so small changes from sub-genre standards that keep the tradition in view but get away from it far enough to actually surprise. An obvious example is how believable the film treats its sceptic – his positions make sense throughout as ones an actual human being in his situation might have, and he lacks the shrillness that often mar sceptic characters in all kinds of horror movies (imagine every atheist would be like Richard Dawkins).

As a whole, the characters and their background feel a little better fleshed out than in most films of the style (which doesn’t lend itself to deep characterisation terribly well), and interact in ways that as as a whole make them believable as people who have actually worked with each other for quite some time. The acting is always at least decent throughout too, which certainly helped my immersion.

All of this adds up to a film that feels made with care and thought, well-paced and with at least two really great horror scenes and no bad ones. The POV horror watching year starts off rather well for me.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

In short: Keep Watching (2017)

The Mitchell’s – father Carl (Ioan Gruffudd), daughter Jamie (Bella Thorne), son John (Chandler Riggs) and stepmom Nicole (Natalie Martinez) – are returning from a vacation to the family home. Things are a bit strained, for Jamie’s not able to get over her father “replacing” her dead mother with Nicole, while Nicole’s clearly trying to pretend she doesn’t notice, like a politician hoping all problems go away if you just ignore them for long enough.

There’s even more stuff of this sort in the first half hour or so, but little of it will matter much for the rest of the movie, mind you, for while the family have been away their house has been rigged with a truly improbable number of hidden cameras and microphones. We the audience already know the Mitchells are going to be the newest project of a gang of masked killers who like to get into fights with troubled rich families, and kidnap the last survivors for a not at all surprising plot twist, streaming their exploits time-delayed on the Internet.

At its core, Sean Carter’s Keep Watching is a perfectly fine low budget home invasion thriller that tries to avoid the class issues of the genre by keeping its killers truly faceless – apart from the one plot twist bit, of course. The hidden camera angle – even though it is nearly absurdly improbable without the bad guys actually having super powers of precognition – works out much better for the film than I would have assumed, pushing it into quite a few original set-ups for shots which also influence the suspense scenes enough they do not feel quite as well-trodden as the plot and the nature of the suspense actually is. The actors are selling the material well too, with some good shadowy looming by whoever plays the masked people, a much better performance by Thorne’s final girl than we got from her in the last two horror films I saw her in (though one was that Amityville abomination, so that one only a very cynical watcher would blame on the kid), and decent stuff by Riggs and Martinez too.

So most of the film is a tight, rather entertaining thrill ride that combines the bourgeois fear of home invasion with vague anxieties about the evil Internet and surveillance, and that’s really all I’d ask of a pleasant low budget number like this one. Alas, the film also adds some elements of psychological mind-fuckery concentrating on Jamie it does too little with to be effective, and which do not actually feed as well into the final plot twist as they should. As plot twists go, I’ve seen worse – at least it has something to do with the rest of the movie – but I’d also argue the plot twist and what is supposed to prepare for it don’t really do much at all for the effect of the film, instead regularly slowing it down for business that just isn’t as riveting as Keep Watching seems to think it is.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Snowbound (1948)

Post-war Britain. Demobilized Blair (Dennis Price) is trying to earn his keep by working as a movie extra, when he’s not failing at selling whatever it is he writes (we only learn it isn’t screenplays). His new director turns out to be a man called Engles (Robert Newton), Blair’s former CO before Engles got drafted into intelligence operations. Engles has a much better proposition for Blair than the movie extra lark: why not go on a well-paid vacation to a ski cabin in the Italian Alps and observe what the other people living there are up to?  Officially, Blair’s supposed to write a screenplay for Engles. Despite his old boss not giving him any further details, Blair agrees, perhaps a little intrigued, perhaps a little stupid – a combination that’ll get him through the rest of the movie.

Because our protagonist is officially at the hut to write a screenplay for Engles, Blair is accompanied by one Wesson (Stanley Holloway), an oblivious director of photography who manages to know even less than our protagonist does.

