Saturday, November 30, 2019

Three Films Make A Rather Grumpy Post: Buckle up for a ***** ride

Stuber (2019): Well, at least that tagline is honest about the quality of the movie, which is a bit of a shame seeing how much I usually enjoy the body of work of many of people in front of the camera here. But what good is an action comedy with a script (by Tripper Clancy) that can hardly land any joke even if most of them come out of Kumail Nanjiani’s and Dave Bautista’s mouths, two gentlemen with excellent comedic timing? And what good is an action comedy whose direction (by Michael Dowse) is so bland, it completely wastes some perfectly good set-ups for violence and shouting (as well as Bautista’s and Iko Uwais’s talents in this regard)? This one’s really only recommended to people who think the title is funny, methinks.

Portals (2019): To stay very much in the same realm, the abilities of the directors behind this weird SF horror anthology – or at least three out of four of them, namely Eduardo Sánchez, Liam O’Donnell and Timo Tjahjanto – stand in inverse proportion to the quality of their movie. All segments here share more or less the same problems, featuring characters who aren’t fleshed out enough for the psychological aspects of the horror to work, a weird threat feels rather more generic than actually weird, and little sense of actual tension to anything happening. There’s not much for any audience to actually care about here, nor does the film present any idea that feels even the faintest bit fleshed out. Tjahjanto’s segment is probably the strongest because it does at least have a tiny bit of dramatic pull, but it’s still disappointingly mediocre. On the plus side, at least it’s not a bro horror anthology.

Vox Lux (2018): Let’s finish this as grumpily as we started, with Brady Corbet’s – also director of the much superior The Childhood of a Leader – anti-pop movie full of songs that may mirror the most insipid side of mainstream pop music but too much in loathing with it to come up with songs for its protagonist that could still believably be hits. One can’t help but think that Sia, who is responsible for the songs, just used old songs of her own deigned too bad to put them out under her own name. Our main character Celeste starts as something of a human being but increasingly turns into a caricature, something that’s not at all helped but the most misguided performance by the usually extremely capable Natalie Portman I’ve ever seen. Structurally and stylistically, the film is more straining to acquire an artsy patina instead of actually doing anything artistically interesting. I also can’t help but raise an eyebrow at a film that so clearly wants to criticize the commodification of pain in popular culture but actually does exactly the same thing, just with an expression of general loathing for said culture on its face.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Past Misdeeds: Mr. Jones (2013)

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.

Penny (Sarah Jones) and Scott (Jon Foster) are retreating into the proverbial cabin in the woods - though it’s a pretty upmarket sort of cabin - to get away for a year to “work on” their relationship, help Scott cope with a never defined mental illness, and give him time and space to make a nature documentary.

Things seem fine at first, but city boy Scott gets bored quickly with the rather samey beauties of nature, and it is perhaps not actually all that great for a struggling relationship when both partners spend all of their time together isolated in a cabin in the woods for weeks on end. Who knew? And, come to think of it, Scott secretly having stopped taking his meds can’t help the situation either. All these turn out to be rather quotidian problems compared to the things the couple soon stumbles into, though.

It turns out they have a neighbour living in a shack close by, a guy in a creepy mask (Mark Steger) sneaking through the woods at night carrying what looks like a lantern, putting up strange and rather creepy totem poles all around the woods. Penny identifies these poles as the work of the mysterious artist only known as Mr. Jones, and after sneaking into their artist neighbour’s – or whatever he is - creepy underground workshop, she gets the brilliant idea that Scott should make his documentary about Jones instead. With the survival instincts of a true horror film character, Scott jets off to New York, where he learns rather disturbing things about Jones: how one day the first of his sculptures (if that’s what they are) just was sent to a New York gallery, and his later ones were sent to seemingly random people. Worse, these people seemed to have had a rather bad time of it afterwards, as if the statues had a malignant influence of some kind on them. More academic research connects Jones’s works to the mythological border between the world of dreams and our reality.

While Scott learns of these things and becomes convinced there’s something definitely destructive about Jones and his motives, Penny has an encounter in the woods around their cabin that convinces her of pretty much the opposite. To her, the statues are something in the manner of occult scarecrows, and Jones’s intentions towards her and Scott well-meaning and protective. Still, when Scott returns, the couple do agree further poking around in Jones’s business to be the appropriate reaction to what they have learned and believe. Not surprisingly, this turns out to be rather a bad idea for everyone involved.

Karl Mueller’s POV horror movie Mr. Jones pushes a lot of my personal buttons, so the director would have had to put considerable effort into making horrible decision after horrible decision to put me off of this one. How many horror films - sub-chapter The Weird - do you find, after all, whose cosmology has quite a whiff of Algernon Blackwood to them, and who put their characters into an illogical – or rather dream-logical - nightmare world for their whole final third without fear of alienating the parts of their audience who dislike getting confused and want something more strict and linear (“plot holes!” I hear them scream while I’m looking at them askance, but then, different tastes and all) from their movies about the abnatural.

However, I don’t even think you can honestly say that Mr. Jones doesn’t make sense. On its own terms, it’s a perfectly logical movie where a leads to b leads to c, only that a and b look rather strange, and that the road between them has a lot of mirrors by the wayside. Speaking of mirrors, the film does make wonderful use of the doppelganger motive, finding a clever and effective way to broaden its meaning through the conventions of POV horror, giving some uncomfortable answers to the question of who is filming certain scenes and why, while at the same time using the opportunity for rather more involved camera set-ups than strictly normal in the style. It’s an economical and clever way to use the style of the film to make the content more disquieting, and turn the clichés of that style sideways until they look strange again, or rather Weird.

There’s quite an obvious allegorical reading to the film too, though if you’re like me and think that allegory is the least interesting use of any given narrative, you can for once be happy in the knowledge that in Mr. Jones, allegory and the coherence of a narrative that can stand for itself aren’t enemies. Of course, it’s also a film where narrative coherence consists of the film stepping outside of the usual lines of coherence into what you might call incoherence, and where symbols become parts of the characters’ reality, which is the sort of thing that happens when a film takes the whole idea of a dream world seriously beyond the opportunity for cheap reality bending any good dream offers. Nothing against cheap reality bending from my side, of course.

Taking a step back from the film’s big whole, there’s also a lot to love about its minor details. It’s not difficult to argue said whole wouldn’t work at all without the care Mueller takes with the details of his film, but even when you don’t care about that, it’s a (creepy) joy to look at the care with which the film’s stick and bone statues are constructed, witness the symmetry and intelligence of the framing of many of the film’s shots (something many POV horror films eschew for reasons of fake authenticity, sometimes successfully, sometimes not), or just the clarity and simplicity with which Mueller uses the possibilities of cheap digital editing to enhance the weirdness of the film’s nightmare-ish final third.

It’s all very lovely stuff, well acted, without fat, and full of the kind of reality-bending, mythology-building moments I love most dearly in horror.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

In short: Anna and the Apocalypse (2017)

It’s Christmas time in the sleepy Scottish town of Little Haven. Now nearing the finish line of her highschool life, our titular heroine (Ella Hunt) is planning on taking an off-year before going to university. That plan is somewhat inspiring the ire of her working class dad (Mark Benton) – who clearly fears she’s pissing away her chance for a future that doesn’t see her having to do stuff like janitorial service at the school her children go to as he does – as well as puppy-eyed sadness in her best friend John (Malcolm Cumming). And yes, Virginia, of course John’s secretly in love with her. There’s also some business about Anna having an actual crush, a total arsehole called Nick (Ben Wiggins), and various friends and hangers-on.

All of this is going to stay as important as very obvious character relations can stay when the worst sort of Christmas trouble in form of the zombie apocalypse arises. You know the drill with that one. On the plus side, Anna’s really rather good at killing zombies once she gets going.

This little bit of plot already makes it clear that director John McPhail really attempts to go all in with the genre mash-up here, mixing teen comedy, somewhat gory zombie horror comedy, and a tiny smidgen of romantic comedy (minus all of the tropes of that genre that are actually satisfying, as it will turn out), mostly using the genres in their most clichéd forms.

Because that’s apparently not enough genres, the film’s also a musical, featuring a bunch of tunes that are catchy but also not terribly good in other regards, and choreography that mostly gets by on a bunch of young, clearly talented, actors really going on a charm offensive, which is what keeps much of the film lively and comparatively fun to watch. Alas, this does not change the fact that most of the songs are in the style of second string contemporary broadway tunes. Personally, I tend to find even the first string of this type of music with its love for the technical and the slick pretty much the opposite of most of what I appreciate in music, so this isn’t exactly making me happy. Your mileage may obviously vary here.

Tonally, the film suffers from having a few too many genres to work through, ending up disappointing genre expectations for every single genre it belongs to in turn, something even a truly clever script could not necessarily avoid in a case at this; the workmanlike one with its series of clichés and tropes Anna has certainly can’t.

All of this does make Anna and the Apocalypse sound like a worse experience than sitting through it actually is, though, for while things don’t hang together terribly well here, and the film avoids to do anything actually interesting with it genre mash-up, it does have the already mentioned charm of the cast, as well as a lot of the kind of energy I can’t help but read as a desperate wish to entertain. And even though the film certainly entertains far below its possibilities, who am I to deny it a wish this appropriate to the season?

