Tuesday, July 31, 2018

In short: How to Talk to Girls at Parties (2017)

As most of us know, the best way to adapt a tiny short story into a full length movie is to use a couple sentences and/or ideas and go one’s own way from there. At least it worked out for John Cameron Mitchell when adapting the titular Neil Gaiman story, taking place in 70s Croydon, after punk broke out.

At first, the whole thing feels and looks a bit like your local youth theatre group and their jazz dance friends trying to do “weird”, but the farther away the film gets from the titular party, the more would-be weird turns into high strangeness, ideas that shouldn’t work at all starting to feel like masterstrokes, or like that Doctor Who episode you once dreamed up after eating a cake of dubious provenance. There’s a musical number that will – depending on one’s temperament – either have one grinning with joy about its cleverness and the pointed way it is staged or throwing one’s hands up in disgust while mumbling something about pretentions, but I’d argue that if your reaction is the latter, it’s not the film’s fault, or rather that this is most definitely not a film made for you (which is perfectly alright, of course). I was grinning, obviously, somewhat enchanted by how the film uses the impetus of punk without aiming for historical correctness,  which would be very much not punk anyway, but having its own contemporary view on people and things. It’s also a much better film about male (and alien, I suppose) coming of age than most films of that particular genre, because it sees the territory of maleness as pleasantly broad and inclusive.

For a film directed by a guy born in Texas, How to Talk’s weirdness has a surprisingly – and absolutely appropriate - British vibe, lacking the tourist-y aspects one might fear, earning stuff like a “Doctor Who but as a fever dream” comparison.

Also, if you always assumed that Elle Fanning’s an alien, this will be another FACT to build your conspiracy theories on. Herein is also continuing proof that Nicole Kidman is willing to do just about everything if it is interesting, no matter if it’s a good career move, and will bring small moments of humanity to characters who wildly overact through their lives. And who doesn’t want to see house favourite Ruth Wilson be a weird alien?

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Island Zero (2017)

Warning: I’m going to spoil quite a bit of this nonsense!

A somewhat isolated – it’s a one ferry a day kind of place – island in Maine mostly populated by fisher folk gets in a spot of trouble. At first, the ocean wildlife around the place disappears. Quickly, all communication to the mainland cuts off, the ferry doesn’t arrive, and the place’s electricity goes down. The fishers attempting to go to the mainland for help by boat disappear, never to be heard from again. Then, people are starting to die, ending up bloody skeletons. Our protagonists – mostly a marine biologist (Adam Wade McLaughlin) with a tragic past and a theory about what’s going on,  and a former military doctor (Laila Robbins) with a trauma of her own – try to find out what’s going on and save the day, but an Evil Conspiracy™ by THEM wants to weaponize the invisible sea monsters that will turn out to be what’s killing off the populace and is up to Evil Conspiracy things.

As much as I like the idea of a successful novelist mother writing a script for her son’s debut as a director, I can’t help but wonder if an actual screenwriter wouldn’t have been a better choice for Josh Gerritsen’s movie. While screenwriting and the writing of crime novels certainly share quite a bit of common ground, the required skill sets, history has taught us, aren’t necessarily identical. Which is my polite way of saying that Gerritsen’s script is really not very good, copying the standard monster movie formula, adding a brain dead conspiracy subplot, a smidgen of Deeps Ones, and making quite a few SyFy Original movies look rather grand in comparison. Let’s talk about the conspiracy for a second: apparently, THEY have known about the perhaps sentient invisible sea monsters killing people for quite some time, and want to use the opportunity of the island attack to convince the creatures (of whose language THEY know half a dozen words) to become their military allies, offering the creatures what they would have eaten anyway before pointing them to the Middle East, one speculates, so THEY have stationed exactly one idiot on the island to pursue this genius plan. As you do.

Most of that crap is used to fill up the film’s final twenty minutes or so; most of its first hour does contain neither hide nor hair of any actual creature action, for the first two acts see (or rather don’t see) practically all of the action happening off-screen, testing the audience’s patience with many a scene of actors making their way through reams of stiff, awkward dialogue. Most of the actors involved do have quite a bit of experience – if mostly not in bigger roles – but there’s nary a believable note in any of the performances (Robins is closest to feeling like an actual human being). There are awkward line deliveries, grimacing standing in for the physical expression of emotions, awkward pauses, more awkward grimacing, and a script that clearly seems to think its passel of walking talking clichés is enough to keep an audience awake until it bothers to do something with the monsters. Which would be okay if the monster-less scenes were interesting, suspenseful or full of mystery, but alas, the best thing the first hour here gets up to is being awkward and unintentionally funny and inviting the patient viewer to a game of cliché bingo. Note to whom it may concern: not everyone can be Val Lewton.

To be fair, making a monster movie with invisible monsters that don’t interact with anything for a good hour or so is highly cost-effective filmmaking as well as genius in its simplicity. The (repeat it with me:) awkward and stilted moments of gore – let’s not even speak of the action sequences – late in the film also suggest it’s for the best the film doesn’t contain more of them. Directing this sort of thing is clearly not Gerritsen’s forte.

You have to compliment the film or its unwillingness to use a nailed-down camera, though. There’s hardly any scene where the direction doesn’t at least attempt to do something visually interesting; unfortunately, this doesn’t come off as a director with style creating a mood of dread but as someone randomly positioning his camera in non-standard ways. This results in a film that feels off in one way or the other for most of its running time, acting, direction and writing turning this monster movie into quite an example of how not to do it.

However, the whole awkward affair is very close to become something special, not so much so bad it is good (as frequent readers will know, I don’t really believe in that phrase) but something nearly using the rules of standard genre filmmaking badly enough to become interesting as an off-beat experience. It’s not quite there for my taste, but this halfway interesting state is certainly a better place for a movie to end up in than boring competence.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Three Films Make A Post: The Most Intensive Manhunt Ever Mounted!

Aladdin and the Death Lamp (2012): I usually have a particular weakness for the SyFy Channel’s attempts at low budget fantasy movies. Mario Azzopardi’s Aladdin vs the CGI Monster is too much of a failure to exploit that weakness, though. The acting – even from those among the cast you’d usually call dependable – is deplorable, the human villain lame, the CGI monster boring, the hero a wet blanket, and the SyFyisation of the Arabian Nights only makes all too visible that the film just doesn’t have the budget – and eternal TV bore Azzopardi not the imagination – to actually show anything as colourful and strange as you need to when you aim for this particular story continuum.

The Good Neighbor (2016): Well, to start out with the good, James Caan is great in this one, but then he is James Caan, an actor whose long career has contained quite a few films that were actually good (or better). Which gives little reason to watch Kasra Farahani’s moralizing, plodding, and generally ineffective thriller that suffers from a bad case of self-sabotage embodied in pointless scenes taking place during a court case after the fact cut into the plot at random, an inability to make its stupid teenage protagonists interesting, and grand gesture style moralizing that just doesn’t interest me.

If that’s your thing, you’ll also find half a dozen plot holes and a series of implausibilities (some of which the film even mentions but doesn’t manage to explain away during the court scenes – because pointing out that a part of one’s plot doesn’t work is always better than just fixing it), but I don’t think this thing is actually interesting enough to get into them further.

Tell Me When I Die (2016): Despite the mostly indifferent characters, D.J. Viola’s gimmick slasher whose gimmick is drug induced clairvoyance in the killer and some of its victims is a generally fun, usually competent and sometimes stylish example of the form that for once has a plot-logical explanation for the killer’s teleportation ability. Personally, I’d rather have liked if the film had replaced some of the slasher tropes with thriller tropes and perhaps tried to make more of the clairvoyance element but that’s really more a matter of my personal tastes than of the film doing something wrong or badly. The only element here that really doesn’t work at all is the terribly anticlimactic and disappointing ending that seems to bet on the audience for some reason the film never develops giving a crap about the fate of William Mapother’s character instead of a proper climax or final girl fight. But then, Virginia Gardner’s Anna isn’t bound to win any prizes as example of the type.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Past Misdeeds: Occult (2009)

Original title: Okurato

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.

Director Koji Shiraishi (in not the only moment of meta in the film played by Occult's very own director, writer, cinematographer and editor Koji Shiraishi; he actually has played himself now in so many of his movies we may see them as their own sub-genre) is shooting a documentary about a spree killing that happened a few years ago at a picturesque tourist spot. During the course of the project, Shiraishi and his small crew interview survivors and bereaved, and stumble upon strange events surrounding these people. More than one of the victims has heard voices enticing them to the place of the massacre, and the bereaved have strange dreams of their loved ones; one of them even has a new photo of his dead girlfriend looking very much alive to show.

Shiraishi's investigation into the matter soon centres on a man named Eno. The killer didn't use his knife on Eno to kill him like his other victims, but carved strange symbols into his body, telling him that "now it's your turn". Eno clearly hasn't been the same ever since. He's barely surviving through temp work, spends his nights sleeping in manga cafes, and just doesn't seem to be quite right in his head anymore. Eno insists that ever since the attack on his life, he's been witnessing "miracles": UFOs, objects in his surroundings moving on their own accord, that sort of thing. Oh, and he also hears a voice talking to him, though he doesn't understand what it's trying to tell him, or so he says. The only thing he is sure of is that the spree killing was some sort of ceremony to please a god, and - though he's not really clear about it - Eno does seem to have ideas about a ceremony of his own.

