Tuesday, June 30, 2020

In short: Off Limits (1988)

Vietnam, 1968, during the Tet Offensive. CID Sergeant’s McGriff (Willem Dafoe) and Perkins (Gregory Hines) are the kind of racist, violent shitheels you’d expect in that role during this time. However, when the murder of a local prostitute leads them on the trail of a whole series of murders of prostitutes during the last year, all showing a lot of disturbing parallels, and their investigation begins to suggest the serial killer to be an American officer, they don’t back down but go out of their ways to catch him, risking life and career. Of course, they are still treating the Vietnamese as well as enlisted US soldiers like crap while they are doing it, and can’t spend five minutes without going on about how terrible a country they deem Vietnam to be, so it’s probably just another day at the office for these two.

At times, Christopher Crowe’s attempt to transfer 80s cop movie clichés to the more interesting background of the Vietnam War, actually does manage to make these clichés somewhat more interesting and lively; at other times, I couldn’t shake the feeling the director uses the background as an excuse to be more racist and have more unpleasant main characters than he could have gotten away with in a film set in the 80s. Crowe certainly knows how to stage a chase scene and other action movie core elements, giving them a grimy and dirty edge that fits the rest of a film whose Vietnam feels a lot like New York in action movies made at this time by people like James Glickenhaus.

The plot’s not terribly good at leading us from action scene to action scene, though. Crowe’s script never really manages to make the actual investigation terribly interesting – and honestly, if you don’t guess the whodunit very early on, I’d be very surprised. The thin characterisation of everyone involved here doesn’t make the plot any more interesting either. There’s a desperate attempt to humanise at least Dafoe’s character a little with a romance plot between him and a French novitiate sister played by the not terribly French (but lovely) Amanda Pays, but it’s so perfunctorily written, it doesn’t do much beyond adding scenes to the movie.

The characters are so bare-bones, even actors with as much heft as Dafoe, Hines or Fred Ward don’t manage to suggest much depth to these men; only house favourite Scott Glenn has an opportunity to actually do something of interest acting-wise, but he’s not in too many scenes.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

In short: Unforgettable (1996)

At the time it came out, neo noir specialist – who would eventually and somewhat tragically become a mere dependable TV show episode hired gun -John Dahl’s follow-up movie to his brilliant The Last Seduction was a total flop: a commercial dud that was also hated by the critics. Though, to be fair, the latter problem seems to have been with Ebert and Co.’s inability to get over the film’s “contrived” set-up, the sort of thing this genre viewer hardly bats an eye at because he understands that contrived set-ups are what nearly all thrillers have. Or would anyone call the plots  and basic ideas of brilliant movies in the genre like Psycho or Vertigo anything but contrived? Indeed, one might find one of those “metaphors” professional film critics may have heard about here. May there be something a film has to say about grief in the tale of a man (Ray Liotta) trying to catch the murderer of his wife with the help of an experimental drug that makes one relive the memories of other people but demands a heavy physical and psychological price?

Now, having said that, I also have to warn the prospective viewer that this isn’t a secret thriller masterpiece on par with its director’s best movies. The problem’s not in the script’s set-up – contrived or not - nor is it Dahl’s love for pretty wonderful and slightly surreal big set-pieces. The film’s actual major flaw is a badly paced third where Liotta’s drug-induced flashbacks become too long and much too detailed, explaining way more than is necessary of the things even the dumbest audience member will have already inferred and dragging the film down to a crawl. Which is something no thriller can afford. It’s honestly nothing that couldn’t have been fixed by cutting about ten minutes of film and rewriting ten more, but it’s still surprisingly damaging for the effect of Unforgettable as a whole.

I still find a lot to like about the film, though, be it Liotta’s all-out performance that does seem to aim for the same spot of exalted, intense yet secretly precise overacting that Nicolas Cage hits so wonderfully these days, Dahl’s against type casting of Linda Fiorentino as a much too nice and cooperative scientist she really seems to get into, or how enjoyably contrived the first two thirds of the film are.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Three Films Make A Post: In this town a speeding ticket is a death sentence

Twin Murders: The Silence of the White City aka El silencio de la ciudad blanca (2019): This Netflix movie adaptation of a crime novel that’s apparently much better (which shouldn’t be terribly difficult to achieve) directed by Daniel Calparsoro feels like a greatest hits version of the serial killer thriller genre, and as with most greatest hits collections, there’s a lot of glitz but little substance on screen. Sure, the film does look great, but the script is a complete mess full of sub-plots that are picked up, dropped and forgotten for no apparent reason, motivations and character psychology that make little sense (and is usually neither explained nor demonstrated but just stated awkwardly). The film has the kind of overloaded stop and start pacing you often get when a book is cut down to what a screenwriter deems to be its highlights.
Otherwise, there’s only the usual overblown serial killer movie nonsense, full of grand declarations of intellectual depth that doesn’t actually exist, ridiculous murder rituals this film isn’t even clever enough to make as creepy as they should be, and taking place in a world where characters are probably even accompanied by Very Dramatic Music™ when they are on the loo.

Housewife (2017): I absolutely adored director Can Evrenol’s Baskin, but this, his second feature, is quite a step back, despite hitting some of my favourite horror and weird fic elements, namely a creepy cult, a protagonist who can’t quite understand if she’s dreaming or not, and creepy flesh masks. Evrenol seems to be trying to formally emulate the dream logic of Italian 80s horror, but for much of the film’s running time, he doesn’t hit the proper mood of a bizarre and unpleasant dream but more the randomness of actual dreams, which simply isn’t terribly interesting to watch. There are a couple or three effective scenes here to show that Baskin wasn’t an accident, but most of what we get is aimless meandering.

The film also suffers badly from the decision to have a cast of non-native English speakers speak English dialogue, adding a stilted and unnatural quality that may have been meant to add to the film’s unreal mood but in practice makes the already pretty awkward dialogue difficult to make out and puts another layer of distance between audience and characters when they badly need to feel as close to the audience as possible.

The California Kid (1974): Which leaves this post’s role of “The Good Film” to this unassuming 70s TV movie by Richard T. Heffron in which drag riding Martin Sheen takes revenge on Sheriff Vic Morrow who purposely drove his brother and others off a mountain road. It’s not a tight, Duel-style thrill ride but more interested in a  very 70s exploration of characters on the side-lines of life, while having some thoughts about the reasons why good people look away from bad acts, usually avoiding the melodrama that can come with the TV territory. Heffron’s direction is not spectacular but makes nice use of its California locations and knows how to provide space for a cast that also features a young Nick Nolte, Michelle Phillips and Stuart Margolin.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Past Misdeeds: Choke Canyon (1986)

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.

Rogue physicist Dr. David Lowell (Stephen Collins) is convinced he is going to be able to develop a clean, infinite source of energy out of sound waves. To prove that particularly interesting theory, he has set up a lab with awesome blinking doodads in a beautiful choke canyon. There, he’s waiting for the passing of Halley’s Comet because he’ll need to somehow use the comet’s soundwaves for his experiment. Or something – the film’s rather vague about its ridiculous nonsense science, so we’ll just have to take it at its word. Alas, Lowell has leased the canyon from the evil nuclear energy corp of one John Pilgrim (Nicholas Pryor), and Pilgrim really needs the place to illegally dump a huge ball full of nuclear waste there. You’d think the film would rather go for an “evil nuclear energy corp wants to destroy progressive green science” plot but that’s not happening.

First Pilgrim’s people – mid-level henchman-managed by Lance Henriksen himself - try to buy David out, which he of course declines, for the time and place for his experiment isn’t optional (oh, please, don’t ask me why). Then they come back to rough him up, shoot up his lab with submachine guns and probably think this should frighten him into submission. Yet this only manages to make our hero even more determined, if now without a lab. To correct that, Lowell gets on his (non-metaphorical) horse, blows up parts of the facility (or as we know it, a couple of sheds) supposed to house the illegal nuclear waste and tries to blackmail Pilgrim into buying a new lab for him.

From there, things escalate further quickly: Pilgrim calls in The Captain (Bo Svenson), a man with “methods” as well as a flying circus job when he isn’t working as a heavy for an evil corporation. His day job will be important for the film’s biggest set piece later. Lowell puts The Captain in a barrel; The Captain brings a mortar. Finally, Lowell kidnaps Pilgrim’s daughter Vanessa (Janet Julian) – who will of course change sides soon enough because what’s hotter than a little kidnapping, right? – and threatens to blow her up(!) which actually gets him his new laboratory, but certainly no peace. So the film will just have to culminate in a big chase scene between The Captain’s air carnival biplane and Lowell and Janet in a helicopter carrying a big ball of nuclear waste beneath them, followed by a tiny little punch up. The practice of physics is clearly more physically demanding than our teachers let on.

Yes, all of these things really happen in Chuck Bail’s Choke Canyon, and the film truly is as bonkers as this makes it sound. Fascinatingly, despite making no darn sense at all and being the sort of family-friendly action film where automatic weapons, mortar and nuclear waste are applied in various violent ways without anybody ever actually getting hurt, the film doesn’t seem to be meant as an action comedy. It does play most of this awesome and inspired nonsense as straight as you can, which of course does make it much funnier than it otherwise would be, as well as even more bonkers.