Once at the hut, Blair encounters quite the rogue’s gallery of not at all suspicious people. There’s shady Brit Mayne (Guy Middleton), shady Greek Keramikos (Herbert Lom), a shady fake countess and Blairish love interest actually called Carla (Mila Parély) and her shady fixer Valdini (Marcel Dalio). Come to think of it, even the owner of the hut, one Aldo (Willy Fueter) is pretty shady. It’s quite obvious even to Blair – who is not a terribly insightful sort of thriller protagonist – that these people know one another, even though they strenuously pretend not to, that not one of them seems to be using their real name or nationality (apart from Valdini, perhaps), and that they are clearly there for sinister and mysterious reasons.

David MacDonald’s Snowbound, based on a Hammond Innes novel, is an interesting, if sometimes a little creaky, post-war thriller. The creakiness isn’t really the film’s fault: MacDonald certainly couldn’t know how the suspense techniques popularized by Hitchcock he uses, the know-nothing/innocent everyman protagonist who just happens to look like a film star, and so on, and so forth, would be regurgitated in the following decades so often by so many filmmakers that by now even a film which uses them well but not brilliantly (as Snowbound mostly does) can feel a little less well made than it actually is.

At times the film also nears the borders of the noir, but usually tends to step away from them at the last moment, out of British politeness and the abhorrence of making a scene, one supposes.

But let’s talk about Snowbound’s strengths. Certainly there’s no fault to be found with its main actors, a party of character actors whose somewhat ambiguous nationalities are a perfect fit for the just as ambiguous characters they are playing. Lom’s performance is particularly fine, balancing on the line between the sinister and the personable in an excellent acrobatics act, but everyone else works out great as the sort of people looking for any shady get rich quick scheme that populated Europe shortly after World War II in popular fiction (and perhaps in parts of reality).

There’s a palpable anxiety running through the film, a consciousness the war may be over, but the people fighting in it, and particularly the people who fought it behind the scenes are still there, lingering, searching something or someone, or planning to one day continue the madness they started. The ambiguity of characters’ identities or motivations only seems the logical conclusion to this state of affairs. Apart from Blair, of course. He somehow managed to make it through the war without getting a case of ambiguity or cynicism, and without learning that you probably shouldn’t go skiing with every shady character with attractive facial hair. Fortunately, Price for most of the time manages to sell him as a man in over his head instead of the complete idiot a lesser actor might have come up with when confronted with the same script.

Visually, the film is often atmospheric, generally attractive and usually clear. DP Stephen Dade certainly wasn’t a John Alton but he knew his way around night shots, lingering shadows, and other elements typical of black and white photography of the time, so there’s usually visual pull to any given scene, even if its is only another tableau one of men talking somewhere or other. The exterior and skiing shots – apparently done by Reg Johnson – are attractive too, if perhaps used a bit more indulgently than strictly necessary.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Three Films Make A Post: Greed has a price.

Werewolf (1995): Tony Zarindast’s originally titled werewolf movie is the sort of thing only a mother (or perhaps a director) will love. The acting’s awkward, the script makes no damn sense at all (the archaeologist bad guys apparently infect people with werewolfery so they can show them off caged, despite having a perfectly fine werewolf skeleton to present and slavery being rather frowned upon in modern times), and the direction…Well, the direction clearly aims for being stylish, but always, absolutely always hits the wrong spot, ending up in turns awkward, bizarre, or just plain inexplicable. I hope you like long, loving tracking shots through a museum while animal noises play in the background, or just as long, loving shots of that darn werewolf skeleton. Additional attractions are Jorge Rivero’s toupee, Richard Lynch, and werewolf make-up in various states of crappiness.

Happy Death Day (2017): Oh, look, it’s a time loop movie! Never seen one of these before. Vile college student Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) is killed again and again by a mysterious masked killer, only to repeat the same day again and again, until she identifies her killer. The problem: she’s such a horrible person there’s nobody she knows who doesn’t have a motive. Speaking of unlikeable main characters, this one makes Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day look like a totally nice guy; and whereas that particular classic actually puts the effort in to show us its main asshole changing into a better person, Christopher Landon’s film doesn’t bother to put any effort into character development. Tree just suddenly isn’t a horrible human being anymore; the mild attempts to explain her character flaws through trauma simple don’t work.