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Lips of Blood (1975)

Original title: Lèvres de sang

At a party, Frédéric (Jean-Loup Philippe) lays eyes on a photo of a castle ruin by the sea. The picture is apparently meant to become part of some kind of ad campaign, though the film never explains for what exactly. The photo fascinates Frédéric, drawing out a childhood memory about a night he spent in these very same ruins protected by a strange, young, and very beautiful woman (Annie Belle). As we will later learn, recovering this memory is quite a remarkable thing, for Frédéric has no other memories of his childhood at all, and has constructed what he knows about this part of the past only from what his mother (Natalie Perrey) told him about it.

Not surprisingly, he becomes a bit obsessed with finding the place, the woman and perhaps an answer to questions about himself he can’t quite put into words. But it’s not easy finding out where exactly the castle is situated – the internet and Google image search still need to be invented, and someone puts quite some effort into making it impossible for him to find it, not even shying away from murder.

But Frédéric has protections too. Once he has remembered their encounter, the young woman appears to him as a shade, beckoning him into directions opportune to his quest. Thanks to her, Frédéric half-accidentally frees four young, female vampires with the thing for see-through gowns that flap, flatter and wave in the wind and no underwear all female vampires in Jean Rollin films have. These ladies will proceed to protect him quietly and mostly out of his sight in the only manner movie vampires know.

Ah, I love the films of Jean Rollin, and Lips of Blood is one of the very best of them. Yet Rollin’s films are, for me, rather difficult to write about, for their greatest qualities are not easily put into words unless one is a poet.

Sure, I can talk about the man’s unique aesthetic vision that includes a type of eroticism that might come from a fetishist place (or just from a man who knows what he finds beautiful) but seldom feels sleazy even when he’s showing vampire woman gowns revealing pretty much everything. Rollin mixes his erotic imagination with a healthy appreciation for the beauty of ruins, and has an eye that turns the nightly streets of Paris into a dreamscape as much as it does a castle ruin. Lips, belying the tiny budget typical of the director’s body of work, is a particularly beautiful film, full of shots that feel like strange paintings come to life, or as if someone had managed to not just film a dream but stage it wonderfully, too. In fact here Rollin works his magic so well, even a final scene in which the two surviving characters hop into a coffin, close it, and plan to let it drift to a lonely island to which they plan to lure rich sailors and drink their blood, doesn’t seem ridiculous but completely in tune with the logic of dream and childhood memory the rest of the film displays.

If one wants, one can of course read the whole affair as a metaphorical treatment of Frédéric’s midlife crisis and his wish to regress back into a mythical youth. I do think that reading works of art, even more so of art as outside of the mainstream as Rollin’s, as puzzles to solve to come to a very specific reading and meaning (which as it happens also tends to be one from which we can then moralize and berate an artist for their numerous moral failings), is a terribly reductive way of going about things, not just eschewing the qualities of mystery and ambiguity, but also turning an imaginative place we can inhabit into a mere map of the place.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

In short: Dead Bang (1989)

LA county homicide detective Jerry Beck (Don Johnson) is teetering on the edge of a breakdown. Suffering from the results of an acrimonious divorce, too much alcohol in the blood stream, the Christmas period, and a bad case of being a cop, he’s just one more drink away from getting out of control completely. Fortunately, the murder of a black shop owner and a cop provide him with a case to really get his teeth into, and soon he’s obsessively following the traces of a gang of white supremacist killers all over the USA. On the way, he’s also finding evidence for attempts of the disparate groups of racist shitheads to unite into a union of racist shitheads.

In his prime, poor Don Johnson was too busy shooting Miami Vice to actually have much opportunity to drag his TV stardom onto the big screen, losing out on quite a few roles that made other people stars, and ending up at best starring in films like this minor John Frankenheimer movie, made during the great director’s weakest phase. Which doesn’t mean it’s a truly weak film, for even mediocre Frankenheimer usually has its moments. As a matter of fact, Dead Bang does have rather a lot of them and seems just a script rewrite by someone with a bit more bite than TV writer Robert Foster has to offer away from being really good.

For there’s little to nothing wrong with Frankenheimer’s direction here, and whenever the script provides him the opportunity to stage one of his patented action scenes – even on a minor scale – or have a sad sack macho guy doing the sad sack macho guy thing, the film really comes to gritty life that becomes only more effective because Frankenheimer’s direction often seems so off-handedly easy. Johnson’s not bad, either, but then, he’s played this kind of cop for a while at this stage, so he doesn’t exactly need to step out of his comfort zone. He’s also supported by people like William Forsythe or Bob Balaban, experienced character actors all.

It’s just too bad that Foster’s script leans quite as hard on the cop movie clichés as it does, especially because he’s writing all the stuff about Johnson shouting at his ex-wife over the phone, threatening a psychiatrist, and the various attempts to get him off the case with all the intelligence and verve of someone who can only imagine these things by cribbing them from bad TV shows. There’s also an utterly pointless subplot concerning the dead cop’s wife (Penelope Ann Miller wasted on a non-role) that just disappears after the first act that has no business in the movie whatsoever. I do have to give it to the script, though, it does do well with the general stupidity of white supremacist ideology.

Given the general weakness of the script, it’s actually rather surprising how watchable the whole of the film is, really demonstrating Frankenheimer’s great talent by having him work with nonsense and still get a proper movie out of it.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Die, Monster, Die! (1965)

aka Monster of Terror

A letter calls American absolvent of SCIENCE CLASS (the film does indeed only ever call whatever he studied “science”, as if it were a 50s monster movie) Stephen Reinhart (Nick Adams) to the home of his girlfriend Susan Whitley (Suzan Farmer) in the UK. The locals from the nearby village dance the usual gothic horror dance about the house, either not speaking to the stranger seeking it at all or making insinuations towards something terrible connected to it. Once Reinhart does manage to get where he is going, said home turns out to be a lavish estate, yet one surrounded by an area of scorched vegetation and decay.

Susan’s father Nahum (Boris Karloff) knows nothing of any boyfriends coming to visit, for Reinhart’s visit seems to have been cooked up by Nahum’s ailing wife Letitia (Freda Jackson), who is mysteriously always hidden behind bed curtains that look like mourning veils, and by Susan. Letitia wants dearly to get her daughter away from the house, away from the decay of her surroundings as well as from a father who has become increasingly obsessed with occult studies and experiments on plants as well as on something hidden away in the house’s basement. Nahum’s keeping with the family tradition there, for his grandfather was doing the very same thing, becoming increasingly deranged in the process.

Despite being more of the mopey kind of American, Reinhart’s love for Susan – who has somehow managed not to notice how creepy and weird her household is – drives him to poke around in things clearly not meant for poking.

Seen as an adaption of one of H.P. Lovecraft’s finest works, “The Colour Out of Space”, the AIP/Anglo-Amalgamated co-production of Die, Monster, Die! – a film clearly not afraid of punctuation – is pretty dreadful, its attempts to reform the tale into something better fitting the mold of Roger Corman’s Poe adaptations losing much of what makes the story so special. I do understand the difficulty of coming up with a way of representing a living colour we do not have any words for in our human languages cinematically, but the monster the film eventually uses is plain ridiculous, and ripping the tale out of the world of an American rural farmer family and pressing it into service of another tale of Karloff doing experiments is the least creative thing anyone could have done with it. Coming from a script written by Jerry Sohl, who really could do better and knew better, it’s particularly disappointing.

When I’m trying to ignore how much this misses the point of HPL and look at the film as just another AIP gothic, though one set in then contemporary times, keeping at least this part of the Lovecraftian method, I can find some enjoyment in the thing. Haller’s not a terrible dynamic director, but his experience as a production designer – particularly for Corman’s Poe adaptations – is seen in most every shot in the first two thirds of the film. Haller is very adept at suggesting the appropriate mood of wrongness and decay through all kinds of neat little details in the sets, and uses the foggy and wet locations to great effect too, creating a wonderful and focussed mood of all the good d-words.

Well, it is too bad that it is Nick Adams wandering through these places, looking a bit like a rodent with very weird hair, and only ever distracting from that with a performance that’s wooden even for the romantic lead in an AIP gothic. The – British – rest of the cast is fine, of course, the elderly and ill Karloff doing the best with the weak dialogue he is given and managing to inject a degree of dignity and pathos into the proceedings by the sheer power of his personality; he’s certainly, as was so often the case, miles above the script there.

But for the first two thirds of the film, the good atmosphere and Karloff do outweigh the bad, suggesting this to be a bit of an underrated little film, not a top notch AIP gothic, but fine enough. Alas, there’s a final act that seems hell-bent on sabotaging everything good that came before, the little plot there is breaking down under the sudden need to get some monsters in, which, in the end, leads us to a climax in which Karloff mutates into a guy wrapped in what looks rather a lot like aluminium foil and chases the rest of the cast through the house, with and without an axe, while Haller suddenly seems to lose all ability to make things look creepy. It’s terrible. So terrible indeed that it overshadows all the decent and better bits that came before, turning Die, Monster, Die! into the kind of film that’s best treated by turning it off once it gets into its third act and making up one’s own ending.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Three Films Make A Post: Always Choose Treat

Trick (2019): From time to time, Patrick Lussier’s Trick is a satisfying little contemporary slasher movie, featuring a killer with a not completely uninteresting MO as well as some fun kills. Alas, it is also a terribly messy film, with way too many main characters for its own good, too many elements from other horror sub-genres that don’t fit with each other at all and a plot that wants to become increasingly intricate and twisty but actually only ever gets dumber and needlessly complicated, as so many twisty films do, in the end turning the supernatural slasher into a bit of Scooby Doo affair with added generic social media critique. On the plus side, there’s a long cameo by Tom Atkins as an adorably cantankerous old man, and Omar Epps pretending he’s in a better written movie than he actually is.