Speaking of bonkers, among the awesome elements I didn’t mention when talking about the film’s plot (such as it is) is Lowell’s dress sense, which turns him into more of a cowboy scientist than a rogue scientist, what with his long coat, the appropriate cowboy hat, as well as a disturbingly close relation with his Bollywood approved anipals, a horse and a goat. For the record, I have not the faintest idea why the man has a goat in his lab, but he has, and he clearly loves it very much. In this context, the rather wrong love story between our hero and Janet looks comparatively healthy. After all, Choke Canyon teaches us, what’s a bit of kidnapping and threatening to blow someone up among hot young things?

Then there’s the final fist fight between Lowell and The Captain, a scene that isn’t satisfied with just showing two guys beating each other to a pulp but also finds Lowell having to shout computations between punches, because of course The Captain comes for his revenge exactly in time for the big experiment. An experiment which for its part generates much pulsing of Lowell’s doodads (and probably his equipment too), a cheap light show, and the scientific revelation that Lowell’s theory works, “if only for a moment”. Well, he’ll have time enough to iron out any wrinkles in his computations, given his need for Halley’s Comet.

Now, all of this awesome, inspired nonsense doesn’t really sound like the kind of thing US low budget film makers are usually up to, nor feels much like it when you’re watching it. I’d really rather call this a nominally American movie, for while director Bail (a veteran of stunt work, as well as a bit of acting) certainly is American, and this was visibly shot in Utah, the film’s producer and co-writer is Greek exploitation film impresario Ovidio G. Assonitis (working for a company with a decidedly Dutch sounding name), one of the other co-writers is Sheila Goldberg, who was responsible for the dubbing scripts of various Italian genre films, and the final writer is the glorious genius we know as director, writer and all-purpose provider of the bizarre Alfonso Brescia, which is about as European exploitation style as any writing team can get. No effort is made by anyone to write (if “write” is what you do to produce a script like this) anything in a more American style.

As a fan of Brescia’s peculiar sensibilities in particular I’m not complaining, mind you, preferring the man’s combination of the shamelessly bizarre with the outright silly played seriously to most other approaches to scriptwriting I can imagine; particularly since Brescia-style madness seldom is boring.

The great joy about Choke Canyon though is how the Italian writing approach and the mildly off acting (probably caused by the actors’ confusion about what the hell it is that’s going on in the script) collide with the not terribly cheap looking, and generally impressive shots of the desert and rock landscapes, and Bail’s very accomplished version of the classically – by 1986 probably rather old-fashioned to a contemporary audience - American way of shooting stunts and action, mixing approaches to low budget filmmaking that don’t mix all that often, providing the best of both worlds for precious one and a half hours.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

In short: The Shasta Triangle (2019)

In the 90s, Paula’s (Dani Lennon) weird scientist father – he worked for DARPA, apparently – disappeared in the woods around Mount Shasta, during one of the recurring phases when that place is haunted by high strangeness, in this case particularly in form of inexplicable noises. Twenty years later, again an inexplicable noise can be heard in the area; again, people disappear under mysterious circumstances. Paula, following a lot of therapy and armed with her father’s coded notebook, does return, too, trying to disprove her dad’s theories about holes in reality leading to other dimensions to gain some peace of mind. She teams up with her foster sister – now the local sheriff – Sam (Ayanna Berkshire), who is clearly the voice of reason kind of person you want to have by your side in times of stress. Paula and Sam do get other companions too, though, for a couple of old childhood friends (Deborah Smith, Madeline Merritt and Helenna Santos) decide to just drop by and join in the project of going into the woods and hopefully not finding anything weird. You can imagine how that’s going to turn out.

Going by the couple of reviews I’ve seen and the painfully low IMDB ratings of The Shasta Triangle, I didn’t go into Barry W. Levy’s film with terribly high expectations. However, it turns out to be a perfectly decent movie, not exactly transcending the indie bracket its in where half of the people involved fill three or more roles in a production, but making a fun showing of it nonetheless.

It’s at the very least a film made to perfectly competent standards of filmmaking, with proper editing, writing that’s seldom awkward, acting that’s always competent and never awkward, photography that gets the job it is there for done, effective sound design and staging that suggests everyone involved simply knew what they were doing on the level of basic craftsmanship. This may not sound like much, but it already guarantees a film that flows properly and knows how to tell its small scale story of weird shit happening to perfectly nice women in an effective manner.

Often the film’s actually better than this suggests, Levy and company making good use of simple visual set-ups to suggest the distortions of time and space our protagonists have to deal with, creating an effective mood of light strangeness. With my specific tastes, I also can’t help but like a film making use of the sort of Fortean phenomenon this deals in without resorting to the shriller elements of conspiracy theory, letting the weird stuff stand on its own.

The Shasta Triangle is a simple, but not stupid, little movie, neither overstaying its welcome nor getting too ambitious for its possibilities.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Massacre Mafia Style (1974)

aka Duke Mitchell’s Like Father, Like Son

The somewhat unfortunately named Mimi Miceli (Duke Mitchell, of course) has spent much of his childhood in Sicily after his mafia don father had been driven out of New York. Now, a grown man of indeterminate age (because this is an epic, I suppose the very middle-aged Mitchell is supposed to be in his early twenties at the start of the movie, slowly aging towards his actual age), Mimi decides to follow his dream of moving to Los Angeles, making nice with the local mafia by ransoming a local Don (don’t ask me), and taking over black-owned pimp businesses by shooting a lot of pimps and prostitutes. And yes, you need to prepare for a lot of casual racism to make a viewer squirm in this one.

Things go rather well for Mimi and his best buddy Jolly (Vic Caesar) for some years. But eventually, his love for the overkill and his very selective respect for mafia traditions do lead to his retirement to the porn industry. Until his old colleagues get concerned about dear old Mimi there too.

This is the single movie nightclub singer, former comedian, singing voice of Fred Flintstone and part-time indie mafia movie auteur Duke Mitchell actually managed to finish in his life time, and having watched it after his posthumously finished Gone with the Pope, I’m really rather sad that these two are all the Mitchell movies I’ll ever get to witness in my lifetime. Not that this is the kind of film any mainstream viewer or film critic will ever call good, but it’s such a clear labour of love and such a singular and peculiar experience I’m certainly calling it good, despite the flaws that come to pass when a movie is made by the seat of someone’s somewhat shabby silk pants.

So yes, many of the actors – particularly those in one-scene roles – are wooden, but it’s the specific sort of woodenness arthouse filmmakers hiring non-actors to play people in their own professions or class so often get praised for. This really fits into one of the film’s great strengths, its ability to provide a viewer with the feeling one encounters a trashy, crass, but also semi-anthropological view into the lives of the entertainment and gangster working class in surroundings they really might have populated, showing tastes and styles they really might have had, written, directed and acted by a guy who actually knows the people he’s talking about first hand.

Adding to this particular element of the film’s equation are the scenes where Mitchell falls into long speeches about Italian American culture, the cultural importance of mothers, or bread-cutting rituals. These speeches are stiffly written and delivered with Mitchellian hyperbole and sentimentality, of course, but that only adds to the entertainment value as well as the film’s off-beat authenticity, Mitchell imagining himself into a Mafia philosopher who – like many a great philosopher - never practices what he preaches.

Given its somewhat epic scope at least when it comes to its supposed temporal and spacial dimensions, it is obvious that this is a bit of an answer to Coppola’s The Godfather (about which Mimi even goes on a bit of a rant) by people who are much closer to the real aesthetics and values driving the people both films talk about. Of course, Mitchell’s rather less plushy and a lot more crass and tawdry view of the mafia and their world wouldn’t have won any Academy Awards even if it hadn’t been made for pocket money that simply can’t buy the epicness Mitchell goes for. Obviously, both films aren’t documentaries but rather dreams and fantasies about the mafia; Mitchell’s fantasies simply come from a direction I suspect would be rather closer to the dreams of actual gangsters. Even the differences between the racist presentations of African Americans in Coppola’s and Mitchell’s films fit into that mould.

While all this sounds rather more interesting than actually exciting, what really gives the film an additional kick is its exploitational value, the abandon with which Mitchell cuts from one of the long, talky sequences to copious nudity and often preposterously entertaining violence. The editing (by Tony Mora and Robert Florio who really deserve to be mentioned here) becomes incredibly propulsive particularly in these transitions between quiet and loud scenes, as if this were Seattle a couple of decades later. It’s not just the editing, though. Even though his style of staging is sometimes a bit awkward, Mitchell the director is rather imaginative when it comes to the violence, giving a lot of it sardonically humorous edge without making it “ironic”. One can’t help but think he must have seen some of the early Italian post-Dirty Harry cop movies and watched them very closely indeed, because it is an air of wild abandon closer related to them than to much of US cinema (even in the grindhouse) that drives the action here.

Take all of this together, and Massacre Mafia Style becomes an unmissable piece of US low budget cinema everyone with even the slightest interest in this sort of thing should see.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

In short: Bhoot – Part One: The Haunted Ship (2020)

Prithvi (Vicky Kaushal), a shipping officer with the mandatory tragically dead family, is tasked with the surprisingly complicated mission to get an empty dilapidated ship away from the Mumbai beach it has mysteriously stranded on. Things become rather complicated, for the ship is as haunted as a swimming haunted house, and its hauntings seem to fit disturbingly well to Prithvi’s tragically-dead-family-PTSD.