Otherwise, this is a mildly diverting movie that suffers from being neither terribly thrilling, nor funny, nor clever yet also never gets too painful.

The Snowman (2017): Speaking of painful, I don’t hate Tomas Alfredson’s attempt at a serial killer thriller quite as much as most other people seem to do, but that doesn’t mean I’m confusing it with a good or even a mediocre film. There is, after all, nary a scene that doesn’t feature at least one completely inexplicable directing choice or an actor going completely off the rails, with many a scene additionally enlivened by not having any function whatsoever for plot, characters or theme. The violent as well as the more absurd flourishes of the plot really demand to be filmed either in the way of a giallo or of a modern potboiler; Alfredson instead directs them as if they were parts of a thoughtful Nordic style crime movie, at once inadvertently pointing out the stupidity of much what is going on and wasting its potential to entertain. Things are not improved by portentous pacing and a theoretically brilliant cast whose members seem as lost in the pointlessness of the whole affair as I was.

Well, now that I’ve thought about it, I actually do hate this just as much as everyone else does.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Past Misdeeds: Étoile (1989)

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.

American ballerina Claire (Jennifer Connelly) travels to Budapest for an audition for either a role in "Swan Lake" or a place in a ballet academy (as about other things, Étoile is decidedly unclear about it, but it really doesn't matter in the long run). When her time to audition comes, though, Claire has a sudden case of nerves and flees, getting lost in the belly of the theatre the audition takes place in, until she comes to a stage where she, of course, begins to dance.

Claire is witnessed by the ballet troupe's director (Laurent Terzieff), who for some reason that will become clear later on calls her by the name of Nathalie. Which, of course, again drives Claire to flight.

Later, our heroine, in an understandably bad mood about her own behaviour, tries to distract herself by taking a walk through Budapest. She meets fellow American Jason (Gary McCleery) - with whom she had already met-cute before - and proceeds to do some of that earnest falling in love in minutes stuff young people in movies are so fond of; though it has to be said that Jason seems much more smitten with Claire than she is with him, for Claire has after all already found the love of her life in form of dancing, as she explains to him. Not one to be discouraged by that sort of thing, Jason promises to return to the theatre with Claire the next day to try and get her a second chance for her audition.

That very night, though, Claire is so disturbed by a nightmare about characters from "Swan Lake" the audience also already knows as part of the dance troupe she decides to just pack her things and fly back to the USA at once. Before she can escape whatever she's fleeing from, though, Claire's identity (and probably her reality, too)begins to shift. She signs a form with the name "Nathalie Horvath", and follows a call for a person of that name to the airport's information booth, from where she is directed to a car waiting for Nathalie/her. Not surprisingly, the car is driven by the dance troupe's factotum who brings Claire/Nathalie to a rather dilapidated mansion she had already entered once while cavorting with Jason.

From that point on, Claire becomes Nathalie, the prima ballerina of the dance troupe, and spends her time staring at swans in the park, rehearsing for "Swan Lake", and looking pretty zoned out.

On one of her outings to the park, Nathalie is observed by Jason, who had been pretty frustrated by her supposed return to the USA. When he tries to talk to her, Nathalie doesn't recognize him. Jason is understandably confused by the whole affair, and begins obsessing about Claire/Nathalie, follows her, sneaks around, succeeds in a Library Use roll, and eventually stumbles on the peculiar and rather horrible truth about his beloved's coming appearance in "Swan Lake". If Jason can't rescue Claire, a past tragedy will repeat itself.

