Friday, August 31, 2018

Past Misdeeds: P.O.V. - A Cursed Film (2012)

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.

During the shoot of the low rent idol show of Mirai Shida (playing herself) with special guest Haruna Kawaguchi (playing herself too), something disturbing happens. The show's gimmick of the week is to have the two teenagers watch ghost videos, but the videos that appear on screen aren't the ones the director and the girls’ manager have vetted beforehand.

In fact, these videos contain much better footage than this sort of video usually does, and they all seem to be shot at Haruna's former junior high school, which must be the most haunted school in Japan. Oh, and the videos continue playing when the DVD they are on isn't actually in its laptop anymore. Haruna, who spent some time at her junior high hunting but never finding exactly the ghostly apparitions she now sees on screen, is convinced she is cursed, an idea that does not become weaker once the crew films the reflection of a female ghost in one of the studio windows.

Clearly, this situation affords a fine possibility for the show to hire the world's most matter of fact psychic (who, we will learn, is psychic, not a mind reader) to help Haruna and finally get some really exciting footage. Alas, the psychic is sure that Haruna's little ghost problem can only be solved inside of the junior high. Of course, once the film crew is inside the place, they'll get to see more of the ghosts than they probably asked for.

It looks like the found footage/POV horror sub-genre is suddenly somewhat hot again in Japan. This does not come as much of a surprise seeing as how ideally the genre is suited to low budgets, with footage that is generally supposed to look cheap, no need for complicated camera set-ups or sets, scripts that tend to the simple, and hordes of idols willing to act in everything being churned out by the Japanese entertainment machine. Somewhat surprisingly going by the standard of the POV genre in the USA and Europe, a lot of the newer Japanese POV films I have seen are actually decent or even better, with Koji Shiraishi's Occult and this one being particular stand-outs that manage to fulfil all genre expectations yet also give the clichés they are working with small, effective twists.

POV and Occult invite some comparisons in other aspects than their respective quality, too. Both films are directed by men who have done good, sometimes great, work in the second row of Japanese horror directors. POV's Norio Tsuruta does not have anything quite as brilliant as Shiraishi's Noroi or A Slit-Mouthed Woman in his filmography, but his films clearly show him to be someone who understands the horror genre and is intelligent enough to know that the point of making genre movies isn't just giving people what they want from them but also surprising the audience with slight twists on and tweaks to a given formula.

POV is a perfect example of the latter. In its basic set-up, the film seems as generic as possible, with the usual non-characters going about their horror movie days, and the expected ghosts (though a lot more of them than you usually see in a film like this) doing the expected ghostly things. And what 's more generic than a middle part that mostly consists of people shaking their cameras, screaming, and running through a dark building? The film's plot, however, is decidedly more clever than it at first appears, using the comfortably familiar spook show elements in service of something more sinister and more creepy, leading into a semi-apocalyptic post-ending titles climax that is surprising and highly effective in its nature.

POV is also one of the few films of its sub-sub-genre that seems interested in using the discomfort the basics of Japanese idol culture can produce in a viewer who isn't a total idiot, presenting the low rent entertainment biz in a subtly bad light, possibly even suggesting this sort of entertainment and its unspoken greed would be the perfect in-road for actual evil (or, ironically, that certain ghosts would see idol culture as a nice way to finally become famous). POV does not explore this aspect all that deeply (which is not coming as much of a surprise from a film that by necessity is itself a part of perhaps dubious, always looked down upon, circles of pop culture), but that does also mean it's not getting preachy - and therefore annoyingly hypocritical - about it. It's just an element that's there to add more cultural resonance to the film.

Of course, all of POV's interesting subtext would be quite wasted if it did not also succeed at the bread and butter parts of a horror movie, the shocks, the moments of discomfort, and the all-purpose creepiness. Many of the film's fright scenes are based on sometimes imaginative variations of pretty traditional Japanese ghosts and traditional POV horror shocks. About half of them tend to the more carnivalesque jump scare mode, as well as grating on audience nerves by having the characters screech and shake their cameras, but there are also some exceedingly creepy scenes based on clever sound design, shadows, and my eternal favourite (that also turns a ghost story into something Weirder for me), scenes of time and space losing their usual consistence to threaten the characters. That last element is especially finely realized in the film's first major climax, a scene I find too delightful/disturbing/effectively tense to spoil by describing it. Let's just say it involves a disappearance, a camera, and a ghost moving towards the characters making rather disturbing noises (as Japanese ghosts are wont to, of course), and that it actually got to me.

Tsuruta - who also wrote the script - shows itself as a director very capable of using the more subtle parts of horror craft even in a context like POV horror that often doesn't seem all that interested in them, with a real gift for pacing the suspense scenes beyond the usual running and screaming.

Thanks to him, POV is a surprisingly excellent piece of filmmaking.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

In short: Against the Night (2017)

aka Amityville Prison (I have no idea)

Warning: I’m going to spoil the ending, so you don’t have to suffer through the movie!

One among a number of completely interchangeable young horror movie people – even their names seem to be chosen to be as generic as possible – who earns his money shooting fake ghost hunting stuff convinces his friends to go and visit an abandoned prison with him. After way too much time of all eight of these nonentities babbling over one another, they split up into smaller groups and get slaughtered, mostly off-camera. Stupid plot twists ensue. Your seasoned viewer of crap movies sighs in annoyance, then the most stupid plot twist of them all happens, and he does at least respect the film for really not having a single brain cell, yet also no shame.

So, if your dream movie is one that features all the problems of bad POV horror films, despite only half consisting of night vision shakycam etc, Brian Cavallaro’s Against the Night is probably an absolute dream come true. This thing features characterisation so thin it’s basically see-through, no personality to anyone on screen, a plot that starts about half an hour into the film, shots so dark you can’t see much even once there may actually be something happening on screen potentially worth seeing, and a story so generic and empty one might as well call it a parking lot instead of a story.

All of which, particularly with characters who barely manage to at least be horror film clichés, makes it rather difficult to care even once something does indeed start to happen. Sure, there’s a bit of violence, there’s some bickering, probably meant as dramatic tension and paranoia as imagined by someone who has no clue what these words mean, but there’s nobody and nothing on screen, neither person nor idea, that could actually give you a reason to care about any of it. Also, darkness, night vision and screaming does not automatically lead to atmosphere.

On the plus side, the final twist reveals that the killer is not as assumed some guy in a gasmask but an alien with face tentacles that maybe look a little like a gasmask when a film is lit quite as darkly as this one. Against the Night even plays fair and does present the alien explanation earlier, letting one character theorize aliens are haunting the prison and killing idiots with generic names because it is shaped like a crop circle.  This, ladies and gents, is the art of screenwriting.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Shakedown (1988)

aka Blue Jean Cop

New York. Just one week before he’s going to leave his legal aid career behind and start a job in the Wall Street law firm of his rich girl fiancée's rich daddy, once idealistic - now pretty cynical but not completely hopeless - Roland Dalton (Peter Weller) gets quite the case dropped in his lap. Low level drug dealer Michael Jones (Richard Brooks) has apparently shot an undercover cop during an arrest attempt, but Michael says the guy tried to shoot him and steal his money and drugs without ever identifying himself as a police officer instead of a common robber. After all, if a cop would have wanted to shake Michael down, he would have let him take whatever he wanted and let his own bosses sort things out with the dirty cops. Roland believes Michael.

A friendly chat with his cop buddy Richie Marks (Sam Elliott), suggests a course of investigation to Roland that will lead to a bit of hornet’s nest of a group of corrupt cops – whose corruption is of course ignored by the rest of the force for the usual corps spirit bullshit reasons – trying to get a bit more involved in the business of a local crack kingpin (Antonio Fargas).

To add more complications, the assistant district attorney prosecuting the case is the love of Roland’s life (Patricia Charbonneau) – not to be confused with his fiancée.

I am not as a great an expert on the body of work of James Glickenhaus as some other writers roaming the movie blog and podcast world are, so I just accept their received wisdom that this on paper somewhat bizarre combination of 80s action movie and courtroom drama is indeed Glickenhaus’s magnum opus. At the very least, it’s pretty damn great, avoiding he drabness of most films about people shouting “OBJECTION!” – Ace Attorney excepted – by replacing the boring bits with stuff like scenes of Sam Elliott chasing some skinny idiot through what I assume is Coney Island, and ending up on a roller coaster, or with a pretty fantastic trike versus car chase with Weller riding handgun, and a finale where Elliott solves the age old grudge match between action hero and small plane once and for all.

These scenes are generally not filmed in the overly slick way one might perhaps expect but embedded in the Glickenhaus typical (so much do even I know about his films) eye for the grimiest bits of late 80s New York, grounding the adrenaline-driven absurdity of 80s action cinema in what feels like a totally real place. Indeed, one of the film’s great strengths is how leisurely and non-dramatic its plotting is, not because the writer/director doesn’t know how to make things tight (you can’t shoot action like this if you don’t know) but because Glickenhaus seems just as interested in portraying the world his characters inhabit – for better or worse – as in the action. So even something like the whole sub-plot in which Roland and his ex are falling back in love with each other and his struggle to tell his fiancée the truth about how he feels and really, who he truly is, do not feel like filler but rather are successful attempts at creating a world that may or may not be a heightened version of how the film and its director sees New York.