I have to admire the optimistic streak of the title of Bhanu Pratap Singh’s Hindi horror movie, yet at the same time can’t help asking myself if calling one’s horror movie “Ghost – Part One” is really much better than just calling it “Generic Contemporary Mainstream Horror Movie - Part One”. This is yet another one of those Hindi films made in the last couple of years that is clearly mainly influenced by US mainstream horror fare like the The Conjuring movies, eschewing most of the locally specific of much Indian horror for the generically “international”, losing a lot of charm and winning rather a lot of clichés in the process. So expect jump scares, false scares mostly based on pompous music, and ghosts that look exactly like all other ghosts in contemporary mainstream horror movies do. To be fair, Singh’s actually pretty good at this part of the horror game, timing much of this funhouse nonsense well enough the resulting movie is enjoyable throughout. Why, there’s even a bit of a thematic connection between the film’s guilt-ridden lead and the haunting he is investigating.

I certainly had more fun with this than with the Conjuring films, if only thanks to the film’s excision of all crazy fringe Christianity and because lead Vicky Kaushal is not quite as aggressively bland as Patrick Wilson is. Plus, there are surprisingly few decent movies about haunted ships.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Gunmen (1988)

Original title: 天羅地網

After he has returned from the Chinese Civil War (the part of it ending in 1936, I believe, but please correct me if you know better), Ting Kwan-pik (Tony Leung Ka-fai), his wife Cho Chiu (Carrie Ng) and their litter daughter make their way to Shanghai, where Ting becomes a policeman. Shanghai is a troubled place at the time, the French using the concession to make a mint in the opium trade, and a widely corrupted police force assisting criminal activity more than hindering it. Ting, of course, is incorruptible.

One man involved in the drug trade is Haye (Adam Cheng), who just happens to be an old enemy of Ting’s from the war, hoping to use his gains for further civil warring in the Northwest (which would make him a Kuomintang man, I believe).

Obviously, these two men will collide rather sooner than later, each eventually being responsible for the death of the other’s father figure. The film also finds time for Ting’s difficult love life, as well as a shouty new boss (Elvis Tsui!), to make matters more difficult for our hero.

At least, he’ll be able to re-team with his old war buddies Cheung (Waise Lee), Lau Fuk-kwong (Mark Cheng) and Cheung Cho-fan (David Wu) to do the appropriate manly violent things you eventually do in this kind of film.

Leave it to late 80’s Hong Kong cinema to pack the plot as well as all of the subplots of a 150 minute movie into 84. Not surprisingly, there’s a breathless quality to Kirk Wong’s Gunmen (produced by Tsui Hark, so who knows how much Wong actually had to say about anything here) that’s even more intense than usual for the city’s not exactly calm movie output from this golden era. Everybody here seems always on the verge of some sort of emotional or physical outbreak or breakdown, with momentous decisions taken at the drop of a hat, characters and their relations drawn and changed with great speed.

It’s somewhat exhausting to watch, but Wong actually has quite a bit of control over the intensity, going down from eleven to ten at the right moments, somehow managing to draw the proper melodramatic character relations with as much conviction as necessary, condensing the film’s huge amount of plot without it actually losing much of its effectiveness.

And really, despite being a bit rough around the edges, the film’s a highly effective machine, providing enough historical elements, melodrama, male bonding, and vengeance to fill two other movies, all the while filling every nook and cranny with the kind of insane action you expect from a Hong Kong movie from this era. Sure, there are much more extreme examples of the form, but there are still more mass shoot-outs with absurd body counts, chases through tight streets and properly nasty looking close combat sequences to make a boy woozy. Wong and action director Fung Hak-On seem to particularly love action that takes place in very tight spaces, giving many of the fights a claustrophobic edge. Eventually, everything culminates in a pretty incredible bloody finale that perfectly marries the violence with the melodrama of the plot; and uses a child in a way you really can’t see a film from the US ever doing.

For the connoisseur of Hong Kong cinema of the time, it’s also rather great to see Carrie Ng and Elvis Tsui in atypical roles as the always fully dressed wife in whose breasts the camera is not the least bit interested, and the shouty, possibly evil but potentially heroic new boss of Ting who is never involved in a horrifying sex scene or other. What more could I ask of a movie?

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Three Films Make A Post: Based on a true story....that isn't over yet.

The Entity (1982): In Asian horror, movies with rapey ghosts are a dime a dozen, but western cinema has generally shied away from this particular combination of the crassly exploitative and the supernatural. Whereas this particular unpleasantness usually tends to be an extra bit of extremely icky titillation in those Asian movies, Sidney J. Furie’s The Entity (at least based on something of an actual case which of course doesn’t make anything of this true) puts this element of its plot front and centre, very much to the film’s detriment. The problem here is Furie’s direction that eschews the subtlety this theme would need if you really wanted to treat it seriously, replacing it with sledgehammer shocks so primitive, they make The Conjuring look reserved. This is one of those films that think that, as long as they present a deeply unpleasant idea, they magically become effective horror movies, as long as the soundtrack bleats loudly when the audience is supposed to be shocked. There are attempts here at providing the tale with a more psychological level, but those are doomed by the preposterousness of the script’s theories as well as the film’s vapid idea of horror.

Mermaid: The Lake of the Dead aka Rusalka: Ozero myortvykh (2018): Despite also having a bit of interest in sex of the not terribly consensual sort Svyatoslav Podgaevskiy’s movie about the kind of business a rusalka gets up to and the transcendent power of complicated rituals to get rid of supernatural creatures is rather less tacky than Furie’s film. It is not as if this were the height of contemporary horror, but it certainly is not as extremely generic a film as Podgaevskiy’s earlier Queen of Spades, which might as well have been called “PG-13 Horror: The Movie”. The director again merrily mixes Creepypasta-style ideas about rituals with folkloric elements but puts quite a bit more of an emphasis on the reworked folklore, which makes things at the very least more interesting. There’s also actual thematic work concerning the relationships of the main characters in connection with the supernatural threat going on, also giving the film some resonance the director’s earlier one lacked. The horror sequences themselves are still not exactly original, but they do show a decent sense of timing as well as a tendency towards the surreal, which all together does make the whole film quite a bit more interesting to watch than I feared going in.

Guests aka Gosti (2019): Staying in Russia, let’s finish on Evgeniy Abyzov’s tale of a group of tweens doing a guerrilla party in the wrong house. For my tastes, this is probably the best of the three films in this post, seeing as it is the most effective one at creating the proper mood of Crimean Gothic you’d hope for in a horror movie set there. It’s a bit slow, but its slowness is part of an approach that really is more interested in this being a character based bit of horror than the ghost fest you’d expect. Of these three film’s it is certainly the best at connecting its shocks and its characters; with its use of mold and decay as a sign and method of the supernatural, it is also the most effective there, even though about half of its set pieces still tend to be a bit too generic for my taste. It also has a bit of dark melodramatic romance on offer, and who doesn’t prefer that to ghost rape?

Friday, June 19, 2020

Past Misdeeds: 2012: Curse of the Xtabai (2012)

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.

Original title: 2012: Kurse a di Xtabai

Very suddenly, the population of a small village in Belize is stricken by a deadly illness. It’s not your run-of-the-mill kind of sickness either, but the sort of thing that very quickly convinces the local doctor to somewhat unhelpfully mumble about curses. The government is very quick to quarantine the village, so soldiers surround the place and are all too willing to gun down everyone who comes too close; on the other hand, we don’t get to see any attempts at actual medical help.

Young Nehanda (Nehanda Higino) has been having a recurring dream concerning a cave, the jungle and the witch-like creature known as the Xtabai. When her little brother catches the illness, and her mother is killed by the soldiers when she tries to leave to find a doctor who doesn’t go from “unknown illness” to “curse” in the course of a few hours, Nehanda becomes convinced these dreams are indeed prophetic, and that the cave contains a way to lift the curse destroying her village. So off she goes to the jungle with vaguely sleazy local guide and owner of an excellent name John Jones (Arran Bevis), and half of her school mates as well as her teacher (Jim Goodchild Arnold) in tow, facing the dangers of the soldiery as well as the rather unwanted attentions of the Xtabai herself.

Central-American Belize isn’t exactly a metropolis of filmmaking, so Xtabai may or may not be the country’s first (and possibly only) horror film. Not surprisingly with a film from a country with a small population and comparatively little cinematic infrastructure, director Matthiew Klinck’s epic is very rough around the edges, mostly shot with handheld digital cameras and featuring amateur actors. It does have a bit more going for it production-wise than many a microbudget horror film though, like actual soldiers portraying the members of the Belizian army (which comes as a bit of a surprise in a film that does portray that organisation as perfectly willing to gun down an unarmed woman and taking flight on the first sight of a floating witch), and a general air of professionalism making the best out of a difficult situation behind the camera.