To get the obvious question out of the way first, yes, there are clear parallels between Italian director Peter Del Monte's Étoile and Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan, but even though both films share certain thematic interests (loss or fluidity of identity of a young woman), and - obviously - "Swan Lake" (a ballet made to explore shifting identities if ever there was one), both directors have very different approaches to their material that can't all be explained by the different eras their films were made in. Where Aronofsky's idea of the irrational is grounded in very traditional psychological models (bringing the dreaded bane of "realism" even into a not at all realistically styled film about somebody losing touch with reality), Del Monte goes a more European way. The Italian is not very interested in realistic psychology, and instead aims for the archetypes found in fairy tales and myths, where symbols and the things symbols are supposed to signify are often one and the same.

It's difficult to ignore the influence Hitchcock - especially Vertigo - seems to have had on Del Monte's movie. Watching the film, I was frequently reminded of a less hysterical twin to Brian De Palma's Hitchcock-influenced (some people would argue ripping off Hitchcock; these people are wrong) phase, an impression that certainly did not decrease through the themes and visual cues these films share. The clear parallels to Hitchcock and De Palma are a bit of a problem for Étoile from time to time, pushing me to comparisons that make it look worse than it deserves. To use an easy example, Gary McCleery sure is no James Stewart (not even a Cliff Robertson).

It would probably have been better to cast the leads five to ten years older, which probably would have made them too old for the fairy tale parallels, but could have improved one of the film's weak spots to no end. Don't misunderstand me, McCleery isn't bad, and young Jennifer Connelly does dreamy, dream-like and beautiful very well indeed, but he is lacking the edge his more obsessive scenes need, and she is not at all convincing in the scenes when she takes on the role of the black swan, both things somewhat more experienced actors – like Connelly herself only a couple of years later - could have sold better.

These problems on the acting side aren't what will make or break Étoile for most viewers though, I think. Basically, the potential audience of Étoile will encounter (or enjoy) the same problems-that-aren't-actually-problems-but-parts-of-the-general-aesthetic many of my favourite European films of the fantastic show: the languid pacing and ambiguous working of space and time that have more to do with the structure of a dream than that of a textbook narrative; the characters that don't pretend to function like real people; the emphasis on mood possibly to the detriment of believability and clearly to the detriment of realism. Of course, all these things belong in a movie with no interest in picturing reality, or being "believable" as a depiction of consensus reality.

Generally, Del Monte seems to have control over his film (not something I'd say about all movies in this style) until we come to the climax, that is, when trouble rears its head. Let's just say that the scene of Jason fighting a giant black swan clearly oversteps the line between the dream-like and symbolic and the painfully ridiculous, and that a dramatic highpoint should probably not be a film's worst scene.

For most of its running time, though, Étoile plays out like a dream, with all the symbolism and all the ambiguity of symbols that implies. I suspect most of the film's viewers will either adore - like me - or hate that dream-like mood dominating it; I don't feel neutrality to be much of an option

Thursday, March 8, 2018

In short: Love & Peace (2015)

Original title: ラブ&ピース

Warning: spoilers ahead, little turtle!

Leave it to Sion Sono’s year of six films (William Beaudine had nothing on the man, particularly since Sono’s films are always good to brilliant) to include a sort of family Christmas movie that manages to not just feature an alcoholic Santa living in the sewers with a bunch of talking and living toys and talking animals who were deserted by their owners, and an adorable giant turtle rampage, but also manages to have that fit nicely as part of a tale about a socially painful office worker (portrayed by Hiroki Hasegawa in modes reaching from physically painful to witness to hilarious to grotesque to unpleasant to actually sad) who becomes a rock star and the same sort of hypocritical arsehole he always hated. While the plot is outrageous and weird in a very Japanese style of weirdness, it also makes complete sense on a thematic and emotional level. This isn’t just a whacky thing to gawk at.

Also leave it to Sono to shoot this tale in a style that teeters on, jumps over and completely ignores the lines between camp, artistry and truthfulness, until it becomes a question of personal taste more than analysis what of the film, if anything, is meant ironically or directly. What I can say is that I found Hasegawa’s way from complete outsider through all stages of glittery rockstardom and its accompanying stages of being a horrible person at times sad, at times incredibly funny, and at times hair-raising. I absolutely admired how the film ends on a grown-up yet hopeful note that shows kindness instead of condemnation to its characters faults. My emotions concerning the other plotline, I can’t even begin to describe.