This gives a film that’s beholden to a gritty version of 80s pedal to the metal action, speechifying courtroom drama (wonderfully done by Weller, by the way), and some dubious plot ideas – Roland really breaks into a lot of places and likes to get into violent situations for the honest lawyer he’s supposed to be – an uncommon sense of earnestness, very much emphasizing the value of providing its characters with humanity and the world they live in with substance in genres where that sort of thing isn’t always par for the course. This also results in some very typical cliché situations and constellations actually feeling fitting and human, even though they are not actually all that different from the dozens of other times when they just annoyed me.

The cast obviously gets this, too, so there’s a complete lack of winking and being all ironic about being evil from large parts of the ensemble. Instead everyone plays things straight and puts actual effort into their roles. Weller is simply great, whereas Sam Elliott – complete with the facial hair we his fans demand of him – convinces through his typical Sam-Elliott-ness and much soulful and/or disgusted staring. But really, everyone here is completely on point.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

In short: Minutes Past Midnight (2016)

Minutes Past Midnight isn’t quite your typical horror anthology but structured rather more like a literary anthology which, curated by Justin McConnell, brings together various short films that weren’t necessarily meant to be parts of a full length movie. I rather like this format, for it certainly helps bring short films to viewers that wouldn’t seek them out as standalones or have no way of seeing them because a surprising amount of shorts isn’t actually online and can mostly be experienced by people who either live near one of the places where a genre film festival takes place or can afford to travel to one.

Unlike with most anthology films I write up, I’m not going to go into every single one of the segments. Let’s just say that most of them are solid to great – except for Ryan Lightbourn’s “Roid Rage” which is pretty much everything I don’t like in a movie condensed into one short – but put out a couple of words for the highlights.

The most obvious highlight is of course Kevin McTurk’s puppet animation “The Mill At Calder’s End”, a wonderful concoction of Gothic mood concerning a family curse in the Victorian age, featuring the voices of the great Barbara Steele and Jason Flemyng (and one puppet that looks rather a lot like Peter Cushing), and making not a single misstep in design, tone, or mood. It’s simply a perfect piece of short cinema.

Also very fine, if not quite as exalted as “The Mill” is Christian Rivers’s “Feeder”, the tale of a struggling musician moving into a rundown house in a rundown part of suburbia where he encounters an entity that trades sacrifice – indicating its wishes through scratched drawings on a wooden floor – for inspiration. As it goes in these matters, the sacrifices required tend to grow and grow. I really like the folkloristic echoes of the trading of sacrifice for inspiration, turning this into a bit of a piece of suburban, Australian folk horror (at least as I would define the word). It’s realized with a solid understanding of how much it needs to show of the sacrifices and their psychological consequences to to be effective. It also ends on a neat little twist that may not come as a complete surprise but fits the tone of the whole piece wonderfully.

Last but not least, I’m going to praise “Ghost Train”, a tale of childhood guilt turning deadly by Lee Cronin, featuring a fantastically creepy looking animatronic ghost train (the kind you find at a carnival, not he sort that makes choo choo), some harsh revenge from the grave by one of the creepier undead children I’ve seen in my long career of watching this stuff. It’s told in a mood that reminded me quite a bit of the stories of Australian writer Terry Dowling, who also often circles comparable thematic concerns and motifs.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Dead Night (2017)

One spring break, the Pollack family make their way into one of those all too typical cabins in the snowy woods, taking their daughter Jessica’s (Sophie Dalah) best friend Becky (Elise Luthman), too. It’s not just your standard vacation, though, but rather mom Casey’s (Brea Grant) last attempt at saving her husband James (AJ Bowen) from a brain tumour. The cabin, you see, is supposedly built on magical healing stones right from the realm of woo woo. However, something magical is going to happen when James finds an unconscious woman in the woods who is going by the improbable moniker of Leslie Bison (Barbara Crampton). Alas, it’s the kind of magic that leads to zombie families and axe massacres.

Speaking of axe massacre, while the increasingly demented plot unfolds, the film from time to time cuts into what a mysterious person or thing watches on a tower of TVs stacked up in the middle of the woods: an episode of a sensationalist true crime TV show about Casey’s axe-murder of her whole family. Well, and a TV spot for Leslie Bison’s run for Ohio governor.

That true crime TV show is one of the best parts of Brad Baruh’s pretty bizarre and terribly fun little horror film. It hits exactly the right tone with its over-earnest, sleazy presenter, the kitschy and melodramatic recreations, and the generally sanctimonious tone that comes with the business of making a quick buck out of terrible shit that has happened to people, without a care for boring things like truth, doubt, and responsibility. This part of the film is going to be even more entertaining than it already is once Dead Night comes around to telling the audience who watches it, when, and why, coming up with an answer that makes no logical sense (it’s not supposed to, mind you), the movie staring at its audience as if daring it to call it a damn liar. It’s pretty fantastic.

Also rather wonderful are Dead Night’s practical gore effects, a series of nicely done and excellently grotesque disfigurements that doesn’t really stop once the film has gotten going. As a frequent horror viewer, I did of course know where all of this was going in broad strokes very early on, but the film has a tendency to play with and audiences expectations at least a bit, coming up with improbable ideas and illogical little twists that certainly aren’t common.

That’s not the sort of thing everyone will enjoy, so if you need the plan of a movie’s villains to make much sense, even if it is only a ritualistic one, or things in a film to happen somewhat akin to the way things happen in the real world, you won’t find much joy here. In fact, Dead Night goes out of its way to present the violent supernatural as we know and love it from horror movies of the late 80s and the 90s as something that is at its core not logical and will therefore not act in manners that completely make sense. Or at least, that’s how its treatment seems to.

If you’re like me and go for stuff like this, you just might have a wonderful time, not only with the gory and strange bits but also some shots of wonderful strangeness, be it the TVs in the woods or Crampton’s behaviour in the cabin before the minor killing spree starts, including a fantastic bit of passive aggressive milk drinking. That last part again demonstrates how much of a treasure Crampton as a character actress specialised in all sorts of creepy, disturbed, or disturbing women has become in her return to horror.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Three Films Make A Post: You can change the cards you're dealt.

Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995): And with the third attempt, the magic disappears completely from the Die Hard movies. Willis’s John McClane is now pretty much like every other action hero thanks to the shunting away of his wife and the non-generic parts of his character. The moments of surprising veracity from the last films are gone, too, and the less said about the film’s attempt to make gestures of tackling racism via its buddy movie plot line with a Samuel L. Jackson who gives the only fun performance in the whole movie the better. The thing additionally suffers from a limp script that doesn’t seem to have much of a clue how to turn a series of action sequences into a movie.

Even worse, returning John McTiernan is at his worst here, directing action scenes that are basically competent but never fun, interesting, or exciting. I understand why everyone involved thought removing the constraints of locality of the first films to be a good idea, but replacing their tight, increasingly outrageous action sequences with Willis and Jackson racing all over New York solving stupid riddles while random stuff breaks isn’t an entertaining replacement. And don’t even get me started on Jeremy Irons’s performance that is exactly the wrong kind of cartoonish.

Another WolfCop (2017): I don’t think I exactly needed a sequel to WolfCop in my life, even if it is by returning director/writer Lowell Dean again. I especially did not need one where half the jokes are slight variations on ones from the first film. However, its (sometimes too) self-conscious charms, its goofy-gory humour and its general Canadian-ness might not quite add up to the outrageous gore and giggle-fest its (awesome) poster and its brilliant tagline (“Sequels are a disease. Meet the cure.”) promise but Another WolfCop is as good-natured and likeable as a meta-humorous pseudo-grindhouse film can get, and that’s worth something in my book.

Mara (2013): Over in Scandinavia it apparently takes three directors to make this – sometimes very pretty to look at – film about young people in a house in the woods – etc, etc. For a time, the whole affair looks and feels like your typical low budget slasher (including quite a bit of gratuitous nudity), perhaps artier shot, then it turns out to be a double-twist thriller that at least tries to play with the audience expectations towards plot twists. While I like the idea, and find the film more than competently shot, I don’t think the plot comes together well enough for the film to be interesting. Even with the twists, it’s just not very interesting, or exciting, or even fun to watch.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Past Misdeeds: Wu Xia (2011)

aka Swordsmen

aka Dragon

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.

China, 1917. Liu Jin-Xi (Donnie Yen) lives a peaceful life with his wife Ah Yu (Tang Wei), her son from a first marriage Liu Fang-Zheng (Zheng Wei) and their son Liu Xiao-Tian (Li Jia-Min) in a country town, working in a paper mill. Shadows of a different man Liu Jin-Xi once was begin to emerge when two martial artist villains try to rob the mill.

Liu Xiao-Tian kills the men in what on first look seems like a series of exceedingly lucky accidents, making him the hero of the village. But Xu Bai-Jiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro), the detective investigating the villains' death, has his doubts regarding Xiao-Tian. How, after all, should one hapless butcher's son be able to "accidentally" kill two of the meanest martial artists around? Some of the physical evidence Xu Bai-Jiu finds tells a different story, too, and the detective is soon convinced Xiao-Tian must be a masterful martial artist and experienced killer who is just using this identity to hide himself from the law.

Even though Xiao-Tian must be a changed man from whoever he was before, Xu Bai-Jiu can't help himself but go after him, sniffing and asking questions and even accommodating himself at Xiao-Tian's place. Xu Bai-Jiu's own past has him convinced that his natural tendency to compassion is a weakness before the spirit of the law that needs to be purged, so he treats his sense of empathy as an illness that keeps him unable to practice the martial arts; not surprisingly, he also doesn't believe a man can ever truly change, so Xiao-Tian becomes an obsession and a riddle for him to solve.