Tomie vs Tomie (2007): Despite the fun and intriguing set-up (somewhat based on a storyline from mangaka Junji Ito’s second – I believe - revival of the Tomie character), Tomohiro Kubo’s entry into the Tomie cycle suffers heavily from the fact it’s coming at a point in the franchise when it has become a strictly direct to video cheapo affair. So the budget’s too low for the effects to visualize the crazier stuff from the manga for more than a scene or two, the actors aren’t exactly top notch, and the script has to somehow come up with a way to let everything take place in an apartment set and the inevitable crappy warehouse. Given these circumstances, this isn’t actually a terrible film but it’s also much less than Ito’s creation deserves.

Split of the Spirit (1987): A choreographer (Pauline Wong Siu-Fung) suffering from men trouble and self doubt adds ghostly vengeance seeking possession to her list of problems when she knocks over the ashes of a recently murdered woman.

Fred Tan Hon-Cheung’s Taiwanese horror film doesn’t add all that much new to this specific part of Asian ghost movies – this is pretty much playing out exactly like you’ll expect it to do. However, the film’s well made and never boring. From time to time, there’s even an aesthetically very pleasing moment or two (the film makes quite a bit out of our heroine being a dancer here), and it’s clear that Tan does try to work with the parallels between the living woman and the dead one having been treated very badly, if in different degrees, by the men they loved.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Past Misdeeds: Blutgletscher (2013)

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.

aka Blood Glacier

aka The Station

The team, such as it is, of a small science station researching climate change and its ecological consequences high up in the Alps make a rather exciting – as well as disquieting - discovery. A glacier in their surroundings has melted into a strange, reddish biological mass, as if the glacier had turned to blood. The scientists find that it’s actually a whole layer of a strange microorganism until now unknown to science. That’s quite sensational news, but our protagonists soon have rather bigger problems. For something is not at all right with the local fauna, and what at first looked like the attack of a rabid fox on long-time station mainstay Janek’s (Gerhard Liebmann) dog Tinnitus (Santos) turns out to be caused by something quite a bit different as well as decidedly more dangerous. And there are even more dangerous things around still.

To make the situation more complicated, Austria’s minister for environmental affairs (Brigitte Kren) and a small entourage are coming for a visit the next day, possibly waltzing directly into danger. More personally troubling for Janek, who spends half of his time drunk, the other half obnoxious, his ex-girlfriend Tanja (Edita Malovcic), the reason he has been staying at the station for years now, is part of said entourage. Well, and then there’s the little fact that Janek, normally the man you’d vote mostly likely to lose his shit in a dangerous situation, is actually the only one of the science team who actually has his shit together when push comes to shove, and monsters attack.

I’m regularly bitching and moaning about the state of German language horror film, a tiny segment of cinema dominated by bland and dull attempts at imitating US mainstream horror and – generally -painfully amateurish and charmless independent gore films that quickly grow tiresome in their desperate attempts to break taboos, but in the last few years, there has been a small but interesting group of very different productions coming from Austria, Switzerland and Germany with higher ambitions than the latter and more personality than the former, films like Andreas Marschall’s Masks or Huan Vu’s Lovecraft adaptation Die Farbe. The Austrian Blutgletscher, directed by Marvin Kren - who already made the very good short-ish zombie film Rammbock a few years ago, - certainly belongs to this wonderful group of films.

Blutgletscher is a true genre film at heart, if you understand genre as a conversation held between films via the variation and personalization of conventions. As such, this is a film that doesn’t win hearts with its basic ideas, which a genre-savvy audience will generally know from other films (and books and so on), but with the little twists it gives them, and its ability to turn already established genre ideas into slightly different directions. Kren’s film is really incredibly good at this, taking elements we know and love from John Carpenter’s version of The Thing and other related films and making them its very own. One thing I found particularly fun (and wickedly funny) in this regard is the basic nature of the film’s monsters, which I don’t really want or need to explain here more closely. Let’s just say you will probably never look at the proud, dignified species of alpine animals that Heimatfilm and nature documentaries alike so very much like the idolize the same way again. There’s a nasty side to nature (just ask Werner Herzog about chicken), particularly when it is provoked into changes. On the other hand, the film genuinely seems to like animals; it just doesn’t have illusions about what they are actually about.

Speaking of Blutgletscher’s monsters, there’s a real joy in watching these particular creations of pleasantly grotesque imagination, realized in a fine – if not exactly naturalistically convincing – combination of digital and practical effects. The way Kren directs it, there’s always enough of the monsters to see to satisfy but seldom so much the seams in the – probably not very high – budget available start to show. It’s the best of both monster movie worlds, really.

The film’s pacing is quite flawless, too, with exactly the right amount of time lying between tension and release and the return and escalation of that tension. Benjamin Hessler’s script also does some rather clever and effective things with the parallels between Janek’s and Tanja’s relationship and the horrible things going on around them, adding thematic resonance where you least expect it. The script also does the old monster movie and SyFy Channel stand-by of treating monster attacks as the best way to get a separated couple back together again; it just does it well and with a twist belonging to the film’s pleasantly strange and clever ending that rather suggests decisions taken under the sort of pressure the characters find themselves in might not always be healthy, while at the same time also suggesting highly unpleasant things about the necessities of humanity’s biological survival in the film’s world.

If I had to find flaws in Blutgletscher – the sort of thing people who watch movies looking for “plot holes” excepted because I only seldom find that  relevant to the quality of a movie or important to my enjoyment at all – I’d probably go for its at times somewhat stilted dialogue, but then, that’s a problem so typical of German language films of all types and genres, I can hardly blame a film for it that does so much else differently and better.

Blutgletscher is, after all, such a very enjoyable film full of what German language horror seems to be lacking for my tastes the most – personality. It is, apart from that, also as good as any monster movie style horror film made in the last decade or so you’d care to mention.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

In short: Teketeke 2 (2009)

One year after the end of the first Teketeke, poor Kana (Yuko Oshima), now barely functional and spending most of her time in her darkened room without any red things, does have her final encounter with Teketeke, the legless wonder, on the same overpass. The grad student who had helped a little with the research in the first film is so struck by her death that he begins to obsess over Teketeke, trying to find out what the basis of the urban legend truly is, in the hopes to eventually stop the curse.

When we don’t spend time with his research, we pop over to a group of high school students. One bullied girl meets Teketeke and somehow manages to control her into killing the girls who bully her one after the other.

I am a big fan of director Koji Shiraishi, but this quick-shot sequel to Teketeke just isn’t very good at all. Despite a running time of 73 minutes (with four minutes or so spent recapping the first film), the whole affair feels bloated and overlong, all the jumping between the two plotlines giving the film a disjointed quality. And it’s not as if much of what the film jumps to is terribly interesting: grad student guy is basically revisiting the places our intrepid heroines in the first movie investigated and learning a tiny bit more, while the high school plotline has to fight its damn obviousness, as well as some pretty bad acting by half a dozen young women with little to none acting experience. Even the horror scenes don’t really come together, Shiraishi, for some godawful reason, deciding to show way too much of Teketeke herself, turning what was weird and creepy (if a bit silly, or perhaps even because it’s a bit silly) in the first film into a crap special effect.

The only actual cool bit – and totally fitting in tone with the sort of thing Shiraishi loves to put into his films’ mythologies - is the final explanation as to why Teketeke kills certain people, but others not: let’s just say she’s a yurei with a somewhat scholarly approach to things.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Peacemaker (1990)

An alien spacecraft crashes down close by the coast of LA, as UFOs are wont to do. Out of it swims a guy we will later learn to be called by the typical alien name of Townshend (Lance Edwards). His attempt at stealing a shotgun out of a cop car right in front of what must be donut central or something ends in him getting shot so often, the cops must have confused him with an unarmed black man.

But don’t you worry, he gets better in the morgue, right in front of coroner Dori Caisson (Hilary Shepard). He kinda-sorta proceeds to kidnap her. On the way to her home – because that’s where aliens bring their kidnapping victims when it’s not an abduction with all the probes and whistles – they are attacked by a charming man (Robert Forster!) with a handgun so large I don’t even need to make any jokes about his manhood. We’ll later learn that he goes by that other popular alien name, Yates. Townshend and Dori escape, and shack up together, or rather, Townshend ties her up and studies TV for a night, from which he learns to speak English. Well, more or less, for Edwards (or whoever) had the brilliant idea to play his new-won language abilities as if he were a mentally handicapped man played by a horrible actor.

Anyway, Townshend exposits that he is an alien cop, a so-called peacemaker, who got sucked into a black hole together with serial killer Yates and somehow landed on Earth. He’s now keen on finding Yates as well as some McGuffin they are both after. The problem is that this is going to be exactly the same story Yates is going to tell Dori when he’s alone with her, only with Yates in the police role, and consequently, she’s going to bounce around between the two like a human yo-yo.

Also involved is an Earth cop (Robert Davi!), who has taken a shine to Dori, as have the two aliens. The problem: Dori has been burned by policemen before and is unwilling to commit to anything beyond bad jokes and a bit of sex under the shower.