Once Shiraishi has witnessed one of the poltergeist phenomena that are a daily occurrence to Eno, he and his team start researching the symbol. Turns out Eno's attacker had the same symbol on his body as a birthmark. Shiraishi doesn't realize yet that he himself has a connection to these symbols, but that will come to him soon enough, as well as the truth about the "ceremony" Eno plans.

With Noroi and A Slit-Mouthed Woman (aka Carved), Koji Shiraishi made two of my favourite Japanese horror movies of the post-2000 era. Both are films mixing modern and more traditional Japanese mythology with the horrors of contemporary life. What I have been able to see of Shiraishi's last few films - which isn't always easy, for neither English nor German language DVD labels seem to be much enamoured of his films - has been a bit frustrating, culminating in the "girl group screeches forever" horror of Shirome, until now (I wrote this in 2012 –future me) the last film of the director.

Occult was made two years earlier, and it shows the director in much better form, again using the fake documentary format that served him so well in Noroi and would later serve him so badly when filming the exciting ghost adventures of a Momoide Clover. For its first half hour or so the film feels a bit disjointed and silly, with Shiraishi seemingly hell-bent to squeeze in every paranormal phenomenon he can think of, from UFOs, to telekinesis to blobs on the camera. But once the film begins to concentrate on Eno and the things happening around him, it begins to make more sense, developing focus and even the sort of narrative drive you don't usually get from the fake documentary format.

As already mentioned, Shiraishi is particularly good at mixing very Japanese feeling mythology (with hints of Lovecraft hanging in the background if you want to look at the film from a certain perspective) with very contemporary anxieties. The film does, after all, ask the question: "what if the cult-ish spree killers and suicide bombers were actually right and god is speaking to them?", only to then take the whole thing further and ask if the god speaking to the spree killers is actually telling the truth about its own nature or why it wants what it wants from its servants. What if their god is malevolent?

Occult also does some equally clever things with the meta elements it introduces, going far beyond the cameos of great director Kiyoshi Kurosawa and mangaka Peko Watanabe as themselves - or in Kurosawa's case as horror director and hobby archaeologist Kurosawa and in Watanabe's case as mangaka and automatic writer Watanabe. There's a really clever plot twist I don't have the heart to spoil based on Shiraishi's position as a character in his own film that demonstrates a clear eye for audience psychology, a sense of self-irony, and quite a degree of ruthlessness, and that really gave me the feeling of just having had the rug pulled from under my feet when it occurred. It also fits right in with the very quiet, and very dry sense of humour that's also running through the film.

The only element of Occult that just does not work at all are its special effects. These are just plain atrocious, looking as if the effects budget had consisted of the spare change Shiraishi found in his trouser pockets, and really ruin at least one final moment that should have been supremely creepy but turns out to be rather hilarious in just the wrong way. Fortunately, the film doesn't need the effects to be convincing for most of its running time - its effect on a given viewer is much more based on its own intelligence working with the viewer's imagination. Still, it would have been nice if someone had provided Shiraishi with the $500 he could have used to upgrade the effects from ridiculously bad to horrible.

The problem of its "special" effects notwithstanding, Occult is a film that should delight anyone interested in Japanese low budget horror with a brain. It's a film well worth ignoring its effects, and digging up the fansubs to understand what's going on in it.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

In short: Noctem (2017)

Some hacker guy – when your definition of a hacker is “someone who can plug a cell phone into a USB hub” – named Saúl (Diego Ingold) sits alone in a dark office examining the videos on the banged up cells of pretty actor Adrián (Adrián Lastra) and his pretty friend Basty (Esteban Piñero) who both disappeared a year ago while on vacation in Mexico. He has been asked to do so by Adrían’s pretty buddy Álex (Álex González), a mutual friend.

Turns out Adrián had taken to filming most of what was going on around him – there’s the POV horror mandated mumbling about a “documentary” – particularly since his apartment got rather poltergeist-y at night following his acquisition of a mysterious box. A mysterious box which will turn out to be connected to a fallen angel in need of a couple of sacrificial victims, no less. And if you’ve guessed that most of the material we get to see consists of Adrián’s and Basty’s lame cell phone camera footage, have a lollipop.

Even after Adrián has gotten rid of the box, the paranormal activity (sorry) doesn’t stop, so he and ever helpful Basty go on vacation in Mexico in the hopes that’ll calm things down. This will obviously turn out to be a pretty bad idea.

As my imaginary reader knows, I’m not at all a hater of the POV horror formula, but boy, do films like Marcos Cabotá’s Noctem make it difficult to give the form a fair shake. Turns out Paranormal Activity isn’t going to be a better film when you add a trip to Mexico at the end and mainly concentrate on male model type characters who are not gay, no sir, as the film can’t stop to emphasize – to its detriment, because these guys actually being gay would at least add some variation to their non-characters compared to other movies that are more or less the same as this one.

If you’ve seen other films of the style, you’ve seen this one too already: there are exactly the paranormal phenomena you’d expect, with a bit of cult stuff thrown in at the end, lots of running around screeching through woods as well as a dark house – the latter made even more annoying by one character going back into the house after he has already escaped. The characters exclusively act like horror film idiots, running towards every creepy noise even once they must know that’s a horrible idea, and avoiding no opportunity to get isolated from any potential help. I’m usually rather tolerant of this sort of thing, but there’s a difference between people confronted with the irrational acting irrationally and people acting idiotically because the writers couldn’t come up with a decent way to get them where they want them to be.

To be fair, among the bland been there, done that horror (and the “surprise development” that will surprise no one), there is one surprisingly effective sequence hidden away relatively early on that shows Adrián following noises through his – huge – apartment, noises he only slowly realizes come from above. Here, Cabotá makes excellent use of the claustrophobic point of view of the cell phone camera, and the basic fear of inexplicable noises in one’s own home. Too bad the rest of Noctem is so generic.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

The Midnight Man (2016)

Young Alex (Gabrielle Haugh) has returned to the old family home – the place where her mother hanged herself in front of her when she was a child, no less – to care for her grandmother Anna (Lin Shaye) who is suffering from dementia of increasing severity. One night, when she is visited by her best friend Miles (Grayson Daniel) – of course he’s secretly in love with her, this is a movie after all and the movie rule book says all male best friends of women are pining for them – she stumbles upon a very creepypasta little game/ritual hidden away in a box.

The “game” evokes an entity known as the Midnight Man (Kyle Strauts) who is allergic to salt, lit candles, and fair play, and who supposedly likes to kill people with their greatest fears. Of course, Alex and Miles start playing, and of course, the Midnight Man turns out to be very real indeed, so our heroes will have to fight for their lives – as well as listen to a Robert Englund shaped exposition dispenser – until the Midnight Man’s allotted time span in the real world is over.

Travis Z’s The Midnight Man has quite a few obvious flaws, mostly concerning its pacing and plot logic. Englund’s exposition dump for example brings the film to a screeching halt at the worst possible moment, the characters just shrugging off the plight of a trapped friend a few rooms off because they just need to listen to that sweet, sweet exposition. During this, Englund repeatedly emphasizes that time is of the essence – while standing around, talking at the characters. Then there is that whole business about the Midnight Man using a person’s greatest fears against them: apparently “I killed my pet rabbit as a child” counts as a fear in the Midnight Man rule book, as does disliking pain. On the other hand, the pet rabbit business enables the film to let its inner freak flag fly and put a very fake looking rabbit head on the Midnight Man, which sits nicely between the goofily absurd and the somewhat disturbing, a position where our antagonist’s usual outfit rests as well.

Generally, while the film’s story is sparse and its dramatic arc is not at all smooth, there’s a sometimes very effective mood of dread and the strange running through it, the director not only using his experience as a production designer – as well as a lot of clever lighting tricks - to create a wonderfully creepy house for the characters to stumble and creep through but also demonstrating a nicely developed sense for strange horror sequences that reminded me a little of a more down to Earth Nightmare on Elm Street. The film’s narrative may at times be rather rough in its attempts to mix classical gothic revival tropes like Alex’s family history with supernatural slasher tropes and creepypasta style horror but its attempt to do so is certainly imaginative and enjoyable to watch if one can just ignore silly things like plot logic. Fortunately, I can.

The film’s good side is further enhanced by Lin Shaye’s performance. What starts as a relatively realistic (and therefore rather sad) portrayal of dementia evolves into the craziness of your classic psycho-biddy, combining outright scenery-chewing with enough subtlety and actual evil for it to be entertaining as well as creepy. The young actors are solid enough, Englund does his expository duty with his usual professionalism, even provides his functional role with a bit of human warmth, and Strauts does the physical part of his Midnight Man duty (clearly enhanced, and I really mean enhanced, by CGI) with aplomb. I would have preferred the MM to not have been quite as talkative as he turned out to be but that might just be my general love for mute (well, moaning, weeping, gibbering and meeping are okay) supernatural evil and dislike for capital-E Evil that feels the need to add bad punning to its sins.

So, even though I have no problem at all seeing why The Midnight Man isn’t exactly well loved, I had rather a great time with it.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Some words concerning His Girl Friday (1940)

As you know, Jim, Howard Hawks’s classic comedy concerns a newspaper editor’s (Cary Grant) attempts – most of them immoral, illegal, or unethical in various combinations – to prevent his star reporter and ex-wife (Rosalind Russell) from leaving town and her job to marry the most boring man alive (Ralph Bellamy), whose main attraction probably is that unlike our editor, he isn’t a total prick. Or really, it nominally concerns this plot, for the narration spends as much time on – rather bitterly – satirizing the fourth estate (lying hyenas without conscience), politicians (lying, corrupt hyenas who haven’t even heard of a conscience), and generally pretending there are no cynical elements in here at all, no Mister Hays, sir.