Because it seems to genuinely be meant as some sort of family movie, Love & Peace should actually be watchable as one. There are, however, many moments in the film that transcend the ironic clichés and seem genuine more because than despite of them, as well as some darker feelings and ideas you can generally expect not to find in your family films outside of Asia anymore, even the strange ones. There is, after all a reason why Santa lives in the sewers and drinks too much, and his whole plot line centers around a perpetual repetition of certain kinds of pain and suffering that might as well belong in a horror film (even though it of course isn’t openly played that way by the film).

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

In short: Renegades (2017)

Warning: there are a couple of spoilers in here

Former Yugoslavia during the civil war. A group of Navy SEALS led by Matt Barnes (Sullivan Stapleton) has just barely managed to kidnap a Serbian general and war criminal, escaping with the man and their lives thanks to a mad dash through a city in an old Soviet tank.

Their long suffering superior (J.K. Simmons) clearly hasn’t been through enough, so they decide to get into some more trouble. One of them (Charlie Bewley) has a local girlfriend named Lara (Sylvia Hoeks), and Lara has a plan. Going by tales her grandfather told her, there’s a load of gold the Nazis stole buried under water smack dab in Serbian territory, and the SEALs just happen to have the ideal skill set to acquire it. Half of the money would go to the men, the other, Lara plans on using for the eventual rebuilding of Bosnia. Given that she proposes the magic combination of doing good, making a lot of money and going on a secret adventure, the guys are in pretty quickly.

Of course, quite a few problems will come up, not the least of them the followers of the general they kidnapped who’d rather like to murder them all in retribution.

When it comes to Steven Quale’s diving action adventure, I’m for once willing to skip the usual Europa Corp jokes (I mock because I sort of love, though), for this one’s such a nice bit of throwback adventure and so surprisingly lacking in mean-spiritedness for a contemporary action movie, it deserves to be treated with an equal lack of mean-spiritedness.

While I do understand why most contemporary action movies are on the grim and gritty side, and don’t have a philosophical problem with it, it’s such a nice change to for once see an action film whose heroes only kill a couple dozen guys - and all of them in self defence –, where only the bad guys are out for revenge, and where every one of the good guys not only deserves to be called a good guy but actually lives. I suppose we can thank the caper movie elements for that for this more light-hearted sister of the heist movie usually portrays its thieves as the good guys for one reason or another and treats them accordingly, and that’s certainly a concept Renegades shares.

This doesn’t mean the action is boring: the tank ride in the beginning is pretty crazy fun, and the various diving sequences are actually exciting – not something you’ll hear me say about many diving sequences, as a matter of fact.

The characters are pretty flat and one-note – I suppose Joshua Henry’s character is the clever one, Bewley the pretty one, Stapleton the tragically grizzled boss one, Hoeks the quietly heroic one, and so on, but there’s not much substance to any of them. The only character that really sticks in the mind is J.K. Simmons’s pretty hilarious outing as the grumpy, shouty superior with the heart of gold, and that’s on account of the performance, certainly not the role. This is just not much of a problem in something like the film at hand, though, because flat characters are enough for the fluffy yet good-hearted entertainment with explosions and sexy violence this is, as long as the film moves quickly enough – which Renegades does.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Mom and Dad (2017)

The Ryans are probably your typical movie white suburban family. Looking pretty rich to someone like me, they are still a friendly bubble of neuroses: father Brent (Nicolas Cage) is deep in the throes of a male midlife crisis with added existential dread, mother Kendall (Selma Blair) has the version of it allowed to women, while teenage daughter Carly (Anne Winters) and younger son Josh (Zackary Arthur) show all the symptoms of their respective ages. But hey, these people do seem to love each other even when they are making their lives about as much worse as they make them better.