Xu Bai-Jiu's investigation has other consequences than those he intends, too, for once it has reached a certain point, the people that made Xiao-Tian the man he once was (Jimmy Wang Yu! Kara Hui!) learn where their old friend now is, and they very much want him back, not realizing that some men do in fact change.

Peter Chan Hoh-San's Wu Xia is one those films from Hong Kong that makes me doubt the truth of the old-fartish refrain of "things in Hong Kong cinema are just so bad now" I and many other long-time fans of the city's cinematic output have been singing for about a decade now, for how bad can a regional cinema truly be if it still can produce fantastic movies like this?

In time-honoured fashion, Wu Xia mixes elements of the mystery genre with elements of the wuxia (a real surprise given its title, surely), to form a meditation on the possibility of change in people, the usefulness of suppressing impulses, and even the old question about nature and nurture that may remind some of Cronenberg's A History of Violence, just with the difference that Chan's film - unlike that of the Canadian - is not a comedy. (To digress for a parenthesis, yes, I am that weird guy who really thinks Cronenberg's film is not just a black comedy, but is also meant to be one rather than as the bloody drama most viewers seem to see when watching it; I'll only point at the nature of the sexual role-play between Mortensen and Bello as an obvious hint at that film's true nature.)

Unlike Mortensen's Tom Stall, though, Xiao-Tian isn't only truly alive when he is a monster, and his family life with Ah Yu and the children never has the feeling of somebody going through trained motions without any actual emotions; Xiao-Tian may have only locked away the monstrous parts of himself, but what's left is not an automaton, but an actual human being.

The movie's first two thirds are in large parts about exploring its two male main characters (with Tang Wei getting a handful of scenes that flesh her out as a character more than I would have expected from a film with this set-up and structure - it sure helps how much the actress is able to express with just a few looks) as mirror images of each other: Xiao-Tian as a man who has locked away everything destructive and monstrous about himself to become a human being, and Xu Bai-Jiu who has locked away his most human traits - compassion and empathy - to become a better agent of the Law. The former is a man who will not use his martial arts abilities because they are so closely connected to his worst nature, the latter unable to use his because his best nature cost him his abilities. I can't imagine what the Chinese censor thought about the film's treatment of compassion and the Law, especially since the film treats Xu Bai-Jiu as being in the wrong with his priorities; it's nice to still find Hong Kong films that dare to argue for humanist values being more important than the jackboot. Interestingly, the film also seems to express that it's easier to suppress one's worst impulses than one's best. Of course, both of Wu Xia's main characters will have to accept parts of what they've kept closed up to become fully functional human beings, possibly even heroes.

I was a bit surprised by how well Donnie Yen is able to sell his character's complexities. I do of course love the man and his generally motionless or scowling face, but he always has been a better martial arts actor than an actor, and this is a film that needs him to express himself outside of fight scenes quite a bit. Yen is still using more body language and posture than facial expression (though he has developed a surprisingly pleasant ability to smile over the years), but he is doing that very well, selling the inner changes his character goes through without having to talk about them.

The well handled philosophical discourse alone would be more than enough to recommend Wu Xia, but there is so much more to love here: there are the fantastic fight scenes - of course choreographed by Yen - that dominate the film's final third; Chan's curious yet effective decision to treat Chinese village life of the early 20th century as a peculiar mixture of naturalism and bucolic idyll and still have martial arts be more than a little magical instead of "realistic"; the relatively small but important roles of Jimmy Wang Yu and Kara Hui who feature in the film's two most intense fight scenes; the way the film uses Kaneshiro's traditional Chinese science and medicine as the base for some CSI-inspired scenes and makes that work too without things becoming ridiculous; how Chan's direction handles action, near-mythical dramatic family conflicts, human-level emotions and moments of peace with the same assured sense of rhythm and pacing as well as a deep understanding of their importance. In Wu Xia, it's all good.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

In short: Amazing Stories (1994)

Original title: 野店

This Taiwanese anthology horror film directed by Chin Ao-Hsin clearly shares the goals and aesthetics of the milder Hong Kong CATIII movies by adding quite a bit of female nudity to a trio of at heart traditional Chinese horror tales. Stylistically, the film certainly looks the part, too, for it is full of the kind of camera angles, dolly shots, colours and even performance styles typical of Hong Kong cinema of the time. I suspect this was actually shot for the Hong Kong market more than the Taiwanese one, though I certainly can’t prove it.

In any case, the first story concerns the plight of a young woman and her mentally handicapped brother who have been sold off (married?) to a sadistic prick owning and working a small pre-industrial textile mill – which makes for a very moody and claustrophobic backdrop – who likes to rape and torture the girl. After her brother drowns in an accident, our heroine’s beloved male scholar doll she has owned since she was a little child comes alive turning into a man she actually falls in love with, and who will duel the prick repeatedly. Apart from the awesome mill, this first story has it all: torture, an awkward kung fu duel, a loathsome villain, a cringeworthy portrayal of a mentally handicapped man, as well as consensual sex and a genuinely exciting climax (no, the other one) prick versus burnable doll person. And, you know, a male hero called Baby Doll.

The second story concerns a guy living in some kind of no man’s land digging out the remains of people so their relatives can take them with them when moving away (everybody moves away). He encounters one of yon seductive supernatural women who like to suck out men’s life-force during sex (an idea that, as far as I know, has been a traditional concept in various Chinese culture groups for literal ages). This specific woman even has a reason for this, for in an earlier life, he promised to commit suicide together with her, but changed his mind at the last moment, leaving her unable to ever be reincarnated as a human again. However, when the gravedigger (reverse gravedigger?) was a child, he saved the life of a female badger(?) spirit, who enters into a mild yet pretty fun wire fu duel with the sex sucker. Again, this packs a lot into a short running time, and while Chin’s direction is a bit generic, the genre in question is 90s wire fu with sexy bits of dubious taste, so it’s certainly an enjoyable little tale.

The third and longest story did leave me a bit puzzled, I have to admit. Its set-up is basically The Postman Always Rings Twice situated in civil war China, with some added bits about impotence, but the tale ends in a way I find less than satisfying, leaving exactly the wrong characters alive for the wrong reasons and presenting a plot twist plan that’s so improbable, it could be from a US horror film made in 2018. The tale also asks its audience to buy a not terribly gracefully aged, sixty-year old Tin Ching as the studliest man alive. However, in between, there are quite a few sweaty, claustrophobic moments to witness, so the third episode may be the film’s weakest, but isn’t a total wash.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Arumi (2018)

Warning: I kinda sorta need to spoil the ending here!

In the age old tradition of teenagers and people in their twenties, as well as people in their twenties pretending to be teenagers in horror cinema everywhere, this Indonesian production sees Rasti (Ardina Rasti) and a small gaggle of friends make their way to a villa in the middle of the jungle owned by the young woman’s family for some very mild partying. How mild? Beer, we will learn, is really, really bad.

Personally, I find the idea of Rasti choosing this particular place for partying somewhat dubious, for the villa is the place where her father murdered the rest of her family and then himself when she was just as small kid. But then, I’m not a horror film character.

Be it as it may, on their way to the villa, the characters encounter a little girl hunted by your typical group of enraged villagers threatening her with farm implements. On Rasti’s insistence – the rest of the group seems surprisingly okay with the idea to leave a little kid to the tender mercies of a group of what they can only assume to be violent maniacs – they rescue the little girl and bring her with them to the villa. Lily, as she seems to be called, looks a bit scratched and beaten up and seems to have lost at least a part of her memory. Rasti and she bond rather quickly, but as increasingly strange and destructive occurrences demonstrate, the girl’s not exactly alone. A certain Arumi seems to have adopted her, protecting her from threats true and perceived and showing a rather cruel and murderous streak. Need I mention that Arumi isn’t exactly human?

It has been quite some time since I’ve seen a contemporary Indonesian horror film I have enjoyed. Most of the handful of genre films that make their way to these shores from Indonesia include a heavy dose of humour that just doesn’t work for me at all, be it for my lack of cultural understanding, the inability of middling subtitles to express many subtleties of humour, or just the way the humour always seems built to undermine the horror. I have no idea how representative this is for the genre output of the country as a whole, of course. I can, however, happily report that Nayato Fio Nuala’s Arumi doesn’t contain a single scene of slapstick contortions, and instead takes its characters and their situation seriously, always at least striving for an atmosphere of horror and mystery.

This atmosphere doesn’t always quite come together – at times, the clearly very low budget results in very flat cinematography, and the not terribly great acting (as far as I can tell in a language I don’t speak) isn’t always good for preserving the finer points of the script. However, there’s also a lot of good in the film. Even though the various sequences of supernatural threat are only original to a point – turns out Indonesian forest spirits act rather similarly to demons and poltergeists in US films – Nuala does hit the right tone in them more often than not, milking the basic creepiness of Arumi’s modus operandi quite effectively, even though he sometimes uses technically relatively crude methods to get there.

The script is straightforward but not so straightforward as not to make some changes to standard formulas. So, despite being set up like a typical spam in a cabin film, Arumi doesn’t actually operate like one, and isn’t killing off the characters one after the other. Instead, it sets up a story and climax that thrives on the parallels between what happened to Rasti and her family fifteen years ago, and what is happening in the house now. The supernatural entity at work does what ghosts and ghoulies all over the world love so much, setting up the present so that it repeats a dreadful past, and probably neither for the first nor the last time. There’s an interesting, folk tale like twist to the ending, too, when Rasti’s compassion and kindness save her life, yet still leave her in a bad enough situation to call the ending grim.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

In short: The Jokesters (2015)

A bunch of total pricks has a pretty successful YouTube channel where they “prank” people, where “prank” is defined as cruel bullying that’s excused with a good old “just joking”.