The case Grant’s Walter Burns uses to drag Russell’s Hildy Johnson back into the fold is the sort of thing crime melodramas were (and still are) made of but the characters – even Hildy who comes closest to a person with an actual conscience here – treat the whole thing with bluff cynicism that only goes near compassion when it’s time to get the newspaper readers to weep or put one over on the competition. There’s a suicide in the film the characters at best shrug off, for Cthulhu’s sake. It’s not as if the film doesn’t know its main characters are pretty shitty people, either; in fact, this seems to be rather one of the points of the whole affair. There’s an interesting tension in the movie here. As everybody knows, Hawks was all about showing professionals at work doing said work well, generally presenting this with the true admiration of a fellow professional. So there are scenes in here, particularly when Hildy drifts off into writing trance or handles three problems at once, when Hawks can’t help himself but love her for it, even though he’s not blind to her considerable character flaws. Of course, say what you will about Hildy and Water, they do share one virtue: they very much prefer putting down the big guy than the little one, and are therefor earn Hawksian admiration as people who do their jobs in spite of their flaws.

This is very much Rosalind Russell’s show, by the way, making this also a film about a professional woman standing at the crossroads between a job (and a man) she’s oh so very good at but that brings out the worst in her and the sort of cloying conservative domesticity she couldn’t survive for year. What can we say about Bellamy’s character who apparently loves her, but can’t even understand this most obvious of things about her?

The film is incredibly good at distracting its audience from all this though – clearly it distracted the censors or otherwise nothing of this could have flown – by the sheer virtue of how incredibly funny its morally dubious protagonists are together. Especially Russell is throwing herself into the ever faster overlapping dialogue of Charles Lederer and Ben Hecht with abandon and precision. All the while, the film demonstrates her increasing departure from her future of boring domesticity through the decreasing state of her hat. Particularly the film’s final third uses its era’s love for overlapping dialogue to incredible effect, sometimes having discussions about three different things going on at once, winning comedic effect at once from this structure, the sharpness of the writing, and the sheer energy surrounding the characters.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

1921 (2018)

Surprisingly enough, It’s 1921. Young aspiring musician (or kitsch pianist, given some of the stuff he is mimicking to play) Ayush (Karan Kundra) has hit the jackpot: a rich Hindu gentleman is not only sponsoring his studies at the world-renowned music school of York, England but has also given him the run of his usually empty mansion there, as long as he’s watering the plants. But Ayush’s happiness is short-lived, for he is terrorized by a variety of supernatural occurrences that climax in an ugly black spot growing ever larger on his body.

Fortunately, destiny (as a matter of fact, Destiny with a capital D, it’s that sort of a movie), leads him to another student at the University of York, Rose (Zarine Khan). Rose is a typical movie or TV ghost seer, always helping out the dead people she sees so they can find rest, her own social life be damned. However, Rose is usually working with ghosts that want to be laid to rest, whereas Ayush’s problem really rather seems to ask for a big damn exorcism. Of course, Rose and Ayush fall in huge romantic love during the process of finding out what kind of spookery he suffers from, but will that be enough to solve some really rather intense ghost troubles?

For my tastes, Vikram Bhatt’s 1921 is the weakest in the not terribly connected series of horror movies about the misadventures of various pretty young Hindus in an absurd, yet also very pretty and atmospheric version of fantasy England in the early 1920s, a pleasant place full of ghosts but with only the tiniest smidgen of racism and colonialist spirit. This fantasy England is one of the elements of the 192x films I particularly enjoy. There’s nothing not to like about the film industry from a former colony making up a version of their old colonizer's home just as absurd as that of India you’ll find in many British films, turning England exotic. This approach is historically fair, usually lush to look at and just much more interesting than another attempt at realism.

Now, in 1921, Bhatt doesn’t do this romantic bizarro version of England populated by a couple of professional Hindi actors and actresses and two handful of absolutely terrible English language ones (how do films, wherever they are made, always find the least competent actors working in another language?) as much justice as the other films in the series do. The film is just not reaching the heights of Indian/British Gothic of particularly 1920: London, and weakening many a scene of horror by a tendency to overlight everything for no good reason whatsoever, banning shadows from a movie that really should contain a lot of them. While Khan makes a fine romantic heroine, I found Kundra a bit too one-note, using one puzzled facial expression for every emotion his character is supposed to feel. Even when he is possessed by a ghost, his non-expression doesn’t really change all that much.

The film’s plot isn’t exactly tight, with so many plot twists and flashbacks it borders on the absurd. Not all of them are terribly effective or necessary, either, the film seemingly taking a quantity over quality approach here. However, one central twist not atypical for films about seers of dead people is handled effectively, leading into a finale that is as crazy as one could wish for, with a couple of scenes of horror that may be staged in much too chipper a tone to frighten anyone but which are also so plain fun in conception and execution nobody with a sense of silly joy in their heart will ever complain about their flaws.

The horror scenes are generally neither frightening nor disturbing, yet they are – just as the film’s plot twist mania – enthusiastically realized and in the spirit of good fun. Particular favourites are the random (or is it?) poisoning by femme fatale, the ghostly inn full of bad gore CGI, and of course the axe business in the finale, a moment you, as they say, gotta see to believe.

What 1921 doesn’t achieve but what its predecessors managed is to actually sweep me up in its romantic horror tale and involve me emotionally, so the melodramatic moments tend to fall flat, more than bordering (as all intense emotion does) on involuntary humour. Still, the film’s crazy moment, its daredevil plotting and its general sense of fun are still more than enough to make for an enjoyable evening.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Three Films Make A Post: You done the man's time--now you gonna do ours!

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017): Four teenagers in detention are sucked into the video game version of the magical board game Jumanji, where they inhabit the bodies (Dwayne “Still The Rock” Johnson, Karen Gillan, Jack Black and Kevin Hart) of the videogame characters and learn valuable lessons about life while trying to escape. Actually, despite me not being the ideal audience this sort of big budget family adventure was made for, I enjoyed myself quite a bit with it, not just because I’m rather fond of the ole Rock and Karen Gillan but also appreciate Jack Black when he’s not just doing his Jack Black shtick – which he can’t, given that he’s playing a teenage girl trapped inside of Jack Black’s body. The film is also often indeed as funny as it is supposed to be, getting a lot of mileage out of playing with gender roles and self-image (seriously). Director Jake Kasdan does still have impeccable comic timing and does rather well with the CGI action, too, so there’s little not to like here. Well, apart from all those valuable lessons that are presented with all the subtlety of an 80s cartoon.

Smashed (2012): Coming to something completely different, how about James Ponsoldt’s sometimes darkly comic drama about young alcoholic Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) realizing her life of partying with her just as alcoholic husband Charlie (Aaron Paul) is leading her ever closer to a complete breakdown. She is able to begin to start to turn things around but that’s not necessarily good for her relationship, seeing that Charlie’s not at the point where he can even see a reason to begin drying out. Unlike a lot of alcoholic dramas I know, Ponsoldt’s film is particularly interested in the fact that Kate’s life without alcohol won’t magically get better, even suggesting that it’s not going to be happier at all, which gives this less the feel of a feel good movie about a woman conquering her issues, but the more real one of a woman trying to find a way to manoeuvre through life in a way that’s honest to herself and others. Apart from the funny, sad and sharp writing and direction the film recommends itself through a great performance by Winstead (who feels quite a bit more like the alcoholics I know than typical of the genre) and a handful of wonderful support actors.

The Cat Returns aka 猫の恩返し Neko no Ongaeshi (2003): What better way to end this on than with cats – some of them rather on the evil side, some not. Hiroyuki Morita’s Studio Ghibli anime is about quiet schoolgirl Haru (Chizuru Ikewaki) getting into quite a bit of trouble in the Kingdom of Cats after she’s saved the crown prince. Fortunately, The Baron (Yoshihiko Hakamada) – whom you’ll remember from Ghibli’s Whisper of the Heart – of the Cat Bureau is helping her out in a most dashing way. This is certainly one of the most whimsical Ghibli movies, still carrying one of the core themes of the studio’s output, the growing-up experiences of female teenagers, but mostly seeming to have a lot of fun with imagining the Kingdom of the Cats and all that belongs to it. I found the first act particularly lovely, the sure-handed way it characterises Haru and the true sense of wonder of her encounter with the magical in a very real world. This one’s also teaching a valuable lesson, by the way, but goes about it with quite a bit less fear an audience might not notice than Jumanji does.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Past Misdeeds: Gladiators 7 (1962)

Original title: I sette gladiatori

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.

After being let go from a Roman arena thanks to a very tenacious performance during a fight that was supposed to kill him for helping in the escape of five other gladiators, noble Spartan Darius (Richard Harrison) returns home, fully expecting a more pleasant rest of his life.

But things have changed in Darius's years of absence: his father - a very democratically minded leader beloved by all - has been murdered by the evil would-be tyrant Hiarba (Gérard Tichy) who made the whole thing look like a suicide committed because Dad was supposed to have ambitions on becoming a tyrant. Before Darius has even really arrived home, and has been warned off by his wet nurse, Hiarba sends some of his men to secretly assassinate the ex-gladiator. The blackguard, however, has not counted on his enemy's superior fighting abilities, nor on the fact that the son of Darius's wet nurse suddenly pops out to lend a sword.

