Friday, July 31, 2020

Past Misdeeds: Nosferatu

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.

I find writing about silent movies - much more so than actually watching them - exceedingly difficult. While I usually don't even flinch anymore when confronted with differences in style or filmic language, silent movies always seem to come from more than just a different time or place and to deserve a more scholarly treatment than I am capable of.

The problem is amplified even further when a film has been as heavily analysed as Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau's Nosferatu - Eine Symphonie des Grauens. There is probably not much to say about it that hasn't already been said. Fortunately, the nice thing about blogging is that one's personal lack of knowledge does not always need to keep one away from trying to wring out a few words about a film.

Even better - I'm not all that interested in talking facts about movies anyway, especially not about films like Nosferatu which invite one to be read as dreams rather than narratives.

This method of watching silent movies as if they were other people's dreams, forgoing the need for logic, plot and other unnecessary ballast is the best way to derive pleasure from them for me and makes it easier to watch European films of the silent era than the often slicker American ones which on paper keep much closer to our modern sensibilities.

The German filmmakers of the Weimar Republic were a very peculiar mix of the commercial filmmaker of today and the mad scientist of future movies, giving their better films a mood that I find quite close to that of other films better understood as dreams than as narratives - the European exploitation movies of much later periods. Yes, I propose to watch Murnau films as if they were made by Jess Franco.

The commercial interests of Nosferatu are obvious. Taking the basic plot of a novel like Stoker's Dracula (of course without paying the author's estate) as the base for your film is as commercially minded as anything Roger Corman ever did, although Corman would never have been so obvious about it that you could have sued him.

But I don't think that the interesting parts of Nosferatu are those close to the book. It is much more important which parts of the book Murnau and his scriptwriter Henrik Galeen chose to ignore.

I see the original Dracula as a modernization of Gothic tropes for the contemporary British audience of the 1890s and have a lot of sympathy for interpretations of Dracula as standing in for venereal disease and/or the fear of the Other. Murnau's film, though, isn't interested in syphilis or modernization of tropes at all (which doesn't mean that he has nothing to say about/to his contemporary world - that part comes automatically). On the contrary, Nosferatu is full of the medieval attacking a present that seems already too much in thrall of the past anyway. Isn't that very German of it?

For me, as someone who finds parts of it still downright terrifying, this is the point from which the film derives most of its strength: Max Schreck's Nosferatu is an ancient, ancient thing come to eat up the future and drag the present back into his past of rats and plague, not so much a corrupting influence as Dracula is, but a regressive one. Nosferatu's horror is the horror of a past that has never been laid to rest and so just keeps shambling on, smothering the young and preventing a future that's worth living.

Seen from this angle, the end of the film itself starts to look horrifying. Even though the past is laid to rest, Ellen Hutter's youth and innocence have to be sacrificed and she herself has to become something exceptionally medieval herself - a saint. And where I stand, there is nothing more horrifying than a saint when you are trying to cope with the present.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

In short: You Should Have Left (2020)

Warning: there will be spoilers for those readers named David Koepp or those who have never seen a movie before!

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before. Because of tensions in their marriage, the married couple of Theo (Kevin Bacon) and Susanna (Amanda Seyfried) are trying to work out some of it by taking their little daughter Ella (Avery Tiiu Essex) for a couple of weeks in a rented house in Wales, before successful actress Susanna has to pop off to London for a shoot. Those tension are mostly pretty much what you’d expect: he has anger issues and feels hurt in his manliness by the age difference (which I am apparently bound by law to call “icky” these days, but most certainly won’t), while she is as shallow as she is cute. Also an actress with all the cliché stuff this brings in lazy scriptwriting land (plus cheating on him, as it will turn out, because of course she is). Theo’s anger issues have a somewhat deeper dimension because he was once accused of having killed his first wife but was acquitted in court, and we all know that nobody acquitted of a crime in a movie ever was innocent (unless it’s a courtroom drama).

They have chosen a pretty bad place for their attempt at playing happy family, and soon a lot of mildly spooky stuff happens. You pretty much know the rest.

Which is of course the main problem of David Koepp’s movie: you have seen all of this before, often in visually much more inventive manner, and written with actual verve and insight instead of Koepp’s strictly mechanical interpretation here. And sure, if you simply go by the mechanics, there’s nothing exactly wrong with the way Koepp approaches this story here, but the mechanics of a script are only ever the point in film school.

On this side of the screen, it’s rather more problematic for the psychologically based horror film this is supposed to be how flat and trite the characterisation is. Despite Bacon and Seyfried both being perfectly capable of inhabiting more lively characters, everything about them here is absolutely obvious and simply not terribly interesting, the film never finding a way to explain why exactly one should care about the marriage problems of these cardboard cut-outs. The so-called reveals about the couple the film gets up to in the final act have been bleedingly obvious from the first couple of scenes, and the film’s practically delusional insistence it’s a surprise to the audience that Theo is indeed responsible for the death of his first wife borders on the absurd. None of the plot developments surprise; worse, none of them put anything about the characters into a new or more complex light. It’s just clockwork mechanics pretending to be a movie.