One among their number, Ethan (Dante Spencer), seems to want to leave the fold of four guys who’ve brought out the shitty little boy in one another since Junior High, just now marrying a guh, a guh, a girl named Gabrielle (Jen Yeager) and secretly planning to move to Colorado (which I assume is as far away as possible without leaving the country).

The three remaining friends, particularly the clearly deranged Nick (Nathan Reid), plan to end their show with a bang, by ruining the wedding night of their supposed best friend. For reasons said wedding night takes place in a cabin in the snowy woods that belongs to one of the guys’ fathers, so things are well set up to spy on the couple via hidden cameras, don skull masks and have fun with axes. Would you believe that things don’t turn out terribly well?

There’s the core of pretty interesting little horror film hidden away in AJ Wedding’s The Jokesters. That imaginary film would use thriller elements and tropes of the POV horror sub-genre to examine destructive male friendships, why it might be not a good idea to stay together with every idiot one has outgrown, and how basically sane people can push one another into the extreme corners of being assholes.

Unfortunately, this film is buried under masses of filler and drudgery. The first forty minutes in particular are bordering on torture, seeing as we the audience spend them with four complete assholes that incessantly act the part, and then again, and again, and again. Fun fact: I got it after the first ten minutes, and could have lived without the film’s repetition of this basic fact about its characters. This directly leads into the film’s next problem, characterisation that doesn’t actually give any of the people in whose fates we as an audience are supposed to be interested in any character traits beyond being obnoxious and horrible. Well, Nick is apparently “not Mexican”, and the other dudes like their racist and sexist jokes, but that’s it when it comes to characterisation. Basically, these assholes are assholes.

Things don’t improve much once the plot sets in, for the supposed twists and turns never feel anything but random – not least thanks to that lack of depth in the characterisation – and what I believe is supposed to be dramatic escalation never grabs at all.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

The Rizen (2017)

1955, in what we will later learn is an underground research facility below Kent. A woman (Laura Swift), let’s call her Frances for that’s what her documents say, awakens while being dragged through a dark – probably dank – tunnel by a humanoid creature with a bandaged head. I hope you like this tunnel, for you’ll look at it for large parts of the rest of the film. Anyway, Frances manages to bash the creature’s head in, and begins to make her way through the underground facility. Unfortunately, she’s suffering from a bout of amnesia, so she has no idea where she is, why she’s there, or what she is supposed to do. Gradual flashbacks (aka the only parts of the film not taking place in the grey and black tunnels) reveal that she has been prepared – programmed more like it – to do something very important indeed. But what? Who knows? On the positive side, she is rather good at killing the bandaged creatures, and soon saves a fellow amnesiac wearing the uniform of a movie scientist (Christopher Tajah) to team up with. Eventually, they realize the researchers have ripped a hole in the fabric of the universe through which something very nasty is trying to enter.

Not completely to my surprise, given how many of my favourite plot and background element The Rizen hits, I found myself enjoying Matt Mitchell’s piece of cosmic pulp horror quite a bit. It’s a film where I have to give fair warning, though. This was clearly shot for very little money, so there’s quite a bit wrong with the film on a technical level: there’s the general tediousness of watching characters spending much of their time in blackness with greyish walls that suggest little money for production design, acting that’s often pretty terrible (with Swift the obvious exception by being alright for many of her scenes and actually good in the rest), and a running time that’s about twenty minutes too long and could have been much improved by cutting out the ineffective humour and the ill-placed “romance”.

There’s also the strange phenomenon of how much better the flashback sequences look – they even have actual set design! -  and how much more professional the actors in them are as well – even Swift who is in both seems just much more in control in these scenes.

The thing is, despite the flaws, there’s a fine creative core to the film, with some well realized ideas about weaponized occult research, some mysteries that work well because the film isn’t answering them, and some really fun monsters, all involved in a plot that really knows how to do the pulpy side of cosmic horror justice. Despite its low budget, The Rizen effectively builds up the background to its horrors in the flashbacks, and ends on a genuinely exciting climax. On the monster side I am particularly fond of the bandaged head design we get for most of the time. It’s much creepier than cheap masks or CGI and uses the power of a viewer’s imagination to good effect, while also getting an excellently weird explanation later on. The action scenes, even though a bit repetitive, are much better realized than is normal in this sort of thing, too. They feel weighty and desperate, while still keeping the silliness that makes this pulpy rather than classicist cosmic horror. I suspect Swift’s background as stunt performer helped quite a bit in this regard.

While The Rizen obviously resonates with those parts of me that thrive on Lovecraft and what something like “Delta Green” made of some of his ideas and creations, there are some thematic concerns on display here that belong to it alone, thoughts about free will, heroic sacrifice and heroism that fit very well into the rest of the film’s ideas. It seems rather telling – as well as awesome – that the most important heroes here are a woman and a black man.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Three Films Make A Post: The Cycle Begins.

Proud Mary (2018): Graced with PR material and a title sequence that suggest some sort of cool, contemporary and conscious throwback to blaxploitation cinema times, what Babak Nafaji’s film actually goes to deliver is general tepidness. This little number meanders between uninvolving gangster melodrama and badly staged action movie, leaving its fine leading lady Taraji P. Henson to pick up pieces. Now, Henson’s certainly good, but a single actress can’t save a melodramatic movie that doesn’t seem to know how to actually wallow in emotion, nor an action film that wastes a relatively high budget on stuff most direct to DVD action films would find too unambitious.

The Heretics (2017): Speaking of films that waste a perfectly serviceable set-up and pretty cultist masks on a so script so mediocre I would have preferred it to be just bad and uninspired direction, this Canadian movie by Chad Archibald concerning a young woman (Nina Kiri) getting re-kidnapped five years after her first encounter with a satanist suicide cult, rather comes to mind. It’s not difficult to imagine how this could actually have been a pretty great movie, even when keeping the plot twists of this all too real version, if only it had a script that had a better handle on characterisation, trauma and drama. There are handful of not terrible horror scenes in here – mostly thanks to the excellent production design I believe – but as a whole this is a vague and meandering affair that never seems to be able to settle on a tone.

Quarries (2016): So it is left to Nils Taylor’s film about a ragtag group of women (Nicole Marie Johnson, Carrie Finklea, and others) on a supposedly empowering wilderness survival hike encountering your usual group of male backwoods cannibals/serial killers. Neither the women nor the human monsters are particularly original characters, but at least the protagonists are well acted and written with enough life to make one not completely disinterested in their survival. Otherwise, this is a deeply competent movie with no surprises for genre veterans or even novices. However, that it so clearly cares for these women more than a lot of its genre brethren do makes it certainly worth ninety minutes of one’s time.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Past Misdeeds: Der Schwarze Abt (1963)

aka The Black Abbot

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 new owner of the hunting cabin (whose inside looks more like that of a bungalow to me, but what do I know about hunting cabins) on the estate of Lord Chelford (Dieter Borsche) is knifed in the back by a man dressed up as the legendary Black Abbot. Said Abbot is supposed to protect a mythical gold treasure hidden in the ruins of an abbey on Chelford's estate.

Scotland Yard sends Detective Puddler (Charles Regnier) and his comic relief assistant Horatio (Eddi Arent, of course) to deal with the problem by living in Chelford's estate for a time, which seems eminently reasonable once you've gotten to know Chelford's surroundings.

The Lord himself is clearly on the verge of some sort of breakdown, obsessing over finding the legendary treasure and charming his fiancée Leslie Gine (Grit Boettcher) with talk about "owning her". Leslie, you see, is the sister of Chelford's lawyer Arthur (Harry Wüstenhagen), who - as we will learn - is in the habit of selling his sister, a woman so pliable it's difficult to imagine a better argument for radical feminism, off to the highest bidder to help with his betting debts. Early in the movie, the bookmakers Arthur is indebted to will all turn out to be one single person, Arthur's office manager Fabian Gilder (Werner Peters). That villain will then proceed to blackmail the lawyer into selling his precious sister to him instead of Chelford. Gilder also would very much like to get his hands on the gold treasure and has planted a crook going by the delightful and totally believable nom de plum of Thomas Fortuna (Klaus "KINSKI!" Kinski) as a Butler with Chelford. Gilder too cooperates with Chelford's former secretary Mary Wenner (Eva Ingeborg Schulz). Wenner promises to lead Gilder to the treasure if he only somehow manages to stop the engagement between Chelford and Leslie so that she can have the Lord - and especially his title - for herself.

Having a headache already? Then you won't be pleased to hear of the existence of Dick Alford (Joachim Fuchsberger), Chelford's cousin and financial administrator. Dick is doing his best to protect Chelford from any suspicion the police may have against him, but his loyalties are torn between Chelford and the fact that he is also romantically interested in Leslie - and his interest, Leslie actually reciprocates. But Dick has other secrets too, secrets that may not be quite as innocent; or are they?

Clearly, this volatile mix of interests and shady people can only lead to violence, madness, and KINSKI! skulking through abbey ruins.