Xtabai is an interesting (in the best possible interpretation of the word) mixture of various elements: there’s an air of down-to-Earth realism to the early scene setting parts of the film - in part certainly on account of the semi-professional actors in very real locations – but the film also shows an imaginative streak that seems half to be caused by the ambitions of a low budget horror movie that doesn’t quite want to only copy other films and half feels like folklore. This is after all a quest story about a girl trying to save her brother from a curse.

There’s also a bit of what I’ll never stop to call home-made psychedelia going on. The Xtabai’s murders scenes are delightful examples of how to use the cheapest digital effects to portray the change in perception attacks of the Weird/supernatural have on the characters, and definitely demonstrate more creativity than just letting the Xtabai slash and stalk in too mechanical a manner. From time to time, Klinck even manages to find a bit of visual poetry. I was particularly fond of the shadow play in Maestro’s death and the pure Weirdness of his fate in this regard, but there are a lot of little moments like that scattered around the film to keep the jaded horror film viewer interested.

I deeply appreciate the film’s dedication to the local: it’s not only the jungle (though I suspect that’s as good as cheap locations that are just sitting there for a filmmaker to use can get), or the way the film’s characters don’t fit horror movie tropes quite the way one expects. It’s not that the characters are deep mind you, but they are products of slightly different cultural sensibilities the film doesn’t attempt to hide, though they might very well be particularly embarrassing clichés if you’re from Belize.

The Xtabai - related to other folkloric entities of a parallel kind from all around the world as she may be – is a great pleasure in the local regard too, as is the film’s decision to include some of her stranger habits you’d typically get to see in folklore or in Weird Fiction, and less in straight-up horror. To make a final example of the film’s individual way of going about things, the Xtabai can in the end only be conquered with the help of a human sacrifice as prepared by a helpful Mayan elder (Nicasio Coc, I believe), something Klinck doesn’t keep hidden for some kind of final twist or for a not pre-planned self-sacrifice but lets the Mayan gentleman state completely friendly and matter-of-factly right when the characters meet him.

Of course, there’s also the mandatory “sexy bikini scene” (absurdly enough after the first member of our expedition has been taken by the Xtabai), a plot that more than once creaks mechanically, some feet dragging and so on and so forth in here, too, but in the case of this film, all that adds  charm to the proceedings and not the generic blandness it could have. These weaknesses just can’t distract from Curse of the Xtabai’s inherent qualities of Weirdness, localness, imagination and enthusiasm that make it a film very much worth seeking out for those willing to approach a film on its own terms.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

In short: The Dustwalker (2019)

Something that may be a meteorite or may be something just a tiny bit worse goes down near a small town in the Australian Outback. Shortly thereafter, something damages the dishes responsible for the town’s cellphone traffic, isolating the community right when people start getting infected by something that turns them into the creepy starer/occasional murderous shouty runner type of infected. Well, they also like to jump, but the less said about that, the better.

That’s not all, though. A big, bug-like monster is also starting to make regular appearances. Which would be a bit of a spoiler if the cover and one-sheet didn’t show it already. Local authority Joanne Sharp (Jolene Anderson) has got her work cut out for her.

For the first half, perhaps two thirds of its running time, I was pleasantly surprised by Sandra Sciberras’s (who directed and scripted) variation on the old, worn-out zombie apocalypse. It’s the sort of film you wouldn’t exactly call original (because you will have seen most of the elements at play here in one movie or another before), but that approaches the state of originality by putting the emphasis on other elements than most films of its genre do. To wit, where most of the film’s contemporaries go for zombie masses and a survivalist, heavily armed approach, this one’s more interested in the more personal horror of a situation where friends, relatives and acquaintances – and in a town this small, everyone is one or the other – suddenly turn at first creepy and then feral. Why, the characters are even repeatedly discussing if their increasingly violent handling of the infected is actually ethically correct. They don’t, after all, know if this isn’t a perfectly curable disease and they are basically slaughtering the sick.

As long as the film stays with this sort of thing, it manages to create a decent amount of suspense, making much of moments like a man with bloody hands staring creepily at people and suggesting a lot of the violence it can’t afford to show pretty effectively. Scriberas also makes good use of the natural feeling of isolation of its outback locale, adding another degree of tension to the zombie business.

Alas, the final act can’t really hold to what the rest of the film promised. There’s a good, and certainly interesting enough, core idea surrounding the increasingly important large monster, but the film also needs to show way too much of a pretty terrible special effect to actually put that idea into plot, and loses most of its tension while trying to sell its audience on its big idea. Worse, the otherwise solid editing also starts to slacken in the final third, what amounts to the film’s big climactic set piece falling flat because the rhythm of the whole affair has become completely off.

But hey, two thirds of a good little genre film is more than the Michael Bays of this world have ever achieved in a whole career, so I’m not going to complain too loudly here.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Toolbox Murders (2004)

Because he has found a job as an emergency room resident in Los Angeles, Steven Barrows (Brent Roam) and his – now jobless – schoolteacher wife Nell (the always excellent Angela Bettis) move into the Lunsman Arms, one of those ratholes that still dream of their former glory.

Something’s not at all right with the building; it’s the kind of place where it seems downright logical the building manager tries to sell it as part of the place’s “historical charm” when Nell and Steve find a box of human teeth in their apartment’s wall. Living in a place with very thin walls, and a creepy atmosphere that’s also in a perpetual state of loud renovation, Nell’s going stir-crazy in her new stay-at-home life, clashing with Steven (who is never there, stressed out by his job when he is, and clearly pretty low on the empathy scale) and starts to grow a bit paranoid about her surroundings. Though it’s not really paranoia when some black-clad killer actually does go around murdering inhabitants of the place with tools, right? It only makes Nell’s attempts at convincing anyone of her increasingly dire fears all the more difficult.

The mid and late periods of Tobe Hooper’s career, hell, anything he did that did not include the words “Texas”, “Chainsaw” and “Massacre” and no number in its title, are usually not well-liked by most critics and audiences. Hooper’s filmography is full of films with difficult production histories, films that don’t do what anyone but the director seems to want them to do, and films that are just plain weird. What these films never are is uninteresting, and in my experience, watching a Hooper movie that really annoyed me the first or second time around a couple of years later, can reveal those to be more than just interesting.

Even something like this sort of remake of the execrable The Toolbox Murders, in this new form a weird slasher with occult elements, can open up interesting avenues. I barely made it through the film the first time I watched it years ago, but this second time was apparently the charm.

It’s very far from being a perfect film, but I rather suspect that has quite a bit to do with one of the production companies involved folding during production, causing Hooper to shut the shoot down, and having to salvage a film out of what he had already shot. Which makes the film we got downright impressive. Sure, there are continuity errors, plot holes and the pacing is just plain peculiar, but Hooper still manages to create a creepy, threatening mood of wrongness, and turns his Lunsford Arms into one of those strange, liminal places, a house that literally has a hidden, malevolent other house hidden inside of itself. Often, Hooper reaches a vibe of creeping, illogical dread that makes this feel like a companion piece to Fulci’s House by the Cemetery (to which it is also thematically related); and like with the Fulci film, I believe the anti-logic of some of the film and its strange structure are important to create this feeling, even though they break all the rules of “good filmmaking”.

Apart from hitting exactly the kind of mood I like in my horror films, Toolbox Murders also recommends itself at least to me by its interest in all the things a good Los Angeles based horror movie should include: the intersection of occult history with the tawdry, hopeless side of showbiz (and one can’t help but think Hooper knew rather a lot about the latter), architecture that looks really bizarre and outright alien to this German from Lower Saxony, and a sense of societal indifference and poverty that subtly or not so subtly enables a lot of the bad things happening here. It’s a perfect amalgamation of quite a few of my interests, so it’s not much of a surprise I now have a decided soft spot for Hooper’s Toolbox Murders So what if it doesn’t exactly make sense?

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

In short: Once Upon a Time …in Hollywood (2019)

Despite my general enthusiasm for the works of Quentin Tarantino, I went into this expecting to hate it, for I have developed a bit of a distaste for films in which Hollywood people glorify Hollywood, usually leading to a level of intellectual and philosophical dishonesty even worse than what you’ll encounter in your typical Hollywood biopic, if you can imagine that.

However, that distaste was blown away rather quickly by the way Tarantino focuses on the has-beens and the never-quite-weres of that supposedly magical place, the dreams that never quite came true and the egos not only too big for their talents (because you can still go far without much talent but with a humongous ego in Hollywood, as certain careers alas prove all too well) but also too weird for a normal life. Not surprisingly, it’s the weirdoes Tarantino’s heart beats for here, though not the truly nasty ones; those get bloodily murdered.

Quentin’s kind of weirdoes are wonderfully embodied by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt here. DiCaprio manages to turn his aging cowboy actor Rick Dalton at once pathetic, loveable, annoying, and very very funny; he also demonstrates a fine understanding of a very specific kind of brilliant acting only found in low budget movies, programmers and other despised corners of the land of movies, places I tend to call home. Whereas Pitt embodies an over-aged kind of cool that only barely hides a deep goofiness and a certain emotional helplessness (a contemporary term of description would probably be “manchild”, but to me, that’s always been the kind of phrase only a judgemental asshole should use) in such a lovely way, I’m even willing to forgive him his Prozac turn in Ad Astra.