There’s a good handful of films with the same basic plot made around the same time as Kevin (S.) Tenney’s Peacemaker (I think somebody in Hollywood must have enjoyed Hal Clement’s “Needle” quite a bit), and while the film at hand is most certainly not the best of the bunch, it may very well be the goofiest. The whole set-up is a bit silly from the outset, but Tenney (who also wrote the script) seems to be hell-bent to always make the silliest choice in any given scene, so we get Dori’s incessant wisecracking even when she’s kidnapped, threatened or shot at, the horrible performance by Edwards that makes one wrong but entertaining acting decision after the next, never shying away from the worst line delivery possible in any given situation, and a plot that never comes up with much more for the characters to do but drag Dori around.

Because Edwards is so goofy (and mildly embarrassing), and Shepard’s Dori is reacting to whatever happens in any given scene in the most insane and illogical manner possible, Forster’s very serious performance of an alien with a very, very, very big gun makes for a particularly hilarious contrast. Now, if you’re me, you’re probably a bit sad the film uses non-actor (sorry, but seriously) Edwards as the other alien when it has a perfectly good Robert Davi around, who’d make such a great counterpart to Forster. Sure, you might have wanted to cut the romance angle from the film in that case, but those parts of the film are so cringeworthy because Dori’s written as such a ditz in them, that would not have been too much of a loss.

Anyway, when the film doesn’t do goofy nonsense, or babbles about black holes and time travel (don’t ask), it does sometimes find the time for a decent if silly action sequence or three, probably delivering what was the actual selling point for this loveable and highly entertaining piece of crap.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

In short: The Italian Job (1969)

Freshly out of prison, small time-ish yet highly aspirational criminal mastermind Charlie Croker (Michael Caine) inherits a plan for stealing a whole lot of gold in Turin from a friend murdered by the Mafia. It’s a bit of a crazy undertaking, but Charlie manages to talk hilariously posh underworld king (you can take that literally) Mr Bridger (Noël Coward – yes, that Noël Coward) into financing the somewhat crazy plan. So it’s off to Italy with a bunch of people mostly without personality to outfox the police as well as the mafia and get rich.

Even in 1969, films about cars that go really fast had a bit of a problem with filling the parts that were not about car chases. Peter Collinson’s film decides to go around that particular problem by being a car chase caper movie, which is a decent enough idea at its core. Alas, in this concrete case, the non car-chase parts – aka two thirds of the movie – are just not a terribly good caper movie.

For one, the quality of the jokes – even if you forget contemporary sensibilities and pretend it is still 1969 – is highly variable, tending to the unfunny, and for every actually funny bit like Caine’s bone-tired facial expression after he has bedded the half a dozen or so prostitutes his girlfriend gifts him as a “coming out present” (I did mention we need to forget our contemporary sensibilities, right?), there are two that fall down flat with an audible “thud”. Though I’m sure Benny Hill’s (sigh) pervy Professor with a weight fetish would have been hilarious once, in the music hall. The film also has the tendency to drag jokes that are funny for the first two or three times out way too often, and at first genuinely funny business like Mr Bridger’s royal poshness is getting just a bit tedious through the power of repetition, though Coward seems to amuse himself just fine.

As a caper movie, the film suffers under a particularly slow middle act, with planning and experimentation that never feel like anything but a way for the film to fill out the running time. Adding to the plight of this tedious part of the film is the inexplicable decision to surround Caine – who is cool even when he’s silly, fortunately – with a large amount of helpers who have no discernible character traits that could make things more interesting whatsoever, so apart from Caine, Mr Bridger, the self-explanatory Camp Freddie (Tony Beckley) and the unfortunate pervy prof, there are a dozen or so completely interchangeable guys around, doing little but take up screen space.

On the plus side, once the heist finally, after a long long long long time, starts, it’s actually pretty damn fun, with some ingenious moments and direction by Collinson that finally gets the tone of light but actual excitement the first two acts were crying out for right.

That’s car chase movies for ya.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

The Package (1989)

In what now looks like an alternative version of 1989, the USA and the USSR have decided on complete nuclear disarmament and an official end to the Cold War. Veteran Green Beret Sergeant Johnny Gallagher (Gene Hackman) belongs to the mass of soldiers running security at the final negotiations concerning the matter. Or in his case, securing an outer perimeter.

After he and his men stumble into the assassination of a US officer by what the audience already knows is a conspiracy between Soviet and US hardliners to stop the peace process at any cost, he is very suddenly ordered to transport a military prisoner, one supposed Walter Henke (Tommy Lee Jones), to the US. Once arrived on US soil, Gallagher is attacked and knocked out while his charge absconds. Gallagher, being old, stubborn, and Gene Hackman, is smelling bullshit, and soon teams up with his also military ex-wife (Joanna Cassidy), and later a Chicago vice cop (Dennis Franz) to find his prisoner. Since he quickly realizes the man he brought to the US isn’t actually Walter Henke, and finds himself framed for murder to boot, Gallagher’s soon concentrating on finding out what the hell’s actually going on, perhaps saving world peace in the process. That’ll teach conspirators to screw with old school sergeants, I suppose.

The plot of Andrew Davis’s conspiracy/action thriller The Package is actually a bit more complicated than that, but thanks to a clear presentation by Davis and a script by John Bishop that usually focuses on providing the audience with the right information at the right time, it actually feels rather straightforward, in a good way. Now, you might argue that the conspiracy seems needlessly complicated, actually includes too many people who need to get killed for it to work, and really stops working as a plan at all once the public shoot-outs start, but its execution on screen works fine and never feels terribly preposterous even when it should.

The film’s plausibility is certainly increased by the resonances it has with the greatest hits of violent US politics like the Kennedy assassination and the nasty stuff US intelligence services have gotten up to throughout their existence. The cast helps there, too, with Hackman probably playing this sort of thing in his sleep yet still providing Gallagher with enough personality and sheer stubbornness to absolutely make him the guy to root for here; it’s also fascinating to watch a late 80s action movie whose hero isn’t a violent asshole but only ever kills in absolutely self-defence. The rest of the actors are as dependable and convincing as expected, with Cassidy, Jones, Franz, John Heard and Pam Grier in a way too small role all fleshing out what are at their core pretty plot functional roles.

From time to time, the film does look a little like an enhanced TV movie. As a rule – and for my tastes – Davis is a competent and effective but also somewhat too functional kind of director, absolutely able to direct this sort of thing effectively but keeping things a bit too tidy and controlled when a bit more chaos might make things more exciting or simply more interesting.

Still, The Package is a well done film that moves through its particular genre space with a degree of intelligence while providing a healthy dose of excitement. Which may sound like me damning with faint praise again, but is actually me complimenting a movie on a job well done.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Three Films Make A Post: If the storm doesn't get you... they will

Crawl (2019): By now, I’ve decided the films of Alexandre Aja are a bit like those of Rob Zombie in that I’ll never like a single one of them. This one should actually be a bit of a winner: a father daughter duo trapped by a hurricane having to fight off an alligator sounds like actual claustrophobic fun. Alas, it’s an annoying father-daughter duo with exactly the father-daughter problems you’d find in a SyFy movie. Aja and/or the script also quickly get bored by having to come up with suspense scenes based on the minimalist set-up, so the one alligator soon turns into a swarm of alligators, and because Aja clearly can’t imagine not having any character to kill, we get ten minutes of alligators killing random people around our protagonists’ house. It’s really all very SyFy Original, just with a higher budget and for some reason having found its way into a cinema near me; it’s also a middling at best SyFy Original without much to recommend it or even just remember it next week.

The Black String (2018): I actually enjoyed Brian Hanson’s much more low-market film about a guy (Frankie Muniz) with a history of psychological problems either starting to suffer from a witch’s curse or losing it after a one-night stand a lot more. Hanson is really good at dragging Muniz’s experiences to the border of the ridiculous and illogical, making the viewer increasingly uncomfortable with the protagonist but also evoking sympathy and empathy for his plight, be it imagined or not, while still having him act increasingly erratic and threatening to himself and others.

Also highly commendable is how well the film fits typical tropes of Fortean High Strangeness into its plot, and how dubious and slightly cracked anyone who believes our protagonist is. It’s all highly ambiguous, until the film ends on a note that washes all ambiguity away without needing to go for a twist ending.

The Endless (2017): I liked the previous films by director/writer and sometimes actor duo Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead a lot, and The Endless, which tells the story of two brothers returning to the cult they grew up in – a tale that also happens to intersect with the duo’s first movie Resolution in surprising and pretty damn cool ways – is another winner. I’m particularly happy with the directors’ ability to fuse the cosmically weird, the humanly weird and the naturalistically mundane without ever letting any one perspective overwhelm the rest of the film.

The pace is leisurely, but it’s the kind of slowness that follows the need of the story the film tells and the world it takes place in – this is one of those films where every shot takes on multiple functions in world building, character building or mood building without ever making things feel too constructed or overloaded. It’s a thing of beauty, really.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Past Misdeeds: The Kennel Murder Case (1933)

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.

Sportsman and collector Archer Coe (Robert Barrat) dies in what at first looks like suicide to investigating Detective Heath (Eugene Pallette) and District Attorney Markham (Robert McWade), but amateur detective Philo Vance (William Powell, shortly before Nick met Nora) soon sets the two straight, for what we have here is a rather complicated case of murder that just happens to be a real locked room mystery, too.