Der Schwarze Abt is another one of the half dozen krimis (all adaptations of either Edgar - like this one - or Bryan Edgar Wallace) director Franz Josef Gottlieb made in 1963 and 1964, all of which suggest a talent that doesn't show in anything the man directed before or after. If you told me these six films were made by Gottlieb's secret twin, or a mysterious masked director using his name for equally mysterious reasons, I'd believe you at once. It's a more satisfying, and obviously less boring, explanation than "he had a talent for this sort of film he never used before or after".

In the film at hand, Gottlieb's visual imagination doesn't get quite as bizarre as in the later Das Phantom von Soho, but that's mostly because he seems to have made the surprising choice of mirroring the slow increase of the plot's derangement and complexity (or is it mere complicatedness?) in his visuals. So the film starts off slowly, with a lot of scenes of nasty people being nasty to each other that are shot flatly, staged simply, and are lit too brightly for my tastes in black and white films. But the more the plot increases in bizarrery and density, the stranger Gottlieb's approach to the framing and staging of scenes becomes; the brightness is becoming less and less bright, the fog more artificial and the ruins ever more gothic and picturesque. A dialogue scene that would have been filmed in a very standard manner in the film's early parts is now shot from behind the swinging pendulum of a clock, and Richard Angst's camera becomes increasingly mobile. Despite their general visual superiority over other German post-war films (seeing as most German post-war films were absolutely allergic to anything that smelled of visual interest or elegance), this sort of ambitious set-up is uncommon even for the Wallace films, rather pointing towards the giallo, so I wouldn't be surprised at all to hear it were explicitly Gottlieb's films rather than those of his genre colleagues Reinl or Vohrer which influenced that genre visually.

Der Schwarze Abt is very proto-gialloesque in other aspects too, with its concentration on nasty people being nasty to each other, a plot that's even more complicated than usual for the krimi, and its relegating of the titular masked evil-doer to more of a normal murderer than the masked pulp super-villain of many of the other Wallace krimis. Often, the less pulpy Wallace adaptations are the less interesting to me too, but that's only because many of the lesser films of the cycle seem to relegate the villains to the side lines only because they seem ashamed of those villains' lurid pulpiness, exactly the part I find most enjoyable about them. Der Schwarze Abt just knows other places where it can also find that pulp feeling, namely in headache-inducing plot convolutions and some very well done melodramatics, and so decides to provide all the luridness and excitement its audience could ever wish for through them.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

In short: Romina (2018)

Warning: I can’t avoid heavy spoilers for this one, though I doubt anyone will care!

You know the drill: a carful of young ones with more or less unpleasant personal habits drive to the country for a camping weekend. Their camping space is  not at all ominously called Crystal Lake, probably dubbed thusly in case you were confused which sub-genre you were in. Romina (Francisca Lozano), the best friend of one of the gang and not at all the friend of the rest isn’t taking part in the trip, though. Or at least that’s what everyone thinks, for in fact, Romina is camping just a skip away from the rest of these fools.

A couple of the guys notice her eventually, and decide that a rape is in order. The very next morning, Romina starts to murder everyone involved in the camping trip.

Diego Cohen’s Romina left me a bit confused, somewhat annoyed, and very much dissatisfied. At first, I had the impression of Cohen trying to go somewhere slightly different with his rape revenge slasher combo. Early scenes like the one where all characters talk over each other on the ride to the camping lot suggested an attempt at – rather nerve-wrecking – naturalism to the proceedings of the slasher genre. A bit further in, I assumed the decision to not show the rape and show only the aftermath of the following murders was meant to signal some kind of comment on the way an audience relates to violence in slashers, but a couple of scenes later, some of the violence got pretty explicit.

It’s certainly not filmed like a standard slasher, lacking the rhythm of stalking and slashing. Unfortunately, Cohen doesn’t actually find anything to replace it with, sucking all the tension of the genre out of the film without ever convincing me there’s a reason to do so. I’m rather confused about the rape revenge motivation of the plot, too, or rather, why the film goes that way but doesn’t bother to provide Romina with even a hint of characterisation, leaving this killer in a slasher movie who has an actual humanly relatable reason for her murders with less human character traits than Jason Voorhees.

Then there’s the plot twist that suggests somebody involved really rather liked All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (I don’t blame him), but wanted to leave out all the pesky motivations and put a male character in the dominating role of the murderous couple. Not surprisingly, this doesn’t improve my opinion of the film, nor does if work in any way, shape or form.

The whole of Romina feels like it was based on the first draft of a script, lacking any actual focus and consistency. It’s a bit of a shame, too, for the film certainly looks well enough and has a damn good synth score. It just seems all rather pointless.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Red Sparrow (2018)

Bolshoi ballerina Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is hurt in an on stage accident that will later turn out not to have been an accident at all. In any case, she will not be able to dance again on her old level, leaving her and her sick mother without much of an income or even a place to stay, for even their apartment belongs to the ballet company. Fortunately or unfortunately, Dominika’s uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts) is deeply involved in the world of espionage and is perfectly willing to provide his niece with a way in, especially after he has provided her with information concerning the truth about her accident and is probably quite satisfied with the talent for violence she then demonstrates.

Eventually, Dominika lands in a school for sexspionage (headmistress: Charlotte Rampling) where she shows talent as well as a rather unwanted spine. Thanks to her uncle, and one General Korchoi (Jeremy Irons), she soon is set upon her first case/victim. There’s a highly placed mole somewhere in the Russian secret services, and Dominika is supposed to seduce the mole’s handler Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) to find out their identity. Dominika for her part might have plans, perhaps even feelings, all of her own.

Francis Lawrence’s spy novel adaptation Red Sparrow is an at times rather impressive watch, yet it it is also full of niggling little problems. The most obvious faux pas right from the start is the filmmaker’s decision to have all the Russian characters – none of whom is actually being played by a Russian actor, pretty much the only nationality where that sort of thing is still allowed without people on the Internet shouting angrily – speak with mild, fake Russian accents, because clearly, all Russians talk in accented English with each other, right? It’s definitely the sort of decision that already starts the film up feeling highly artificial. The movie’s problematic idea of Russia is further increased by its portrayal of the little it shows of the country’s culture as exclusively inhabited by rapists and human monsters. The film’s portrayal of the political side of things seems to have little to do with actual Russian nationalism and the way it works today and much more with a US-style nightmare vision of their old enemy turned new enemy but actually staying completely the same. Which would bother me much less if the US secret services at least were played a little less like a goody-goody bunch who apparently don’t do horrible things on a daily basis. Edgerton’s Nash is such a nice, careful, pleasant and loveable guy it is impossible to buy him as a spy, for whatever country.

And still, I had a lot of fun watching this thing, once I had adjusted my perspective on it towards it being a really high budget exploitation film of the kind nobody makes anymore (and really, that was seldom made at all even in the past). It’s a surprisingly unpleasant film for what at its core is a mainstream spy movie, full of torture, sexual violence, threats of sexual violence, and a lot of random nasty stuff put in just to make the film feel extra gritty. There is, for example, no reason at all to give our heroine’s uncle the incestuous hots for her apart from making him even less pleasant than he already is; it’s like adding kicking dogs as an additional vice to Hitler. The thing is, director Lawrence turns out to be a great big budget exploitation director, so all these scenes of suffering, vice, and men not named Edgerton behaving toxically, only to be punished by our heroine in one way or the other, are unpleasant to watch in just the right way to be entertaining, and not just only in the “did that big Hollywood production honestly just do that?” kind of way. The film has a melodramatic, operatic drive to it, really digging into the core of making movies you enjoy to cringe at. And like with a lot of good exploitation fare, you can perfectly well argue the whole she-bang is actually a feminist film about a tough woman with an untouchable moral core beating all the asshole men in her life with their own vices.

It helps that Lawrence the actress seems – as usual – in absolute control of her abilities, not attempting to portray Dominika as a normal person but the sort of heightened, iconic near-mythological being that exists in this sort of plot. It’s an honestly great job at point-exact overacting through a lot of grim facial expressions, never laying it on too thick, but always exactly as thick as the film needs. Her counterpart Edgerton – usually a fine actor - is surprisingly colourless, but then, what’s a guy to do when a script doesn’t give him any actual personality beside being as morally upright as a knight? The rest of the cast does traditionally fine character actor work (sadly, Irons isn’t there to do more than look thin, pale and sad), so it is difficult not to enjoy the film at least on this level.

But then, I’ve never pretended to dislike exploitation films, so I’m certainly not going to start complaining when I see one made by talented people who have been provided with a lot of money for excellent outfits and only the best locations and sets.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

In short: The Hard Word (2002)

aka The Australian Job

Scott Roberts’s film is a highly peculiar, and pretty singular film. At first, the whole thing does give the impression of being an Australian version of one of those pseudo-Tarantino films of this era that seldom went anywhere interesting or worthwhile. However, the longer the whole thing goes, the clearer it becomes that this may be built out of the well-worn bits and pieces of any old film about smart-talking gangsters, a bit of noir, and the bones of heist and jailbreak films, yet it treats these elements in so individual a way they become things that belong to it alone.

The plot, at once episodic, straightforward and complicated concerns the brothers Twentyman. Dale (Guy Pearce) is the clever one with a big L love for his sometimes traitorous wife Carol (Rachel Griffiths), Shane (Joel Edgerton) the pretty and perhaps not terribly clever one with the mother complex. and Mal (Damien Richardson), the scruffy yet sensitive one. Right now, they are sitting in prison, but thanks to a financial arrangement between their lawyer Frank Malone (Robert Taylor), some cops and the warden of their prison, they are regularly snuck out to commit bloodless heists, brilliantly planned by Dale. Theoretically, they should get out any day now, but Frank really rather seems to like how they earn money he then “keeps secure” for them and can’t really do anything about it; he also has an affair with Carol that he takes rather seriously.