To be fair, there are a couple of decent moments of weirdness in the last third of the film, using irrational shift of space and time to produce hopes of the film going somewhere more interesting for its end, but that fizzles out pretty quickly. Eventually, everything ends exactly as you expected it to end right from the start, without insight, without strangeness, and with an idea of guilt and punishment that’s as old-testament as it is simple-minded and deeply unsatisfying.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

5 Against the House (1955)

Al (Guy Madison) and Brick (Brian Keith) have been friends at least ever since Brick saved Al’s life during the Korean War, getting wounded himself in the process. Both men are studying law now, going to college on the GI Bill, hanging around with two non-vets, the painfully annoying “funny” Roy (Alvy Moore), and self-styled rich kid brainiac Ronnie (Kerwin Mathews). Brick is suffering from a hefty helping of PTSD, swivelling between good humour bordering on mania, depression and violent outbursts – all things Al has made the habit of trying to counter as best as he can.

When the four men visit a casino in Reno, Nevada, together and witness a botched robbery, Ronnie decides he can do better and develops a plan how to rob the place and actually get away with it and the money, getting Roy and Brick in on the thing. Brick becomes rather obsessed with the whole plan, but it’s not as if Ronnie and Roy don’t want to go through with it. They do realize that square-jawed Al’s not simply going to help them, so they decide it’s best to surprise him into becoming an armed robber (seriously) by pretending to go on a simple trip to Reno with him and his fiancée Kay (Kim Novak) and hoping to talk him into it once they get there. When Al realizes what’s going on half-way to the place, where he was indeed planning to marry Kay, and shows himself to be less than pleased, Brick starts threatening Kay’s life.

So a robbery it is.

5 Against the House is never going to be one of my favourite films by the typically great Phil Karlson. There are a lot of elements in here that I find interesting and worthwhile, and the performances by Keith and Madison are fine, but the script has terrible pacing problems and has to go through awkward contortions to avoid problems with the still not unimportant Production Code where crime isn’t allowed to pay, if it wants to get to the ending where characters are allowed to live it clearly wants to have. Which alas leaves us with a film about a casino robbery where manoeuvring Al into a position where he can take part in the robbery without being morally culpable feels more important to the film than the heist itself. The musical number and some horrible, supposedly funny, business about our protagonists hazing a freshman do not improve the pacing, either; the latter also not my mood.

The film certainly often has its heart in the right place, allowing Brick to survive and potentially get better (not that the state of psychiatry in ‘55 gives one much hope for that), portraying his violence as well as his pain with as much honesty as it can get away with, and his mental illness as something he’s not responsible for and has little control over – which is pretty great for a film of its time, and also provides Brian Keith the opportunity for an equally great performance. Karlson does of course often excel in portraying the fragile parts of men living under the thumb of societally approved machismo, not exactly criticising the structures causing their pain and pushing them into causing pain to others but certainly not blind to these things.

Also pretty great is the robbery itself, once it finally gets going, the gang dressed up in cleverly ironic cowboy costumes (it makes sense, really) going through what turns out not to be the perfect robbery Ronnie envisioned. How we get there is what lets 5 Against the House down.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

In short: The Intruder (1975)

A cameoing Mickey Rooney ships of a boatload of rich (one supposes) assholes to an island far away from the mainland. These guys and gals (among them director Chris Robinson and an Yvonne De Carlo whose character isn’t long for this world, because she has TV movies to shoot) have come to look for gold a dead relative may or may not have stashed there, lured in by a letter from one of that relatives' associates and the hope for tax-free gold.

When they arrive, said associate doesn’t show, as is always the case in films like this. Also not atypical is the fact that a shadowy, huge figure starts murdering his way through the cast.

It seems pretty clear to me that Chris Robinson’s The Intruder is an attempt at making an American version of that subset of the Italian giallo concerned with nastier and sexier variations on the Agatha Christie model of the mystery novel. “And Then There Were None” never seems far away from these films.

Alas, Robinson’s project suffers from some rather heavy flaws. Notably, where an Italian movie would garb a cast of mostly hot young things into ridiculous yet kinda awesome fashion, put on some Morricone and let everyone be murdered in front of sexy interiors while coloured lighting and various camera tricks create a groovy or even dreamlike atmosphere, here a cast of mostly ugly, mostly middle-aged, mostly overweight people wearing ugly stuff get murdered in front of brown and grey walls, while the camera does little of interest.

The film also lacks the always entertaining cynical sneering at the rich and hot of the Italian originals. The characters here simply never do anything decadent or interesting. But then, while you’d usually not go around accusing giallos of deep characterisation, they do know how to draw vile characters in shorthand, where The Intruder not even manages to explain how its cast is actually related to one another, or what they are doing with their time when they are not getting murdered.

