Friday, January 31, 2020

Past Misdeeds: The Shadow (1994)

This is a re-run with only the slightest of edits, so please don’t ask me what the heck I was thinking when I wrote any given entry into this section.

Seemingly bored millionaire Lamont Cranston (Alec Baldwin) actually has a rather interesting hobby during his nights: so he can atone for the sins of his past as drug-dealing warlord in Asia and channel his inner evil into something good a Buddhist monk has taught Cranston the power to cloud men’s minds, providing him with basic invisibility and other fun powers. So by night, Cranston turns into the mysterious crime-fighting vigilante only known as The Shadow, who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men and fights New York’s underworld, recruiting people like taxi driver Moe Shrevnitz (Peter Boyle) as his agents.

The Shadow’s life becomes rather more difficult when Shiwan Khan (John Lone), the last descendant of Genghis Khan arrives in town. Shiwan Khan has learned the same mystical powers as The Shadow. but he’s quite violently not bought into that whole atonement business at all. Instead, Khan plans to use his power to conquer the world, a plan that clearly can’t help but start with the kidnapping of one Dr Reinhardt Lane (a horribly underused Ian McKellen), and end with the threat of a rather prematurely produced nuclear bomb. The Shadow for his part will do all in his power to safe New York from destruction.

It’s quite easy to play the game of imagining one’s own perfect The Shadow movie out of whichever bits and pieces of Walter Gibson’s pulp novel series and the radio show it spawned and that would influence the continuing novels if Gibson wanted (which he didn’t) or not one prefers. The more pulp knowledgeable among the reviewers of Russell Mulcahy’s film tend to do that, of course, which generally results in attempts to compare the poor film with the pure perfection of one’s dream adaptation, a process that can only lead to tears.

If I, by now grounded a bit more in Shadow lore than I was when I first watched and enjoyed the actual film at hand, would play the old game of pick and choose myself, this would certainly be a different proposal, one which would keep the Shadow himself quite a bit more mysterious than the actual film does (probably turning the Lamont Cranston identity into the pure mask Gibson in the end decided it to be), which would play up the role of the Shadow’s agents, give Penelope Ann Miller’s Margo Lane a bit more to do than fetchingly wear awesome dresses and not get kidnapped, certainly provide the Shadow with a rather more creepy laugh, and would most definitely hire someone for The Shadow’s facial prosthetics who knows what they are doing.

However, not being one’s dream movie seems to be The Shadow’s main problem, at least as far as that curious bird, the 90’s blockbuster pulp movie adaptation/superhero movie in the wake of the success of Tim Burton’s miserable first Batman film goes. The rest of the weaknesses are just your typical mid-90s blockbuster stuff, things I take as a part of the genre make-up of the film. So The Shadow quite expectedly demonstrates a horrible fear of actually being dark when it is required to be and a love for rather lame hero’s journey stuff business even if that approach to heroics doesn’t fit the actual hero it concerns itself with at all.

However, despite all these flaws and various possible niggles, I still enjoy Mulcahy’s film a lot, beginning with its surprising success at taking one of the Shadow’s “yellow peril” enemies and not having him end up as a horrible racist caricature. In part, that’s thanks to David Koepp’s script only using the most neutral tropes of this sort of thing - and to good effect – adding knowing nods like Shiwan Khan’s sartorial liking for Brooks Brothers suits, but to a larger degree, Khan works thanks to a performance by John Lone that goes through ranting, raving, and clever little jokes with a wonderful physical presence and just the right amount of irony. Never so much of the latter it drifts into the realm of camp – generally not a problem of this particular film anyway, thankfully – but enough to turn Khan into something different from a racist caricature, not a bad guy because of his skin colour but because of his character.

And then there’s the other great joy of the film, its incredibly artificial style in the whole of its production design reaching from costumes to architecture. All of it locates The Shadow in an artificial dream world of style that takes iconic elements of 30s and 40s fashion and architecture and blows them up to ridiculously beautiful proportions, a 30s and 40s of the imagination. I believe we have Tim Burton’s Batman – if you ask me a much less entertaining adaptation of a piece of pulp culture – to thank for a mainstream production being allowed to indulge in this kind of way.

In any case, it’s this aspect of the film that turns it into a film not of the “style over substance” kind certain critics love to talk about and that I have only very seldom encountered myself, but one where – like in a Choer Yuen wuxia but of course not as incandescently – style is substance, dragging an audience into a world that very consciously isn’t the real one, treating cinema as a place of shared cultural dreams, or in this particular case, a place where an audience can dream about their own contemporary ideas of shared cultural dreams gone by. Not so we can self-consciously point and laugh and tell ourselves how morally superior we are to the past but – perhaps – to find the point where the old dreams and the new touch.

Mulcahy as a director is a perfect choice for this sort of thing, having spent the better parts of a career going up and down and up again making films that try to tell all they have to say through their surfaces (polished like mirrors), leading audiences into places that are often more akin to dreams than they are to stories as such; unless they end up being Highlander II: The Quickening, but putting shared dreamscapes on screen isn’t easy, so failure’s a natural risk there.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

In short: Holiday Inn (1941)

Say what you will about Mark Sandrich’s tale of showbiz woe in which Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire are vying for Marjorie Reynolds, but it certainly is ambitious in its attempt to encompass all holidays known to North Americans (half of which involve presidents, apparently) in a single movie fit for all holidays, with each and every one of them getting their own Irving Berlin tune.

For my tastes, Berlin always was the least interesting big name songwriter of this sort of thing at his time, tending to be a bit too tame and conventional, frankly a wee bit boring, when compared to the Porters and Gershwins of the world. So it’ll come as no surprise that I don’t actually think much about most of his ditties here, with the obvious exceptions of “Easter Parade” and the unstoppable juggernaut of proper holiday sentimentality that is “White Christmas”. But to be fair to Berlin, and to pretend I’m not an insufferable snob when it comes to my favourites in the Great American Songbook, holiday songs aren’t easy.

The film knows on which side its bread is buttered, too, seeing as White Christmas is the only song used twice here. Otherwise this is a very typical musical comedy of its time, with Crosby crooning second rate Berlin holiday songs, Fred Astaire mostly – there are a couple of exceptions – coasting through comparatively uninventive choreography, getting by on charm and the fact that he’s Astaire (which works out nicely for him and for at least this viewer), Reynolds making no impression whatsoever, and the typically obvious jokes falling flat more often than not, though not in an unpleasant manner.

There are a couple of interesting elements here, like a rather meta ending that seems to belong to a much more inventive, and perhaps emotionally more involving, movie, or how a film that includes a, probably well-meant, blackface number (for Lincoln’s Birthday, no less) that’ll make 2010s and 2020s audiences cringe also treats its black characters (who are of course and alas a maid played by Louise Beavers and her children) with comparative dignity and humanity. Despite that and its status as at least a minor holiday classic, I simply don’t believe Holiday Inn’s a terribly great film. Thanks to Old Hollywood magic doing its work, it is, however, still a slick and watchable production, and at least we’ll always have “White Christmas”.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

The Lake Vampire (2018)

Original title: El Vampiro del Lago

Venezuela. Ernesto Navarro (Sócrates Serrano) is earning his bread as a journalist, but because he’s written a pretty unpopular novel years ago (“It’s a cult novel”, he’ll tell everyone he meets, if they want to know or not), he’s calling himself a “writer”. He has a mild case of being a manipulative prick, too, which turns out to be a useful character trait when he becomes fascinated with a series of murders. The perpetrator only leaves behind the heads of his victims, but forensic evidence suggests he is somehow draining them of blood before the beheadings. On one occasion, the killer also leaves behind the burnt remains of a copy of Ernesto’s book, signed no less, so it’s really no wonder that our protagonist turns from interested in the case as a source for a new book to slightly obsessed with it.

Turns out Ernesto can’t be too bad a journalist, after all, for he manages to acquire rather a lot of interesting information about the case in a very short time once he starts on actual research. Apparently, he learns, this is not at all the only serial murder case in Venezuelas’s recent past with this rather specific modus operandi; these things have been going on for decades, if not longer. Ernesto makes contact with a now retired policeman who investigated some of these cases. After some dithering Jeremias Morales (Miguel Ángel Landa), as he is called, begins telling Ernesto some extensive flashback tales, also including a flashback inside the flashback to things about an investigation in a very similar case in the early 20th Century. The killer may very well be an immortal vampire, involved in a pact with Satan and assisted by some kind of occult conspiracy.