Finding suspects is quite easy in this case, for Coe must have been the most hated, and surely the least pleasant, man in town. Possible suspects are (and I might forget one or two here, given their sheer number): Archer’s brother Brisbane (Frank Conroy), the kind of guy who carries around a book called “Unsolved Murders” when suspect in a murder investigation; Archer’s niece Hilda Lake (Mary Astor), terrorized by her uncle’s oh so cruel holding of the purse strings as well as by the fact that he’s standing in the way of her marriage plans, and, the film suggests not particularly subtly, sex life; Sir Thomas MacDonald (Paul Cavanagh), the marriage plan embodied; Archer’s secretary Raymond Wrede (Ralph Morgan), also interested in marrying Hilda, though she doesn’t want to; Archer’s cook Liang (James Lee), a highly educated Chinese gentleman who helped Archer out in some shady antiques dealings and now finds himself not only relegated to his cook but also further betrayed; Eduardo Grassi (Jack La Rue), a near business partner of Archer’s who sees himself spurned after Archer finds out he has an affair with his girlfriend Doris Delafield (Helen Vinson); and something’s off about the butler Gamble (Arthur Hohl), too.

As if being spoiled for choice weren’t difficult enough for Vance, it’s also devilishly complicated to actually establish what happened the night of Archer’s death. After a while, there’s another corpse to deal with, and as many obfuscation attempts as there are suspects. Now wonder Nick Charles would start to drink so many martinis.

It is rather seductive to pretend that Philo Vance changed his name to Nick Charles after this particularly stressful case, started drinking too much, and married Myrna Loy. At least William Powell’s performance here, in his last and – as I’m told - best Philo Vance film, isn’t far off from type, just sober. Did someone by any chance write a meta-detective novel with this plot? Someone should.

Anyhow, Michael Curtiz’ The Kennel Murder Case has not only the reputation of being the best Powell-starring Van Dine adaptation, but also of being the best of the Philo Vance mysteries, which I find difficult to doubt, given how perfect an example of its style this is, with little room for improvement except for the film being an over-constructed “golden age” mystery. But complaining about that would be idiotic, my general dislike for that part of mystery history notwithstanding. Particularly when it turns out that, when they are executed this well, I don’t mind the tropes of the sub-genre at all.

This is one of the films where all elements come together so well, it can turn even someone not particularly fond of a (sub-)genre like me into a believer. The film’s virtues start with Robert N. Lee’s and Peter Milne’s excellently paced script that has a point-on rhythm so well realized, not only are various revelations here actually exciting even whole new film languages and mystery sub-genres later, even the comic relief sequences seem to belong in the movie instead of being their usual, squeezed-in selves. There are also some surprisingly pleasant elements to the film not very typical of its time, with a Chinese character, played by a Chinese American who doesn’t have to speak in pidgin or bizarre folksy metaphors, and who isn’t our detective’s main suspect just because of his race. In fact, there’s even a short bit where Vance reacts to Heath’s casual racism with a nice little eye-roll. Why, the film treats Liang like a human being not qualitatively different from anyone around him, and actually seems a bit sympathetic towards a man having to live quite below his abilities because of his skin colour. The film doesn’t make a big thing out of this, but it’s very pleasant to witness in a film of this age nonetheless; it beats me if this is part of Van Dine’s novel, too, though I very much doubt it, going by the man’s general hateful snobbery.

The script is full of these little touches that give its stock characters more life (as does the fine cast), and just make the - well-constructed yet contrived, as it should probably be in this sub-genre – plot quite a bit more interesting because it seems to involve people with actual social and personal relations; I found the mystery itself pretty satisfying and fun to watch unravelling too.

Curtiz’ direction is also something special, for most of the minor productions of big houses of the time were directed either with carelessness or with a by-the-book style that never seems to even aspire to provide an audience with something to look at beyond groups of people who might as well be assembled on a theatre stage. Curtiz approach here is much more dynamic, with many an expressive camera angle, movements that explore the film’s sets as physical spaces, and a clear and concise idea of how to make the most out of the actors’ performances, as well as how to deepen an inevitably dialogue-heavy story through the things the audience sees. That’s the sort of thing that gives a director like Curtiz, who at the time was just another hired studio gun, if one with quite a bit of experience already, his auteur reputation. Even though I’m not a fan of his horror films for Warner, and don’t even enjoy Casablanca all that much, it’s hard to disagree when confronted with as perfect a genre film as The Kennel Murder Case, and not just in the light of other highlights of the director’s filmography.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

In short: Booksmart (2019)

I’m often making fun of actors turning directors, but that’s more on account of the Tom Cruises and Edward Nortons of this world who hijack other peoples’ films to stroke their own egos, notwithstanding the limits of their own talents, than those actresses and actors who come upon their direction work because they actually care about the art of filmmaking.

Olivia Wilde’s tale of the adventures of teens Amy (Kaitlin Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) on the last night before their high school graduation, who try to for once have a traditionally teenage fun time instead of being the teacher’s pet kind of nerd who only thinks about school, certainly suggests an actress who cares and understands said art. At first, the film seems to be a well-made and a bit lightweight but very likeable and genuinely funny coming of age comedy with a tendency to make fun little digressions into weird directions (Molly’s and Amy’s drug fantasy has to be seen to be believed), but the longer the film goes on, the clearer it becomes that Wilde is also portraying the easiness of emotional shifts and shifts in perspective common in people of our heroines’ ages, so there are moments of quiet tragedy and genuine hurt, of awkwardness and sudden insight when every character who starts out as a classic teen movie type turns out to have another facet and a different side. Wilde portrays these shifts and the opening of her characters to the complexity of other human beings as well as the downsides of their own friendship with sympathy and insight, particularly in the film’s more painful sequences, pretending the film’s a nicely flowing series of episodes when it is actually very thoughtfully structured. There’s some rather more obvious great filmmaking on display too, like the way the scene in which Amy gets her heart broken starts from a feeling of utter contentment and wonder and just flows away from there.

The whole thing is also beautifully played by Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein, who pull off all of the film’s tonal shifts with ease, keeping likeable and understandable (which is something better than merely being relatable), and working through the humour, the hurt and the weirdness.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Doom: Annihilation (2019)

A squad of “UAC Marines” - which seems to be some sort of corporate military deal where the least competent would-be soldiers around get dumped going by the rest of the film – under on Leutnant Joan Dark (Amy Manson) land on a top secret research base on the Martian moon Phobos for elevated guard duty. As luck will have it, teleportation (and more) experiments have just opened a gate to a hell dimension, and soon these incompetents and nitwits have to fight for their lives.

Given how much money the Doom games make, I have a hard time understanding how the film deal the franchise gets is this. The film at hand dwells in the most impoverished part of direct to home video action cinema, where not only hiring some bad luck former Academy Award winner for a couple of shooting days is right out (you’re in luck, Sir Ben Kingsley), but even the mandatory fifteen minutes of Dolph or JCVD is too costly, and the only guy they can get is Louis (not even Costas!?) Mandylor popping in for a bit. To be fair, the actors are perfectly competent, just not terribly interesting. Compared to this, the much-maligned but in my opinion really rather fun first attempt at a Doom movie was richly endowed with production values. Now, I know the Doom universe isn’t exactly an ideal source for more than a fun shoot ‘em up movie, but you really can aim a bit higher with that as well; just look at John Wick, for Cthulhu’s sake!

That having quite this little money available is not a good thing for science fiction action horror thing that should actually have quite a few special effects sequences and proper action set pieces should come as little surprise. Really, the only thing that could have come to the rescue would have been one of the top tier direct to video action directors, say Peter Hyams or Isaac Florentine who know how to make every cent count and possess highly developed visual imaginations. Instead, we get Tony Giglio, the guy who directed Chaos (not the great one, nor the Academy Award winner, but the one with Wesley Snipes). While Giglio is a professional director – the film’s in focus and properly edited, at least – he’s doing strictly competetent work here, with little visible effort to bring the production design of corridors (and then more corridors) and five minutes of videogame hell to life.

The action scenes aren’t exactly bad, but there’s also little anyone who has seen some of the cinematic children of Aliens will find exciting. In fact, the action is so bland, I was wishing fondly for a bit of Paul W.S. Anderson in here, whose films may suck more often than not but who is a t least always trying to make them look interesting. Of course, I would be surprised if this film had more than a tenth of the budget of your typical Anderson outing.

Not at all helping anything at all is that Giglio’s script (for yes, he’s also wearing the writer’s hat) believes it has to present us with thirty-five minutes of character stuff before we get to the first bit of amateur space marine versus monsters action. Clearly, the bunch of one-note clichés and their oh so interesting backstories we have seen in hundreds of other films need many a scene of introduction; and obviously, everyone in the market of watching a Doom movie will have no idea whatsoever of what’s happening on Phobos and will be terribly surprised once the monsters attack. It can be problematic to write too much towards a certain audience, but come on!

Speaking of the monsters, Doom: Annihilation certainly doesn’t do itself any favours by, once it finally gets around to the stuff the audience has actually come for, then starting out with having the space marines for the next twenty minutes or so fight creatures which are for all intents and purposes blue-faced zombies. That’s certainly keeping the special effects budget in check, but is pretty much the most boring, over-used thing the film could have used. Of course, the videogame-approved demons we get later are not terribly interesting either, they just turn out to be terrible bullet sponges. Or rather, they are terrible bullet sponges unless Joan shoots them, for her bullets are clearly coated with protagonist venom, so a monster everyone else needs to pump an assault rifle mag or two into until it stops moving is conquered by a couple of shots with our heroine’s handguns. On the plus side, Doom Guy’s a girl now.