Hiarba is a flexible guy, though, and, once he's realized Darius has the curious yet strangely plot-convenient habit of letting his sword - even if it's the only thing he inherited from his father - stick in the dead bodies of his enemies, changes his plans to frame Darius for murder, the sword standing as proof enough for the young upstart’s clear evil. While he's at it, Hiarba also uses said weapon to kill the father (also a co-conspirator in changing the murder of Darius's father into a suicide who now starts to develop a conscience) of Darius's childhood love and woman-Hiarba-would-like-to-marry-if-she-just-weren't-so-devoted-to-Darius Aglaia (Loredana Nusciak). Getting rid of a less than enthusiastic confidant, giving Aglaia reason to hate Darius, and framing his rival for murder all in one stroke is not a bad result of a failed assassination attempt, or so Hiarba smirks to himself while trying to woo the now Darius-averse Aglaia standing next to her father's corpse. In a surprise to sociopaths all over the world, that wooing attempt does not endear him to Aglaia very much.

Of course, the tyrant may be smirking too soon anyhow, for Darius escapes all attempts at arresting him, and spends the next half hour riding through the countryside, recruiting the five former gladiators (remember them?) who owe him their freedom as his own, private, tyrant-crushing fighting force. These five - the thief, the pretty one, the strong one, the alcoholic, and the bald one who doesn't like shirts - plus Darius and wet nurse Junior make up the seven gladiators of the title (even though wet nurse Junior technically never was a gladiator), and are all too capable of fighting through whatever Hiarba throws at them.

The title of Spanish director Pedro Lazaga's Gladiators 7 (an Italian-Spanish co-production that for once really seems to belong to both countries on a creative level, too) may suggest a peplum variation of the Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven school of film, but it's not a tale that keeps so close to the structures and motives of its predecessors all of the time as to be called a rip-off. Sure, there's the number of heroes, and the ritual assemblage of the group by Darius well-known from other movies of this type. The rest of the plot, however, is more in a typical peplum vein than in that of a Whatever Seven film; there is, at least, no poor village that needs protecting.

And, unlike those other films, Gladiators 7 is strictly centred around its hero Darius, with the rest of the gang getting somewhat effective one-note character types and no character development whatsoever. Six of these seven are strictly there to have characteristic fighting styles that make the action sequences more interesting and let Darius seem like a more rounded character. Look, he even has friends!

While I prefer the slightly more egalitarian ways of those other Seven movies, as well as their interest in questions of personal morality (something the film at hand just waves away with a disinterested expression), I'm certainly not going to call Gladiators 7 a bad movie, for it is a film doing perfectly well what it actually sets out to do: using the story of one shirt-hating guy's personal vendetta against an evil tyrant to show off some quite exciting, diverse, and often shirtless action sequences in front of very photogenic sets and locations, spiced up with scenes of genre typical, competent melodrama. The film fulfils the action part of its agenda without much visible effort. There's an obvious influence of the fights from swashbuckling adventure movies on display, so there is none of the lame action choreography many peplums suffer from (alas also none of the pillar wrestling), and instead there's a lot of jumping, swashing, and buckling, all performed by actors who may not be the greatest thespians on Earth, yet sure know how to look as if they knew how to handle a sword. Which, of course, is something you expect from a film starring Richard Harrison, who has never been known to be much of an actor, but always was quite an action actor.

Gladiators 7 also features manly belly-laughs, jokes that aren't completely horrible, and an entertaining bad guy whose particularly evil brand of evilness I attribute to Bruno Corbucci, one of the Scriptwriters Five responsible here. If someone wanted to call Gladiators 7 the platonic ideal of the non-mythological peplum (for alas, gods, rubber monsters and destructible buildings have no place in it), I would not have it in me to disagree.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

In short: Big Legend (2018)

Former soldier and action hero name owner Tyler Laird (Kevin Makely) has the brilliant idea to propose to his long-suffering girlfriend Natalie (Summer Spiro) in a patch of the deep dark woods that’s completely off the grid. As it usually goes with such deep dark woods far from civilization in horror films, the place is home to a large shaggy hominid. It’ll come as no surprise to anyone but the characters in the film that the thing drags Natalie off, leaving Tyler to have a bit of a nervous breakdown.

A year later, Tyler is released from the mental institution he was apparently put in because he didn’t believe Natalie – whose corpse was never found – died in a bear attack. After a pep talk from his mum (Adrienne Barbeau), Tyler goes off to the woods again, trying to find out what really happened to Natalie.

Just because the SyFy Channel doesn’t pay for non-ironic monster movies anymore doesn’t mean people are going to stop making them. Case in point is Jason Lee’s Big Legend, a film that keeps perfectly in the spirit of SyFy by lacking any kind of originality, yet eventually shows enough of the right spirit to charm me at least a little.

The first half of the film is pretty rough, the plot taking its dear time to get to the fun stuff while not showing much aptitude for the serious parts of its plot on the way. I had a feeling of the film dragging its feet to get the Barbeau and Amanda Wyss cameos in instead of cutting from its hero’s trauma in the woods right to his return. Makely is neither terribly convincing as a man deeply in love nor as one traumatized by a horrible experience, but once the survivalist action starts, he turns into a fun presence, which is all I ask from the lead in this sort of thing.

Lee certainly makes good use of the patch of woods this was shot in, making our protagonist’s – and his sidekick’s played by Todd A. Robinson – isolation believable enough. The film is also rather convincing at presenting the survivalist aspects of the tale without feeling the need to detail every attempt at finding food, getting the feel of these sequences right instead of losing itself in details. Its treatment of its monster is fine too, showing just enough of the creature and what it gets up to, and certainly turning it into a very convincing threat to Tyler; their final fight – while limited in its dimension - certainly feels like a proper climax.

Being the kind of viewer that I am, perhaps a wee bit tired of sudden useless plot twists, I still found myself pleasantly surprised by the film’s very sudden decision to end on the set up for another movie (with more than a minute of Lance Henriksen, one hopes), doing the Marvel thing B-movie style.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Wildling (2018)

Little Anna (Aviva Winick) has a pretty disturbing childhood. Being kept under lock and key in a cellar room by her “Daddy” (Brad Dourif, starting out wonderfully complicated until the film has him do his usual villain shtick), who likes to tell her frightening tales about a “Wildling” threatening little children is bad already. Once she starts menstruating, though, “Daddy” adds regular injections meant to suppress her cycle, adding a big load of creepiness. But hey, at least he taught her to read and write and never did any of the other things men keeping little children in cellars are wont to do.

When Anna hits about the age of sixteen (and has grown up to be played by Bel Powley), she begins wilting away; “Daddy”, propelled by guilt, clearly wavering between killing her and killing himself. decides to go with himself – though, as we will later learn, is not terribly successful as a suicide. The shot does summon the authorities, though, and Anna is off on her way to learn a lot of things about the bigger world outside. She’s in luck, too, for the local Sheriff Ellen Cooper (Liv Tyler) takes an interest in her and takes her in – at least for a time – for an attempt at a normal teenagehood. Ellen also takes care of her teenage brother Ray (Collin Kelly-Sordelet), their parents being absent for reasons, I guess.

Of course, the obligatory love story between the teens develops, but there’s also the fact that Anna’s not a normal human girl, but someone, something a bit wilder.

On paper, Fritz Böhm’s Wildling has quite a bit going for it – the cast is good to decent, the pictures are pretty, and the whole thing looks and feels slick enough for a film with one foot in horror and the other in the dreaded realm of YA. Alas, the script Böhm and Florian Eder deliver is just not terribly good, suffering from a debilitating vagueness in many things. The problem isn’t only that the film doesn’t really manage to ever do much of interest or insight with Anna’s identity as a furry wood human – it certainly wastes many an opportunity to say something about the connection between Anna’s “wildness”, female teenage sexual awakening, and her identity as something defined as other – it can’t seem to find its way to ever being concrete about anything. And I’m talking vagueness here, not ambiguity or any mystical attempt at touching the numinous.

It’s not just that nothing here is ever explained, the film is usually not even hinting, so if you’d like to know why the massacre of Anna’s people happened in the past you’re completely on your own. One might guess it’s the clichéd “humans hate everything that’s different”, but none of the guys hunting her ever says anything pertinent to the question whatsoever. The closest thing you get is when “Daddy” tells her he swore an oath to kill all of her kin, but why he did that, and to whom he made the oath? Beats me. As does what the actual function of the lifecycle of Anna’s people is, or what’s the deal of the guy dressed in dead wolves (James Le Gros) helping Anna out beyond being a walking talking plot device is.
Characterisation is equally vague: why does “Daddy” change his mind about murder and suicide again? Why does the Sheriff think dead boy next to the ripped dress of a girl spells murder instead of self defence by girl being raped? And so on, and so forth.

It’s all very frustrating, even more so because you could use most of Wildling’s elements to make a damn good film – a horror film, a fantastical coming of age movie, one about not being “normal” – yet the actual film at hand seems to avoid meaning anything concrete in any way possible.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

In short: Truth or Dare (2018)

A group of pretty, diverse, yet bland mid-twenties teen friends (Lucy Hale, Hayden Szeto, Sophia Ali, Tyler Posey, Violett Beane and a couple of others) do the spring break debauchery thing the movies have convinced me all young Americans do whenever the sun comes up, which would certainly explain a lot. Lured into a ruined church by a dude with a hipster beard, they start a game of truth or dare.