This is of course not a film interested in tight plotting or other new-fangled nonsense of this kind, but rather about its two main characters ambling through their lives, having encounters and small adventures, and from time to time crossing ways with the Manson “Family” so Quentin can at least get a little of the old ultra violence in, and critics who like this sort of thing can nod sagely and talk about “the dark side of the Hollywood dream”.

Me, I would have been perfectly happy without the whole Manson business, and without the obligatory explosion of violence. That would also have helped to rid the film of its other problem: the scenes when it pops in with Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate, who is rich, and beautiful, and so very very boring, doing nothing of interest whatsoever except breaking up our fun time with Leo and Brad while Tarantino’s camera leers so male-gazey on every single bit of her body, even I felt a little uncomfortable. I was also wishing for a female character with a personality in her stead.

Despite being structurally rather important for the movie as a whole (some might argue also for the point of it as a whole, but eh, points…), these pretty large flaws never feel too terrible while actually watching Once Upon a Time, never hindering me from being really damn charmed by most of the proceedings on screen.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Banana Spirit (1992)

Original title: 精靈變

Chic (Francis Ng) works as a beautician for the dead (his words, not mine) in a morgue, but he also helps his spiritual boxer buddy Che (Ngai Sing) out with an exorcism business that isn’t always completely honest even though Che does have actual spiritual powers.

One drunken night, the guys take a friend’s bet to wander off into a banana plantation at night to conjure up a banana spirit out of a banana tree. Banana spirits do apparently like a bit of good old ghost/living slash but also tend to – as most ghosts and spirits in Chinese folklore and religion do – suck their partners’ life energies.

The ritual – that includes Chic imagining his perfect woman whom he just met in form of a model in a bar - works out pretty well, and soon Chic has a new spirit girlfriend named Chang (Josephine Foo), who is actually a rather sweet gal, not in the habit of sucking the life out of anyone not a rapist.

She also uses her X-ray vision to help Chic win back the gambling debt Che owes the rather unpleasant gangster Rabid Hsiang (Tommy Wong); though Hsiang unfortunately cops to Chang’s true nature, which will lead to violent problems later in the movie.

Chic rapidly falls for Chang, of course, and why wouldn’t he? However also as a matter of course, in Hong Kong movies (and in Chinese culture), relationships between humans and spirits seldom end terribly well, so the couple’s time with each is other going to be short, and Chic, Cheng and their master Chen Sheng (Lam Ching-Ying playing your typical Lam Ching-Ying role of this era) will have to put quite some energy into at least getting her back where spirits like her belong safely in the end.

Lo Kin’s Banana Spirit is a rather typical ghost romance movie of its era in Hong Kong filmmaking, mixing an earnest romance, sometimes wild slapstick and whacky humour, kung fu, and eventually some pretty unpleasant (but fun) looking effects into a concoction that feels lively, surprising and likeable even when you know all of its constituent parts from quite a few other movies. This isn’t a masterpiece of its genre – it’s neither quite that charming nor visually quite imaginative enough – but a film doesn’t need to be that to be a highly enjoyable time, and that, Banana Spirit certainly is.

I particularly liked how genuinely Chic and Chang seem to fit together, filling the holes in each other’s character, the film thus perfectly fulfilling the romantic element while not overplaying it. I also had a lot of fun with the film’s other parts: Lam Ching-Ying is obviously always the best, if he’s kicking a burning dead guy’s butt, making fun of his increasing age that apparently means he can only use kung fu defensively anymore (which does of course set-up a couple of fun fights), or romancing Chic’s aunt. Rabid Hsiung’s return from the dead as a melty fire undead gentleman is fun too, providing the opportunity for more kung fu and a couple of excellent looking effects, and adding the needed outward dramatic tension to the climax.

All of this will be a bit too episodically structured for strict contemporary tastes, particularly of western viewers, but the film’s looseness never feels lazy. It is simply a way to pack a broader variety of fun stuff into its running time. It’s a bit of a trade-off against greater structural tightness and tension of course, but whenever any given scene calls for it, Lo Kin has no problem providing that tightness too; and this isn’t so much a film about creating tension as one that wants you to fall into tropes and ideas as if they were your favourite comfy chair. If you ask me, there’s nothing wrong with that at all.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Three Films Make A Post: Some directors live for their work. He kills for it.

Return to Cabin by the Lake (2001): Because apparently nobody in the early 00’s could get enough of Judd Nelson mugging idiotically through a nonsense plot that tries to excuse its stupidity by calling itself a comedy, the world suffered this sequel to Po-Chih Leong’s TV movie Cabin by the Lake. The film’s still plotted for an audience of fools, the jokes are the sort of smug “ain’t Hollywood horrible” jokes that must have had a beard in the 1930s already, and Nelson’s performance as serial killer/screenwriter/director is so broad, no bridge could cross it. Though you gotta give some respect to screenwriter Jeffrey Reddick when an early, completely insufferable, victim of Nelson’s Stanley goes by his own name; I accept the apology.

The Droving (2020): This piece of British indie folk horror about a soldier/torturer (Daniel Oldroyd) searching for the killer of his sister (Amy Tyger) as directed by George Popov is fortunately not trying to be funny. It’s a bit of a frustrating film, though, the sort of affair that’s clearly made with talent and love but doesn’t come together quite well enough. The film certainly has an eye for moody (and pretty) landscape shots very useful for folk horror, and its script has a clear idea of the intersection between its folkloric idea and the inner life of its main character. The acting’s good too.

The problem is the pacing: scenes, as is so often the case in indie productions, tend to go on longer than they should be – sometimes clearly aiming for suspense but not quite being able to sustain it long enough, other times going slightly overboard with an attempt to deepen the character and his flashback relation to his sister. Of course, these are the kinds of flaws that come from a willingness to take risks and show the right kind of ambition, so it’s difficult to be too unhappy with the film.

She Never Died (2019): Speaking of indie movies with ambition, Audrey Cummings’s peculiar mix of grungy proto-superhero elements and horror, with a smidgen of 80s buddy comedy certainly is that, also. Canadian and city-based, this also shows an understanding of creating mood via landscape, or rather cityscape. Otherwise, there’s little connecting it with any of the other films in this post. It’s one of those films that have a peculiar and personal vibe, as if you were watching someone’s very individual favourite bits of different genres put together to form one movie. As is typical for this sort of affair, this isn’t always as effective as it could be on a dramatic level, but still features nice effects, fun performances by lead Olunike Adeliyi as our superpowered cannibal heroine with a secret and various Canadian character actors like Peter MacNeill and Noah Denby, and a visible love for the city as the true place to set one’s grubby vigilantism in.

The only truly off-putting element here is the sudden excursion into the biblical in the final ten minutes or so, promising a sequel I suspect will never come instead of finishing the film properly.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Past Misdeeds: Tales That Witness Madness (1973)

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.

Some middle-aged guy (the body of Jack Hawkins and the awkwardly dubbed voice of Charles Gray) visits the high-tech - by way of what looks a bit like a set from a cost-effective (but awesome) SF TV show – psychiatric clinic of one Professor Tremayne (Donald Pleasence). Tremayne shows off his four favourite patients while mumbling something about how his deep research into the cases and the truth about them will change everything.

This being a British horror anthology movie, with each patient lies a tale. There’s little Paul (Russell Lewis), who has a pair of permanently warring parents (Georgia Brown and Donald Houston), a nice private tutor (David Wood), and an imaginary friend who just happens to be an invisible tiger cleverly named “Mr. Tiger”. The obvious thing happens.

Next up is Timothy Patrick (Peter McEnery). His tale involves the inheritance of quite a few antiques, among them the (soon to be moving) picture of one Uncle Albert (Frank Forsyth) and a penny-farthing that once belonged to the man. The unicylce or the picture or both have telekinetic powers that violently draw Timothy onto the cycle, make him cycle quite hard and transport him into the unicycling past where he takes the place of Albert and repeats a scene or two from a doomed romance (his past adventure love and present day love both being played by Suzy Kendall, the former one in a hilariously melodramatic manner) while being observed by what looks like mud zombie Uncle Albert. Obviously, past and future catastrophe looms.

Patient number three is Brian (Michael Jayston). Brian lives peacefully in a large house in the woods with his mildly irascible –she’s being played by Joan Collins after all – wife/girlfriend Bella until he finds an about human-sized and vaguely woman-shaped piece of a tree in the woods. Obviously, he’s dragging it home and putting it in his living room. Soon, the age-old tale of a man’s affections split between a piece of wood and a woman repeats again.

Last but not least, we witness the tale of Auriol (Kim Novak), a literary agent who’s rather fond of her best client, the “Polynesian” – or maybe “Hawaiian”, going by the whole luau thing - writer Keoki (Leon Lissek, obviously neither Polynesian nor Hawaiian but then it is rather difficult to imagine somebody with the appropriate ethnicity taking on this particular role). Little does she expect that Keoki is in the process of fulfilling the last wish of his dear old mum, namely, to sacrifice a virgin to their favourite god and have a nice cannibalistic get-together afterwards. As luck will have it, Auriol’s daughter Ginny (Mary Tamm) just happens to be a virgin. And wow, isn’t it quite the coincidence Auriol is actually planning a little luau for him! Accidental inter-family cannibalism just might ensue.