Alas, a mysterious syndrome possibly caused by alien invaders or terrorists hits the USA (like so many American films about apocalyptic events, Mom and Dad never bothers to even acknowledge the existence of the larger part of the world), and soon all that precious parental love all parents apparently carry turns into murderous, insane rage. The Ryan kids and Carly’s boyfriend Damon (Robert T. Cunningham) - who will spend much of the film battered and unconscious only to repeatedly pop up to save everyone’s bacon and then get knocked down again in what I’m not too sure is actually supposed to be a running gag – will have a hell of a time surviving the day.

Mom and Dad’s director and writer is Brian Taylor, one half of Neveldine/Taylor, so nobody should go into this one expecting an ultra-serious film about generational gaps expressed through bloody violence. Instead, it’s mix of not exactly subtle, sardonic suburban satire, some mild splatstick, with a smidgen of disturbing moments that can turn grotesque and darkly funny at a moments notice, and an occasional sense of creepiness mostly based on the elder Ryans still acting like a suburban couple even when they are attempting to murder their children. They are very bourgeois child murderers, is what I’m saying.

The film does have a handful of serious scenes among the carnage, and the scenes of Cage and Blair running around shouting wildly, moments that handle the emptiness of these oh so unhappy rich people and their lives rather delicately, and to my great surprise – given Taylor’s general predilections for not having a single human being in his movies - effectively. While he’s playing crazy in the patented Cage style I rather love, the actor does also have some quiet moments he handles with equal effectiveness to suggest that Brent really was pretty close to murdering his family even before whatever happened to suburbia happened. Blair’s performance is more subtle, suggesting more complexity to Kendall than to Cage’s character, while avoiding getting drowned out by Crazy Cage; she’s also great in her creepy moments, selling the emotional horror involved.

It is interesting to for once watch a film that reverses the more typical evil kid trope, which of course allows a different kind of critique of the suburban US lifestyle by actually keeping the usual family power dynamics.

While all this doesn’t quite add up to a film I outright love – that would need a greater shift away from the blunt satire to the emotional horrors of the story – Mom and Dad is a highly enjoyable, sometimes disturbing, often very funny, piece that runs along sprightly and looks stylish without being overstyled while giving a fine showcase for Blair’s and Cage’s talents. Plus, there’s a fun appearance by the great Lance Henriksen as Nicolas Cage’s father, a casting decision so brilliant, I want to hug the people responsible for it.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Accidental TV Movie Week: Don’t Go to Sleep (1982)

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. Or in the case of this one, be very, very afraid.

Warning: there will be a lot of spoilers!

Your typical US white upper middle-class family – father Philip (Dennis Weaver), mother Laura (Valerie Harper), daughter Mary (Robin Ignico) and horribly obnoxious boy brat Kevin (Oliver Robbins) – move into a new home so they can live together with Laura’s mother Bernice (Ruth Gordon). Bernice, it appears, can’t  quite cope with life on her own anymore, and Laura must have pushed and prodded Philip a lot, because he and Bernice quite obviously loath one another other.

There’s a reason for that, as well as for Philip’s attempts at diffusing everything through humour and alcohol, Laura’s attempts to keep the family peace in ways bordering on the obsessive, Mary’s dreaminess and perhaps even Kevin’s loathsomeness, something beyond mere character incompatibilities and simple human weaknesses, something nobody in the family is actually talking about. As it turns out, the family had another daughter, Jennifer (Kristin Cumming), a girl close in age and everything else to Mary, whose death under circumstances the film will only explain much, much later has put the family and their relations under strains of guilt and grief nobody seems to be prepared to face outright.

So it isn’t exactly a surprise when Mary is plagued by horrible night terrors once they have moved into their new home. However, there’s more and worse going on here than “just” a little kid having a mental breakdown. The ghost of Jennifer begins appearing to Mary, at first frightening her but then reinitiating the co-dependent sibling relationship they once had. However, as Jennifer explains, various other family members are standing between them and being happy together again forever. She knows what to do about them, though.