From time to time, Robinson does get around to a shot or two of visual interest but that still leaves us with an 87 minute movie that manages to make ten or so murders feel like a chore.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Replace (2017)

Kira Mabon (Rebecca Forsythe) wakes up with a bout of amnesia, a handful of strange dreams and short flashes of what might be memories. She takes her situation pretty well, or with a hefty dose of denial, depending on one’s interpretation, mostly pretending nothing is wrong – which is made a lot easier by what appears to be a total lack of social connections that makes the quasi-hermit writing this look like a social butterfly.

Rather more problematic for her than that pesky memory loss is the dramatic skin problem Kira is developing that finds increasingly large parts of her skin rapidly drying out, dropping and crumbling. Our protagonist does find out she has an appointment with a doctor the next day anyway, but when she meets this Dr Crober (Barbara Crampton), even Kira – usually acting as if she doesn’t quite know if she’s awake or dreaming – becomes a bit suspicious by the woman’s evasive behaviour and slightly creepy demeanour. Plus, the clinic the good doctor is working in looks right out of a Cronenberg/Panos Cosmatos movie. Not to mention that neither Crober’s medication nor her wait and see approach to Kira’s private body horror help the patient at all.

Kira does find something that is helping though: other peoples’ skin. And what’s a bit of murder when it keeps a woman beautiful?

German director Norbert Keil’s Replace (as co-written with Keil by that Richard Stanley, no less) does wear its main influence on its sleeve. Its weird medical interests, its focus on body horror and mental dissolution turning into a kind of rebirth into something new and not quite human, the disquieting erotic aspects to Kira’s inevitable acts of violence, as well as parts of its visual aesthetics all clearly point to early to mid-period David Cronenberg. Keil is certainly sharing a sphere of artistic interest with Panos Cosmatos and Joe Begos, though he also shares with these two enough of an independence from his influences he is able to make something of his own out of Replace.

It’s not quite as individual – and frankly not quite as convincing - an effort as what comes from Cosmatos, or Begos at his best, but what Replace delivers is still very impressive. If you want, you can read considerable parts of the film as a critique of the contemporary obsession with youth and an idea of beauty that can’t abide even the slightest traces of aging and the eventual death that signals. But I find myself mostly drawn to the often dream-like tone of the film, the shifts in time and space, the way connecting scenes are purposefully left out. All of this – together with Keil’s deftly non-realist approach to camerawork and lighting -  pushes the viewer into Kira’s fragmented mind space, not so much suggesting psychological alienation but rather a physical dislocation of the mind. Which, as my imaginary readers know, is the sort of thing bound to make me pretty excited about a movie. Though I am just as happy about movies these days containing lesbian love side-plots as a matter of fact, as it happens here.

One could criticize the film’s for its oftentimes languid pacing, yet this again helps draw the viewer deeper into Kira’s mind space, where today, yesterday and tomorrow all seem to feel equally distant from her, shifting together and drawing apart at the same time. It also makes for a particularly fine jarring effect when the film’s plot suddenly becomes fast enough for it to even include a couple of action scenes come the final act, whereas before even the act of murder seemed slow and perversely sensual.

It’s obviously not the sort of film everyone will like, but as far as I am concerned, Replace is very much what I’m hoping for when stumbling upon a film I haven’t seen – and hardly heard anything about - before, mixing the old, the new and the strange in exciting ways.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Three Films Make A Post: Want to watch another?

Karen Doesn’t Dream (2018): At its core, this indie production by Zach Huckaby is pretty typical of that movie space, concerning itself with its protagonist Karen’s (Jessica Lynn Skinner) struggles with grief, mental illness, poverty and insomnia, which, apart from Thanksgiving dinners and “coming-of-age” in the 80s, are the main safe spaces of this kind of film.

Huckaby adds quite a few non-realist touches to the film, though, not necessarily just there to emphasise Karen’s deteriorating mental state, giving the film an obliquely dream-like quality that fits something whose main character watches video tapes of people sleeping to find sleep of her own.

Sadistic Intentions (2019): Staying with an indie movie, but moving on to indie horror, Eric Pennycoff’s film sees a woman named Chloe (Taylor Zaudtke) drawn into a game of sadism, murder, bad metal and a pretty fucked-up idea of romance. The film’s pleasantly slow beginning is – as is most of the film, really – carried by Zaudtke and Jeremy Gardner’s chemistry, as well as helped along by a tone that seems at once sardonic and empathetic towards the characters, providing the film an excellent basis for later developments when things become rather unpleasant for everyone involved.

It’s a lovely little film that finds the right point between being nasty and funny, and does a couple of actually unexpected and interesting things with/to its characters.

The Other Lamb (2019): Let’s end on a very impressive movie I have surprisingly little to say about, Malgorzata Szumowska’s film about a female cult and their male leader coming up on the late stage of utter destruction even the more stable cults eventually can’t help but reach. It’s incredibly acted (not just by lead Raffey Cassidy), visually strikingly and meaningfully composed, starting from a starkly naturalistic place but always reaching for the mythical, and about as powerful a film about young women conquering male-induced terrors as one could imagine. Despite being pretty heavy on the symbolism, it’s also a film not really made to be simply interpreted and cut open to examine its guts – it’s so well-constructed and nearly hypnotically dense and tense, you’ll come to the same conclusions by experiencing it, which rather speaks to the director’s artistry.