Carl Zitelmann’s Venezuelan horror film – with a healthy dose of the mystery genre – The Lake Vampire is an interesting little film. Its flaws are clear and obvious. It is a very talky film, and not all of that talk seems strictly necessary for plot, character, mood or theme, but rather based on the director’s enjoyment of simply showing his very game cast – Landa’s effortless grumpy old-man charm is particularly lovely – interacting with one another. I’m also not terribly sure the flashback structure needed to be quite this extensive, for while all of it is certainly useful to a degree to establish how far back the cases of vampirism the film is about reach into the past of Venezuela, and do quite a bit to ground the tale in the country as a specific place with its specific history, too, there’s a bit too much repeated detail for my taste.

On the other hand, this is definitely for once a talky film with interesting dialogue that shows a sardonic edge befitting a tale of vampires, serial killers and the devil, eschewing pop culture witticisms for a perfectly fitting, more old-fashioned kind of refinement. I also found myself rather taken with the construction of the occult business here, the cleverly underplayed insanity actually feeling coherent and true to the characters involved instead of built for a shocking/idiotic twist for once.

Visually, the film sometimes struggles a bit with the period sequences, clearly not having enough of a budget for full-on recreation, but Zitelmann nails all of the film’s central scenes of horror, and does handle all of the extensive talking very well, too. There’s also quite a bit of something still relatively seldom seen in – especially supernatural - horror movies: effective scenes of horror by daylight, carried by the director’s eye for creepy landscape shots. Nature can be as claustrophobic as a locked room, after all.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

In short: Dragged Across Concrete (2018)

Having been filmed applying a lot of foot to a drug dealer’s head, veteran – the sort of veteran without any chance of promotion, really – cop Brett Ridgeman (Mel Gibson) and his somewhat younger partner Anthony Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn), are suspended for six weeks (which seems to put the film into the realm of total fantasy, but hey). This does hit both of them financially quite hard, and Brett, with a wife suffering from MS and a daughter who seems to be a favourite object of bullying and assault in the predominantly black and poor neighbourhood the family live in, decides he is owed more than what he’s getting from life, so why not try and steal some drug money?

At the same time, the film also looks in on small time criminal Henry Johns (Tory Kittles), who has just come out of jail, with little prospect of taking care of his wheelchair-bound son or his own junkie mother who has started turning tricks to survive. The only way for Henry and his family to stay afloat will be a return to the criminal life.

Both of these plotlines will converge in a violent bank robbery and the following grab for the loot.

I’ve seen various reviews tut-tutting at S. Craig Zahler’s Dragged Across Concrete for being some kind of Conservative (which appears to be the word Americans use when they mean “fascist”) apologia for police violence, and if I had seen only the first twenty minutes or so of the movie, I might even have concurred. But Zahler’s – his actual political opinions don’t terribly matter here – too interesting a director to actually go this boring and unpleasant route. The film’s conscious parallel construction between the - very similar if you strip away some of the concessions of class and race - lives of Brett and Henry (even though it does spend more time on the former than the latter) in practice really rather reads like a subtle critique of the system and the forces that push people like these two into corners they can only fight their way out by becoming objectively worse men, leaving somewhat more naturally decent men bleeding out by the wayside.

Mainly, though, the film is interested in understanding its characters, the place they come from and the places they go to, using the pretty traditional genre tale it tells to explore characters rather than issues, and in the end, when it has to decide between making a point about issues or staying true to these characters, always comes down on the side of the latter.

Formally, this is a slow, long film, with scenes and shots that go on much longer than has ever been en vogue in movies (even in the 70s, when something akin to this sort of approach was rather more common). At first glance, this might suggest a bit of an inability to edit things down to something tighter and more functional, but it’s really another way the film focuses on its characters, exploring them slowly and methodically, putting the need to understand them far above any pressures of making them move. The way Zahler does it, it really works out brilliantly, too, trading in speed for precision, and outward drama for intimate understanding.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Candy Corn (2019)

1980. A trio of young men in a peaceful US small town has a very dubious Halloween tradition: beating up or otherwise abusing the developmentally challenged Jacob (Nate Chaney). This time around, they even bring guests in form of a girlfriend (Madison Russ) who isn’t at all happy about any of this and grown-up town asshole Gus (Sky Elobar). Oh, they – or really, mostly the ringleader, the local sheriff’s son Mike (Jimothy Beckholt) – also manage to kill Jacob this time around.

But don’t you worry, Jacob has been more or less adopted by the fall carnival that’s in town, and its leader, one Dr. Death (Pancho Molar) – or Lester, if you want to be prosaic – has just the right ritual for the occasion, bringing Jacob back as an undead avenger. You can imagine what’s going to happen, even though Mike’s dad the Sheriff (Courtney Gains) isn’t half bad for small town police in a horror movie.

Halloween-themed low budget horror movies are a dime a dozen now; most of them never find their way onto my blog because getting down on dreadful semi-professional productions is neither fun nor interesting to do (unless I find a movie truly annoying, or think it owes me for my time). Josh Hasty’s Candy Corn (or rather Josh Hasty’s Candy Corn going by the title credits, but I won’t) is actually a pleasant surprise in this regard.

It’s not a perfect film, suffering from the usual problems of its budget bracket. You probably know the drill: some of the actors in minor roles are less than ideal, there’s a bit of shooting around locations and crowds the film can’t afford to actually show all that much, the editing’s slightly off in some transitions – though acting and editing are otherwise at least fine, often better.

However, these are not problems that kill a film, at least not in my book, and Candy Corn does much more right than it does wrong in a lot of other respects. While there are quite a few nods to the genre traditions you’d expect a film like this to nod towards (starting with the title font looking right out of John Carpenter’s original Halloween), it is not the gore fest with no interest in its characters you’d imagine, but seems most interested in the impact of the deaths on the characters around them, spending quite a bit of time on the reaction of these small town cops who don’t usually even carry weapons to the murders, as well as showing many a scene of characters stunned by the aftermath of undead Jacob’s violence. Which actually does something rather interesting, turning this from a tale about a vengeance from the grave an audience can be emotionally satisfied by into one that’s more disquieting, a tale where everyone loses.

This interest in doing actual character work can also be seen in the way the film treats Dr. Death – in a fine performance by Moler - and his relationship to the other carnies (Tony Todd guest-stars as one, because he has been cursed by some eldritch abomination to be in every horror movie), portraying a guy who has been twisted by past bad experiences, and probably truly believes he’s doing the right thing, but also uses this emotional baggage to employ control over his peers. It’s all rather complex for what could be a very straightforward little slasher movie, and for my tastes, this added complexity makes up for the aforementioned flaws quite well.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Three Films Make A Post: Putting the Normal in Paranormal

Extra Ordinary (2019): This lovely little Irish horror comedy by Mike Ahern and Edna Loughman does something very few horror comedies try and even fewer succeed at by actually being a romantic horror comedy. It also manages the difficult task to find a spot from where to poke gently fun at its sad and lonely medium turned driving instructor heroine Rose Dooley (Maeve Higgins) without ever turning nasty towards her or her romantic interest, one Martin Martin (Barry Ward). The other great joy here lies in the filmmakers’ wonderful touch for very specific absurd details, so the evil Satanist of the film is a Christian hippie-ish pop one hit wonder turned occult villain and mediums turn to driving instruction after a tragic death.

The film also gets quite some mileage out of old horror comedy chestnuts like the whole virginity business – it turns out real quickies can be a boon when a movie comes to its, ahem, climax – never afraid of going the low humour route, but certainly knowing when to get high in its humour too.

Dark Light (2019): At its beginning, Padraig Reynolds’s horror film about the monster troubles one woman (Jessica Madsen) encounters when she and her little daughter return to the old empty family home following a divorce, feels promising enough, establishing the basics of its plot well enough, and feeling pretty moody even if it is looking a bit cheap. Alas, the visual promise is pretty quickly sabotaged by a script that never bothers to think anything through, full of people whose actions make no frigging sense.

Or can anyone tell my why a disappeared child doesn’t result in a major attempt at finding it even if the local Sheriff thinks the mother killed her and buried her “somewhere very special”, despite there not having been any time for any clever body hiding since someone last saw the kid alive? These things – and this us just one of many examples in the film, don’t even get me started on its terrible portrayal of mental illness even though that’s one of its central plot devices – simply come over as lazy to a viewer, undermining any trust that the thing actually knows where it is going and if that direction is worthwhile. Turns out it doesn’t and it isn’t, by the way.