Which is the kind of positive note I like to end my write-ups of otherwise blandly bad movies on.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Daughters of Satan (1972)

While poking around in the antiquities shop of one Mr Ching (Vic Diaz), whom we already know as a Satanist thanks to a prologue that’s supposed to get a bit of the mandatory sleaze and nudity in early, art expert and writer James Robertson (Tom Selleck, already looking exactly like Tom Selleck in the 80s) stumbles upon a curious painting of a witch burning that took place in Manila in the 1590s. “Curious”, because the middle witch looks exactly (or really, kinda-sorta if you’re not a character in the movie), like James’s wife Chris (Barra Grant). So obviously, James buys it, hoping that Chris is going to get a kick out of it, one supposes.

However, she’s not at all pleased with the thing, showing revulsion and a strange sense of dread when laying eyes on it. With the painting come strange occurrences: voices calling Chris’s name on the wind at night; the appearance of a big dog named Nikodemus that takes to Chris totally but wants to murder James; and a housekeeper (Paraluman) answering an ad nobody put in the paper, bullying her way into the house. And why, doesn’t she look exactly like another of the witches on the painting!

Pressured by the housekeeper and a secret Satanic witch cult, Chris falls increasingly under the spell of the painting and her older witch self, and soon, she finds herself pressed to kill James. He, for his part, begins to realize some of what’s going on, but most of his counteractions seem ill-advised, awkward and doomed to failure.

Daughters of Satan is yet another of the incalculable number of US/Filipino co-productions shot with predominantly local crews in the Philippines. It is directed by Hollingsworth Morse, who was mostly a TV director apparently specialized in family and children’s TV (there’s a lot of “Lassie” on his CV). Morse never feels terribly comfortable doing horror stuff, so quite a few theoretically cool and spooky little moments here are sabotaged by awkward or simply bland direction. I’d also bet the two Satanic witch get-togethers were filmed by somebody else, because they are not just a bit on the tasteless side and sleazy, but are also much more ruthless and effective than the rest of a film that otherwise can’t even make a proper 70s downer ending feel impactful.

Some of the film’s problems, however, are less Morse’s fault than that of a script that has ideas for a handful of pretty cool moments of supernatural menace but can’t make its characters interesting. James is as bland as every Selleck character, but Chris is written as such a spineless wet blanket it’s difficult to actually see the fight between her and the outside influence that’s supposed to be going on here and not just her spinelessly wavering towards the opinion of the person she spoke with last. It’s, alas, not atypical for a female character in a 70s horror movie, but in a film that should be all about her internal struggle, this sort of thing is particularly destructive. It doesn’t help that Grant’s performance mostly consists of her making bug eyes as Chris’s main emotional reaction to everything.

Still, the film isn’t completely without its charms: the Philippines always make for a good looking backdrop, and there are at least a couple of scenes (the vision that happens to Chris’s psychiatrist before his death comes to mind) where the basic idea of a scene beats the bland execution.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Headshot (2016)

A man (Iko Uwais) with a headshot wound is washed ashore in a small Indonesian fishing town. Young doctor Ailin (Chelsea Islan), manning the place’s small clinic for a time, manages to save his life, and clearly develops a bit of a thing for him while he’s still in a coma. Because she’s reading “Moby Dick” at the time (she’s clearly a woman of excellent taste), she privately dubs the guy Ishmael. That name is going to stick once he wakes up, for he has only the faintest traces of memories of his past, so Ishmael he is now.

Of course, people do not find themselves getting shot in the head without a reason, and his past is going to catch up to him rather sooner than later. And because movie bad guys are cruel like that, Ailin and a random little girl are going to be dragged into his affairs rather more than anyone deserves; and Ishmael will learn that he’d probably rather have not remembered what the people from his past coming for him drag back to the surface again.

It’s really interesting to compare the joint Kimo Stamboel/Timo Tjahjanto feature Headshot with Tjahjanto’s directorial solo outing The Night Comes for Us. Both, once they get going, are action films of relentless pace, each of which contains about as much set-piece violence as two normal action films. As a matter of fact, you could argue that there’s a bit too much crushing of heads, shooting of bodies and so on and so forth, going on here, the directors clearly working from the theory that when one action scene is great, two must be even better. It’s a bit exhausting to watch at times, to be frank, but on the other hand, every single action scene (again in both films), is so inventive, so excellently staged, and so over the top in its violence, one can hardly blame a director for not leaving any one out. As a viewer, one simply needs to be prepared to be overwhelmed.

The films also share their tendency to be over-the-top gory, with so much blood and other bodily fluids bathing the surviving characters, the classic Japanese blood fountain seems rather reserved in comparison. Again, it might get a bit much for some viewers, but when you go in prepared for excess, you’ll have a great time simply mumbling “did they really just do that?”.

Headshot’s action is a bit different in nature than that of The Night, though, for where the later, Stamboel-less film is an action movie with martial arts sequences, this one’s very much a martial arts movie that puts most of its thoughts into coming up with new ways of getting two or a dozen people killed by Iko Uwais’s fists and feet. So there are quite a few moments echoing classic martial arts cinema, like the scene where Uwais has to fight off his attackers in a police station while handcuffed to a desk. The film also consistently sets Uwais against actors who are just as great screen fighters as he is, so there’s never a moment where we get the Indonesian version of having to pretend Keanu Reeves could beat Mark Dacascos in a martial arts fight. Now, if it where a contest in waving one’s arms around…But I digress.

The other big difference between the two films is in the nature of their protagonists. As Joe Taslim’s Ito in the later film, Ishmael has done terrible things, but where Taslim chose a life as a gangster and did have some, if dubious, degree of choice in his life (even though he tries to become a full human being eventually), Headshot’s protagonist is the victim of a man who kidnaps children, brainwashes them, and uses them as weapons, making him sympathetic even in his most violent moments. The film does use this quite cleverly to keep the audience’s sympathy on Ishmael’s side, emphasising the horror of his upbringing, the irony of him now using what has been taught to him to bring his “father” down, as well as the tragedy that the people he’s killing throughout the film – they don’t leave him much of a choice, mind you – are the closest he ever had to a family and loved ones.

It’s actually rather more cleverly done than you’d expect in a film that’s quite this fond of outrageous violence, but I for one am not going to complain about a film giving me the violence as well as some hidden complexities.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Three Films Make A Post: Stay Alive Or Die Trying

The Furies (2019): Women are kidnapped and then trapped in a picturesque patch of Australian wilderness, together with a bunch of beefy guys in creepy masks who go about murdering them. But there’s something slightly more going on, for this is all part of some sort of live stream game for rich perverts, so there are a couple of rules for the women to find out.

So yeah, Tony D’Aquino’s film does mix a couple of popular sub-genres in not terribly original but also definitely not boring ways, throws some decent acting by Airlie Dodds, Linda Ngo and the rest of the cast in, provides some nice practical gore (if you’re a fan of eye mutilation, you will have a hell of a time), and adds the usual stuff about how people in extreme situations pretty much suck. It looks pretty good, and is well paced and competently written in any case, so there’s ninety minutes of good, icky fun to be had.

Peppermint (2018): One morning, a Hollywood studio executive stumbled upon a script about a vengeance seeking urban vigilante in the Punisher style meant for Liam Neeson, and found Taken director Pierre Morel tied to a radiator too. The only problem: Neeson had just given another one of those interviews where he says he’s not making action films anymore for at least the next couple of weeks. Fortunately, the exec’s favourite intern had an idea, so they hired Jennifer Garner for the Neeson role. Well, at least that’s what I imagine the origin story of Morel’s film to be, and it is pretty much the film you’ll imagine it to be. The set-up in this one feels particularly cartoonish, but otherwise, it’s a professional, competently done entry into this sub-genre, with a lead actress who is usually good with the more physical stuff, and a totally by the numbers script by Chad St. John that still manages to be entertaining enough, if one is in the mood for this dubious kind of revenge fantasy.

The Fugitive (1993): But let’s finish on a blast from the just as competent past, when Harrison Ford was an action star, people wanted to work with Tommy Lee Jones, and director Andrew Davis was semi-hot as an action and action thriller director. The script by David Twohy and Jeb Stuart is – despite a running time of over two hours – efficient and economical, which does provide the film with a breathless pace that’s exactly right for Davis’s particular talents. However, the writing is so stripped down that what little actual plot there is feels rather undercooked, the identity of the killer’s boss obvious simply by that character being the only one on screen who has enough lines to be a traitor to Harrison-Ford kind, and while everything’s certainly very exciting, it’s never surprising or particularly interesting. Though, to be fair, if you’re looking for an ultra-efficient rollercoaster without any ambition apart from that, this is pretty much your perfect film.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Past Misdeeds: Gold of the Seven Saints (1961)

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.

Trappers and accidental gold prospectors Jim Rainbolt (Clint “The Chest” Walker) and Shaun Garrett (Roger “Master of the Irish accent” Moore) have hit the jackpot in form of quite a lot of gold. Unfortunately, Shaun is forced to pay off a charming gentleman with some of their new-found riches when he attempts to acquire a freebie horse in the closest town because one of theirs died, something that awakens the interest of crazy – and quite dangerous - bandit McCracken (Gene Evans) and his men.

Soon, Rainbolt (whom nobody ever seems to want to call by his forename despite the absurdity of this surname; it’s less surprising nobody ever cracks a joke about it, for he is played by Clint Walker) – and Shaun find themselves chased through the desert by McCracken’s gang, trying to outmanoeuvre their enemies with only degrees of success. At least, they meet a helpful alcoholic doctor (Chill Wills) with a nice sharpshooting hand, and later find possible refuge with Rainbolt’s old bandit/rancher friend, the Mexican Gondorra (Robert Middleton). Given the whole “bandit” part of his occupation it is rather the question if Gondorra even is to be trusted at all, but then the kind of men Rainbolt and Shaun are need to take chances.