Prospective viewers shouldn’t go in expecting the horror film some of the marketing material promises; this is incredible arthouse fare that uses some elements horror movies might use, but is really not interested in the specific kicks we tend to look for in horror, even slow horror.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Past Misdeeds: Qurbani (1980)

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.

Rajesh (Feroz Khan) leads the charmed life of a manly man Robin-Hood-like thief, a life that is more than a little sweetened by the existence of his beautiful nightclub singer girlfriend Sheela (Zeenat Aman, alas not allowed to do more than that description promises). Between random motorcycle riding and disapproving of Sheela's job (but hey, she disapproves of his job too, so they're on the same level here), there's not much that troubles him.

Until one of his jobs goes wrong and he meets his own private nemesis in the form of Inspector Amjad Khan (Amjad Khan, playing himself, but as a rather sleazy cop!?) and goes to jail for a bit.

While Rajesh is behind bars, Sheela meets single dad Amar (Vinnod Khanna), and befriends and nearly falls in love with this second hairy-chested piece of manliness, who comes with the bonus of being a widower with a highly decorative daughter. Sheela's taste in men is a little dubious, since Amar did also stand on the wrong side of the law once, working as a smuggler for Rakka (Amrish Puri), until he disagreed with his boss's personnel politic of shooting people who fail at their jobs and quit.

When Rajesh gets out of jail, he and Amar meet and fall madly in love with each other (well, the film calls it friendship, but isn't really fooling anyone).

This could be the beginning of a wonderfully progressive three person relationship with bonus child, but alas, Rajesh's jail acquaintance Vikram Singh (Shakti Kapoor) and his sister Jwala Singh (Aruna Irani and her mad contact lenses of doom) have other plans.

They really, really hate Rakka (or his afro), you see, so much so that Jwala has an illuminated portrait of the man on her living room wall next to her horse pictures.

What better method to take revenge on him could there be than to kill him and blame the deed on Rajesh whom they'll only need to rope into stealing all of Rakka's money? Rajesh isn't too enthusiastic about the whole thing - even without knowing about the scape goat part - because he has promised Sheela to give up on his wicked ways. But what is Amar's little daughter Tina (Natasha Chopra) good for if not for being kidnapped to press Rajesh into service?

Qurbani was edited, produced and directed by Bollywood's hairiest chest Feroz Khan himself and say what you will about his overly manly acting, he does handle his three other jobs very nicely indeed.

His direction shows a much finer eye for frame composition than was typical for some of Hindi cinema at the time, as well as a love for weird camera angles, and a more than a little dubious sense of fashion without ever overdoing it and getting so crazy as to be eyesight-destroying.

The obligatory musical numbers by Kalyanji Anandji are mostly Bollywood standard, not as mad as they sometimes get, but extremely useful to strengthen the emotional underpinnings of the film and delight its viewers with the lesser of Zeenat Aman's talents.

It has to be said that super macho Feroz Khan was an equal opportunity cheesecake director, and so friends of hairy, sweaty manliness will have their own moments of joy here.

Of course the film features the typically enthusiastic and slightly insane fight choreography of its time and place, with lots of jumping and kicking, a serious amount of back flipping and a friendly disinterest in physics or the way human anatomy functions. All of that is of course a good thing if you're like me and like your action scenes entertaining instead of realistic.

The whole film has a very fine flow to it that even the usual annoying scenes of comic relief (Jagdeep in the house, why does nobody burn it down?) can't disturb too much.

The plot consists of a merry randomness of incidents which are less bound by logic than by Qurbani's thematic core of male friendship and sacrifice (as the title promises). Somehow, Khan manages to tie up his plot threads satisfyingly enough to come to a tight and exciting finale and a surprisingly poignant ending that shows a spiritual connection to the brand of epics of manly friendship people like Cheng Cheh or John Woo traded in in Hong Kong.
Now, all this might sound like a million other action melodramas, and Qurbani is most certainly never original in the things it does, but the trick lies, as it often does, in the film's flawless execution of its tropes, and in the sure hand Khan shows in deciding when to use them.

There is something deeply satisfying about a film like Qurbani that knows which buttons a genre film has to push and then pushes them expertly and incessantly with a sort of relish that stops just shy of decadence.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

In short: Berlin Express (1948)

Europe, under occupation after World War II. After a prologue that informs the audience something nefarious is going to go down, we are introduced to a group of passengers, strangers all, boarding a US army train to Frankfurt.

Things start to become rather interesting when one of the passengers, supposedly a German peace activist with the Allieds’ ears called Dr Bernhardt, is killed by a bomb. It will eventually turn out that the man who was killed was only a decoy, but the real Heinrich Bernhardt (Paul Lukas) is soon kidnapped by Nazis still dreaming of rebuilding their bloody Reich. Apparently, we can never get rid of those completely. Bernhardt’s French secretary Lucienne (Merle Oberon), manages to convince some of the other passengers to stop their post-war squabbling for long enough to help her find him. When actually working together, these men – American Robert Lindley (Robert Ryan), British James Sterling (Robert Coote), Frenchman Perrot (Charles Korvin) and Soviet Lieutenant Kiroshilov (Roman Toporow) – might even manage to do some good.