If you’re like me, operating under the idea that the FCC rules of the time must have made it basically impossible to create TV films that were actually frightening and disturbing in more than a manner evoking pleasant chills (or a pleasing terror, if you would), Richard Lang’s film will come as something of a wake-up call. For, have no doubt about it, this is an absolutely ruthless film that directly and rather fearlessly attacks its themes of guilt and grief head-on in ways you won’t see too often on screens big or small, while adding the charming little plot of a child murdering the rest of her family with all the implications this has.

Lang, in whose filmography this seems to be a rather singular exception in tone and style, working off a script by Ned Wynn, who also has nothing else on offer which goes quite this deep and far, not only manages to portray the fissures between the members of the family and their increasing mental disintegration with subtlety and efficiency, trusting an audience’s ability to read visual cues and some wonderful physical acting to understand relationships between people. He also uses rather traditional elements of gothic ghost stories, creating a certain dream-like quality that turns into nightmare, as well as holding up a mood of slowly increasing dread and helplessness. The film’s main horror set pieces are very well realized on a technical level but what really makes these moments sing (not a pretty song, mind you) is how thoughtful the supernatural elements, the thematic concerns about guilt, grief and the immense pressures these feelings put on a family as a social unit, are resonating with each other, how much every part of the film belongs to the next.

Let me also emphasize again how ruthless the film is: grandmothers and little boys are killed by a dead little girl with the help of a living little girl, said little girl ends up in what looks like the worst mental health institution this side of a Gothic novel, and the mothers suffers what looks and sounds like a fate much worse than any death could ever be; and I don’t even mean her destroyed family. Harper’s final scream is absolutely haunting. Oh, and everybody is sort of actually somewhat guilty of what they feel guilty for, the white middle-class family clearly being a place where the repressed returns with a vengeance.

The acting as a whole is mostly brilliant too, starting with Harper’s and Weaver’s respective abilities to portray frayed people under ever increasing duress from inside and outside, while all giving a hint of what once drew them together, as well as Gordon’s portrayal of an elderly woman who clearly loathes getting old and still having to fight her own feelings of guilt and grief. The children are a bit more variable, because they are children, yet Ignico and Cumming hit the important notes spot-on.

Adding to all this is an emotional honesty I found utterly surprising, particularly in a medium that tends to the melodramatic when it comes to the portrayal of human emotions. It’s not as if there isn’t any melodrama here, but it is used in moments where its heightened sense is of use to the film. In other places – particularly scenes between Gordon and Harper and a loud, painful and quite brilliantly acted confrontation between Harper and Weaver – are raw, direct, and not terribly easy to watch.

Why this honest-to-Cthulhu masterpiece of genre filmmaking isn’t available to you or me via the wonder of Blu-ray – or at least a decent DVD – is anyone’s guess.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Accidental TV Movie Week: Terror Tract (2000)

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.

A real estate agent of somewhat intense disposition (John Ritter) shows off three houses to a young couple (David DeLuise and Allison Smith). The prospective homeowners become increasingly disturbed, for the real estate agent follows the spirit of full disclosure (it’s the law, apparently) to the limit and tells them a tale of the horrible/hilarious things that went down in each of these places, leading to three segments, after whose telling things become rather peculiar.

In the first, “Nightmare”, a wife (Rachel York) and her lover (Carmine Giovinazzo) are caught in the act by her crazy husband (Fredric Lehne). Hubby hasn’t quite gotten the memo about grown-up reactions to this sort of thing and plans to shoot him and hang her, making it look like a murder suicide. The couple manage to turn the tables on him, leading to a very dead husband but because “the cops wouldn’t believe us” – a refrain in all three tales – they decide to hide the body and pretend he just disappeared. Alas, various natural – neither her nerves nor his brain can cope with the situation, plus the hubby’s fishing buddy was a cop – and unnatural – assholes seldom rest easily in horror movies after all – occurrences are standing in the way of anything but a darkly ironic ending.