Until the Internet taught me better, I only knew Gold of the Seven Saints’ director Gordon Douglas as the guy who directed one of my favourite – and possibly the best – US giant monster movies, Them! and who directed the very decent Randolph Scott vehicle The Nevadan. Turns out Douglas was quite the prolific man, working pretty incessantly on genre and B-movies (in the more precise meaning of that term) from 1935 to 1973, working in every genre from Frank Sinatra vehicles to comedies. As I’m told, and Gold suggests to be perfectly true, the director had a particularly fine hand with film noirs and westerns, two genres close to my heart I’m never watching enough films in. [As future me can now add, Douglas was in fact great in an unassuming way in most genres he worked in, only lacking an easily identifiable favourite seem to win auteur bingo].

I have seen the film at hand called a lite version of Treasure of the Sierra Madre. However, even though the two films may contain gold, betrayal and the desert among their shared plot elements, they are philosophically quite different from one another. Gold is quite a bit more optimistic about human nature, clearly coming down on the belief that certain – manly – friendships are perfectly able to withstand the lure of gold, even though it doesn’t pretend all friendships are of that kind; and where Treasure’s reaction towards a universe with a very bad sense of humour is a rather depressed one, Gold prefers a laconic shrug followed by a little song.

This doesn’t mean that Gold’s view of humanity or the universe at large is naive or too optimistic – this is after all a film that shows one of its heroes trying to steal a horse (something generally frowned on by all upright western heroes) right at the start, and shows the other one as having no compunctions at all against shooting naked unarmed men when they’ve gotten on his bad side. Gold is just lacking a certain nihilist zeal to pretend only the darkness it very well knows about exists. It replaces that zeal with a sense of humour and adventure. Consequently, despite the philosophical abyss it walks next to, Gold – as co-written by the great Leigh Brackett – generally feels rather companionable and good-natured even when quite a bit of what is going on in it very much isn’t. It is probably a question of personal taste if one likes that approach to the darker sides of adventure; I found myself rather delighted by it.

A part of this delight of course also comes from the pleasant chemistry between Walker and Moore, who sell the old chestnut of the perpetually bickering friends quite well without it getting annoying or too much. It’s quite interesting to see Walker in his natural habitat here, where he is somehow losing the woodenness I dislike about his performances in non-westerns I’ve seen, and replacing it with a persona well able to do violence, yet also soft-spoken and friendly, and really preferring the people he encounters to be that way towards him too. Moore, despite his horrible Irish accent (that appears to start out as horrible Scottish accent for some reason I’m afraid to learn), is also a pleasant surprise, actually hitting the mark of “charming rogue” for once instead of just seeming like a smug bastard as became his wont in nearly all of his films after he started his stint as James Bond. The rest of the cast is doing broad, fun work, with Chill Willis’s semi-comic relief even, against all movie traditions, ending up rather funny and likeable.

The generally sharp and often clever and funny dialogue does of course help with the film’s comedy, too, as does Douglas’s ability to shift the film’s tone from tension to comedy and back again without any visible effort.

Douglas’s direction, supported by the beautiful and atmospheric photography of Joseph F. Biroc, is very fine indeed in other regards too, making excellent use of the threat of large open spaces, and generally tending to unobtrusively meaningful blocking of scenes. Douglas seems particularly enamoured of treating the locations and sets as actual physical spaces with a three dimensionality you don’t always find on the cheaper side of the movie tracks, and certainly not used with as much unflashy excellence as the director does here.

Add all this up, and you’ll end up with Gold of the Seven Saints being as fine and entertaining a western as you will likely find.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

In short: The Holcroft Covenant (1985)

When he is turning 43, New York architect Noel Holcroft (Michael Caine), is, in rather complicated ways, informed that the dead Nazi war criminal father he hates with a shouty passion has left him the tidy little sum of 4.5 billion dollars to make amends for dad’s war crimes. Noel just needs to get together with the male descendants of two of his dad’s co-conspirators in the cause, and sign a covenant. Problems arise rather early with various shadowy conspirators trying to kill and/or – they never seem to be too sure themselves – protect Noel. Can Noel at least trust the other Nazi children as portrayed by Mario Adorf (clearly enjoying himself immensely doing a character who is basically a really evil Herbert von Karajan), Anthony Andrews, and Victoria Tennant? In which way is Noel’s mother Althene (Lilli Palmer) involved? Did dear Nazi dad really want to make amends, or is a ridiculously complicated plan to create a Fourth Reich involved? In any case, Noel’s going on a road trip through Europe.

I don’t think anybody’s ever going to count the Robert Ludlum adaptation The Holcroft Covenant among the great John Frankenheimer’s best movies. The film’s construction is just a bit too convoluted, the characters a bit too much on the side of pulp fiction (well, men’s adventure, given the decade) clichés, the emotions tend to the melodramatic without the script ever really making this emotionally compelling, and the whole thing never quite seems to gel completely.

Having said that, I found myself enjoying the film quite a bit. There is much to love here. There is Caine’s sweaty, shouty and often red-faced performance that does much to sell his character as a relatively normal guy totally out of his depth, while the rest of the cast is appropriately shady to outright insane in always entertaining ways even when their plans and actions often don’t make a lick of sense. Then you have the cheesy but also evocative mood of paranoia Frankenheimer was so great at creating, getting the audience to look over Noel’s shoulder even more than he does, and where nobody – perhaps even one’s own mother (gasp) – can be trusted. Thematically, this is obviously as Frankenheimer as things can get.

The action and suspense scenes are not Frankenheimer’s strongest, but middling Frankenheimer action is still much better than good action by a lot of directors, so there’s much to enjoy here also, and a couple of scenes, particularly the nightly chase through Berlin’s red light district, are as good as anything Frankenheimer ever did. It’s also clear that the director is having a bit of fun with the dumber parts of the script, so his Berlin looks, sounds and feels like it was taken from a Fassbinder movie (with some shout-outs so obvious, this must be done on purpose), and the actors doing the neo-Nazis are clearly instructed to go big on the crazy.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Haunted Mansion (1998)

Original title: 香港第1凶宅

Permanently low key squabbling married couple journalist Gigi (Gigi Lai Chi) and marine cop Fai (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang) have to blow off their long planned holiday in Japan when Gigi decides they’ll move into her mother’s house for a time instead. There’s good reason for the surprise move, though, for a sleazy and murderous developer really, really wants the place and will do anything to get it. Whereas Gigi’s Mom (Helena Law Lan), once clearly an imposing woman, is in the late stages of Parkinson’s and can’t even talk and hardly move anymore, and Gigi’s sister Fen (Shirley Cheung Yuk-Shan) needs to take care of her.

That developer is only a sub-plot, though, for Mom’s house is built on a gate to hell, and with the place’s protections weakening because she can’t take care of them properly anymore, some ghosts get a little rambunctious. So you can expect a mahjong game against ghosts that ends badly, some spiritual possession, a ghost rape (sigh) because this is a Wong Jing production (sigh), and so on.

Haunted Mansion is the only film Do Lai-Chi/Dickson To directed, and only one of two he has written, and watching this, it is not particularly difficult to understand why. The concept of dramatic escalation, or really, providing the film’s narrative with any kind of proper dramatic structure is clearly not something the guy is terribly interested in. Stuff happens, more stuff happens, and some of the stuff that happens in the end has some connection to stuff that happened earlier, but the storytelling, such as it is, is so loose, you never feel there are any stakes here at all even when Gigi is fighting for the soul of her husband.

That doesn’t mean there’s no fun to be had with the film, you just should expect it to be even looser constructed as usual in popular Hong Kong cinema. It also looks pretty damn cheap. Making up a little for this lack of dramatic punch (or even dramatic wisps) are some joyful moments and elements - at least joyful for me. There is Anthony Wong’s full commitment to playing Fai as the kind of slouching, passive sad sack whose possession by a ghost his wife will barely notice for quite some time because in Hong Kong cinema, being possessed by a ghost can mean getting really phlegmatic and passive instead of shouty and floaty, and that’s Fai in any state. The biggest difference is really that Fai isn’t talking about his excrements anymore once he gets possessed. It’s the little things, I suppose.

I also found myself somewhat fond of To’s full commitment to the colour blue for ghostly shenanigans in a film that’s tinted blue anyway – don’t worry, he also tends to tilt the camera in important moments, if you have trouble discerning the blue tones. And if Wong Jing doesn’t give you any money for your ghostly game of mahjong (and he clearly didn’t), why, then just hang up some white sheets, put a red point light on Anthony Wong’s face, and let the magic happen.

While nothing here really plays out as crazy (or as icky) as I usually hope from Hong Kong horror of this era, the film isn’t completely without interesting imagination. Apart from the rather traditional mahjong game (what is it with Chinese ghosts and this particular game anyway?), we also get a scene of Mom’s ghost getting pushed out of her body by the application of the magic of electricity (Tesla would be so proud), so that Law can do a bit more than sit in a chair and drool, which I appreciate, as well as some creepy child ghost action.

Speaking of creepy child ghost, if you are offended by this sort of thing (and who could blame you?), please be warned that this is one of those Asian movies where one of the central ghosts belongs to an aborted foetus (grown to about eight or so, because this is only a CAT IIB movie), the plot rather heavily suggesting that abortion is a very bad thing spiritually. Though, frankly, the film uses the trope with all the honesty of a US TV preacher, and really only wants to get a few cheap tears out of the audience.