Which is really rather the point of a movie that’s very clearly realizing the direction the world is going after the War, and suggesting that the old fashioned notion of people from all nations and walks of life working together to improve everyone’s lot might just lead to a better world than the old way of every nation for themselves. The film’s even mildly optimistic about this possibility, at least rather more optimistic than most of today’s news will make one.

Structurally, this is not one of director Jacques Tourneur’s masterpieces. The problems lie with a script that, clearly relishing the opportunity to use the ruins of Frankfurt and Berlin as thriller backdrops for reasons of excitement as well as enlightenment, still uses a sometimes never-ending off-screen monologue to stop the film dead in its tracks repeatedly and provide exposition and teachable moments in a tone somewhere between hardboiled narration and dry and only mildly clever documentary, informing the audience of 1948 of what one hopes they already knew from their newspapers. It’s a bit of a shame, really, for the shots of ruined cities, the desperate, real-life surrealism of post-war existence in Germany, and the film’s actual plot don’t really need this kind of help at all, providing as they do a much better picture of the world than the narration ever could.

In fact, whenever the big voice from nowhere pauses and allows the plot and the characters to move by their own volition, things turn into an actual Tourneur movie full of shadowy corners, men and women with complicated motives trying to navigate shadows metaphorical and real through thrilling set pieces.

The film really wants to believe what Bernhardt preaches even if the state of the world makes it sound utopian, keeping a bit of hope up even knowing the realities of life. It’s a bit sad looked at from today, too, for humanity clearly has learned little from any of the things Berlin Express is talking about, perpetuating childish squabbling that turns bloody more often than not, even opening doors and podiums to Nazis and their ilk again.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Dave Made a Maze (2017)

In the absence of his somewhat long-suffering girlfriend Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani), perpetually frustrated artist – if you actually do someone who never finishes an artistic project one - Dave (Nick Thune) decides to build a maze out of cardboard boxes in their apartment’s living room. When Annie returns, she is confused and a little annoyed not only by their new living room decoration but also by the fact that Dave’s unwilling to come out of the cardboard fort he has crawled into. Or rather, as he tells it, unable to come out, for he has gotten lost in it. The maze, which in truth is a labyrinth, apparently is, ahem, bigger on the inside.

Annie, drifting from annoyed to concerned to somewhat disturbed rather quickly, calls in Dave’s best friend Gordon (Adam Busch), but he’s not getting any further with Dave either. Eventually, a whole bunch of people – including asshat director Harry (James Urbaniak) and his two man documentary film crew (Frank Caeti and Scott Narver) – ends up in the apartment, until Annie eventually decides that enough is enough and ventures into the labyrinth herself, with most of the idiots/guests following. Turns out Dave has been telling the truth all along, so everyone gets lost in the cardboard labyrinth, some killed by the booby traps Dave has constructed (don’t ask) or hunted by the minotaur who haunts the place. Perhaps if Annie and Dave manage to reunite, they can get out together?

On paper, the whole set-up for Bill Watterson’s Dave Made a Maze sounded just a bit too precious to me, and certainly not the thing a that can carry a full-length movie. Encountering it as an actual artefact, I found myself delighted by the whole affair, and certainly neither bored nor annoyed even once through the whole of its running time.

Watterson and co-writer Steven Sears, it turns out, do have a rather fecund imagination about what can be done with a surreal cardboard box labyrinth, spilling out ideas en mass. These ideas are sometimes whimsical, sometimes strangely poetic, sometimes goofy, sometimes nerdy, sometimes plain strange, and sometimes even a little creepy, but they’re never boring or pointless, at the very least always causing the joy in me I feel when I encounter a good strange idea. Most of the time, they do quite a bit more, though, turning the film into one of the weirder relationship movies you’ll probably encounter in your life, talking about the complications of Dave’s difficult attempts at growing up, feelings of inadequacy, and how difficult love can be when one of the lovers is a guy like Dave. I’m avoiding using the word “manchild” here, because it’s invented by people who seem to want everyone to be their most conservative, joyless selves, making the life of a grown-up sound quite a bit more hellish than it has to be, and worse, not something movies about TARDIS-like cardboard mazes belong into. Our true protagonist is the more socially acceptably grown-up Annie anyway, taking on the very classic heroic role of rescuing her lover out of a labyrinth (parallels to Greek myth are certainly very consciously used here, because it’s just that sort of cardboard labyrinth).