As the observant reader might have noticed, the stories contained in this not Amicus produced - despite being directed by dear old Freddie Francis and featuring a structure and actors you might know all too well from the Amicus films - British horror anthology are utter, preposterous tosh, ending on notes as obvious as moonlight, while still managing to be flat-out crazy.

If you’re looking for something moody, thoughtful or just vaguely believable, you’ve come to the wrong film. Like a lot of these anthologies, this one’s a horror comic made flesh, but – apart from tale number four – it’s less EC style horror than the sort of thing Charlton Comics would have put out in comics code times (with perhaps a bit more blood than would have been allowed there on screen), stuff that at the best of times distracts from how pedestrian it should be by being outright crazy. Which is pretty much exactly what Tales That Witness Madness does after the somewhat useless first story, adding utterly peculiar elements to the stories that would seem ill-advised in a film actually out to scare its audience. Seriously, a haunted penny-farthing? And let’s not even talk about the whole of story number three, which just might be one of the major achievements of human arts.

Talking of ill-advised, it is rather difficult not to realize – even if you pretend very hard not to notice - how much of a racist fever dream the film’s last tale is, with its evil brown people killing a white virgin and feeding her to her own mother, and there’s really nothing I can find to excuse it, barely anything to explain it, so if that sort of thing offends you (and good on you), you’ll probably loathe the rest of the film for it, too, I suppose. On the other hand, I found this tale so preposterous and silly in tone while also being gloriously lurid I couldn’t help but enjoy it more than a little, despite it being racist claptrap. It’s just very difficult for me to look at this sort of thing (particularly in a film made more than forty years ago) and take it seriously enough to get angry or even very annoyed at the dead people responsible; not that I approve of it, mind you, nor would I want to see any contemporary movie that descends into these depths.

Be that as it may, Francis is pretty much the ideal director for this whole beautiful mess, combining his usual wonderful sense of visual style with the appropriate shamelessness to actually bring these deeply stupid tales to glowing life. Francis has just the right sense for movement and colour to turn this into a moving comic strip, clearly realizing that attempting to add class to this stuff would be a fool’s errand and opting for being as lurid and peculiar as possible, a task he fulfils with aplomb (as well as, one assumes, on time and on a not very large budget). Despite being quite so silly, the film also shows a wonderful sense of the telling (yet weird) detail that is best demonstrated by how the tree thing in tale number three is a bit more shaped like a woman in every scene, until the rip-roaring denouement that suggests a piece of a tree is preferable to poor Joan Collins.

Clearly, it pays off putting effort even into the silliest things.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

In short: Bored Hatamoto: The Cave of the Vampire Bats (1961)

Original title: Hatamoto taikutsu otoko: Nazo no nanairo goten

This is a late example of the “Bored Hatamoto” (sometimes also translated as “Idle Vassal”) series of fun jidai geki concerning the adventures of Hatamoto (which means a directed vassal of the Shogun who is only responsible to the Shogun himself but neither lords nor laws below him) Saotome Mondonosuke (Utaemon Ichikawa), a supposedly idle and bored guy who always stumbles into conspiracies and over mysteries, which he beats with his talent for making friends in all classes of a highly stratified society, his – of course – indomitable swordplay, and rather a lot of pulpy detective moves.

It’s generally a light and fun series that I assume was at the time made for an audience of all ages, and this entry, as directed by Yasushi Sasaki, is no exception. This is not one of those samurai films terribly interested in social or historical criticism, psychology, or extreme craziness (1961 would have been pretty early for that last one anyway), but is all about showing Mondonosuke outwitting and outfighting a group of evildoers trying to cheat someone into the shogun’s succession, even if they have to murder and besmirch the honour of innocent shrine maidens who know too much, or turn a perfectly harmless cave full of bats into something frightening to the peasantry. Too bad for them that Mondonosuke comes upon the first murder, as committed by a masked man in ninja style garb with an excellent tiny cape supposed to suggest bat wings, and starts poking his nose in all sorts of places.

And what a nice bit of fun the film is, with a couple of not spectacular yet highly enjoyable fight scenes, a mystery that’s rather easy to solve yet still entertaining to watch unravel, the high quality sets and locations you expect from this sort of Japanese film, and a cast (full of faces everyone who watches Japanese popular cinema of this time will know) that plays the broad characters with verve.

Sasaki’s a competent director too, perhaps a bit too fond of melodramatic zooms on Ichikawa’s face, but keeping things rolling along merrily and economically.

The film’s only actual weakness to my eyes is its overuse of the two songs on its soundtrack. Sure, there’s a degree of plot relevance to one of them, but we get to hear each one three or four times – rather a lot in a film of less than ninety minutes length.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Mile 22 (2018)

Usually, I relegate movies that piss me off quite as much as this thing to my Saturday “Three Films Make A Post” segment but sometimes a boy does have to express his anger and pain in more than a hundred words. Really, calling this a movie goes a bit far, and is a bit of an insult to those people making movies in their grandma’s backyards and could probably use the 35 to 60 Million US Dollars this was apparently budgeted at to make a thousand films that at least show some enthusiasm for the art of filmmaking; and who certainly have more talent than the crew of highly paid professionals under “director” (I use this term loosely) Peter Berg demonstrate here.

Now, if you’ve seen any of the other films Berg made with Marky Mark in the lead, you’ll probably expect the reactionary spirit far beyond the average of the not exactly progressive action movie genre (and as you know, I love me some action movies even if they have their heart on the wrong side), as well as the inability of Wahlberg to act his way out of a wet paper back, his macho alpha male posturing mostly emphasising how ridiculous the guy is in these roles; the casual racism is going to be a given too, I suppose.

But Berg (and whoever else is responsible for the decisions made during and after production) doesn’t stop there this time around. The dialogue (“script” – and I use the term even more loosely then “director” - by Lea Carpenter) is a painful mess that’s made slightly more bearable by a sound mix that seems as embarrassed by this shit as everyone else involved also should have been and buries about half of the dialogue under noise and crappy music. The action direction lets the Michael Bays and Tony Scotts of this world look like beacons of clarity, Berg apparently going out of his way to shoot the action sequences by pointing away from the action as often as possible. This becomes particularly egregious during the martial arts fights of poor, misused Iko Uwais (who also happens to be the only one in the movie bothering with some acting; Marky Mark can’t, John Malkovich won’t), scenes that suggest to me that Berg would really hate for the audience to see or actually enjoy any of this crap. For reasons only known to the filmmakers, our “hero” spends much of his time insulting everyone he meets, be it co-workers, strangers or random passersby, making the guy unsympathetic even in a genre whose heroes are borderline psychopaths anyway. The film’s also suffering from the delusion that gritty (you can bet everybody involved just loves that descriptor, plus the good old “edgy”) dialogue means having Marky Mark use the word fuck at least ten times in every scene. In reality, this just makes the character we spend most of the film with even more of an asshole, and a childish one to boot.

Tonally, this pretends not to be a proper action movie at all, but more the kind of think-peace-style semi-political semi-action thing like Sicario or Zero Dark Thirty (both films I have problems with, too, but rather more upmarket ones having to do with their meaning and storytelling and not a lack of even the most basic filmmaking skills). That nobody involved has the brains or the talent to actually make that sort of film nearly goes without saying; turns out there’s more to this filmmaking stuff than pointing a camera away from the action. Though that bit, Berg has down pat.

I could go on berating Mile 22 for another six-hundred words or so, but by now, my imaginary readers will have gotten the gist and can supply their own insults towards its “storytelling” and “plotting”.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

In short: The Mummy Returns (2001)

Some of what I said about the first Stephen Sommers The Mummy movie still goes. At the time when he made this sequel, he certainly still knew how to stage a series of awesome and escalating action set pieces created with CGI before CGI was automatically good looking once you’ve got a certain budget, and he also still realized he needed to ground the loud stuff in the human (though of course not the naturalistic), so we do join Rick and Evie (still Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz) as a still adventuring wife and husband duo with an only mildly obnoxious kid (Freddie Boath), the film really getting how you’d want things to have worked out for these two, boring realism be damned.

Sommers also hasn’t lost his feel for breakneck pacing, though the sequel’s middle part is a bit flabbier, though not terribly so, than the one of the first. That’s mostly on account of Sommers’s script containing quite a bit of backstory and side material that needs to somehow be provided to the audience. As a matter of personal taste, I’m not terribly fond of the whole rebirth and chosen one subplot for our heroic couple – I’d rather see people kick the bad guy’s ass because they are competent and heroic and willing to do the right thing instead of fated to do it – but I have to admit, the finale does use all of the elements Sommers has built before rather well, giving the whole silly affair a surprising feeling of the organic with an internal logic of its own, while also including enough awesome goofy nonsense like Egyptian pygmy mummies. Again, the film goes out of its way to have every character do something of import, giving the whole affair a surprisingly inclusive bent, too.