Alas, hipster beard has involved them in a supernatural game that doesn’t stop once they have arrived back home. It will later turn out the game is possessed by a demon (imagine a sarcastic tone in my voice here), uses a special variant of the rules nobody has ever heard of before, and kills everyone off who doesn’t tell a truth or follow through with a dare. The truths are of course the film’s attempt at playing psychological games with the characters, while the dares and the kills look like desperate grasps at copying the Final Destination franchise, without the imagination and the black humour of the better films of that series.

This lack of imagination is the greatest problem of Jeff Wadlow’s teen horror flick. It feels very much like a film designed to grab elements of other, better films and somehow turn them into a movie of its own, without ever finding an actual reason why these elements should come together. There’s a dollop of It Waits but replacing that film’s actual insight into its teenage characters with, and turning its thoughtfulness about sexuality and friendship into particularly bland The C&W style melodrama. There’s the Final Destination influence, but without the sense of fun and mischief and without the imaginative side of the kills. There’s a grab bag of other influences – the pointless demonic possession angle, a badly stolen idea here, another there – but what there isn’t is a coherent film. There’s no insight, no thematic development, and characterisation that pretends to dive deep but never actually does.

Wadlow’s direction is certainly slick, and a couple of scenes are even creepy if taken as one-offs instead of parts of a narrative, but the director never manages to develop the flow that might at least have turned this into a fun rollercoaster ride. Because that’s not enough to annoy me, Truth or Dare is also another one of those films about supernatural games that changes its rules whenever its writers have written themselves into a corner, instead of constructing the narrative around the rules they establish.

To add insult to injury, Truth or Dare ends on a note that makes its surviving characters look like absolute egomaniac tossers and makes no sense whatsoever (see my complaint about rules above), while making absurd GIRL FRIENDSHIP! gestures.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

7 Witches (2017)

The members of the Boyle family – a paradise of dysfunction – come together to celebrate the marriage of daughter Rose (Danika Golombek) to her girlfriend Agatha Sklar (Megan Hensley). The wedding is taking place at the home of Agatha’s family, to follow the rituals of her family. The Sklars, you understand, are a family of old school witches, whose ancestors had come to America at the same time as the puritans and have barely survived persecution, so they live in a rather out of the way place. They are also very, very weird, dressing only in black, and rather old-fashionedly at that, not doing that whole “smiling” thing you may have heard of, and generally acting stiff in a most creepy manner.

That’s certainly going to make the whole wedding business rather awkward, particularly since the Boyles can’t manage to not be at each other’s throats even for a single wedding weekend. Our main viewpoint character Kate (the lovely named Persephone Apostolou) is certainly the most pleasant of the bunch – not that that’d stop her and Rose from tearing each other apart verbally at the slightest provocation – but pleasantness might not be the personality trait she’s going to depend on once it becomes clear what kind of wedding ritual the Sklars have in mind.

The rest of the Internet apparently doesn’t agree, but I found Brady Hall’s 7 Witches a very pleasant surprise. But then, to me, the film reads very much as an attempt to make a non-retro horror movie on the budget and tech level of contemporary seats of their pants indie horror that still keeps in the spirit of stranger 70s genre films with comparable ruthless sensibilities when the time comes; though I could certainly see it also as a somewhat sardonic answer to all those US non-horror indies about dysfunctional families breaking down at some kind of family gathering, preferably Thanksgiving. It doesn’t matter much to my enjoyment in this case, for both directions are very much catnip to me.

So I’m rather enamoured with much of the film. Hall does a lot with what can’t have been much of a budget, ending up with a film that seems focussed on the important details rather than small. The film uses some very atmospheric locations apparently located in the vicinity of Seattle to build the proper mood of isolation and evoke the sense of a place where the creepy rituals of folk horror seem to fit the surroundings. There’s nothing quite like nature to creep this viewer out, though the closed down military fort the climax takes place in is rather wonderful too.

The – often genuinely funny - dialogue of the Boyles has the effectively snarky tone of people who have been horrible to each other for quite some time and stands in telling contrast to the unmoving stiffness and old-fashioned speech patterns of the Sklars. One can’t help but think that even if this weren’t a horror film, things would not end well between these two families. I’m rather happy it is one, though, for the malevolent practices of these cultists are very cleverly done, showing a folk horror bent that provides their occult activities with a feeling of internal consistency, though fortunately not one that ends in big villain speeches or direct explanations. The film clearly assumes the audience to be able to understand the folkloric references and resonances in the script, and to go with that understanding as far as we please. In any case, I love how much the strangeness of these people’s beliefs actually fits the real-word strangeness of the real beliefs many of us have.

There’s much else to like here too. The film has many a creative and appropriately weird sequence to offer, like cooking sequences made somewhat disturbing (and foreshadowing) with the help of Hall’s effectively minimalist score. Or how about the wonderful staging of the wedding sequence and its unappetizing aftermath? Or the tight and exciting final set pieces of well-staged action scenes that lead into a point-perfect ambiguous ending? Frankly, there’s little I don’t like about 7 Witches.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Three Films Make A Post: This is the moment when 32 lives are laid bare!!!

Frank & Lola (2016): Matthew Ross’s sort of psychological thriller (in the way certain Chabrol thrillers position themselves to the genre) is a rather frustrating film in so far as the film nearly comes together as something very special but instead ends up as a demonstration of talent that doesn’t quite take on the shape of a successful film. Certainly, Ross has visual style yet also – not always a given for stylish directors – trusts his actors to do their work, getting fine performances out of Michael Shannon and Imogen Poots, and then applying his powers of pizazz to enhance them. Yet still, the film never quite comes together as the psychosexual noir love story it is selling itself as, never quite making its characters coherent enough to work. The film makes a habit out of leaving just the wrong things ambiguous, emphasizing just the wrong moments; it’s like an instrument that’s always just a little bit out of tune.

Sweet Virginia (2017): Turning this into an inadvertent double feature, Poots also features in Jamie M. Dagg’s rural neo noir about murder plans gone wrong, love hidden, and friendship betrayed that among other things teaches us that you probably should not hire a random crazy fuck-up to murder your husband, nor do so before you are actually sure there’s any money to pay the guy. While Poots’s husband murdering ways are getting the film’s plot going, it actually concentrates on Christopher Abbott as Elwood, the guy she hired to do the deed, and Jon Bernthal as former rodeo rider turned broken (with so much rage and violence locked away) motel owner Sam Rossi. There’s not much here anybody looking for an original plot will find interesting, but that’s really not the point here; rather, this is a film interested in exploring its characters together with its audience, turning the rote clichés they could be into people, and then telling its dark story about betrayals and violence in an off-handed manner that never quite hides how dark some of the undercurrents here are. That much of what happens is obvious and feels inevitable isn’t a flaw but part of the film’s point.

La peau blanche aka White Skin (2004): This French Canadian arthouse (in the slow French style) horror film directed by Daniel Roby about two students encountering what you can read as female vampires, succubi, or cannibals is a bit of a mess. At times it seems to want to explore the meaning of Blackness in French Canada, 2004, while keeping its main black character in a supporting role; at other times, it seems to try to explore the idea of obsessional love, and the terrors and joys of the love of family; there may also be something about the morals of cannibalism in it. However, while Roby’s direction is generally artful, he never actually decides what exactly it is he is talking about, going off in different directions for little reason and never really arriving anywhere concrete, resulting in a feeling of insubstantiality that fits a film that acts so cerebral rather badly.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Past Misdeeds: Merantau (2009)

aka Merantau Warrior

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.

This write-up is based on the shorter international version of the film. There seems to be a nearly twenty minutes longer "director's cut", but what wonders it may contain I know not.
Country boy Yuda (Iko Uwais) is going on his Merantau, which, if I understand the film correctly and it's not lying, is a kind of journey into the outside world all young men of his area have to fulfil to be accepted as proper grown-ups. Yuda plans to got to Jakarta and teach the martial art silat there.

But having arrived arrived in the big city the not exactly world-wise young man soon finds himself penniless and without a roof over his head. The handful of contacts that should have provided him with a helping hand or two are all gone and unreachable, and so - this is after all a quest for him - Yuda decides to rough it and hope for the best.

Instead of teaching martial arts, Yuda falls foul of the unpleasant gangster Johni (Alex Abbad) when he decides to protect dancer Astri (Sisca Jessica) from his bullying ways - and that just after Astri's brother Adit (Yusuf Aulia) has stolen his wallet. At first, Astri isn't too happy with Yuda's kind of help, seeing as it closes up the only source of income she and her brother have.

That's just the beginning of Astri's bad day, though, for Johni isn't just your normal shady type, but in fact selling off some of his dancers to the insane couple of white slave traders Ratger (Mads Koudal) and Luc (Laurent Buson), and of course Astri is supposed to become part of the "merchandise". Fortunately, Yuda is again at the right place to save the girl from trouble, even if it means first getting beat up by Johni's henchmen to then start in with a furious comeback. Unfortunately, Ratger does not approve of getting hurt in the ensuing fight and begins to pursue Astri and Yuda with a passion, violence, and hordes of mooks.