But really, what I find most enjoyable about the film is its sheer number of little weird ideas, used in manners throw-away and not quite so throw-away, the playfulness with which it can and does use perspectives and camera angles in a cardboard world, the sheer peculiarity of things like the hypnotic vagina thingie, the silliness of its very special kind of fake blood, the at once creepy and hilarious cardboard doppelganger, or the pure inventive joy of turning the characters into little cardboard version of themselves for a while.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

In short: Piñata: Survival island (2002)

aka Demon Island

aka Survival Island

Two boatloads of frat people (our future heroes are played by Nicholas Brendon and Jaime Pressly, because that’s what can happen to your career, too, buddy) are dropped off on some godsforsaken island for a weekend tradition of drunken debauchery and some so-called “race” where handcuffed boy/girl pairs are running through the jungle collecting underwear that’s hanging in the trees and bushes, hitting piñatas full of little alcohol bottles to keep, ahem, hydrated. Clearly, these sad examples of humanity need killing badly, so it is a bit of a good turn of fortune for the audience that a legendary piñata containing the sins of a Mesoamerican village has found its way to the island too. A couple of smacks with a stone later, the thing’s running around murdering drunken idiots and idiotesses left and right, hooray.

Look, I know you can’t expect art, taste or style when you sit down to watch a movie about a murderous piñata, and if you go into a thing like this with anything but the lowest expectations, you’ll only suffer the more for it. However, there are crap movies at least being entertaining in their way, and then there’s David and Scott Hillenbrand’s Piñata: Survival Island, a thing made with such staggering incompetence, it hides its only selling point, a Chiodo brothers creature that looks as if they had put it together in a lunch break - or perhaps two - behind terrible CGI effects and a monster attack camera so jittery, one might suspect Tony Scott being involved in the production.

What else is there the film could have to offer? Thirty year olds playing college students? Jokes so terrible, they wouldn’t know funny if it eviscerated them with a machete? Characters that can’t die quickly enough? Monster vision sequences that consist of unparsable red? A lack of technical acumen so complete, you might sell it as a black hole?

It’s really, really bad, and not bad in the way that makes one think wistfully of aliens making movies, or people making movies who have only ever heard of the art but never seen a film, but the way that makes one think less of everyone involved in the stinker one has suffered through.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Man Vs. (2015)

Doug Woods (Chris Diamantopoulos) is the star of a reality TV show where he is dropped off in various types of wilderness with only a couple of useful things to hand, filming himself doing the survivalist thing for five days. This time around, it’s off to some pretty wet patch of woods, rivers and lake in Canada. Off-camera, Doug isn’t quite as alone as it seems to his audience, for he does have twice daily contact with his production team. However, the film treats this – surprisingly and pleasantly enough - not as a sign of Doug’s dishonesty but as a simple sign of sanity. Plus, once trouble starts, a satellite phone is such a nice lifeline to take away from a guy.

And trouble does indeed start, after something that leaves a trace of broken trees behind crashes in the lake where our protagonist makes his camp. At first, Doug believes it to be a wolf or a bear that’s now starting to bother his animal traps and lurks around unseen just out of sight, but once the evil alien (that’s not a spoiler, surely) that is his actual problem starts on things like making moves in Doug’s solitaire chess game, our protagonist finds himself increasingly disturbed and losing control.

Adam Massey’s Canadian piece of survivalist SF horror is one of those films whose strengths tend to lie in the things they don’t do wrong more than in those they do right, which generally does tend to make a writer sound a bit lukewarm. And, truthfully, this modest little man against monster movie is not the sort of thing that’ll get anyone hot and bothered; it may very well take away quite a bit of Sunday morning boredom, though.

So, the things Man Vs. does not do wrong are only a few and relatively simple yet pretty useful for its effect. Number one is the simple decision to not make this one the POV horror film you might have suspected/feared after the description, but to instead use traditional camera work, unless taking Doug’s supposed footage makes for the more effective shot. That works out well for most of the time, while still keeping the monster as an unseen presence for rather a long time. Which is a good idea when  that monster turns out to be a pretty sad looking CG job once we get to see it (for some reason in broad daylight), indifferently designed and lacking any suggestion of being an actual physical presence. That’s obviously not terribly great for the film’s final act, when the Man vs Monster fight gets serious, but if you’re wise in the ways of low budget horror movies, you won’t hate the film because of it either.

The second important not wrong decision Man Vs. makes is to not turn Doug into the more typical all-around asshole reality TV people more often than not are in horror movies but into a surprisingly non-macho guy with a sense of self-irony and an ego of at worst middling size. This way, instead of enjoying to see some complete asshole suffering, a viewer might actually root for the guy getting out alive and back to his family.

The rest of the film is solidly made in its unremarkable yet professional way, staging decent enough suspense sequences, doing its best with the monster fight and the final reveal (of a type that sort of makes sense, even), filling a viewer’s time well enough. Which isn’t as much of a matter of course than it should be.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Three Films Make A Post: Lust for Blood.

Vampyres (2015): I didn’t hate Víctor Matellano’s remake of José Ramón Larraz’s genre-defining lesbian vampire movie as much as I expected, so put that down as a win. Perhaps Larraz’s involvement with the screenplay (however much here was actually done by him) helped? It’s not as if this were actually better or even vaguely as good as the original: the film is certainly slow going even in comparison with a film from the 70s, the acting’s often ropey in a pretty irritating manner, and even the staging can seem somewhat amateurish for about half of the film. The other half does from time to time reach moments of the kind of intense aestheticization (bordering on the fetishist) of blood and pain that at the very least explains why this remake exists on an artistic level, and while it never comes together as the original did, it does do a bit more than just try to exploit old exploitation fans like me.