Various developments will eventually lead to a pretty bad heist and the brothers going on the run.

Because this is such an individual film, I am pretty sure The Hard Word isn’t a film everyone is going to enjoy. The immense tonal shifts happening not just between scenes but during them often are quite radical and certainly not always lead into directions everybody will be willing or able to follow. The film also packs about as much stuff (and plot) into a normal feature length as two seasons of your favourite Netflix show. It shouldn’t hold together at all, but to my eyes it is carried by both Roberts’s stylish direction that makes these shifts often feel much more consistent than they should, and an acting ensemble (Rachel Griffiths as Pearce’s complicated wife deserves a special mention besides the male main trio here) whose approach shifts right with the film while never giving the viewer the feeling she’s not watching the same people. I’d even argue these seeming shifts in the characters are closer to the way actual people are, and the film does indeed use them to emphasise the elements in its characters’ personalities that do not change with their situations, revealing their cores clearer than a more obvious and direct approach might.

The film’s humour, and its often playful approach to clichés is rather wonderful, too, often seemingly making a beeline towards the most cynical idea possible but then using various techniques to not necessarily soften but complicating this, finding moments of perfect sweetness in a film about sweary, sweaty men committing exciting crimes.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Nightworld (2017)

Former LA cop Brett (Jason London) has great difficulty working through the death of his Bulgarian wife Ana (Diana Lyubenova), spending his time at their Bulgarian country home in a deep depression. A concerned buddy has a plan to get him out and back into the world, to which end the proactive man has procured a security job in Sofia for Brett.

It’s a live-in position in an old villa whose upper levels have been converted into apartments, or so the owners of the place say. Not that Brett’s ever seeing anyone living there. It’s a cushy, if somewhat strange job: Brett’s only duties are locking and unlocking the main door and to descend into the very deep cellar twice a day to check some security monitors that are facing the darkness inside a large locked chamber (the film calls it a hangar, for some reason) that’s situated behind a large door with neat skulls and tentacles on it. Clearly, there’s nothing to worry about here, and at first, Brett actually seems to get better doing very little. He’s got a new environment to explore, he’s got at least something to occupy himself with, and the – very young and very very pretty – barista Zara (Lorina Kamburova) of the corner coffee shop clearly has an eye on him. Therea are certainly worse ways to live.

However, there’s something really strange going on in the villa. There are not just the expected peculiar noises, and that hell gate style door in the cellar, but Brett also begins to have nightmares that begin to turn into daytime visions. And once Brett has seen what looks a lot like footprints through one of his cameras and calls in the owners’ expert for this situation, an older blind man named Jacob (Robert Englund) events spiral downwards rather quickly.

For my tastes, Patricio Valladares’s Nightworld is a pleasant surprise, a horror film that feels very much beholden to the classic Weird Tales style of horror with a smidgen of Lucio Fulci I’m not going to spoil. It is, in other worlds, exactly the sort of film where I’m perfectly willing to overlook certain weaknesses as long as it understands and uses its strengths.

The obvious weakness here is the pacing; while this sort of mood based horror does need and deserve a thoughtful pace, Nightworld does meander a bit in the middle, with perhaps one dream sequence and ten minutes of running time that could productively have been excised. It’s not a deadly flaw, at least in my eyes, mind you, though it is something which will make the film not terribly interesting to watch for some viewers. The film’s not always all that believable, either: would a guy like Brett really take a job like this without at least explicitly asking if he’s guarding anything illegal and without any explanation for its strangeness? The May-October romance between Brett and Zara isn’t terribly easy to buy either.

However, while acknowledging these flaws, I can’t say they really did anything to my enjoyment of the film. Valladares – ably assisted by some cracking spooky locations and Pau Mirabet’s moody and shadowy camera work – creates a wonderful sense of creeping wrongness. And once the film has explained the rather wonderful backstory of the villa through some patented and effective Englund exposition, it also develops a neat and effective resonance with classical myths about the realms of the dead, all the while making good use of its budget (the way the film uses a large, dark empty room to full effect borders on brilliance) and evoking its lead’s pining for a lost love to thematically appropriate effect. In general, Valladares uses iconic horror images very well, with moments like the shots of the faces of the dead trapped in the villa pressed against its windows from the inside just resonating very well with me in their archetypal feel.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Three Films Make A Post: There is a cat in the brain

Elysium (2013): One shouldn't be surprised about the critical drubbing Neill Blomkamp's neo-cyberpunk movie received by mainstream critics. It's a film far too angry about the state of the world for the bourgeois set to stomach. Particularly since it's not at all graceful about its rage and would clearly love to punch you (and possibly me, too) in the face - for good reasons.
That feeling of well-grounded yet quite consuming rage the film shares with its protagonist Matt Damon (in one of his good outings) does of course also cause its final act to turn into a full-grown violent wish fulfilment fantasy with a dash of deus ex machina but then, how else could Elysium not end in absolute bitterness? Generally, even in the real world, power doesn't sit down with the people it crushes under its boots to build a better world, so I don't know how else the film could have ended. Unless you'd argue for bitter and pessimistic, in which case you could of course kiss the money Blomkamp needed for all the pretty SF stuff on screen goodbye.

Maneater (2007): Gary Yates's SyFy Channel movie is a perfectly entertaining little film about a tiger making its new home in the woods belonging to your typical US small town, eating hunters, joggers, and other undesirables. Thanks to a very entertaining performance of Gary Busey as one of the nicest and more competent sheriffs in this sort of movie, the inclusion of a tiger-telepathic little boy sub-plot, as well as of a great white British hunter with excellent facial hair (one supposes for the screenwriter British colonial India is still a thing) it's really rather pleasant to watch. Of course, originality, etc. etc.

Ritual (2013): Original isn’t what Mickey Keating’s Ritual is about either but this quite low budget piece about an estranged couple’s troubles with some Texan cultists highly recommends itself with as clever a use of seemingly low res footage as one could wish for, an idea of Americana bordering on David Lynch, and a highly effective approach to showing its doomed protagonists stumbling ever deeper into trouble. It’s a very simple story but Keating tells his tale so well and with such a fine hand for pacing only the most churlish would mind. In fact, the simplicity of the plot and the archetypal form the film’s threats take on only help make its best scenes (and there are many) all the more nightmarish.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Past Misdeeds: The Black Door (2001)

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.

Steven (Sergio Gallinaro) is found covered with deep, peculiar lacerations all over his body after a nightly visit to an abandoned house. Following his wishes, his girlfriend Meg (Staci Tara Moore) calls in a friendly documentary crew to film what is happening to him. The doctors can find neither the cause of Steven's wounds nor can they prevent his health from further deteriorating (might have something to do with seemingly no attempts being made to close or dress those wounds but hey, what do I know about medicine?).

While Steven is on what is fastly becoming his death bed, the documentary crew and Meg are retracing the steps that led him into the old dark house. During his research into completely harmless economical history, Steven became fascinated by a man named Fuentes-Balsameda (Carlos Parra) who disappeared in 1932. His investigations finally led Steven to an old film reel that shows Balsameda's death (and short-time resurrection) during a satanic ritual. That's probably the point where most people would have stopped and dropped the film reel off at the next police station for them to sort it out, but Steven continued his investigation (and contacted the Vatican, of all things). He managed to get into contact with the only person connected to that ritual who did not die a violent death, a (as he will later turn out to be) creepy old man named Morgen (John Hainsworth). Morgen then lured Steven to the house where the young man was attacked by something.

Parallel to the documentary crew finding out about these occurrences, a perpetually pissed-off priest (Kevin Blatch) appears and tries to help Steven come through his paranormal encounter alive. Too bad he's as ineffectual as a puppy.

The Black Door (a HK/Canadian co-production - I think - with a director from Hong Kong, screenwriters from France who predominantly worked in Hong Kong, and filmed in British Columbia) belongs to the post-Blair Witch era of POV horror, but was made before the film law mandating all POV horror to be about people running through the woods went into effect.

The film's construction as a documentary generally makes sense, and - as the filmmakers seemingly are supposed to be professionals - allows director Kit Wong to use rather more elaborate camera set-ups and to shoot scenes from angles from which you're actually allowed to have a good view of what's happening. Thanks to a script that is rather clever in this regard, Wong can also dip into other shooting styles for a few scenes. There's the calm and mostly disturbingly unmoving camera in the 1932 ritual footage that gives the film's strongest horror sequence an especially realistic feel. Then there's Steven's traditionally difficult to parse shots from his doomed expedition into the old, dark (he's going in by night, just like the horror movie character he is) house that actually manage to make long minutes of a guy mumbling and filming stuff in a dark house look rather tense.

Some of the "normal" documentary footage is also very strong, going for that documentary style where the camera lingers so closely on people's most emotional moments the viewer - and of course the crew shooting - becomes something of a voyeur. In one of the small flashes of genius that make me love the film showing them, this aspect even becomes a plot point that is vaguely yet effectively connected with the way the film's initial ceremony was worked, the camera - and therefore the audience watching what it films - becoming accomplices in the perpetuation of something quite dark.