The Banker (1989): In comparison, William Webb’s movie about  rich banker Spaulding Osbourne (Duncan Regehr) murdering prostitutes with a crossbow because he believes he is possessed by some kind of South American God facing up against a cop named Dan (Robert Forster) is downright clever. At least, it hates the rich, which is honestly a step up from Dark Light.

The slashing and the stalking as well as the more typical action movie business are decently realized (you know when it was shot, and you pretty much know how it’ll look), Regehr chews the scenery appropriately, and Robert Forster does his unkempt Robert Forster thing. He also isn’t exactly playing your typical cop on the edge; in fact, even though Dan is a bit of a slop, he seems downright nice and polite in moments where your typical example of the trope would already go berserk, which is a pleasant change from the expected to encounter in a pretty minor film.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Past Misdeeds: The Killings at Outpost Zeta (1980)

It’s a re-run with only the slightest of edits, so please don’t ask me what the heck I was thinking when I wrote any given entry into this section.

Planet Zeta is supposed to become an important stepping stone for further interplanetary explorations for an entity called “Star Fleet” that surely has nothing at all to do with a different organisation called “Starfleet”. Alas, contact with the first preparatory mission on Zeta breaks off after a while, with no hints at what might have happened to the new, small outpost made out of cardboard and spit. The first rescue mission disappears without a trace too, as does the second one, and for mysterious reasons, keeping regular contact with one’s rescue missions that might suggest what happens to them seems not to be Star Fleet’s modus operandi, which gets particularly interesting once the audience can experience how slow this film’s particular menace actually operates.

Because three is the magic number, Star Fleet - in form of a very concerned looking gentleman with a liking for coffee that suggests him for a guest spot in the coming revival of Twin Peaks – decides to send out a third rescue mission, this time the sort of special suicide mission whose elite volunteer team members get extra insurance and have to make their testaments before going out. Must be very reassuring.

Once our heroes – character names and such seem rather irrelevant here, but of course there’s a female rookie who will do a lot of screeching and panicking as well as a paranoid security man who will fail very hard, as well as a Hero – arrive at Outpost Zeta, they soon discover the sucked out corpses of most of their predecessors and of the initial base team. Would you believe aliens (and a humungous amount of human stupidity) are involved in the affair? Our heroes might investigate, but it’s nappy time first.

Some of my readers do perhaps have vague recollections of The Killings at Outpost Zeta’s directors, producers, etc. Robert “Bob” Emenegger and Allan Sandler as part of the fascinating mixture of bullshit, paranoia and authentic folkloric weirdness that is US UFO culture (have a semi-random link), and that has given me much joy over the years. However, apart from Fortean documentaries and such, the partners also cranked out about ten ultra cheap SF movies for the TV and/or early home video circuit during 1980 and 1981. These movies shared parts of their casts, their sets, and their props, with no set too barren and no prop too ridiculous looking to reuse, an approach to movie making Roger Corman and I approve of.

Not surprisingly, the futures of Outpost Zeta and its brethren are highly influenced by other low budget films, Star Trek and pulp SF, describing a time when all rooms will have a somewhat cardboard-like look to them, people will dress in the most peculiar uniforms, and a laser gun (a prop that’s used in all the Emenegger/Sandler films I’ve seen, because it is just that incredible) will be a red plastic tube with a glued on handle that begs the question why the producers didn’t just buy some toy guns for more believable looking weapons. Not cheap enough, I suppose. In other words, Outpost Zeta is a visual brother to things like the much beloved (by me) science fiction films of Alfonso Brescia (with whom they also share the recycling approach to material), though in the plot and idea department, Outpost Zeta never reaches the heights of lunacy – or lunatic metaphor - Brescia aimed for, instead arriving at more sane levels of cardboard pulp Sci Fi. Formally, on the other hand…

If cheap sets, ridiculous costumes, and horrible to mediocre acting aren’t things to dissuade one from a film, one might find a lot to love about The Killings at Outpost Zeta, and not just the sheer power of its cheap sets, ridiculous costumes and horrible to mediocre acting. Emenegger’s and Sandler’s direction, for example, is a thing to behold, full of fisheye lenses, curious camera angles, alien-eye view shots that combine into a kind of garage-made psychedelia. This slightly fevered mood is even strengthened by performances that often seem to grasp wildly – and randomly – at pathos, or psychological turmoil, or DRAMA, and a wonderful/horrible, definitely wonderfully strange synth soundtrack by Emenegger himself. In space, it seems, things are very different.

While the form of Outpost Zeta suggests the 70s in its home made tendency to mild trippiness, its content would have found a place among the films of US horror/SF cinema of the 50s without a problem, having not a single idea that wouldn’t have fit in these simpler times.
Surprisingly enough, the film’s monsters even make sense. At least they are coherent in a pulp SF sort of way instead of developing random powers whenever the plot needs them. The script as a whole is unexpectedly well-paced, containing a lot of somewhat loopy ideas it still brings together coherently in so far as it does take care to establish the rules of its universe and then stick to them, developing the action – as far as it can afford anything that can be called action at all without having to show its monsters too often – logically from there. This makes for a pleasant sort of old-fashioned SF monster movie that just happens to be delivered in a delightfully strange form.

That is of course exactly how I like my low budget SF films, and consequently, I had a lot of fun with The Killings at Outpost Zeta. This surely won’t be the last time I’ll spent with an Emenegger/Sandler production.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Eyes of Laura Mars (1978)

Lately, fashion photographer with aspirations towards art Laura Mars (Faye Dunaway), has been running on fumes. It’s no wonder, since her latest and controversial period of work – consisting of tacky and slick “tasteful” sex and violence photos that were in reality shot by the inexplicably respected Helmut Newton – is inspired by visions and nightmares, in which, as she will soon enough learn, sees actual crimes she then feels drawn to restage in her photos. Now, things are getting worse for her when she starts to witness murders apparently live through the Vaseline-smeared eyes of a killer; most of these victims will belong to her associates and hangers-on.

Even before she goes and tells the cops of her visions, the relation to her earlier photos and actual crimes scenes has drawn the interest of one Lieutenant John Neville (Tommy Lee Jones). Neville is understandably sceptical of Laura’s tales of telepathy, as well as of her art, but he is also clearly smitten by her. Plus, given the identity of the new batch of victims, it stands to reason the killer is someone from her entourage too. And really, there are some good candidates there, like her irascible manager/assistant Donald (René Auberjonois), her driver Tommy (Brad Dourif) with his criminal record, and her sleazy parasite of an ex-husband (Raúl Juliá).

Today, Irvin Kershner’s Eyes of Laura Mars is mostly, if at all, mentioned as a footnote in the career of John Carpenter, who wrote the original treatment and script, and then got his first taste of the Hollywood rewriting machine, leaving him typically disgruntled. Given most of Carpenter’s work, I don’t think he’s responsible for the badly dragging middle part of the film that tries to distract the audience from the near total absence of any actual plot development by adding a few more murders.

The film’s not all dragging middle, though, and the first and last act both seem to put this plainly into the realm of American thrillers trying to adopt elements of the giallo. The setting at the borders between fashion industry and art world and the instant glamour this theoretically provides – in practice Mars’s work is ass-ugly – is very typical, as is the film’s focus on visual aesthetics as a way to clue an audience in on characters and theme through mood instead of narrative motion, an approach the more mainstream areas of US genre cinema are often not terribly comfortable with. There are certainly some good moments in this regard in the film - particularly the repeated use of mirror motifs is very effective not just visually but also thematically in its blurring of the line between the seen and the seeing. It also repeatedly suggests the very specific mental illness the killer will turn out to suffer from without clueing this so hard as to be too obvious. Still, the film is never quite consistent in this approach, wavering between Italian stylization and late 70s US grubbiness in rather unproductive ways.

The fine cast are also doing their best to play through and around the often very bland dialogue (the romance scenes between Dunaway and Jones, though for once actually necessary for the narrative to work, are a particularly egregious example), and sinking their teeth into the film’s grittier moments.

Eyes of Laura Mars simply doesn’t come quite together as a movie, not ending up as any real disappointment but promising more than it can actually deliver.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Torture Garden (1967)

After visiting his torture-based mobile cabinet of wax that’s apparently part of a fairground sideshow, the proprietor, one Dr Diabolo (Burgess Meredith), invites five of his customers (Michael Bryant, Beverly Adams, Barbara Ewing, Jack Palance and Michael Ripper, who confusingly enough does not seem to play an innkeeper) to a very special show. There, he presents warnings of possible futures where they do evil by getting them to stare at the shears of a figure of Atropos. Since this is an Amicus anthology movie, every vision makes one segment of the movie.