The Last Days of American Crime (2020): This abomination financed by Netflix, on the other hand, deserves all the kicks anyone can get in. It’s terrible from start to finish, beginning with the drab, boring and bland design of its near future and certainly not ending with a running time of astonishing 150 minutes that any sane production had cut down to about a hundred in the script stage, while adding something like a throughline to the plot that’s certainly not to be found in the 150 minutes I suffered through. Also generally terrible – as well as drab, boring and bland – is the acting, Edgar Ramírez mumbling and not-emoting through the movie like a sleepwalker, and most everyone else following suite.

As is all too typical for something directed by Olivier Megaton, the explosiveness strictly stays in the director’s name, while the on-screen action has a perfunctory (and yes, drab, boring and bland) quality to it that’s pretty astonishing in what’s supposed to be a professional production made by a man who supposedly specializes in the loud and the dumb. I could go on, but I’ve already wasted 150 minutes of my life on this thing.

The Last Wave (1977): While some of the ways Peter Weir’s classic uses Australian Aboriginal spirituality, setting it against the Western love for rationality arts and philosophy tend to posit (while the Western world acts perfectly irrational), are probably deemed “problematic” right now (though I am too old to be quite as ideologically righteous, I’m never perfectly happy with anything using this particular dichotomy and pitting the spiritually wise brown people against the coldly logical white ones who haven’t a clue myself), it is really hard to argue with the conviction and subtlety Weir uses the reinforce his theme. Nor do I know many other films quite as great at portraying reality slowly dissolving into states of the dreamlike and the supernatural, nor many that structurally use the “as above, so below” dictum with quite so much intelligence.

On a more pedestrian level, one also can’t help but admire any director able to get a really great performance out of Richard Chamberlain in this stage of his career as Weir does here.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Past Misdeeds: Lady of the Lake (1998)

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.

When his uncle dies by drowning in Owl Lake, David (Erik Rutherford) moves into the man’s house situated by said lake. Quickly, David encounters peculiar things: he finds a handful of too new photos of a strange, beautiful woman named Viviane (Tennyson Loeh) he remembers encountering by the lake when he was boy, and he begins having erotic dreams of her in which a mirror in the house works as a gate to the depths of the lake where Viviane seems to dwell. Soon, David can’t quite make out anymore where dreams and reality part, and certainly not on which side of that divide Viviane belongs.

His sleazy neighbour Anthony (Emidio Michetti) tells David his uncle didn’t just drown but was killed by Viviane, who is a cursed creature haunting the area for what I assume must be a hundred years or so – or whenever you suppose Renfaire style “gypsies” were roaming Canada - having to seduce and later kill men to avenge her own murder by pseudo-Renfaire knight Richard (Christopher Piggins). Actually, Anthony has rather personal knowledge of Viviane (which makes her being necessarily murderous somewhat problematic to believe) but he isn’t telling.

Given his experiences up to that point, David isn’t quite as sceptical about the story as you’d think. But when a slightly more real Viviane asks him if he’d like her to stay with him for seven days and leave him forever afterwards, he’s much too love struck to disagree. Plot-wise, things go a bit off the rails soon after.

I was very impressed by director Maurice Devereaux’s later End of the Line, so obviously I had to go out and look for one of his earlier films. I’m rather happy I did, too, for while Lady of the Lake has some flaws, particularly during a third act that needlessly heaps more obvious action and some fine yet completely out of place gore onto a film that could have used a more low key and perhaps even subtle approach to tying its plot up, there’s a lot of good in the film.

I particularly enjoyed how much of Devereaux’s narrative has the feel and texture of a slightly modernized folk tale. A cursory internet search didn’t tell me if it’s based on a legend actually native to the Owl Lake area but the motives and structure of the tale are just right to be one in any case. Consequently, Lady of the Lake often feels more like a fantasy film than an outright piece of horror in its approach. Viviane, you see, might be a murderous spirit, but the way the film plays it, she’s also the innocent victim of things she has no control over, in a sense further punished for being murdered by a guy who couldn’t take no for an answer. The film leaves it unclear if Viviane’s former lovers’ mental deterioration to violent pricks is caused by the workings of her curse, or if these are just more cases of men not being able to cope with rejection without resorting to violence; if love turns to hate for them because it sometimes does in the worst way, or because of the supernatural (or both). Given the film’s (very appropriate to this kind of tale) ending, I suspect it’s more if the former than of the latter.