The second segment, “Bobo”, sees the loving relationship between a man (Bryan Cranston) and his little daughter (Katelin Petersen) threatened when she finds a monkey dressed in a red suit out in the family home’s garden. Dubbing him Bobo, it’s love at first sight for the kid, but her Dad seems rather taken aback by the animal. Now, perhaps his wife (Jodi Harris) is right and he’s just feeling threatened by realizing he has no actual control about his daughter’s feelings towards anyone or anything – not even himself; on the other hand, the monkey might indeed be a crazed killer and brother in spirit to that charming animal in Argento’s Phenomena. In any case, the duel between Cranston and Monkey becomes increasingly deranged.

In the final tale, “Come to Granny”, a psychiatrist (Brenda Strong) suffers through a surprise visit by a young man (Will Estes) who tells her a wild tale about his mental connection to the local serial killer, dubbed the Granny Killer because he’s wearing a creepy old woman mask and offing his victims while making granny-based quips. Apparently, the guy has visions of all of the killer’s murders – or is he perhaps the killer?

Terror Tract – directed by Lance W. Dreesen and Clint Hutchison - is a low budget thriller anthology made for the USA Channel and/or the direct-to-DVD market of the time. As it goes with the former in its late period movies, the degree of sex and violence on offer is not terribly high – it’s about on the level of an X-Files episode (and not “Home”, for that matter), with a moment of sideboob thrown in. That’s quite a bit more of direct depravity than you got during the high water mark of this sort of TV production during the 70s, but the gore hounds among my imaginary readers might want to keep this in mind when they storm their imaginary video stores to acquire this.

As a whole, this anthology movie is a rather fun black horror comedy treating the US suburbs as a breeding ground for madness and violence full of absolutely crazy, nice, white, upper middleclass people and murderous monkeys. Pencil that in as conscious – if terribly blunt – satire, or just as a film following one string of US horror traditions to near absurdity. In any case, the whole thing culminates in a very silly yet also very funny and actually pretty clever sequence that suggests the specific suburb these tales take place in is indeed the place where all horror and thriller stories located in the suburbs take place in, or perhaps the platonic ideal of this place.

The framing sequences are – atypical for a anthology horror – very much worthwhile, with something that feels a lot like the kind of story Stephen King would have put into one of his first couple of short story collections taking place in the background. Ritter is playing against his image quite wonderfully, giving a performance that’s just the right kind of broad, and DeLuise and Smith mostly function as his straight people, until that excellent final sequence.

Of the episodes, “Nightmare” is probably the most traditionally straightforward one, apart from the fact that our doomed protagonists aren’t actually guilty of much more than adultery and stupidity. Usually, it takes a little more than that to be punished this heavily in an EC-style horror tale. It is atmospheric in any case, with some fine scenes that blur the line between dream and reality and an ending that feels surprisingly nasty.

“Bobo” is obviously the highpoint of the film. This is after all a tale in which a young-ish Bryan Cranston rants and raves through a psychological and physical duel with a wee little knife-wielding monkey. “Bobo” delivers everything that high concept promises through a brilliant tour-de-force performance by an increasingly deranged Cranston and some good work by the monkey(s) too. The editing’s also fantastic, as is the fact that this slightly insane little ditty also has more thematic resonance than I’d have expected. Of course, when you really think about it, what better way is there to talk about a white middle-class guy’s anxieties about the brittleness of his life, his love, and his possessions is there than to let him fight a monkey?

For some reason, the last proper segment of the film is its weakest. The Granny Killer mask is appropriately creepy, and the murder visions are filmed in a bit of a giallo style, but the plot as a whole is terribly predictable, the twist even more so. There’s just not much of interest going on there.

However, every anthology horror film is bound by law to have at least one weak segment, so Terror Tract is really only doing its duty here. It doesn’t matter much anyhow, for the rest of the film is not just pretty damn fun, it is also quite a bit more clever than I would have expected going in. And frankly, there is no way I wouldn’t recommend a film with “Bobo” in it, even if the rest of it were completely unwatchable.