First up is “Enoch”, in which something that presents as a cat develops a rather unholy influence on a young would-be playboy who basically murdered his uncle.

Then follows “Terror Over Hollywood”, in which we learn the rather boring secret that keeps certain Hollywood stars seemingly immortal. No, it’s not cosmetic surgery or the injection of snake toxins, silly!

Next up is “Mr. Steinway”, concerning that most classic of love triangle between Man, Woman and Grand Piano.

We finish up on “The Man Who Collected Poe”, where the greatest of all Poe collectors (Peter Cushing) meets a rather too enthusiastic sharer (Jack Palance) in his interest.

Poor Michael Ripper doesn’t actually get his own segment but is used to close the framing story. You’ll never guess who Dr Diabolo actually is (if you are very, very slow)!

As friends of weird fiction and literary horror will probably have noticed (if you didn’t simply know already), the segments of this film directed by the great Freddie Francis are all based on stories by the equally great Robert Bloch (who did so much more than just write the novel Hitchock’s Psycho is based on). In fact, this is one of the three Amicus anthology films scripted by Bloch himself. So it’s no surprise it is full of the man’s interest in classic supernatural authors as well as (usually aberrant) psychology, with a healthy dose of the macabre added for good measure.

Quality-wise, this isn’t my favourite of the Bloch/Amicus bunch (that would obviously be Asylum), but it does have quite a bit to recommend it. Well, “Terror Over Hollywood” is just bland, taking way too much time to come to a not terribly interesting or shocking ending, but every anthology needs to have one single bad entry at least. “Enoch” provides Francis with some nice opportunities for creating a creepy, gothic-style mood; this is also one of the few films I know which feature an evil cat the filmmakers actually manage to make look rather sinister.

“Mr. Steinway” works best if you treat it as a work of black humour of the most sardonic type; its psychological basis is a bit too obvious and so outdated it weakens the whole thing considerably if you take it too seriously. On the other hand, a pianist having an unhealthy connection to his supernaturally endowed instrument certainly isn’t without resonance.

The last one’s the greatest treasure here, though, and “The Man Who Collected Poe” doesn’t just have an excellent joke in its title, but also features a particularly huge dose of Francis’s patented gothic mood – this time aiming for a heated version of the same very fitting to the tale’s Poe theme – and a great outing by Jack Palance. Seeing Palance orgasmically (I’m not even sure that’s a metaphor) rubbing himself against all sorts of Poe paraphernalia is quite the thing, as grotesquely funny as it is creepy. Even better is the script’s emphasis on his obsession with Poe and all thing weird being so great, he’d be perfectly willing to die for it, if it only provides him with a kind of total communion with his love.

This final segment alone, in combination with Meredith’s most excellent mugging as the Devil (spoiler?), would be worth the entry, but the rest of the film, “Hollywood” excepted, really isn’t bad at all either to watch on a rainy night.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

In short: Rambo: Last Blood (2019)

Elderly mass murderer John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone), suffering from his usual bouts of PTSD and mumbling about the darkness inside of him, has retired to a horse ranch in Arizona. He has somehow managed to acquire a little replacement family in form of Maria Beltran (Adriana Barraza) and her granddaughter Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal). Gabrielle’s mother having died years ago, and her father having disappeared from her life, Rambo has taken on a bit of father role and the official title of “Uncle John”.

He’s also dug an extensive tunnel system below the ranch, just in case he’s ever gonna need it for the action-packed climax of a movie. Let’s just call them Chekhov’s Tunnels.

Secretly, with the help of a rather dubious friend who lives in Mexico, Gabrielle has been searching for the whereabouts of her father. Eventually, she finds his contact address and runs off to visit him. He turns out to be a total prick, but at least, unlike her friend, he isn’t selling her to the Cartels as future drug-addicted prostitute.

As soon as Rambo realizes what has happened, he goes after Gabrielle, but he’s only able to bring her back home dead. He’s no Liam Neeson, apparently. The inevitable revenge killing spree ensues.

Adrian Grünberg’s supposedly final (I believe that when Stallone dies without making another one) entry into the Rambo franchise sits in a rather awkward place, at once trying to be very serious movie doing very serious character stuff and the kind of film that ends in a bit of gory violence, and not surprisingly ending up not succeeding at either one of it. I much prefer John Rambo, which simple wanted to be a brutal little action movie with a guy who looks like a weather-beaten rock formation in the title role, and succeeded at that supposedly simpler goal.

This rather more ambitious film can’t even pace itself right, taking over an hour to do not much more than introduce a handful of characters and get a seventeen year old girl killed, seemingly convinced of the profundity of its character work even though it doesn’t actually do more than other action films manage in an economical fifteen minutes. I’m also not at all happy about the decision to turn the film into a revenge tale in the end, where showing Rambo protecting actual living people would suggest at least some character development beyond the “woe is me! the darkness!” business the film finds so inexplicably interesting. That would also turn the film into something slightly different from the tale of a guy who does the same bloody crap again and again, as well as provide the climax with stakes somewhat higher than the question if Rambo will survive and kill everyone or kill everyone and survive. All of this, of course, wouldn’t be as much of a problem if the film had committed itself to be a blunt action movie – but once you go the road towards a supposed exploration of character, you then need to actually deliver it.

The action movie bits – taking up about fifteen to twenty minutes or so of the running time – are decent enough, rather gory, but presented with bland professionalism that hinders them from becoming exciting. The lack of interesting villains doesn’t help here, either, but then, this version of Rambo isn’t a particularly interesting hero either.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Ready or Not (2019)

Grace (Samara Weaving) certainly didn’t expect that marrying into the rich (through board games!), rude and rather eccentric family of Alex Le Domas (Mark O’Brien) would end up with her spending her wedding night quite the way it’s turning out. There’s a family ritual involved everyone marrying into the family must go through, you see, so whosoever becomes part of the family has to draw a card containing the name of a game from a box. That box has been handed down through the generations and comes with a nice little story of what sounds decidedly like a family deal with the devil. Poor Grace, or lucky Grace, depending on one’s point of view, alas, draws the somewhat problematic card of “Hide and Seek”.

Nobody tells her what the special family variant of this single deadly game in the deck entails, and soon, her new family is hunting Grace through the house trying to hobble her with weapons and catch her so they can sacrifice her to Satan. Neither Alex nor his black sheep brother Daniel (Adam Brody) are quite in with this particular program, but family is difficult, and rich boys tend to lack backbone. Man, but the rich are different.

Matt Bettinelli-Olpin’s and Tyler Gillett’s Ready or Not is a pretty great example of what focussed direction, a game cast, and wonderful timing can make out of a very simple basic idea. One could hold it against the horror comedy that its social criticism isn’t terribly complicated and just a bit obvious – a problem it shares with most “the x are terrible” films - but the film does put visible effort not in the basic situation but into why in the hell anyone would take part in this thing – apart from as it will turn out very well justified fear for one’s own life – and so those family members that aren’t total caricatures make actual sense as people doing absurd and violent things for believably shitty people reasons. Which I believe to be quite an achievement to get into a film that is basically one long sequence of chases through a couple of rooms and corridors and a patch of woods with captures and reversals of fortune. It’s fascinating how small the scale of the film actually is when one thinks about it; yet the actual movie never feels small or constrained, but focussed and doing exactly what it sets out to do in the best way possible.

This is also one of the rare horror comedies to always manage to find the right split between the jokes and the suspense, often intermingling both brilliantly. There’s nary a moment where the humour stands in the way of the suspense or vice versa, leaving us with a film that is as exciting as it is funny.

In large part, this is the achievement of the lean and minimal yet very clever script and of a director duo who really make the most of the opportunities that come with this sort of thing. However, there’s also a great cast who can shift between the coarser and subtler moments of the writing with ease, adding dimension without showboating. Samara Weaving is obviously great, throwing herself into every single scene with the kind of controlled abandon that makes a great horror actress, while shifting from dry quipping to actual human emotion and back again with natural ease, but the supporting cast hits every note as wonderfully. Why, even Andie McDowell does not seem to have been made out of wood for once.