The script isn’t as dumb as it pretends to be in other regards too. At the very least, the film very consciously builds up a contrast between a healthy Big Love as embodied by Evie and Rick and the rather destructive one between Imhotep (still Arnold Vosloo) and Anck-Su-Namun (Patricia Velasquez). It’s not terribly deep, but it’s neither dumb nor hollow either, and that’s really the thing that surprises me most about Sommers’s Mummy movies when watched fairly: they may be big dumb fun, but they are not stupid.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Drive (1997)

The near future. Toby Wong (Mark Dacascos), a former Hong Kong government agent turned involuntary killer for a Chinese company/government/organized crime entity goes on the run from his employers and makes his way to the USA. Here, he plans to sell the biological reactor implanted into his chest that gives him basic super soldier super powers to a company and retire somewhere nice, free from the hassle of the violent life.

Of course, his former bosses do not take this sort of thing lying down, particularly since Toby’s reactor is still a one-of-a kind prototype. So they send a team of American assassins (led by characters played by John Pyper-Ferguson and Tracey Walter) on his trail, with orders not to kill him. Which is a bit of a problem for these guys, since Toby has no such orders holding him back, plus superpowers (though he always goes out of his way to protect civilians). Still, during the first encounter with his hunters, things escalate a bit, and Toby takes innocent bystander Malik Brody (Kadeem Hardison) and his car hostage for a little road trip to Los Angeles. Of course, the two will become squabbling buddies while being chased and shot at.

Among the connoisseurs of these sorts of things, Steve Wang’s Drive has the reputation of being one of the very best direct to DVD action movies, and it’s difficult to disagree when you look at the action scenes in the film. Unlike quite a few directors working in Hollywood at the time, Wang had clearly learned the right lessons from Hong Kong action films, realizing that it’s not the guns akimbo and the slow motion birds that make classic Hong Kong action cinema great, but a sense of dynamism, of mobility, a way to use the camera in fast yet clear ways, and an emphasis on movement. Well, that, and a whiff of madness, with stunts which often do not look the slightest bit safe for the performers.

So that’s exactly what Wang (and action director Koichi Sakamoto, a guy with extensive experience in the Japanese Tokusatsu realm) bring to Drive’s action, as well as a very Hong Kong cinema use of objects of daily life and gimmicks during fights to make things more interesting as well as funnier. And really, if you can’t laugh about Mark Dacascos making a classic kung fu movie “come on, fight!” gesture while wearing shoes on his hands, the problem’s with you and not the film.

Having said that, the film’s humour outside of the fight gimmicks is certainly an acquired taste, seeing as it is low-brow, goofy and often more than just a little annoying. On the other hand, the film’s humour is also often just plain weird, and therefor interesting. Just watch whatever the hell Brittany Murphy is doing in her part as a mentally disabled motel owner’s daughter who can not shut up for a second, and be weirded out completely or look puzzled at the film’s climax taking place in an Apollo 14 themed night club, including an inexplicable musical interlude with Dacascos before the fight starts.

I have to admit I would have preferred less humour and more melodramatic mugging, but there’s something so companionable about that humour’s goofiness and weirdness in combination with some of the most inventive action I’ve ever seen in US action cinema, I find myself completely unable to resist Drive’s rather peculiar charms.

Also: if you can find it, go for the film’s director’s cut.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Three Films Make A Post: Freedom always comes with a price.

A Prayer for the Dying (1987): This one’s not exactly one of Mike Hodges’s great achievements as a director. It tonally wavers between his rather different masterpieces already out at the time, Get Carter and Flash Gordon. So some of the film’s gangster/IRA business is more than just bordering on the camp (take nearly every single scene with Alan Bates’s gangster boss/mortician and much of the overdone Catholic imagery), while other parts of the film have the grey nihilism you’d probably expect from Hodges doing this specific plot. The film’s major problem is that these two sides of the film don’t actually seem to belong together at all, as if the director had used a coin toss before shooting any given scene to come up with its tone. It’s still an interesting film, and never a boring one, mind you, it’s just not terribly good. Though Mickey Rourke’s Irish accent is never less than hilarious.

The Closet aka 클로젯 (keul-lo-jet) (2018 or 2020, depending on the source): Kim Kwang-bin’s South Korean horror film about the disappearance of a daughter thanks to a creature that uses closet doors as dimension doors and the father (Ha Jung-woo) who is trying to rescue her with the help of a somewhat untrustworthy exorcist (Kim Nam-gil) is certainly not going to go down in my books as one of the great horror films from the country. It starts strong, connecting the shared trauma of father and daughter caused by the death of the mother in an accident nicely with the supernatural elements, but once the kid’s gone, things turn into a certainly fast and furious but also not terribly creepy or scary series of jump scares and okay horror set pieces, keeping everything that’s going on too much on the surface and too focussed on cheap and easy shocks. As a carnival ride, it’s still a fair piece of work.

The Big Swindle aka 범죄의 재구성 (2003): Also from South Korea but made a decade earlier, Choi Dong-hoon’s heist movie mixes broad and subtle comedy and silly and clever ideas to excellent effect, using the complicated flashback structure beloved by South Korean cinema at the time to make its series of heists, betrayals, revenges, secrets and lies rather more complicated than it actually is. Complicated, not confusing, though, for Choi has a clear eye for character motivation (even when these motives are hidden or confused), and while the characters’ various plans only make sense in a movie world, they absolutely make sense for these characters to have.

The film presents this with great verve, a love for visual gags, and a game cast consisting of people like Park Shin-yang, Baek Yoon-sik and Yum Jung-ah.

Friday, June 5, 2020

Past Misdeeds: Blood Moon (2014)

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.

The Old West. A group of travellers on a stagecoach – the freshly married couple of Deputy Marshal Jake (George Blagden) and Sarah Norman (Amber Jean Rowan), baby-faced London Times journalist Henry Lester (George Webster), nervous priest Father Dominic (Kerry Shale), saloon owner Marie (Anna Skellern), and a mysterious gunman named Calhoun (Shaun Dooley) they picked up on the way – make a pit stop in what is supposed to be a station located in what otherwise is a ghost town. Unfortunately, the station owner is spending a bit of time out of town in his new role as a ripped apart corpse, clearly having taken going native in the place a bit too seriously.

Calhoun – not the only white guy in this part of the West suspiciously knowledgeable about Native American monsters – quickly determines the man wasn’t killed by a normal animal but by a skinwalker; the rest of the party doesn’t exactly agree with his assessment. However, this specific dead body and the possible supernatural cause of its death might not be the most pressing of the party’s problems anyway, for they soon find themselves ambushed and captured by notorious outlaws Hank (Corey Johnson) and Jeb (Raffaello Degruttola) Walker, who might not be supernatural, but sure as heck are dangerous enough. Plus, at least one of the Walkers is so crazy, he might as well be a supernatural monster for all the difference it makes.

Of course, then there’s the further complication added to our heroes’ troubles that the station owner was indeed killed by a skinwalker and the creature’s still roaming the area in a very bad mood, particularly since a blood moon is hanging in the sky…

There’s also a subplot about Jake’s cousin, one Marshal Wade (Jack Fox) and his Native American tracker/visionary/witch friend Black Deer (Eleanor Matsuura) in their role as the miniature posse hunting the Walkers, but I honestly couldn’t tell you why these two are even in the movie apart from taking care of some plot setup the film could have handled without introducing two characters who’ll spend most of the film’s running time randomly trundling through the woods and not doing much of interest.

And right here, we’re at the main trouble with Jeremy Wooding’s UK-produced horror western Blood Moon – Alan Wightman’s script simply becomes awkward from time to time, not just by introducing a subplot that takes up more space than is necessary (and adds further characters to a film that already has enough of them just to introduce a bit of exposition, a minor horror scene that has little business being in the plot, and light deus ex machina-ing) but also with moments like Chekov’s Awkwardly Presented Silver Rings near the beginning. You know the rule: “If a werewolf film has a character showing off her silver rings in the first act, they will end up being used for werewolf killing in the third”. That Chekov guy really knew his stuff. These aren’t catastrophic failings as far as this particular film goes, though they do tend to make a movie that puts a western skinwalker twist on a Carpenter-esque siege scenario rather less focused and tight than I’d have liked it to be. On the other hand, whenever Blood Moon works, it does so very well indeed, and it does work more often than not.

Despite including one or two scenes I found rather stagy for my tastes (mostly some of the indoor dialogue concerning Jeb), Wooding directs much of the film with a very sure hand, filming around its probably tiny budget quite elegantly and creatively, and turning the – mostly effective suitmation – monster into a credible threat as well as into a source of suspense that works as a nice catalyst for revealing the tensions between the characters besieged by it. That’s also an area where the script comes into its own in a positive way, giving stock character types just the right minor twists they need to come to life, and providing some fun old west style dialogue that might not be realistic (well, surely is not) but is – apart from a moment or two when it sounds just a bit too silly – a joy to listen to. The majority of the actors not being Americans isn’t much of a problem here, either, because they’re not faking actual American accents here but are using what movies – a lot of them dubbed in Italy – have taught us people sounded like way back when. The core cast is decent, and often better, even if you don’t enjoy artificial accents, the film providing most everyone with a few moments to shine (and perhaps a pleasantly bloody death).

While I’ve done quite a bit of nitpicking in this write-up, I don’t want anyone reading to come to the wrong conclusion about the film: if you’re able to get over its flaws – and there are more than enough virtues on display to make that pretty easy for me – Blood Moon is a fine example of contemporary low budget filmmaking, working in a genre mix that’s gotten a bit more common in the last decade or so but is still far from being overused, and providing  quite a few things to appreciate. That it’s not perfect isn’t really the most horrible thing imaginable (that would be getting ripped to shreds and not even eaten by a skinwalker, I suppose, or having to watch another Paranormal Activity sequel).