By now, we all know about the horrible films that can result when venerable Asian directors are exported to the west. Merantau is something of a bright mirror image of that sickening trend, and shows the great things that can happen when a young Welsh director goes to Indonesia to make a martial arts film. Even better, the positive buzz coming from everyone who counts (so not Roger Ebert, who couldn't even be bothered to get the film's not exactly complicated plot right, it seems) for director Gareth Evans's next Indonesian movie The Raid: Redemption (again starring Iko Uwais) suggests the success of Merantau to be far more than a happy accident.

Unlike what one might fear, Merantau isn't the slightest bit touristy. Evans neither wallows in pretty postcard pictures (unless when it makes sense) nor in the look into the gutter aesthetic (again, unless when it makes sense). The director doesn't present his characters as "exotic" Indonesians, instead showing them as people whose culture might be different from the one the director grew up in, yet who are individuals and not symbols for an interpretation of that culture.

At its core Merantau is telling a very traditional martial arts movie story about a country guy going to the big city and doing good there with the powers of his pure heart and his martial arts skills, but there are a few elements that deviate from the usual formula, if mostly in small ways. There is, for one, Evans's complete avoidance of the horrible "country bumpkin in the city" humour that all too often doesn't let a film's hero look naive and a bit simple as it's probably supposed to, but instead makes a viewer doubt his intellectual abilities completely; there's a difference between being too stupid to live and lacking experience in city life the writers of that type of humour never seem to comprehend.

Evans's film shows other positive deviations too, but those are of a kind I found a bit too surprising to want to spoil now, so I'll just say that I did not expect two central plot points of the film to become quite as dark as they do in the end. It's also very praiseworthy how the film's actual dark moments surprise, yet still feel like organic parts of the movies and not like Evans shouting "look how grim and gritty this is".

Merantau also differs from many (though by far not all) martial arts movies by putting actual effort into the non-action scenes, going out of its way to leave room for quiet moments that not so much provide depth to the characters as they provide them with humanity. That does of course make the action all the more impressive because the audience cares more about the characters in those scenes. We're not talking "naturalistic psychology" here, of course, but I don't think that sort of thing could actually work in the context of a martial arts movie. Especially not in one that has the scenery-chewing Mads Koudal (and the less exalted Laurent Buson whose characters share the sort of male friendship with sado-masochistic undertones John Woo would approve of) as its big bad; including quiet moments does after all not mean a film has to eschew the larger than life when that's more interesting.

Once it gets going - Evans clearly believes in a careful build-up - the film's action (and here you thought I'd never actually talk about it) is quite fantastic, looking to my eyes like a mix of the brutal type of stunt work found in Thai cinema of the first decade of the century and more traditionally elegant fights. "Elegant", even in the truly brutal later fights, is also a fine way to describe the film's approach to fight choreography, as well as Iko Uwais performance. Even when blood is (mildly) spattering and bones are broken, Uwais seems so poised the old, and true, connection between martial arts cinema and ballet comes to mind again, especially after the film has brought the connection up directly early on in the proceedings.

As for weaknesses, from time to time it becomes visible that Evans must have worked on something of a shoe-string budget that didn't allow the fights to take place in surroundings as impressive as their choreography would deserve, so the action occurs in the rather traditional bars, back streets and around a bunch of cargo containers, but at least it's not a series of warehouses (or rather, one warehouse standing in for a series of warehouses). Truth be told, for most of the time, it's too riveting watching Uwais to care about the background too much anyhow.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

In short: Necromancer (1988)

One night in her college’s theatre building Julie Johnson (Elizabeth Cayton/Kaitan) is raped by three of her co-students – well, “only” one is doing the actual deed but the guy who is holding her down and the one who is looking on mildly disturbed without doing or saying anything are not appreciably better examples of humanity if you ask me. Because the shitheels have found a love letter from the time when the naive Julie and her sleazy theatre teacher Charles (Russ Tamblyn doing his thing while looking like a sick poodle with sunglasses) had an affair and are certainly not above blackmail, and because they are also connected rich kids whereas our heroine is studying on a scholarship the guys are in a position to ruin for her, she can’t go to the police. Julie’s boyfriend Eric (John Tyler), even though he is not a terrible guy, is no help either, too involved in his own emotional hang-ups to give her an opportunity to talk to him about what happened to her.

Julie’s gotta do something, though, so she and her best friend and only emotional crutch Freda (Rhonda Dorton) follow a newspaper ad to the garage where a “necromancer” (actually more a Satanic witch, played by Lois Masten) practices. The non-necromancer does at first give Julie the revenge she understandably craves, though the satisfaction will only last for a short time. Julie’s problem is that the demon the necromancer conjures up starts killing off every man who wrongs Julie at all, a couple’s argument apparently being just as worthy of death as a rape in its eyes.

There are a some elements in Dusty Nelson’s “rape revenge, but with black magic!” flick that work rather well: the rape scene is surprisingly well handled, as far as these things go, the film doing its best to portray the situation as the violation it is and never making the impression its trying to titillate with the scene. For example, unlike most exploitation films, it goes out of its way to keep Cayton dressed in the scene. That’s clearly a conscious decision, too, for in later scenes, there’s quite a bit of nudity by the actress, the demon for reasons first seducing her victims while she’s looking like Julie before she’s doing implied nasty things to their sexual organs. This is a cheesy 80s horror movie, after all.

I also appreciate the directness with which the film portrays Julie’s being surrounded by shitty men in positions of power. It may not be subtly done and pretty melodramatic, but it is effective enough that even this guy here felt the unjustness of her situation.

The film has its problems, of course: the acting is mostly on the lower side for a late 80s low budget horror film, the special effects are not terribly great (though also not terribly bad), and the pacing is on the slow side. Then there’s the fact that most of the victims here are more than just “unlikeable” – it’s clear the film is not on their side – so seeing them getting killed off does feel satisfying rather than upsetting, which does not help to produce tension.

However, even though it is flawed, I found Necromancer to be an interesting effort certainly worth my time.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Rampage (2018)

Davis Okoye (The “Dwayne Johnson” Rock) works as a primatologist for a wildlife haven in San Diego. His best buddy is CGI albino gorilla George, with whom he has a relationship apparently based on bro jokes in sign language. Davis, you understand, was a bad-ass murderer in various wars and doesn’t trust non-gorillas anymore on account of people being crappy.

The whole man/gorilla love fest ends rather quickly, when the remains of an evil genetic manipulation experiment made by an evil corporation headed by a sleep walking Malin Akerman and Jake Lacy (clearly freshly escaped from a Saturday morning cartoon), crash down, and infect George and a couple other animals elsewhere. Poor George starts to grow rapidly, becoming uncommonly aggressive, and very, very hungry.

Davis’s attempts at containment quickly break down, despite the help of rogue geneticist Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris), for no zoo is equipped to handle giant, mutating gorillas.. As you might have guessed, Kate once worked for the bad guys until she realized their evil craziness and went to jail for attempts at mitigating it.

The government in form of one Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), the last cowboy on duty, gets involved, too, but the film gods have decreed that George, a giant wolf with some special improvements and a surprise monster will eventually go on the titular rampage.

If you’re looking for a pleasant 110 minutes of fun high budget, low brain cell entertainment, Brad Peyton’s videogame adaptation Rampage should have you covered rather nicely. Sure, the film’s science is complete nonsense, the plan of its bad guys makes little sense, the plot isn’t exactly sensible, and The Rock is playing a scientist. However, unless one is a certain type of mainstream critic, these are not things one should hold against the film lest one review a rollercoaster ride as an adaptation of “King Lear”.

As a rollercoaster ride, the Rampage has quite a bit going for it: the action is fast, pretty furious and never anything but very good fun, everything culminating not only in the promised rampage but also a perfectly entertaining giant monster tussle between George (after a classic face turn), his little buddy The Rock and the pleasantly crazy other two former animals. The annals of kaiju cinema are certainly not in need to be rewritten, but the whole thing is so unpretentious I am most certainly okay with that. While I don’t believe he’s a scientist for a second, our old buddy The Rock is always fun to watch in this sort of thing, throwing his considerable body mass around, looking likeable, and going through the quieter phases with more than enough basic acting chops to stand up to the pleasant professionalism of Harris as well as the wildly entertaining scenery chewing by cowboy imitation of Morgan. This is certainly not one of those big loud blockbuster movies whose competent actors seem embarrassed and reticent but rather one where they are involved to be fun inside of a fun film.

The only exception, and the film’s biggest weakness, are its human bad guys: Akerman seems to sleepwalk through her role, while Lacy is just inappropriately goofy. Consequently, this is a film where popping in with the villains for a scene instead of spending it with The Rock, Harris, Morgan and the CGI monsters feels a bit like having to eat one’s vegetables during a feast of luscious cheesecake.

Fortunately, we don’t spend too much time in their company, and get more than enough of the adventures of our heroic trio and the rampaging CGI for Rampage to stay a pretty satisfying chunk of lovely dumb fun.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

In short: Tomb Raider (2018)

Young and adventurous Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) follows the traces of her long missing action archaeologist father (Dominic West). Eventually she teams up with Chinese boat captain Lu Ren (Daniel Wu) and ends up on an uncharted island where an evil organization is searching for the tomb of the same Japanese death goddess her father was obsessed with.

This is one of the recent major mainstream Hollywood films I honestly wish I would have enjoyed more. I do like the approach the film shares with the last couple of Tomb Rider videogames to tone the exploitation factor down quite a bit from the incessant leer of the Angelina Jolie films. I also think Alicia Vikander turns out to be a fine choice for the more human version of Lara Croft; and I enjoyed a couple of director Roar Uthaug’s Norwegian films (particularly the genre-wise pretty relevant Escape) quite a bit.