In addition to all that, Ready or Not looks rather fantastic too, making as much of wood-panelled walls and soft light as any horror film I can remember. It’s a joy to watch from start to finish, even avoiding the lame twist ending that some horror filmmakers now seem to think is mandated by law in the genre, simply wrapping up its plot in a fitting manner.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Three Films Make A Post: The Price Is Blood

Climax (2018): Leave it to very French director Gaspar Noé to make a film about a group of dancers getting dosed with LSD and going on a shared trip of dance, sex, violence and death that can feel excessive and abstract at the same time, breaking taboos without getting smug about it. Stylistically, it goes through the sort of intensities of colour, movement and behaviour a viewer will by now expect of the director – an audience not okay with strobe lights and a lot of shrieking need not apply – yet the film never feels to be the wrong kind of self-indulgent, Noé always getting to a point eventually even if his films seem to be meandering. Style in this director’s case is still an important part of the substance of his movies.

Under the Silver Lake (2018): This, the film writer/director David Robert Mitchell made after the brilliant It Follows, on the other hand is very self-indulgent indeed. It’s yet another one of those LA movies apparently made explicitly so that filmmakers existing in their LA bubble can wink and smile smugly at the other inhabitants of said bubble watching, full of in-jokes only the LA-obsessed will tolerate and apparently vacant of any wish to communicate with the rest of the world. Add to this general air of group masturbation a pie made out of badly digested Pynchon and Lynch, and you have a film I want to punch in the face rather badly, even though I’ve only got a tiny non-punching guy’s fist available, and am not into punching on general principle anyway.

There’s certainly a lot of technically excellent filmmaking on display here, but I’ll wait for that to be applied to something other than a bloated, 140 minute in-joke, thank you very much. Though, given how different this one is from Mitchell’s other two features, and those from one another, I might not have too long to wait; at least, one can’t blame the man for simply repeating himself.

Breaking Away (1979): Rather better at using an actual place – in this case the somewhat unglamorous and therefor infinite more interesting Bloomington, Indiana – to actually speak about something of interest to people not living there is this coming-of-age comedy by Peter Yates (also a man of very different films). It treats the feelings of young working class men of not belonging into the world of their parents but also being blocked from participating in the world the people born rich or richer seem to enjoy so much with delicacy, dignity, and a sense of whimsy, not going the poverty porn route of painting everyone and everything in the bleakest possible way yet also not looking away from shit.

Yates’s treatment of the material is so clear-eyed and even-handed, he even sells a climactic cycling event as meaningful and exciting to a guy like me who could care less about people riding bikes in circles (even though it’s a nice metaphor for the human condition). There’s also brilliant, idiosyncratic use of classical music in a context where most movies would go for Springsteen or would-be Springsteen, and great performances by Dennis Christopher, Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern, a tiny Jackie Earle Haley, Barbara Barrie and Paul Dooley.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Past Misdeeds: Das finstere Tal (2014)

aka The Dark Valley

Some time in the 19th century. A stranger calling himself Greider (Sam Riley) rides into an isolated mountain valley in the Alps harbouring a small village. The man says he wants to stay for the winter that is soon to come when the snow will make it impossible to leave the valley. He pays for his stay in American gold coins and buys a bit of goodwill with the early photography equipment he carries.

The rulers of the town, the nearly confined to his bed Brenner (Hans-Michael Rehberg) and his sons (Tobias Moretti, Helmuth Häusler, Martin Leutgeb, Johannes Nikolussi, Clemens Schick and Florian Brückner), send Greider to live with a widow and her daughter, Luzi (Paula Beer). Even if the two women wanted, there’s clearly no way to say no to the things Brenner demands, if one wants to stay alive, particularly as a woman. Fortunately, despite a great deal of reserve in his manner, Greider’s a mostly pleasant guest.

Luzi is to marry her boyfriend Lukas (Thomas Schubert) soon, but what would be cause for happiness for most loving couples (and there’s no question these two are very much in love), is cause for a good deal of terror in this place. For Brenner and his boys have invented their own special version of the droit du seigneur (something which probably didn’t even actually exist during the middle ages, as far as I understand), only that it’s more the right of gang raping women until they get pregnant in their case. People who revolt against the Brenners’ ways don’t tend to live long, and after all, parts of the silence of the villagers insinuate, aren’t they keeping the place safe and prosperous?

However, this winter, during which Luzi and Lukas are to be married, things just might change. Two of the Brenners die of peculiar accidents. The surviving brothers quickly realize the stranger in their midst must be responsible for the deaths in some way. Why, might he be the child of the proverbial one that got away coming back for vengeance?

As regular readers might have noticed, I have regularly expressed my frustration with the near total absence of quality (or for the most part really any) genre movies from contemporary German language cinema, and particularly the German parts of it. It’s a sad state of affairs caused at least in part by the German bourgeoisie still hanging onto idiotic concepts of “high” and “low” culture, and a curious coalition of cultural conservatives and a just-as-conservative when it comes to culture left owning the purse strings of film subsidy and TV alike. The only exception to the genre rule have been crap comedies, but I don’t dare speculate why that is so. It’s a situation that makes the situation in, for example, the UK look like a paradise for filmmakers in comparison. During the last decade or so, things have changed a little, and a slowly increasing number of films has drifted into the cinemas nobody would have financed just ten years ago.

By now, things have developed into a better direction so much, Andreas Prochaska’s brilliant Das finstere Tal even was co-financed by two TV channels - the German ZDF and the Austrian ORF – and has basically been drowned in German Film Awards, something that gives me hope for a continuing renaissance in genre film for filmmakers who can’t make their films on crowd-funding money.

Apart from these politics, like quite a few of the examples of new German language genre films I have encountered, Prochaska’s film is just very, very good, the sort of film I can’t imagine could have been created without some actual passion for genre movies on the side of the filmmakers. One might even think part of the film’s and its companion movies’ passion is a consequence of the sheer joy of being able to make this sort of thing, long repressed energies asserting themselves. But then, one tends to get overexcited about these things.

Fact is – at least as much as there are facts when looking at art – that Prochaska takes age-old Western clichés, transplants them into a place closer to his own experiences and his purse strings, and brings them to life. Again, we have arrived at one of my regular talking points, namely that using the local and the specific for your film when you can’t – and perhaps even shouldn’t – fight Hollywood on its own terms brings with it enormous artistic opportunities, and a certain freshness and personality you couldn’t buy by filming your movies in LA or the places Hollywood films tend to be filmed. There’s a reason why even Luc Besson tends to set his films in Europe. In Das finstere Tal, the impressive landscapes of the snow-bound Alps and the things people do to one another in them are a perfect fit, nature mirroring humanity in the clearest way possible without the film turning into a display of too obvious metaphor.

Of course, you can make use of the local and the specific and your film can still turn out not worth mentioning or watching if you can’t handle the more archetypal elements of your film well. Prochaska has no problems here, knowing the archetypes of the stranger coming to town, the cowering townsfolk, and the power-mad villains of the piece by heart and not feeling the need to change more about them as the Austrian accents, and the Alps automatically change about them. It would be easy to criticize the film for a lack of originality, but Prochaska’s visual language and the strong acting really do make the old feel quite new, even if a viewer is less convinced than I am that showing age-old stories in front of a different background already changes them enough.

And it’s not as if the specific paths of the Western genre (as far away from Winnetou as one can imagine), paths close to those of certain of the more political Spaghetti Westerns with Corbucci’s equally snow-bound Il Grande Silenzio an obvious yet too bitter example as well as to US Westerns like High Plains Drifter, Das finstere Tal explores aren’t still worth the travel time. Particularly in a film that is as good at building mood as this one is, be it in its treatment of the gothic horror tones of the village’s darkest side (and it really doesn’t get quite darker than this), the horror the film gets you to feel at the size of Greider’s anger even though it – and probably you-the-audience – does share it, or the tense climactic violence. The only flaw I find in Prochaska’s direction is one utterly horrible moment of bad pop song insertion in the worst possible moment of the film’s big shoot-out. It’s a sure-fire way to drag anyone out of one of the film’s tensest scenes. If you have experience with German TV, where Prochaska has been working for most of his career, you’ll recognize the cack-handedness of the moment. In the context of a film this well-composed and calmly atmospheric, it’s a truly puzzling moment that defies taste in a film that manages to even treat the whole gang rape wedding stuff comparatively tasteful.