Thursday, June 4, 2020

In short: Kill Chain (2019)

A bag of diamonds makes its way through the hands of various killers and lowlifes (played by lovely actors like Enrico Colantoni or the generally okay Ryan Kwanten) until it ends up in the hands of a Woman in Red (Anabelle Acosta) – the film’s using descriptions like this for most of the characters in its credits though (or because) most of them have several names – who wanders into a decrepit hotel run by a guy with a violent past (Nicolas Cage). The Lady’s trying to outrun a, nay, The Very Bad Woman (Angie Cepeda), and the hotel manager might just be the guy to help her out.

This interesting attempt of using traditional tropes and clichés of movies and books about violent men and women to turn their well-known plots existential and archetypal as written and directed by Ken Sanzel is probably simply a bit too cheap and quickly made to quite achieve what it seems to set out to do. The pacing drags sometimes, and its self-consciousness can border on the smug (or, if you’re easier annoyed by cleverness than me, step across the line quite a bit), with some of the deep and meaningful talk not being quite as deep and meaningful as it’s supposed to sound, the dialogue straining for a gravitas it can’t quite reach.

There’s something about the movie, though. In part, I’m charmed by how its shaggy dog tale structure reminds me pleasantly of films like Winchester 73 (or eternal favourite Fish Story), even though I would have preferred if it hadn’t gone the 2010s movie road of everything in it being part of some clever plan that’s actually less plausible than mere chance. Then there’s the fact that I genuinely still enjoy the archetypes and tropes the film so clearly also adores, as I do Kill Chain’s love for scenes of people telling tales (with more than a handful of meanings to them). And even though this was clearly made on the comparatively cheap, the film features quite a bit of acting talent apparently getting into the spirit of the piece very well, Cage underplaying more than typical yet still applying himself, and everyone selling their archetypes wonderfully.

Sanzel’s pretty good at visually creating a decrepit little part of Tijuana (clearly situated more in a Mexico of pulp imagination than the real place, and meant to be there) out of some ugly buildings, cheap neon signs and a lot of grimy looking darkness, the sort of place your noir character flees to before the past catches up on them again.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Strange Invaders (1983)

One day, his ex-wife Margaret (Diana Scarwid) appears in the apartment of entomology docent Charles Bigelow (Paul Le Mat), their little daughter Elizabeth (Lulu Sylbert) in tow. There’s some sort of family problem, and she needs to return to the Midwest small town she grew up in. Charles agrees to take Elizabeth, of course, but when Margaret neither reappears nor phones for days, he and Elizabeth grow restless. After weeks have passed – a time during which all phone lines to the town Margaret is visiting are permanently unusable to boot – Charles decides to make the drive halfway around the country to find out what happened to his ex-wife.

Once he has arrived in beautiful Centerville, Illinois, things become increasingly peculiar. People there are rude, uninformative and  vaguely creepy, while the town itself still carries a heavy whiff of the 50s. More disturbing still is the fact that those people in town actually willing to talk to the stranger claim to never have heard of Margaret’s family. When Charles isn’t leaving immediately and pokes around the place a bit, the situation escalates in a not atypical series of events including a disappearing dog, a broke-down car, and mysteriously appearing and disappearing townsfolk. Eventually, Charles flees the town while a bug-eyed alien guy shoots lightning at his escape car.

Once returned to civilisation, our protagonist has a hell of a time finding anyone to believe him, be it friends, a lady from the government agency tasked with investigating strange occurrences (Louise Fletcher), or even tabloid reporter Betty Walker (Nancy Allen). And that really could be that, but these aliens clearly take security very seriously indeed, so Charles soon finds his home and office ransacked, and is threatened by various weird people. The aliens also start bothering Betty, finally winning Charles an ally as well as a love interest. Clearly, another visit to Centerville is in order.

As most people interested in cult cinema will probably know, what the 80s are to our era, the 50s were to the 80s themselves, with many a film taking heavy inspiration from pop cultural artefacts made thirty years earlier. As it is also today, this fixation can lead to a sort of lazy copyism, or to – often pretty inspired - reworkings that use elements of the old to make something new that uses looks, sounds and feelings of an earlier era and builds something different out of them.

Michael Laughlin’s Strange Invaders certainly belongs to the latter kind of film, using elements of 50s alien invasion movies, casting old school actors like June Lockhart and Kenneth Tobey (who turns out to be rather more excellent at being creepy than he ever was at being square-jawed), and including many an idea that could nearly have been borrowed from the past. At the same time, Laughlin does use many of these elements in ways the stiffer films of the 50s couldn’t have gotten away with, very companionably poking fun at the older films without anything here ever turning into outright satire or comedy. Rather, these moments in the film feel like nods for those in the audience who have seen the same films the filmmakers have.

There’s no heavy deconstruction of traditional genre tropes going on here anyway, mind you, for Laughlin’s really more interested in telling a traditional invasion plot in a slightly more contemporary manner, so if you expect a strong non-conformist subplot or something of the sort, you might be disappointed. Sometimes, an alien body snatcher is just an alien body snatcher rather than a metaphor for communism/anti-communism or whatever else floats your boat.

From a 2020 perspective, the film’s looking somewhat stranger than he will have played at the time, really giving me a bit of a double dose of nostalgia – one dose for the 50s movies the film itself feels a degree of nostalgia for, the other for the kind of mild 80s sf/horror this is, the sort of film made by filmmakers who shared many of the cultural influences and interests of Steven Spielberg or George Lucas but didn’t quite have the talent, or the luck, or the commercial instincts to make movies as accomplished or successful as these big boys of nerddom did.

Which doesn’t mean Laughlin’s a bad director. If you get used to Strange Invaders’ somewhat slow pace and are okay with a certain tendency to pull emotional punches where it would have been more effective to go for the gut, there’s a lot to enjoy here, starting with Louis Horvath’s typical (and very effective) early 80s photography (you’ll know pretty much how this will look if you have seen anything made in the first half of that decade; you’ll also know how pretty it looks), and certainly not ending with Laughlin’s love for tucking away little interesting details about characters somewhere in a scene’s background.

I’m also very happy about a film concerned with a deeply not macho Paul Le Mat as its hero, something that certainly wouldn’t have happened in the 50s (or quite a few parts of the 80s either). Le Mat’s not exactly a charisma bomb, but he plays his characters’ increasing frustration about the world’s disbelief as well as he shoes his deep well of courage when it comes down to it. From today’s perspective, Nancy Allen could really have rather more to do, but she’s also not standing around screaming all the time.

Last but not least, there is some really cool effects work on screen, with the ickily organic human masks in front of the also excellent alien faces as created by James Cummins being a particular high point; though the rest of the effects are lovely too.

All of which really adds up to a fun little film that evokes nostalgia without getting lost in it.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

In short: Breaking Dawn (2004)

Warning: I’m going to at least in part spoil the ending!

Medical student Dawn (Kelly Overton) takes part in a somewhat peculiar test of her medical ability. Given six weeks to treat a patient in a mental institution for the more difficult cases, the students are apparently either succeeding at a treatment or will never be able to finish their studies.

Dawn’s patient is one Don Wake (James Haven), nearly catatonic after he supposedly murdered his mother. Turns out it’s rather difficult to practice the talking cure on a guy who usually doesn’t even acknowledge one’s presence. Increasingly desperate, Dawn secretly lowers Don’s medication, which does indeed wake him up. The first mumblings and later rantings about someone (or something?) named Malachi and a secret conspiracy Don starts spouting very quickly take on a reality of their own for Dawn, as if Don were beaming his delusions right into her brain. Very soon, strange people appear to her, objects appear and disappear and the young woman becomes emotionally fragile and paranoid. Even worse, in her interactions with Don, the power dynamics shift completely, until she’s the one begging for his help.

Yes, to put the spoilers right here, all of what’s happening is indeed going on inside of Dawn’s head, for she’s the actual mental patient of the tale, with Don some sort of spirit (let’s hope he’s not meant to be a sodding angel) come to help her before her brain is forever destroyed via electroconvulsive therapy (which the film treats as if it were a lobotomy). So everything we see that doesn’t make sense is supposed to be metaphorical or an illusion, in theory absolving the script of all responsibility to make sense or play by its own rules.

Of course, if everything’s supposed to be an actual symbol or metaphor, then a film needs to make sure all of these symbols and metaphors actually cohere into some kind of comprehensible meaning. Breaking Dawn manages this about half of the time. That wouldn’t be too bad a quota, if those bits of the film that do cohere were just a little less bland. Dawn, apparently, doesn’t have much of an imagination even in her dream-life, mostly using the kind of kitchen sink psychology metaphors you’d find in a mediocre TV movie, and those not terribly convincingly either. Really, the film simply needed either to be crazier or more thought through.

Visually, director/writer Mark Edwin Robinson never gets above that TV movie level either, not exactly creating much of a mysterious atmosphere with bright lighting and mostly text book – aka boring – framing. It’s certainly not a bad looking film, but not one that ever got my imagination going, either.