All of this doesn’t read much like a recommendation, and I certainly wouldn’t call Haunted Mansion good or successful as a movie, but I found myself enjoying the vague and brittle charms of this one, noticed myself chuckling about Wong’s sad sack portrayal, nodding companionably to the ghosts, and getting into most of the things the film presented (except for the fucking ghost rape, obviously) enough to not rue my time with it.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

In short: Anna (2019)

I’ve been making fun of Luc Besson for decades now, but despite all of his flaws as a screenwriter, I’ve always taken him for a highly talented director, hell, even writer, just one who tends to be a bit lazier than he should or could be, ambitious in a sometimes self-sabotaging way, and a bit of a goofball. Who couldn’t identify with that? It’s just that most of us goofy nerds don’t get big money to bring our bad and not so bad ideas on screen, sometimes featuring major actors.

After watching Anna, however, I’m not so sure about the writer/director/producer anymore; perhaps some of us have just always cut a lazy hack too much slack and turned him into a misguided talent in our heads? Be that as it may, Anna is a full-grown catastrophe of a movie, featuring a model in the title role who can’t act, supported by a group of pros – Helen “I had a Russian grandmother” Mirren, Cillian “Like, totally American” Murphy and Luke “I am even more Russian” Evans – doing terrible accents who supposedly can act (but you wouldn’t notice), moving back and forth through a plot that is at once bland, tedious, and of course in classic Besson style dumb as a rock. Because this is a bit of a backdoor remake of Red Sparrow (but crap), the film is also full of increasingly tedious plot twists it spends an improbable amount of time explaining to the dumbest person in the audience, killing the little bit of forward momentum a film with an uninvolving story about a character without character traits can have, not once, not twice, but thrice.

Also adding to the pain are modelling sequences (fun fact: no film ever needs more than zero of those), amateurishly staged action sequences that don’t even bother to film around the fact that lead Sasha Luss clearly has even less experience as a screen fighter than she has as an actress. I’m perfectly alright with directors casting their leads on account of their cheekbones instead of their ability as actors/actresses, but directors not named Besson generally put some effort in improving their amateur actor’s game, whereas Anna seems to go out of its way to make the poor girl’s acting look as badly as possible. But then, this is a film that doesn’t get a good performance out of Helen Mirren, so what do I expect?

There’s some in theory half interesting thematic business about female freedom and independence (hello again, Red Sparrow) but that’s more or less completely sabotaged by Besson’s inability to give Anna any kind of psychology, let’s not even hope for any sort of personality. There’s nothing there, really, and unlike with old school Besson, there’s no style to become substance or at least distract from its absence here, leaving Anna empty and not even pretty to look at.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Cohen and Tate (1988)

After brutally executing his parents (and their FBI bodyguards) who were held in protective custody on a farm in the middle of nowhere professional killers Cohen (Roy Scheider) and Tate (Adam Baldwin) kidnap little Travis Knight (Harley Cross), tasked to bring him to their mob bosses in Houston on what will turn out to be a very bad night ride.

Things really don’t go well at all for the killers, even before you realize that these two aren’t actually partners, but Tate’s someone the veteran mobster Cohen has very suddenly been ordered to partner up with, reminding the old man about the kind of pension plan you get as a mafia killer - that is, a bullet in the back of your head by your replacement. But even leaving this out, the two are the odd buddy movie couple from hell: Cohen’s the classic movie killer (he even dresses the part), loving things neat, clean and with exactly as much violence as needed, while Tate is an actual psychopath who exults in inflicting all kinds of suffering, and who would be the sort of serial killer the FBI grabs after his third victim because he’s just too sloppy. One’s a horrible human being; the other’s a monster.

There are other problems than just the extremely incompatible character types, though. For one, they soon enough learn from the radio (remember those?) that they may have killed little Travis’s mother and the FBI agents, but their main target, the father, somehow managed to survive. That’s not something their bosses will be happy about. Then there’s the matter of Travis. While he’s a child and certainly not a mastermind, he does his utmost to outwit the killers, using all his powers of dubious psychology and the kid superpower of being super annoying to drive an even greater wedge between the two killers.

At this stage in his career, before the stuff happened I don’t actually feel comfortable writing about here for various reasons (and which anyone can look up with a simple Google), writer/director Eric Red could do no – or at least very little - wrong, at this stage having scripted The Hitcher and Near Dark, and a bit later Blue Steel.

This is Red’s debut as a director, and by far his best film in that capacity. In a couple of scenes that are excised in quite a few versions of the film, it’s a shockingly brutal film too, yet this brutality is not just a director trying out how bloody he can get when killing off characters, it’s also establishing its characters as not the nice, clean kind of Hollywood killers but something probably closer to the real kind - nasty people doing terrible things to the innocent, something an audience needs to be reminded about because we are quite used to tragic, noble killers obsessed with guilt and blind women.

Here nothing and nobody’s so nice. Sure, compared with the horrible Tate, Cohen is the more sympathetic character, but the film never lets its audience forget he’s a better man only in comparison. In this context, it’s interesting to look at the way the film treats Travis, the theoretically innocent child, and certainly the character here a viewer is bound to sympathize with. Travis, as we encounter him, starts out as threatened and afraid, but the longer we spend time with him, the more he seems to be not as far away from Cohen and Tate as he should be, manipulating the men and often finding just as much joy in the effects of his needling and wheedling as Tate has when he drives over an animal. There is, I believe, a suggestion here that the difference between him and the killers is again only one of degrees, and that there might be something dark, destructive and violent lurking in even the picture of innocence, as if there’s something wrong with humanity itself. And here I wonder why the film wasn’t a success.

Which is nearly a crime, for apart from the quite brilliant characterisation carried by equally brilliant performances by Scheider (who is always as brilliant as a film lets him be), Baldwin (who realizes that even an unsubtle guy like Tate needs to be portrayed with subtlety) and Cross (who is that most curious of things, a child actor who seems to understand the dark undercurrents of what he’s tasked to play), the philosophical questions it throws at its audience, and the dark joy of watching a film that often plays like a buddy action movie gone very, very dark, the film is also simply brilliant at being a thriller and a suspense movie.

There are at least half a dozen suspense scenes in the traditional style – starting with the set-up to the murders of Travis’s parents, continuing through the tour de force that happens after he first escapes, and never truly stopping – that are text book effective, but much, much more exciting than the text book would suggest, turning this into a nail biter that for once actually deserves bringing up the ghost of old, terrible Mr Hitchcock. There’s a sense of drive and purpose to every shot, every movement of the actors, every line of dialogue, and the impression of watching the work of a director putting all he knows and understands and thinks about filmmaking and about life on screen in the best way possible for him.

It’s really quite the film, and it deserves to stand next to the two Red wrote for Kathryn Bigelow and The Hitcher, as one of the great achievements of genre filmmaking of its era.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Three Films Make A Post: Don’t call it in.

Wounds (2019): This one’s one of the bigger disappointments of my movie year. On paper, Babak Anvari, the director of the brilliant Under the Shadow, adapting a story by one of contemporary weird fiction’s and horror’s finest writers, Nathan Ballingrud, sounds like a surefire win. However, somehow, the film suffers from weaknesses I didn’t expect to come up after the director’s last film. A major problem is how unconvincing the asshole protagonist’s shift into a different, darker reality is (or the shift of that reality into him), for the film is full of scenes that feel like horror set pieces instead of organic expressions of what is happening to Will’s reality, Anvari showing little imagination in his staging of events. The other big hit against the film is its protagonist itself, who doesn’t come over as the painfully flawed but interesting protagonist of Ballingrud’s piece but a simple manchild asshole bar any actual emotional complexity. I can’t help but think casting Armie Hammer instead of a proper actor wasn’t conducive there.

Vinyan (2008): This film by Fabrice du Welz about a grief-stricken couple (Emmanuelle Béart and Rufus Sewell) following a probably imaginary hint about their son who was lost and believed killed during a tsunami on an odyssey through Thailand and Burma on the other hand does contain a lot of emotional complexity. For much of its running time, it is really an attempt to bring the formula of “Heart of Darkness” into a contemporary context, the director visibly putting a lot of effort into avoiding the – for contemporary eyes, in Conrad’s own time, the guy was pretty progressive in his views about race and colonialism – aspects of that approach that could easily be read as “problematic”. Much of the film is carried by du Welz’s nearly hallucinatory staging and an intense performance by Béart, and plays out like an arthouse drama, only in the very end turning into a metaphorically loaded horror film about the horrors of love, loss, and motherhood.

Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll aka Los Ojos Azules de la Muñeca Rota aka House of Psychotic Women (1974): A drifter (Paul Naschy) with fantasies and/or flashbacks about strangling a woman comes into the household of three emotionally fucked up sisters (Diana Lorys, Eva León and Maria Perschy) as a handyman. While sexual tension rises, someone murders the surprising number of young, blue-eyed, blonde women in the area.

This Spanish giallo by Carlos Aured is one of the best Spanish examples of the style, nearly reaching the intense and often bizarre, dream-like aesthetization of the best Italian films, including a neat thematic package about how badly the relations between men and women were in Spain, 1974 (consciously or not, I can’t quite say), and featuring quite a performance by co-writer Naschy as well as the main female trio. As extra bonuses, there are the neat and plot-relevant use of “Frère Jacques” in the murder scenes and a “logical explanation” for what occurred that includes hypnotism and “simple telepathy”, as well as a very badly prepared corpse.