There is, of course, also a strong political undercurrent to the film, a real anger at power (perhaps even power as a philosophical concept?) and the way it is used, as well as a real sadness for what power does to its victims, particularly women; utter hopelessness, on the other hand, the film leaves to the nihilists where it belongs.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

In short: Sweet Sixteen (1983)

Freshly arrived in a small town in Arizona with her archaeologist father (Patrick Macnee) and a mother (Susan Strasberg) who is actually from the area, Melissa (Aleisa Shirley) has the hearts – and certain other organs – of the local boys all atwitter with her rather provocative behaviour (at least for a fifteen year old as played by an actress who most assuredly isn’t that age anymore), and her strange city ways. Alas, someone is killing off her beaus with a nasty knife, though the otherwise highly conscientious and pretty smart Sheriff Dan Burke (Bo Hopkins) doesn’t really seem to read the murder spree running through his town quite this way.

Dan, sometimes “assisted” (cough) by his murder mystery mad daughter Marci (Dana Kimmell) and his son Hank (Steve Antin), does have quite a mystery to solve. His job isn’t made any easier by the racist element of the town wanting to blame everything on “the Indians” – something that pisses him off righteously – nor by Melissa’s tendency to lie to gain attention.

Marketed and often treated as a slasher online, Jim Sotos’s Sweet Sixteen is in actuality a small town murder mystery with a couple of elements of exploitation cinema added for saleability. In practice, this means the murders are a bit bloodier than in your traditional mystery, and there’s some gratuitous nudity. Otherwise, this is very much a film about a small town sheriff having to find out whodunnit.

It’s not a terribly complicated or convoluted mystery either, but rather the sort of film whose killer is obvious once you’ve copped to the general tone of the whole affair. Which turns out not to have been much of a detriment to my enjoyment of the film, for what it lacks in slasher virtues and a head-scratching mystery, it mostly makes up for in likeability of characters and cast, for most of the time getting by on charm quite well.

Sotos must have understood where the strengths of this project were quite well, for Sweet Sixteen spends nearly as much time in the kitchen of the Burke household as on the case, showing off the charming and often wryly funny interactions of a very nice family, Hopkins as well as Kimmel and Antin actually coming off as a proper family without much of a sense of hysterical melodrama, the kind of people you enjoy spending screen time with even when a given scene doesn’t do much to develop the plot. This tone runs through all of the film’s human interaction, a genuine warmth and sense of humour that is pretty much the opposite of how actual slasher movies do their thing.

Even though this tone dominates most character interactions even outside the Burke family, the film doesn’t pretend small town life to be completely idyllic. It suggests there’s a sense of family in this small town population, but sometimes being part of a family means hitting your racist shithead relation's head against a wall for a bit, or you find yourself becoming the victim of a knife attack. And isn’t that a lovely thought for any film to leave us on?

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Slipstream (1989)

Oh look, it’s a post-apocalyptic future, Ma! This time around, possibly man-made natural disasters have turned the world into the playground of a system of heavy winds – or something – known as the Slipstream. There are apparently some more civilized city states still around, but those seem to exist upwind and leave the rest of the world alone to wear all kinds of post-apocalyptic fashion. But instead of dune buggies, everyone has small aircraft, clearly making for the superior post-apocalypse.

Bounty hunter/bum/charming rogue without the charm and about half a brain Matt Owens (Bill Paxton who manages to portray a guy who is by far not as charming as he or the script thinks he is in a very charming manner) drifts around the world in his rundown little plane. When he encounters two police people from one of the city states – the LAPD style psychopath Tasker (Mark Hamill) and the supposedly nicer Belitski (Kitty Aldridge) - who have just caught a murderer in a natty suit (Bob Peck) with a taste for poetry and a talent for healing, he does what every sane man would do, steals the guy he will dub Byron, and flies off trying to bring Byron to wherever it is people pay for Byrons. Obviously, on their way, the odd couple will encounter various groups of the kind populating all post-apocalyptic wastelands (even the picturesque ones), have sex (with women, not one another), and will learn valuable lessons, while avoiding the particularly angry Tasker and the not quite as angry Belitski. It will also turn out that Byron’s right out of a Philip K. Dick novel.

This pretty weird and woolly SF epic by Steven Lisberger, aka the guy who directed Tron, apparently bankrupted its producer on account of finding no audience in Europe and no distribution in the US. Not to kick a dead pig, but I suspect reading the script before putting down any money might have saved someone here.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy my time with Slipstream. It’s just that an off-beat mix of all kinds of SF and post-apocalyptic clichés presented in the form of a picaresque and with little special effects work beyond the flying sequences in my experience is not exactly the kind of movie that’ll draw in huge audiences, even if you have Mark Hamill doing a nice turn as Evil Future Dirty Harry for a bit.

Predominantly, Lisberger’s film is odd, seemingly going out of its way to turn even theoretically pulpy and exciting sequences weird, presenting what on paper should be its big action sequences with the visual equivalent of a confused shrug, because instead of really making us excited about Matt saving Byron from having been tied to a giant kite by a wind worshipping cult while having to fight off Tasker, it really rather wants to get back to another one of its many pseudo-philosophical dialogue sequences. And boy, are there many of those in the film, all vaguely meandering around confused and confusing attempts to define what makes us human made by an idiot (that would be Matt) and the inevitable android (Byron, obviously, and that’s really not a spoiler here) and the various weirdo mini cultures they encounter (the lumpen proletariat! pirates! rich people! etc). From time to time, the film gets a real bee in its bonnet and does things like Byron doing a Fred Astaire imitation while Matt does some slow-dancing with a pretty Rich Girl who is clearly fascinated enough by that perfectly dumb, most certainly stinky, and rather chauvinist stranger to bed him. Did I mention this thing gets admirably weird more often than not?

So yes, nobody not involved in the production of the movie should be terribly surprised this was not a hit at any box office. However, if you’re of the right age or have read the right books, Slipstream is a very fun time, the movie equivalent of one of those 60s or 70s science fiction novels that were interested in the same sort of things as your Dicks or your LeGuins but not terribly sure about what they actually wanted to say about these things and even less sure how to express it, and so just decided to send their vaguely drawn protagonists travelling through various goofy corners of the imaginary world. If that sounds like a direction you think more science fiction movies should go in, Slipstream’s going to be a great time. Plus, you’re probably me, so congratulations.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

In short: The Eyes of My Mother (2016)

When she was young (and played by Olivia Bond), Francisca’s mother (Diana Agostini) was murdered by a serial killer doing a bit of home invasion business. Her father (Paul Nazak) arrived home just that little bit too late to save his wife, knocking out the killer and imprisoning him in the barn. The clearly traumatized man quickly put the responsibility for the killer on his daughter, who turned the man into her mutilated pet/”friend”.

Ten years or so later, Francisca (now having grown up to be played by Kika Magalhães) is royally screwed up psychologically, seeking human closeness and love in pathetic and unpleasant ways. Cuddling the corpse of her father, having sex with the killer whose still continuing time in the barn has left him hardly more than an animal, and murdering prospective one-night stands who get cold feet are all part of her desperate attempts at relating; baby-kidnapping’s closer than you think.

I am very much of two minds about Nicolas Pesce’s The Eyes of My Mother. On one hand, it’s impossible not to admire the great craftsmanship of the film, the way it successfully views material that’s made for an extreme exploitation movie through the stylistic lens of arthouse cinema. Long takes, scarce dialogue, and usually gorgeous compositions are all par for the course here, as is artful handling of the decision to not show the inherent violence of the material but – except for a couple of very specific moments – only its aftermath (or sometimes the noises it produces on the film’s brilliantly realized soundscape). All this is at the very least aesthetically pleasing – not to be confused with pleasant in this particular case, obviously.

However, my problem with the film is that all of these great technical achievements are also ways for the film to distance itself and its audience from its material. Its unwillingness to go to the visible extremes you’d expect from the material certainly avoids any tackiness, or any way anyone could complain the film to ghoulishly wallow in all of the degradation and horror as a proper exploitation movie would, yet it also keeps at least this viewer at arms length from emotionally relating and understanding Francisca as more than an abstract case study that yes, trauma is bad for you, robbing the film of the visceral jolt I believe it needs. Sure, abstractly, all of the stuff in the film is pretty terrible, but it’s all so tastefully realized and abstracted from actual human pain, I found myself looking at it like a sociopath trying to figure out feelings, admiring the form but never connecting to the content.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Godzilla vs. Megaguirus (2000)

Original title: ゴジラ × メガギラス G消滅作戦

As it goes, this second entry in the short-lived “Millennium” era of Godzilla movies ignores most of the Godzilla films that came before apart from the original first movie. While I’m never completely happy with this approach, at least this one has a reason for it, for the film takes place in some kind of alternative Godzilla timeline as well as an alternative history of Japan. So, Godzilla wasn’t killed in 1954 and instead hit Tokyo so badly the Japanese moved their capitol to Osaka. For some reason, it took another attack a decade later for the country to step away from the nuclear energy Godzilla feeds on. This went well until 1996 when experiments with a new form of energy again provoked a successful Godzilla rampage, despite a military unit charmingly named the “G-Graspers” having had a good thirty years to prepare for it. Obviously, that was it with the new-fangled plasma energy, too.