Wong is really good at distracting a viewer from the deficiencies of a script that is full of great ideas, yet also seems awfully disinterested in real world logic even in situations where real world logic should apply. Still, thanks to Wong's direction, it was no problem at all for me to believe in a world where people meet with someone they know to be involved in at least one ritual murder alone, in an empty house, by night, or where people learning about a ritual murder in the past contact the Vatican (probably their well-known ritual murder hotline 666-EXORCIST) instead of the police for most of the film's running time.

Wong is able to keep a mood of high tension up through large parts of a film where not much is happening the audience doesn't know will happen after its first thirty minutes or so are over, dropping little hints of further complexities and some quite horrifying details (if you don't overlook them) that kept me watching with more attention as I usually have for scenes of people getting melodramatic in front of a camera.

And melodramatic people get, there's no doubt about it, for the acting is of that slightly grating indie horror movie type where every line delivery seems slightly off, and where all outbreaks of larger emotions become scenery-chewing and mugging; especially Blatch and Hainsworth are guilty of the latter. Ironically, I feel that in The Black Door's particular case the slight to heavy wrongness of the acting actually enhances the film's effect. The artificiality of the acting and the perfectly believable documentary style of its filmic surroundings rub against each other and produce a friction that makes the film a more uncomfortable experience. I also can't help but notice that an acting style that emphasises the actors playing roles is a neat parallel to the fact that the characters they are playing are also unwillingly filling roles in the continuation of a decade old ceremony. Of course, I don't believe the actors are doing this on purpose for one second. As a rule, I don't think it's important if effective elements of a work of art are included on purpose or by accident; it's just important they are there.

The Black Door is one of those films where I can't say at all if anyone other than me will get as much out of watching it as I have, for the things I took to most about the film (that friction and that feeling of wrongness) are also the things most dependent on a given viewer's susceptibility to the very specific way a happy combination of creepy details and happy accidents creates a mood here. However, I can say it's worth trying to watch the film to find out.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

In short: Ruin Me (2017)

Warning: some spoilers included!

Despite being not into this sort of thing at all, Alex (Marcienne Dwyer) accompanies her boyfriend Nathan (Matt Dellapina) on something called Slasher Sleepout, an outdoors event in the spirit of extreme haunted houses and escape rooms, or those things where you pay people for getting stalked in your daily life. Personally, I’d avoid something like this like the plague, be my girlfriend perfection personified. But then, Alex’s and Nathan’s relationship seems rather special, seeing as they started when she was in a rehab clinic and he her therapist there, with more than just a hint of highly controlling behaviour coming from him.

I’m sure nothing of this is going to be important for the plot at all. Once the fun and games begin, the couple and the other victims/participants find themselves confronted with various shocks and freak-outs that will soon leave them in doubt if the horrors they are experiencing are quite as fake as they should be. Their numbers will dwindle in any case, and Alex just might have to confront some uncomfortable truths.

As regular visitors to this house of crap will have noticed, I’m not terribly fond of twisty thrillers and their ways, often finding their tendency to add twist upon twist to the state of absurdity detrimental to my ability to enjoy them. It’s gotten to the point where I have started to ask myself if it is me and not these films that is the problem. So Preston DeFrancis’s Ruin Me came both as a pleasant surprise in so far as I enjoyed this unassuming little film quite a bit, and as a suggestion that it’s not me, for I like most of the twists here just fine, and even found myself enjoying them.

There’s nothing about the film that’s exactly new: take physical isolation of characters, act flaws, some violence, a handful of doubts concerning the protagonist’s sanity, and one and a half Saw-style traps, and the script’s ready to go. However, DeFrancis (who also co-wrote the script with Trysta A. Bissett) executes these standards rather well, staging most of the well-worn tropes in play here with care and an excellent sense for timing. This does, obviously, stand the film in particularly good stead when it comes to the twists, for when you do something implausible or slightly contrived at the right time and with the right speed, it suddenly feels plausible enough to be fun. DeFrancis is sure-handed enough that I found myself at times not quite sure where exactly he was going with his plot, while the twists were still lacking the randomness that would make them annoying.

Similar goes for the characters: even though no single performance here is exactly memorable, and there’s certainly a reliance on the familiar in the characterisation, the performances are always good and on point, and the characters themselves have the second dimension they need to keep me interested.

All this may not sound like a huge recommendation, but Ruin Me ends up being exactly the twisty little thriller in the woods with a nasty ending it set out to be, and that’s more than enough to keep me happy.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Distorted (2018)

Warning: I’m going the way of the spoiler!

After losing their child in a bathtub incident - something which the film inexplicably will later play as a revelation even though having used many a shot of a sad rubber duck in an empty bathtub and having shown our heroine acting weirdly around children again and again – the marriage of Lauren (Christina Ricci) and Russell (Brendan Fletcher) is understandably strained. Lauren in particular has developed manic depression, with a sideline in paranoid delusions and hallucinations.

It seems best for the two to move out of the apartment where their kid died. As luck will have it, and because these two are stinking rich, there’s a free apartment in a highly secured, rich people only apartment tower quite a drive out of town (away from us icky plebs). Once installed there, Lauren’s mental issues are really exploding: she begins hearing strange sounds in the apartment, sees what she takes to be subliminal messages on TV and develops quite some ideas about mind control. She manages to make contact with conspiracy minded journalist (cough) Vernon Sarsfield (John Cusack) who has a whole spiel about THEM trying to mind control rich people, for what I can only assume to be reasons. While Vernon is totally trustworthy and helpful, Lauren begins to believe everyone else is out to get her, or rather, program her for murder as a proof of concept. Even her own husband is probably involved or already mind controlled.

I am usually not at all against paranoid thrillers about mind control and the evil plans of THEM, but Rob King’s Distorted just doesn’t do anything as well as many a mediocre paranoid thriller, not to speak of the number of films in the sub-genre that are actually good. At first, this looks like a not uninteresting attempt at mixing the cinema of political paranoia with the domestic thriller but once the film starts to proceed down all the expected genre lines, it becomes rather clear that the parallels to domestic thrillers are going nowhere of import. That’s thanks to the characters’ bland personalities, Lauren being the most boring person with massive psychological issues imaginable and Russell being such a non-entity I found myself actually hoping for him being not just mind-controlled but actually in on the evil plan because that would at least give him one personality trait. Alas, this is not to be, for Distorted goes for the Reagan era kind of ending where the magical power of love between married couples beats mind control. Too bad the film never actually put any work into establishing Lauren and Russell’s relationship as that strong or deep.

As for the political part of the paranoid thriller, King’s film doesn’t actually have any politics at all, lacks the anger, desperation or cynicism a film in this genre needs. THEY are just some guys whose goal seems to be to mind control people so they can mind control people.

The film’s writing is terribly weak in general, in the end shooting for a tacky “save the baby!” finale it doesn’t have earned the right to actually use.

None of these aspects are improved by King’s bland direction that can’t produce tension to save its life – or, for that matter, the film. To put insult to injury, this thing also features the lamest mind control footage reel I have ever seen, as generic and bland as everything else here. I didn’t expect The Parallax View, but I’ve seen TV shows in the 90s that handled this sort of thing much better.

To end on a half positive note: Ricci, Fletcher and Cusack are pretty okay, there’s just nothing in the script for them to actually sink their teeth in.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

In short: Dark Beacon (2017)

Warning: even though this is short, I still can’t avoid spoilers!

Amy (April Pearson) has been looking for her former lover Beth (Lynne Anne Rodgers) and Beth’s little daughter Maya (Kendra Mei) for some time, after they just packed up and left. Not that their sudden leaving is much of a surprise, for Beth was married when she and Amy were involved, and was dragged off a cliff and nearly drowned by her husband Christopher in a murder-suicide attempt based on his rather abstract notions of them not making good parents because she’s a self-involved alcoholic and he’s a coward. These mildly sordid details will only come out over the course of the movie.

For reasons, Amy finds Beth and Maya living in a lighthouse that is cut off from the mainland for much of the time. As it will turn out, the lighthouse is the house where hubby grew up. Something is very wrong there too. It is as if Christopher’s ghost is hanging around, planning to finish what he started. Or perhaps Beth is just going insane.

As liminal spaces neither belonging completely to the land or the sea, lighthouses are wonderful places to set all kinds of horror films in, be it the more philosophical version of supernatural horror, or, as in the case of Coz Greenop’s Dark Beacon, the psychological kind. The film is, alas, not a terribly successful example of its kind. To work as it should be, psychological horror does need a large degree of precision in characterisation and/or plotting. A film in the genre really needs to give its audience inroads into what goes on in its characters, otherwise we end up with something like this, where a ghost is simply the reason for a scenery-chewing performance of random movie madness instead of anything that feels like the product of actual psychological pressure.

I’m also not terribly fond of the way the film uses the supernatural, or rather, the vagueness in which it does, including scenes that only work if Christopher’s ghost is indeed real, but then letting things play out as if Beth were simply movie-crazy. It doesn’t exactly help the film’s case here that it is all too easy to read the madness as some sort of punishment for Beth’s “loose morals” – if it is indeed meant that way or not, I’m not going to guess.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Satanic Yuppies (1996)

aka Evil Ambitions

Slobby reporter Pete McGavin (Paul Morris) stumbles upon a grand conspiracy. Up and coming politician Gideon Jessup (David Levy) has good chances of becoming Governor despite wearing a porn actor pony tail because he has the help of Satan. Or rather, he is the pawn of PR firm boss and Satanic high priestess Brittany Drake (Amber Newman) in her bid for world domination. Right now, Brittany is planning on really sealing the deal with Mr Satan by giving him a virginal bride. Model Julie (Lucy Frashure) seems to be the perfect candidate, now it’s just a question of sacrificing a series of women as Satan’s bridesmaids. Will McGavin stop the fiendish plot despite Britanny’s mind whammy powers? Or will the film end in such a way that he could have spent the whole hundred minutes in bed?