Unfortunately, Uthaug’s film also takes some of the less great elements of the current of Tomb Raider games on board. There is the pretty damn tedious attempt at providing what is still a superhumanly capable pulp heroine with a “relatable background”, so there is a whole slew of scenes about Lara’s tragic Daddy problems to go through, which is about as interesting and exciting as it sounds, and also so badly written it does nothing at all to make our heroine more relatable, but only quite a bit more boring than she needs to be. I’d suggest if you have a character who will eventually get around to have biggish pulpy adventures, trying to give her a believably human background is at best unnecessary, at worst, as it is here, a hindrance to the film ever actually getting around to showing the audience what it actually came to see the character do. I believe what I’m saying is that, instead of daddy issues, I’d rather have seen some Tomb Raiding.

Alas, the first and only tomb to be raided here (unless you count the hidden room in Daddy’s crypt, though you might also count it as an attempt by the film to go all metaphorical on us) pops up 74 minutes into the movie. Of course, this reluctance to get to the actual meat the title promises is another weakness the film shares with the newer videogames. Instead of tomb raiding, we get more daddy issues, a pretty boring villain (Walton Goggins), and a handful of survivalist action sequences. I suspect these scenes are why Uthaug was hired in the first place, but compared to the much cheaper, not overly CGI-laden Escape, they are not terribly good, and demonstrate a curious inability to create action sequences that take place in what feels like actual physical spaces; they are indeed much less convincing than those in the videogames. It’s possible a degree of inexperience of the director with CGI is in part responsible here, but then, a lot of blockbusters now are directed by people who have never made green screen heavy film before and do not suffer from this.

It’s certainly still a watchable enough film – this is no Cruise-Mummy – but it is neither the wild, female-lead pulp adventure of my dreams nor the survivalist yet emotionally gripping thriller with some surprise rage zombie-ism the production company was probably aiming for.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Summer of Ubume (2005)

Original title: Ubume no natsu

Japan in the early 50s. When visiting his former war compatriot, the private detective Enokizu (Hiroshi Abe), writer Sekiguchi (Masatoshi Nagase) stumbles onto a very curious case. A girl named Ryoko Kuonji (Tomoyo Harada) tells the strange tale of the impossible disappearance of her sister’s husband, and a the woman’s now twenty month pregnancy. Enokizu, who has the ability to see other people’s memories, doesn’t want to have anything to do with the case at all, for reasons he isn’t too willing to share with Sekiguchi. Sekiguchi can’t get his mind away from Ryoko and her tale, something about her tale and herself haunts him. Quite literally so, for after their meeting, he starts to fall into trancelike states, in which he encounters the original Chinese version of the yokai known as the Ubume. The Ubume is one of several female spirits accosting passersby with the request to hold her baby (depending on the local version of the Ubume, it may be bad to agree or to disagree), whereas the Chinese original kidnaps children.

Disturbed, Sekiguchi goes to his old school friend, bookseller/Buddhist priest/onmyoji Kyogokudo (Shinichi Tsutsumi). Looking for some kind of help, one supposes, but Kyogokudo has a hard time stopping his endless monologues about the nature of reality or tone down a rudeness that makes Sherlock Holmes look personable. Eventually, both Enokizu and particularly Kyogokudo will become involved in the case too, opening up a sordid tale of secrets of the past Sekiguchi may know more about than he thinks, baby murders, multiple personality disorder, angry mobs, an old family, and other markers of the Japanese Gothic mystery movie.

This adaptation of Natsuhiko Kyogoku’s novel (one of only a few actually translated into a language I understand, so hooray) was directed by Akio Jissoji, a man working in tokusatsu TV, pinku and arthouse films imbuing all with the same sort of deeply personal sensibility and strange sense of humour, as well as the willingness to dig deep into artificial filmmaking techniques. So, obviously, when making a film whose central tenet and several important plot points are based on the subjectivity of perception and memory, he went all out on sometimes alienating filmic techniques, starting the film – more or less – off with Sekiguchi’s visit with the for my tastes pretty insufferable Kyogokudo (who knows everything and is right about everything and never stops talking), not marking the scenes with Ryoko and Enokizu as flashbacks, and from then on never leaving out a single peculiar camera angle, theatrical bit of lighting, and so on and so forth. We are, after all, just seeing our brains’ interpretations of reality and not reality itself. One can find this approach a bit exhausting but it is also admirable in its consequence, for in the end, every visual peculiarity and every visual metaphor actually has meaning and sense here, Jissoji not being weird for the sake of being weird but to let the audience experience the themes of the movie through more than just its plot.

While he’s at it, the director also turns the potboiler-y elements of the book up to eleven, often suggesting a man deconstructing a Japanese Gothic Mystery (that’s indeed a sub-genre one can encounter quite often in Japanese cinema, probably in books as well, but that stuff never seems to get translated into any language I can understand) by overcooking it terribly. Which is somewhat ironic seeing as Kyogoku himself is – at least in the handful of books of his I’ve been able to read - a rather cerebral writer who doesn’t wallow much in the sensationalist elements of his novels but prefers to philosophize for chapters (though his characters would probably say it’s not philosophy but science), demonstrate his admirable knowledge of yokai and uses the extremities of his plots sparsely.

Summer of Ubume is quite the experience to go through, taking the approaches Kon Ichikawa used in his Kosuke Kindaichi mystery adaptations but cranking them up to a degree of controlled insanity.

I appreciate the film a lot, yet even more so I appreciate that this is a piece of art which tries to convince its audience there’s nothing truly strange in the world through a story so strange it borders on the absurd particularly when it rolls out its “natural explanations”. It’s fantastic.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Three Films Make A Post: Boy meets girl, girl unimpressed, boy starts band

The Conjuring 2 (2016): By now, I don’t think James Wan’s idea of what is terrifying and my own will ever converge, unless I’ll ever be converted to the gospel of the jump scare as the most important thing in any horror movie. Otherwise, it’s the usual Wan stuff: high technical abilities put into the service of delivering jump scare after jump scare after jump scare (which generally works on me for half an hour and then quickly becomes annoying) and a script whose only substance is some generic Christian demon stuff, a bit of whining about sceptics, and some advertisements for Bill and Lorraine Warren, whose film versions are still the blandest yet supremely sanctimonious psychic investigators alive, seeing as their only character trait is being holy. To me, Wan’s movies are the emptiest of empty spectacle, that is to say, spectacle I can’t even enjoy as spectacle because I find it utterly uninvolving. Of course, given who well these things sell and how much lots of horror fans and critics love them, they must work better for others.

Goosebumps (2015): To reiterate that I do indeed enjoy me some spectacle, take this family friendly horror comedy by Rob Letterman based on the books by R.L. Stine, who also appears as a character played by a Jack Black who for once doesn’t seem to be playing his Jack Black persona. It’s deeply harmless, loud, and fast fun with competent young actors, lots and lots of CGI monsters, and not too many scenes of people learning valuable lessons to annoy me. There’s never a boring moment, likeable characters who don’t get into speeches about God at the slightest provocation and also don’t look as if they were at a 70s themed costume party. Even better: most of the ideas the film comes up with are actually fun and clever, with many a call-back to horror classics (and I suppose Stine’s work, though I can’t say I have any personal experience with it), even most of the jokes don’t seem to be written down to some assumed brain-dead twelve year old. If I had kids, I’d absolutely tie them to a chair to watch this with me.

The Family (2013): But then, I also mostly enjoyed this very violent comedy with Robert de Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer as the parents of a psychopathically inclined mafia family in witness protection under the tutelage of a typically grumpy Tommy Lee Wallace in France, as directed by Luc Besson. To my own surprise and confusion, I found myself laughing a lot, despite my usual reaction to humour in Besson’s films being along the lines of running away screaming. Of course, part of the film’s charm are meta moments like the scene where de Niro’s and Wallace’s characters are witnessing a screening of Goodfellas (in my book probably the best gangster film ever made with or without de Niro), which of course results in some tearful reminiscing by de Niro’s character. Otherwise, there’s quite a bit of humorous ultra-violence, and jokes that reach from the dubious to the stupid, all filmed by Besson with his typical relish.

The moral of the story seems to be that Americans are dangerous lunatics, but families are good, though I might be wrong.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Past Misdeeds: Hunchback of the Morgue (1973)

Original title: El jorobado de la morgue

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.

The picturesque Bavarian mountain town of Feldkirch has everything a movie town needs: a surprisingly big hospital, a system of catacombs that has been used by the Templars and the Inquisition, and a reform school for young women. It would probably be a fantastic place to live in, watching shower scenes and listening to Wagner all day, if not for the fact that basically everyone in town is a mean, mad bastard in one way or another.

Hard-working, not particularly clever, hunchbacked, ugly (at least that's what everyone says: Naschy isn't wearing any "ugly" make-up, looking just like he does in other movies where he's supposed to be a handsome lady killer) morgue assistant Gotho (Paul Naschy) is the favourite victim of everyone in town. His daily routine seems to consist of being insulted, slapped around, and made fun of, his only recourse being a mad expression when he cuts corpses into little pieces  - which is something you do in this particular hospital morgue. The only one treating Gotho like an actual human being is Ilse (María Elena Arpón), but the girl is on her death bed suffering from a lung disease (must be consumption), and all the flowers the really rather sweet Gotho can bring her won't keep her alive.