However, Japan really, really wants to get rid of Godzilla, and by 2001, they are in the final stages of developing a weapon that’s supposed to shoot a miniature black hole at Godzilla from orbit. In a classic “I can’t see what could go wrong there” moment, the first test of the weapon also opens a wormhole. Through that wormhole – that the G-Graspers for some reason don’t bother to monitor – flies some giant prehistoric dragonfly (or a normal one gets mutated, the film’s pretty unclear here), and is never seen again after it pops out an egg. Said egg is found by a little boy, brought to Tokyo, and hatches a bunch of prehistoric cow-sized dragonflies that eat energy, which in turn eventually produce a proper kaiju dubbed Megaguirus. Godzilla more or less to the rescue, only to be murdered afterwards by the very unthankful humans.

Masaaki Tezuka’s entry into the Godzilla canon is certainly not a classic of kaiju cinema, but I have seen worse films, even worse Godzilla films, too. Its main problem is a plot that’s often needlessly convoluted, as exemplified by the egg business. There’s really no reason at all for the egg to simply hatch in the countryside and the film being done with that part of its plot. Instead it fiddles around with plot-lines around the little boy and the egg that have no dramatic reason to exist and only slow things down until we finally, eventually, get to the good stuff. Which, if I really need to say it, are giant monsters. I’m also not terribly sure the film actually needed the alternative history angle after all, for after the turn of events has been established in the film’s beginning, there will turn out to be no discernible difference between this Japan and ours apart from its capital.

I do understand the need to have something, anything to do for the human characters beyond fighting against Godzilla (a fight they can’t win), but the old-fashioned stuff with alien invasions or evil spy agencies most other films of the various Godzilla eras get up to really is the better choice here. Especially compared with a film that turns out to have trouble deciding on the metaphorical meaning of Godzilla, and eventually pretends killing off this force of nature that has just protected humanity against its own folly is some kind of heroic act.

Once and whenever we do get to the monster business, the film markedly improves, with much of the monster stuff demonstrating the imagination most of the rest of the film lacks. I’m particularly fond of the final beat down between Godzilla and Megaguirus that heavily nods in the direction of the sillier kaiju eiga from the 60s and the charming way they provided their monsters with personality. Godzilla’s pissed facial expression after he gets up following Megaguirus’s first attempts at sucking his precious bodily fluids, I mean tasty radiation, is absolutely priceless.

Not terribly well used, but at least interesting in how atypical it is for kaiju cinema is the character of Kiriko Tsujimori (Misatao Tanaka), who plays your typical main rocket jock with a grudge role, not the kind of role you’ll encounter many a Japanese film - and a Japanese kaiju film even less – giving to a woman and playing her straight like it would a male character.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Three Films Make A Post: They Say No One Can Save The World. Meet No One.

6 Underground (2019): Obviously, not being named Rex Reed, I usually talk about movies here I have stayed awake watching throughout, and seen all the way through to the bitter end. However, given the clear disrespect – if not even outright hatred - Michael Bay shows for us poor idiots watching this particular thing, and having inflicted half of it on myself, I think I do deserve at least a little compensation (like a couple of months of free Netflix, the other party responsible for this roaring garbage fire). So, even having only seen half of the film, I can most certainly say that Bay is still completely unable to stage and film action sequences, he’s even worse than he was when he shot the unparsable car chase in The Rock. Today, his action isn’t just over-edited and makes no structural sense, it has also learned to shake and strobe like a Tony Scott movie, adding the epilepsy to the headache. The “script” was written by the guys who brought us Deadpool, Zombieland and Life, so you know it was going to be some smug meta-masturbation at best, but is just probably cocaine-addled and deeply mean-spirited nonsense by writers who are so much less clever than they obviously think they are. Screw, Michael Bay, seriously.

Dog Eat Dog (2016): This Paul Schrader film with Nicolas Cage, Willem Dafoe and Christopher Matthew Cook as luckless and pretty stupid small time crooks getting themselves killed over their inability to kidnap a baby sort of fits 6 Underground. Not because it’s also one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen but because it is pretty damn mean-spirited and excessive, too, Schrader apparently trying to very belatedly make the kind of black comedy which feels heavily influenced by all those would-be Tarantinos that cropped up after Pulp Fiction. The characters are your typical Schrader troubled males with violent tendencies (or in the case of Dafoe’s aptly named “Mad Dog” more than just tendencies) but drawn with a meanness that turns them into nasty caricatures, something the film, as well as the actors clearly revels in. It’s what you call an “interesting effort” while stroking your chin thoughtfully. Also features Nicolas Cage doing a Bogart imitation, it you’re into that.

Scrooged (1988): I know, Christmas is over, but Richard Donner’s version of the old Dickens number with added media critique that still seems rather fitting today, with Bill Murray despite being in a very bad mood during production actually giving a fantastic performance, fits these other two films rather well in its often very mean-spirited vibe. Unlike the other movies in this post, it is an actual artistic success, though, and does its very best to use said mean-spiritedness to say something to, as well as do something with the audience. Even if it is only to upset us pretty terribly about humanity (our Scrooge stand-in isn’t even the worst person in the movie) and then make up for it by having Murray give a “be kind to one another” speech where he seems to be teetering at the edge of an actual breakdown. Which, I’d argue, is exactly the right way to go here, for what the more polite versions of the material tend to gloss over is that we witness a man whose every belief (nasty as those may be) has just been curb-stomped and who is trying to recreate himself as a human being live on camera.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Past Misdeeds: Back in Action (1993)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts presented with only  basic re-writes and improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

As is traditional, tough cop Frank Rossi’s (Roddy Piper) partner is slaughtered by one of the psychopathic goons of drug lord Kasajian (Nigel Bennett chewing the scenery like any good low budget action villain, and getting a rather funny acupuncture scene later on, because evil people like needles) during a fake drug meet that turns into a giant shoot-out, leaving Rossi with a giant hate-on for Kasajian and his guys.

The cop’s not the only one who really doesn’t like this particular bad guy. Former special forces operative and shirt-hater Billy (Billy Blanks) was at the scene of the shoot-out to drag his sister Tara (Kai Soremekun) away from her really rather stupid drug dealer boyfriend (Damon D’Oliveira, I think), the kind of guy who thinks it’s a brilliant idea to take his girlfriend out on a big drug deal. Alas, nobody really notices Billy dragging away Tara, so Kasajian and co decide she’s clearly responsible for the appearance of the cops. So, even though this makes not a lick of sense in context of what happened, Tara has to die.

Thanks to his adeptness at all kinds of violence, Billy’s quite good at protecting his sister from harm – there must after all be an upside to his type of Neanderthal sister-parenting – but Tara’s just as adept at running away from him in an attempt to reunite with her boyfriend and then run away with him, a plan I couldn’t help but sympathize with, given Billy’s style. This situation does of course give the film many an opportunity for everything we come for in an action film. Soon, the increasingly unhinged and bloodthirsty Rossi and the already unhinged and probably bloodthirsty Billy meet, punch each other in the face in a scene that just happens to look like a much shortened version of the big punch-out in They Live, and team-up. Rossi’s TV reporter on-again off-again girlfriend Helen (Bobbie Phillips) involves herself in the case, too, adding a second female character to get kidnapped, hooray.

Do I even need to mention that explosions, bloodshed, shoot-outs and many a shot of angry man faces with bugging eyes will occur before the situation can be put to rights, if by “put to rights” you mean all the bad guys readied for burial?

The thing is, despite the most generic plot imaginable, and the usual nasty “hooray for vigilantism” subtext, Steve DiMarco’s (with an IMDB-suggested assist by future SyFy movie maestro Paul Ziller I so much want to believe is true) Back in Action (please don’t ask what the title has to do with anything) is a fantastic example of what’s good about 90s US low budget action movies, with a smidgen of martial arts provided by the mummy-faced Blanks.