Yes, of course it is the latter, for Mark Burchett’s and Michael D. Fox’s shot on video – or at least looking that way - horror comedy with mild cheesecake aspirations sure as hell isn’t interested in fine details like a protagonist doing what his name promises. Instead, Satan’s - Randy Rupp in godawful but pretty funny make-up that suggests not only the expected yuppie Satan but also a guy without a mirror - getting annoyed by his minions not bothering to check if his bride’s virginal state is actual or imaginary. Cue epilogue.

Speaking of the epilogue, it and the intro, as well as McGavin’s name and general demeanour are obviously meant to remind the viewer of a certain irascible reporter played by Darren McGavin, just that Paul Morris sure as shit ain’t no McGavin, and the writers are about as far from Richard Matheson as possible while still being human. It’s – generally speaking – not a terribly good idea to bring up actual genre classics when you can barely make a movie yourself, but at least the directors/writers to show good taste in one aspect of the film.

On a technical level, this is about as bad as you’d expect, edited with a pair of scissors, staged without thought, and too cheaply made to afford even much of the nudity you’d expect from a film this dire in other regards. That last bit is actually somewhat perplexing, for Satanic Yuppie’s  whole vibe is certainly that of a mid-90s softcore joint. It definitely is plotted like a film whose plot only exists to lead up to sex scenes and features mostly acting talent used in this area. Only most – there’s a bit of nudity but it’s really rather tepid - of the dry humping sex and women getting off their kits has been replaced by jokes that hit about ten percent of the time – I found Satan pretty funny – and little else. Note to filmmakers: you probably need something in a film to keep an audience engaged.

But hey, at least the plot setup of all rich people being in league with Satan is believable for once in a horror movie, there’s some nude dancing with a snake going on to lighten up the pretty dire Satanic ceremonies (note to directors: five people do not an impressive coven make, particularly when you can only get them into what looks like silk bath robes), and the Satanists’ one and only minion moonlights as a fire-swallower. Basically, these evil ceremonies are like really bad imitation Grateful Dead shows, with decidedly worse music.

Having said all that, I also have to admit that I somewhat enjoyed my time with Satanic Yuppies. It certainly isn’t ashamed of being goody and cheap, Amber Newman demonstrates enormous enthusiasm as the villainess, and it features at least ten funny minutes. While it’s hardly a film I’d outright recommend even to the fan of cheap crap like me, it’s pretty tolerable to sit through. What a recommendation!

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Three Films Make A Post: Every THING needs to eat.

Seven Keys to Baldpate (1947): Lew Landers’s version of the Earl Derr Biggers (of Charlie Chan fame) novel is a pleasant little Old Dark House movie, zipping merrily along through its semi-comedic tale of a writer coming to a very special writing retreat for a bet and encountering all sorts of Old Dark House nonsense (though no gorilla, I sadly have to report). I’m pretty sure this one was already pretty lightweight 70 years ago, and if you expect hidden depths to the film you’ll probably be sorely disappointed. However, old pro Landers certainly knew how to pace a film, and even how to involve comic relief characters without it becoming annoying. He also bothered to put in enough atmospheric shots and suspenseful – if old-fashioned – little moments to make this a pleasant and fun experience to watch, even today.

2 Guns (2013): If you’d tell me there are two directors named Baltasar Kormákur working right now, the good one and the one making boring action comedies with Mark Wahlberg, I’d probably believe you. This one pairs Marky Mark with poor old Denzel Washington to go through the old buddy cop/whatever routine. The result isn’t pretty, with the leading couple lacking in chemistry, a script that seemingly tries to be the first comedy without any jokes, action scenes that are competently shot yet totally uninvolving, and a cast that seems about as invested in their characters as I found myself to be – not at all. Only Bill Paxton as evil CIA man and Edward James Olmos as Mexican Cartel boss put any kind of effort and charm in but our supposed leading men work far below their capabilities. It’s hard to blame them, for the whole affair feels less like a film anyone involved actually wanted to make than a low effort pay check for anyone involved.

The Debutantes (2017): This Filipino horror movie by Prime Cruz about a teenage outsider (Sue Ramirez) with strange powers finding herself first pulled into, than degraded by her school’s queen bees and the ensuing deadly consequences isn’t any more original than 2 Guns but it sure as hell is more involving. That’s thanks to some more than decent acting by the whole of the young cast, spirited direction and a script that actually has a point and knows how to get there. Following my usual love for the local in horror cinema, I am also rather happy to report that the supernatural explanation for the minor mayhem that ensues is not quite as close to the Carrie model as I had at first expected but uses a creature of Filipino myth and legend to express thematic concerns about loneliness and alienation. All of which isn’t bad at all for a teen horror film.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Past Misdeeds: The Scarlet Blade (1964)

aka The Crimson Blade

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 English Civil War is in its last throes. The remaining Royalists, the Cavaliers - who are pure as angels I'll have you know - are fighting a guerrilla war trying to enable the former king Charles to escape from the - satanically evil wouldn't you know - Roundheads.

Despite the Royalists' best efforts the men of Colonel Judd (Lionel Jeffries) - officially a traitor to the royal cause himself - manage to capture the king. Now it's only a matter of holding on to the arsehis former royal majesty until he can be transported to the tower, which is supposed to happen in a few weeks time.

Fortunately or un, a group of especially potent Royalist guerrillas (among them an especially scenery-hungry Michael Ripper in embarrassing brownface as "the gypsy Pablo") led by Edward Beverley (Jack Hedley), calling himself "the Scarlet Blade" is operating in the area. These guerrillas are of course doing everything in their power to decimate the enemy troops in the area, and find a way to rescue the ex-king.

What Judd doesn't know is that his daughter Claire (June Thorburn) has been helping Royalist refugees for quite some time, even though she isn't exactly subtle about her loyalties; from there, it's only a small step to involve herself in the conspiracy meant to save the king. Ironically, Judd's right hand man, the deeply cynical Captain Sylvester (Oliver Reed) sees quite a bit more clearly what Claire is up to, but instead of denouncing her, blackmails himself into the Royalist conspiracy too. For Sylvester has fallen in love with Claire and has decided that the best way into a woman's heart is threatening her with exposure and then helping her out with the things she's afraid of being exposed for. He is a smooth ladies man, Sylvester is.

Alas for poor Sylvester, once Claire lays eyes on the prime middle-aged woodenness of Beverley, her heart is forever lost to him. Of course, being played be Oliver Reed in a very sneering mood, Beverley is not the kind of guy who takes these things on the chin, and again the cause of saving one mass-murdering asshole who is being replaced by another mass-murdering asshole is threatened by the vagaries of love.

The deeper I dive into the pool of non-horror movies Hammer Studios made parallel to their horror output, the more impressed I am by the non-horror movies' general quality.

John Gilling's The Scarlet Blade may not be the second coming of the historical adventure movie, seeing as it uses a period not often seen in this sort of film in a bit too shallow a manner, doing a bit more violence to actual history than seems necessary for the kind of film it is. It's one thing to decide on one side of the English Civil War to be the moustache-twirling bad guys, but it's quite another one to basically have the angels sing on the soundtrack whenever fucking Charles I., who deserves the word "tyrant" the film uses for Cromwell quite well too, appears on screen.

However, whenever the film decides to explore the more complex loyalties and motivations of its characters, and relegates actual history to the attractive background like most modern swashbucklers do for a reason (we're a long way from Weyman, for better or worse), it becomes less annoying, and more believably human. In fact, the strained loyalties all of the film's major characters except for its nominal hero Beverley have give the handful of scenes of actual physical violence much more poignancy than they otherwise would carry, and give the film's melodramatic scenes quite a bit of power. Beverley, on the other hand, is and stays the sort of boring, wooden romantic lead you've come to expect from this sort of film (the times of Errol Flynn alas being over, too), a man whose moral certainty is not based on an ability to work through his doubts and fears, but on a lack of imagination and personality, which makes him pretty difficult to cheer for, even when he puts love before duty.

It doesn't help our theoretical hero's case that Jack Hedley's performance is so neutral it sometimes becomes difficult to remember he's there, nor that his main rivals for screen time are Lionel Jeffries and Oliver Reed, both doing their best to outdo each other in intensity, nor does it improve matters that the script doesn't bother to give him much of interest to do.
June Thorburn's character is quite interesting for an adventure movie of this period (and especially one from Hammer, who weren't exactly front runners when it comes to active female leads) in that her character is actually allowed to have some agency as well as a backbone. In fact, Claire seems a much more heroic character than Beverley to me, because she actually understands the implications of what she is doing, and decides doing it despite of these implications because she thinks she is doing right. I just wish Thorburn were a little better at projecting the force of personality the script suggests her character to have; while she isn't as lacking in screen presence as Hedley is, she's never quite convincing enough, which is a bit of a shame.

Other reviews of The Scarlet Blade on the 'net tend to come down hard on the action scenes. However, I don't think that's particularly fair. It's true nothing Gilling presents here is truly spectacular, but the film's emphasis lies more on its character-based melodrama of loyalties, with the action only meant to provide the story with enough spice to keep it moving. This, I think, the action does quite well.