When Ilse dies, Gotho cracks. The mild-mannered man turns a bit murderous, first killing two other morgue assistants who are trying to rob his dead sweetheart with a conveniently placed hatchet, then dragging Ilse's corpse down into the catacombs hoping she'll awaken one day. Afterwards, it's off to another revenge murder.

And that's how things could continue for Gotho, if not for the resident mad scientist, a certain Dr. Orla (Alberto Dalbés). With the help of his assistant Dr. Tauchner (Victor Alcázar), and Tauchner's girlfriend the reform school headmistress (I think) Dr. Meyer (Maria Perschy) Orla is trying to create artificial life. Orla's total lack of scruples and his need for fresh body parts cost him the co-operation of the hospital, however.

So it's pretty much like Christmas and his birthday falling on the same day for Orla once he realizes where Gotho is hiding. The catacombs will make a fine laboratory for the secret continuation of his experiments, and Gotho is easily swayed to help with acquiring body parts once Orla has promised him to revive Ilse. Soon enough, Gotho's new duties will involve grave robbery, murder and the kidnapping of fresh girls from the reform school (for Orla's experiment turns from a mass of cells into a hungry monster); the only hobby they leave room for is kissing the feet of reform school co-head Elke (Rossanna Yanni) and getting romanced by her in return.

Of course, things can't stay this paradisiac forever, and Gotho will have a violent discussion with Orla's monster (which just happens to look like the Oily Maniac) soon enough.

Even for something taking place on Planet Naschy (the great man of Spanish horror cinema is of course co-responsible for the film's script as well as playing the male lead), where the bizarre is actually the quotidian, El Jorobado is a pretty wild concoction. Where else, after all, would a story about a mistreated hunchback with certain necrophiliac tendencies taking vengeance on his tormentors be just too normal not to need an infusion of a gorier variation of the classic mad scientist story at about the half-way mark? I am, of course, not complaining about this broadening of the narrative (such as it is) for it's exactly things like this that give most of Naschy's films their charm and their weird energy.

That energy comes especially to the fore here, in a film that eschews the usually languid pacing of many of Naschy's scripts for something much snappier. Which isn't to say the script doesn't have many of the usual flaws in a Naschy film, namely, that most characters act like complete idiots (would you believe it's a bad idea to tell the mad scientist your plan to out him to the police?), and that some of the connective tissue one is used to from a professionally written movie is missing, so it's always a possibility the film's not going to show an important development at all but prefer to just talk through it later on; possibly for budgetary reasons, possibly because Naschy hated proper transitions. If one wants to enjoy El Jorobado - or most of Naschy's other movies - one has to accept that things don't work in quite the same ways on Planet Naschy as they do in our world or in the movies of our world.

On the other hand, it's difficult to imagine a more "normally" structured film having the time for all the small digressions and suggestions of various kinks El Jorobado has - some torture, a random whipping, the quite clearly suggested necrophilia, the fem dom whiff of Gotho's feet kissing or just the suspicion that Elke falls in love with Gotho because she's into men with physical disabilities for the disabilities' sake and not the men's, or else really has a thing for guys who kiss her feet for little reason; it'd probably make for an awesome porno.

It being a horror movie instead of pornography, though, the film is much more interested in crude yet entertaining gore effects, most of which ooze a classic carnival charm I found myself unable to resist. The only problematic scene in this regard is when Naschy fights some rats who are nibbling on Ilse's corpse. At first, they "jump" (that is, are thrown at him with great force) our hero - the sort of thing that's always good for a laugh, but then, we're attacked by pictures of actual rats being burned alive with a torch. Like all real animal violence in the movies, that's just completely out of ethical bounds for me, and makes it difficult to still call the film's fake violence "good-natured" and "silly" as I else would have had.

Nearly a thousand words in, I still haven't mentioned El Jorobado's director Javier Aguirre. That's because there really isn't much to his direction. Despite the moody assistance of an awesome mountain village, a spooky ruin, and some fine catacombs, Aguirre's direction just doesn't do anything memorable at all, certainly nothing even vaguely comparable to the weirdness of the script. On the other hand, Aguirre is also not doing anything that's actively bad, so it's difficult to criticize him for anything but being not as crazy as the script he's working with and shooting it like a straight little horror movie.

If you're willing to ignore the fate of those poor rats, El Jorobado De La Morgue is a perfectly entertaining piece of Naschy craziness, containing everything I love and hate about the man's work, plus (at least in the Spanish language version) a small nod towards the Necronomicon that will make all co-Lovecraftians happy, too.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

In short: Family Blood (2018)

Ellie (Vinessa Shaw), a recovering pill addict, has apparently only just gotten back the custody rights for her kids Kyle (Colin Ford) and Amy (Eloise Lushina). The family has moved to a new city, Ellie has a new job, but relations between her and the kids are strained – Kyle’s going the whole teenage rebellion route and Amy is growing up too quickly – and her struggle with her addiction is on less than stable footing.

One night, when she’s falling off the wagon right after an Addicts Anonymous session, another AA member, Christopher (James Ransone), assaults her and turns her into a vampire for vague and messed up reasons all of his own. Turns out, people who already can’t cope with more typical addictions are badly prepared for vampirism, so the family relations are going to become even more strained than before.

By now, films about vampirism as addiction or addiction metaphor have become their own subgenre. I suspect, right this moment more of them are being made than ones about romantic bloodsuckers. The thing is, once a sub-genre reaches this kind of saturation point, a perfectly innocent and decent little addict vampire flick like Sonny Mallhi’s Family Blood isn’t just a scrappy little underdog of a movie anymore, but goes to bat against films that are genre-defining or just plain great. Watching something like it, I can’t help but ask myself questions like “what does this add to the idea of vampirism as addiction?”, or “how different is anything in it compared with the last half dozen movies in the subgenre I have seen?”. Family Blood’s main problem is that the answers to these questions are “not much” and “it’s less well realized”, leaving me with a film working in a genre with rather tight borders – there’s really only so much you can do with the theme – that does little to actually stand out.

It’s a bit disappointing, really, for the acting is rather alright, the film looks pretty (there are indeed some outright beautiful shots), and up until the final act, it does very little that’s actually wrong. Rather, there’s nothing about anything going on in it that goes beyond the tropes and plot beats you’d expect from it, the usual concerns about family and vampirism playing out pretty much as is traditional.

The final act, though, isn’t just not good enough: it is a total mess where characters change their motivations randomly, a hilariously staged death of a barely characterized side figure is supposed to evoke a heavy emotional reaction in the audience that isn’t laughter, and all ideas the film might end up saying anything worthwhile at all about addiction and its impact on families go out the window. Worse still, the film seldom manages to work as a horror film despite being about something downright traumatic. It never really digs into the inner lives of its characters, only ever skimming the surface level.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

The Strangers: Prey at Night (2018)

A bickering family – mother Cindy (Christina Hendricks), father Mike (Martin Henderson), older son Luke (Lewis Pullman) and rebellious daughter Kinsey (Bailee Madison) are on their road-tripping way to move Kinsey to a boarding school as a cure for what looks like perfectly common teenage behaviour of the kind parents are actually supposed to put up with. On their way, they are making a pit stop at the mobile home park run by an aunt and uncle. The place is completely empty out of season (as a German, I have no clue what that’s supposed to mean in this context, but hey, empty trailer park I understand), so it’s at least a nice and cheap way to spend a night, I suppose.

When they family arrive late at night, there’s no aunt and uncle to meet them, only a short written message saying they’ll see them in the morning. As the audience knows – and the family will soon learn – there’s no actual family reunion coming up, for the relations have been murdered by a trio of creepily masked killers with a thing for horrible 80s ballads (putting the insult of bad taste to the injury of murder) who are no bound to whittle these not terribly fantastic four down.

Apparently, making a belated sequel nobody asked for to a middling genre movie and turning it into a superior film in a different genre is a thing now. I am not complaining, for this approach worked out rather well for the The Purge films, brought me joy in Beyond Skyline, and does result in a fun second entry into the The Strangers canon.

Directed by Johannes Roberts – who really deserves the slightly more visible directing gigs he’s been getting the last couple of years after a decade or so in the genre film mills – this turns the home invasion movie of the first Strangers into a very 80s looking slasher with a low body count, and is all the better for it. Now, if you’re one of those people who need all their horror films to be very deep, or at least ironically deconstructive, you will probably have no joy with it. This one’s really out to be an entertaining 90 minute ride with little depth. Roberts is playing with the visual signifiers of classic slashers, but he has clearly not set out to turn the genre on its head, but rather to make a cracking good film inside it. There is a complete lack of pretention to the director’s approach to the slasher and his quotes and nods towards the genre standards; Prey at Night comes at the genre from the inside looking outwards instead the other way round the more ironic approach would take.

That’s an approach I can like and respect just as much as the boundary pushing of other films, as long as it is used with prowess. We’re very much in luck there with Prey at Night, for Roberts uses the look and feel as well as some of the standard tropes of the classic slasher with verve, creating a fun series of increasingly violent encounters between masked maniacs and a group of people well out of their depth, throws in more than just a couple of great suspense scenes, and adds the appropriate quota of creepy masks, improbably durable killers (and victims), quoting good films left and right without winking, providing me with a very good time.

The film also looks rather wonderful. The colours and general style very often suggest Dean Cundy shooting for John Carpenter, visibly and atmospherically aligning itself with the best part of the genre its working in rather effectively.