The director(s) do a straightforward yet really effectively dynamic job, with not too many attempts at flashy editing tricks, so you can see what’s going on with the violence without many problems, yet enough of an actual visual concept there’s no question there’s more going on with the film than just people pointing the camera at stuntmen; it’s the best of both worlds, really. Why, even the copious amounts of slow-motion make sense enough to only very seldom become ridiculous; even better, I never got the impression the director(s) was out to senselessly ape John Woo with its use. The effect is action that feels exhilarating instead of as cheap as it actually is, with fine stunt work and two male leads who are great screen fighters in any situation the film throws at them. Back in Action also has a spirited approach to the expected genre clichés, with villains that seem to enjoy their own evilness hugely, a cop on the edge versus boss shouting-match of great entertainment value, and other kinds of idiocy presented with the sort of enthusiasm that can’t help but turn them awesome.

Piper and Blanks have pretty good chemistry going as well, with Piper for my tastes the definitely more likeable of the pair, as well as the slightly better actor, but Blanks very ably using his physicality to make up for his problems with the finer parts of the acting job. And really, it’s not as if Blanks were bad, particularly not when you keep in mind how good he looks kicking people in the face here, which is the more important part of acting anyhow.

I was positively surprised by the comparatively – for its genre and time - un-annoying way Back in Action handles its female characters. Sure, they’re there to get kidnapped and wear short skirts, but the film does give them a little agency and even some involvement in the finale beyond the getting kidnapped part, with enough of a sense that Helen and Tara are persons there’s no need to gnash your teeth at the film. Sure, they both act pretty stupid at times, but that’s no difference at all to the film’s supposed heroes or its villains, because nobody involved here thinks anything through for even a second.

It’s better this way, too, for if even half of the film’s characters had any brains at all, there’d be no opportunity for all the shoot-outs, punch-ups and explosions, no face-kicking and probably not even a single scene of Rowdy Roddy Piper winning a fight but looking like he really got a work-over after it (which is a thing I like in my action heroes). In short, there’d be no opportunity at all for Back in Action to become the piece of choice entertainment that it is.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

In short: Rattlesnake (2019)

Driving away from never too clearly defined troubles towards her mother’s home, Katrina Ridgeway (Carmen Ejogo in a fine portrait of the kind of desperation that leads to terrible acts) and her little daughter Clara (Apollonia Pratt) make their way through the great state of Texas. Pausing in the desert, Clara is bitten by a rattlesnake. Very suddenly, a trailer seems to appear nearby, inhabited by a somewhat creepy woman (Debrianna Mansini) who apparently knows her way around rattlesnake bites. In her panic, Katrina doesn’t really register something the woman says about discussing payment later, and since she disappears more or less into thin air, as does Clara’s snakebite, surely, there’s nothing to be concerned about here at all.

Well, our heroine will soon enough learn that she has made an implicit pact with some kind of nasty supernatural power, and that she has only until sundown to deliver a soul for its saving of a soul to it. A bit of research suggests that this sort of thing happens rather often in the area, small as the desert town she ends up in is, but that’s not exactly helping her any; nor does the supernatural power appearing in the form of its former victims to mock her.

So eventually, Katrina decides to go through with the murder asked of her. On the plus side, she does encounter the kind of guy (Theo Rossi) even someone with a conscience might find rather easier to kill in cold blood than others.

I found myself pleasantly surprised by this Netflix production directed by Zak Hilditch. Sure, it’s a bit of a longer Twilight Zone episode with a somewhat harder edge of a very late 2010s kind of desperation, but to my mind, there’s nothing at all wrong with that. Particularly not since Hilditch has the plot well under control, never adding too many contrived additional hoops for Katrina to jump through yet still increasing the stakes and the suspense of the situation continuously. The script is also not quite as straightforward as it seems. So for example Rossi’s Billy is indeed a despicable human being, yet the film still plays him as a human being, not simply absolving Katrina nor cheering her on, despite clearly being on her side, and finding Billy pretty vile; one can’t help but think the supernatural force really trades two souls for the one it saves here.

The film also handles the supernatural elements of the film well, not falling into the trap of wanting to explain the whys and wherefores of the situation, just setting it up, suggesting a few things about it, and letting a viewer’s imagination do the rest of the work. There are a couple of really interestingly strange moments here too, scenes where Katrina interacts with supposedly normal people that are staged in a way that makes them feel just slightly off, as if she (and we the audience) were just one step away from reaching outside of the world we know, but never quite making that step. In contrast, Katrina’s encounters with the dead are short, simple, and effective exactly because they are that way.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

The Long Hair of Death (1965)

Original title: I lunghi capelli della morte

The 15th Century. Adele Karnstein, the mother of Helen (Barbara Steele) and her kid sister Lisabeth, is accused of witchcraft thanks to the machinations of Kurt von Humboldt (George Ardisson), the son of the local ruler, Count Humboldt (Giuliano Raffaelli). Helen is willing to pay the rather steep price of sleeping with the count if that should set her mother free, but the Count’s apparently not a man to pay what he owes afterwards, so Adele is still getting burned. The woman, certainly no witch before that, curses the Humboldts, their descendants and their lands.

Helen finds herself dying in an “accident” a short time later, too. However, perhaps bitten by a slight case of conscience, Humboldt does take little Lisabeth in to raise her as what amounts to a daughter - and since we never see or hear about the two girls’ father, we might get some additional thoughts about what kind of a man the good Count is.

Ten years or so later, Lisabeth has grown up to be played by Halina Zalewska. Her mother’s curse seems to come true, for the land is plagued by drought and pestilence, turning the Count into a very bitter and angry old man. Kurt has developed what goes as a romantic interest for the kind of guy the is in Lisabeth. The girl wants nothing to do with him whatsoever, but once the Count dies mid-rant, she is in no position anymore to say no to his “proposal” of marriage.

Some time later, things have not improved for the Humboldt lands. Lisabeth, while not having grown to love Kurt for obvious reasons, has grown somewhat possessive of him, finding it difficult to reconcile this feeling with her hatred for her husband as a Humboldt as well as an individual. On the night of a terrible storm, Helen – in a fantastic sequence - rises from her grave and turns up in the Humboldt’s chapel. Kurt, who, like everyone else who knew Helen, doesn’t recognize her at all, quickly falls in terrible lust with the woman who now calls herself Mary, breaking whatever the emotional bonds between him and his wife may be, and soon starts to plan her murder. From there on out, things begin to go very badly indeed for the man, madness and much worse awaiting.

The Long Hair of Death is certainly not the best of the gothic horror films of house favourite Antonio Margheriti (as usual, working under his nom de plum of Anthony Dawson in most parts of the world), it being paced a bit too leisurely even for its genre and time and not quite delivering the dramatic tension of Horror Castle and Castle of Blood. However, it perfectly encapsulates the tone of morbidity and perversity always lurking under the surface of its genre, and every positive human feeling is perverted into its worst form.

Love in particular as portrayed here is a terrible power for the worst, but then, all love in the film is twisted in some way, shape or form. This is exemplified in Kurt’s desire for Lisabeth, a feeling that never rises above the wish to possess her in whatever way possible. The kind of love that eventually arises in Lisabeth in response, however, is just as terrible in its own way, mirroring his sense of possession where hatred would seem the much healthier alternative. And let’s not even think about what exactly is going on between her and her dead sister, supernatural vengeance perverting this relationship too until it is only a tool for destruction. Clearly, there is something very wrong in the lands of the Humboldt’s.

Margheriti’s goes all out in emphasising the way all the central human relationships here seem perverted and twisted, apart from a handful of genuinely human gestures between Lisabeth and the lady Grumalda (Laura Nucci). But then, Grumalda’s motherly love for Lisabeth will also make her complicit in the vengeance plan from beyond the grave, paying back Kurt’s cruelty with just as much of their own.

All of this is clad in an increasingly nightmarish mood of stark contrasts between shadow and light. The decrepit corridors of the castle becoming ever more labyrinth-like, and the paths the characters take through them increasingly draw them downwards towards the castle’s crypts (and death). It’s morbid in a very precise way.

On the acting side, Steele, not surprisingly, dominates proceedings with sheer charisma (technique really isn’t something of much use for an actress or actor in Italian horror of this time), which is only fit and proper since Helen as Mary does dominate the other characters one way or the other, too.