In any case, unlike a lot of films featuring female sex-based supernatural creatures, this one doesn’t seem at all out to (even subtextually) demonize female sexuality; as should be obvious by now, it is not at all difficult to give Lady of the Lake an at least mildly feminist reading. It’s a rather uncommon approach that fits the film nicely. Its problems start when a peculiar time travel sequence makes Richard an active participant in the film’s proceedings. Suddenly turning this into a film with a very clear outward threat when it was doing very fine on its own in a more interesting, compassionate and ambiguous manner certainly isn’t doing the film any favours; it’s also less than helpful that Christopher Piggins’s performance as EVIL Richard is scene-chewing and broad in a film where everyone else goes for the low-key and the non-showy (sometimes with an added bit of indie horror acting awkwardness I’m pretty okay with here). Nor does it do the film many favours to remind its audience again of the weakest part of its set-up, the Renfaire folk of Canada. Structurally, the film gains a climax of outward excitement that doesn’t actually finish the plot in any way and de-emphasizes the actual resolution running parallel to it that fits the film much, much better.

That this doesn’t just straight up ruin the film for me has a lot to do with the care Devereaux put into the fifty minutes or so that came before, the simple and very clever use of effects (let’s ignore the digital fire), the atmospheric use of those old staple colours of artificial light in fantastic film, blue and red, the tight and imaginative editing that gives the film just the right flow, and a script that is (up to the point described and later again) more thoughtful than it strictly needs to be. And all this while the film obviously has to work around a miniscule budget that should invite the usual “the catering for a mildly budgeted mainstream film will cost more” comparisons. Though, to be clear, the film’s good moments (that add up to an hour in all) don’t actually need the budget as an excuse; they’re well worth one’s time in any case.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

In short: Termination Man (1998)

Evil-bad Serbian terrorist Yurdovich (Aleksandr Ilin) has acquired some sort of extra toxic nerve gas; he threatens to use it on a large scale, unless all UN troops leave the former Yugoslavia, so that he and his cronies can claim the whole country, certainly not using that nerve gas in doing so. That cannot stand, of course, so the US sends in their top agent Dylan Pope (Steve Railsback). Pope – not to be confused with the Pope as the film will indeed joke – has been “enhanced” via some mysterious technological wizardry, and also gets a pocketful of gadgets even Roger Moore phase James Bond would have called “lame”. Together with mandatory woman with big silicon implants Delilah Shane (Athena Massey) and soon-to-be traitor Ted Marks (Eb Lottimer) it’s off to save the world.

Not that anyone has any actual plan for going about that world saving business, but that’s clearly as optional as OPSEC in the world of this movie.

Which would be perfectly okay, even potentially awesome for an action movie with espionage and Six Million Dollar Man elements like this, but if a film wants to distract an audience from its perfectly empty head, it needs a director able to actually stage an action sequence. And I gotta tell you, Termination Man’s director and co-writer Fred Gallo isn’t that guy. In fact, I’m hard-pressed to think of many films whose action direction, staging and editing is quite as bad as here. Gallo never seems to be able to frame anything going on in an effective or even just efficient manner, so what looks as if it were perfectly decent stunt work has zero impact or rhythm. It’s not even as if Gallo were trying to be “edgy” or stylish and obfuscating what’s going on for that matter. This is attempted bread and butter filmmaking that never manages to point the camera quite into the right direction, regularly cuts away too soon or too late, and seems not to have been kissed by whatever fairy is responsible for kissing directors to teach them how to frame action properly on the screen. It’s all a bit embarrassing.

It is also rather frustrating, for Termination Man does have perfectly decent production values to show off, with a bunch of attractive Russian locations standing in for whichever part of the former Yugoslavia this is supposed to take place in, for the film to play in; much more than your typical impoverished action film can afford. Too bad nobody involved seems to have had any clue on how to make use of them.

The acting’s terrible, too, Railsback, not the greatest thespian on Earth at the best of times, seems completely zoned out, mumbling and grinning uncomfortably, while everybody else mostly seems to want to get through their lines as quickly as possible. One might come to the conclusion that the proper handling of actors isn’t in the filmmakers’ area of expertise either.

But then, what is?

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Becky (2020)

A year after the cancer death of her mother, thirteen year old Becky (Lulu Wilson) is still in the anger phase of grief, and hardly anyone can be angry as fiercely as someone in her puberty, as her father Jeff (Joel McHale) has clearly beginning to realize. He’s not completely innocent when it comes to causes for Becky’s mental state, one suspects, for what father in his right mind would expect his daughter to react positively when he uses their weekend together at a lake (and wood) house she strongly associates with her mother to surprise her with the news he’s going to marry his new girlfriend Kayla (Amanda Brugel), who is also a surprise guest with her little son Ty (Isaiah Rockcliffe). Cue exactly the sort of reaction you’d expect from a girl whose father is clearly an idiot.

The weekend’s going to get much worse than this particular version of hell on Earth, though, for a gang of freshly escaped prisoners led by Nazi alpha prick Dominick (Kevin James, who is a much better portraying said Nazi prick than he ever was as a comedian) have set their eyes on some McGuffin hidden in the house. You can imagine how much he’s into the idea of a mixed race couple like Jeff and Kayla, too. Becky, it turns out, is not the kind of teenager you want to piss off by doing violence to her father, though, and rather a lot of blood will flow.

I had a lot of fun with this neat genre mash up by directing duo Jonathan Milott and Cary Munion (also responsible for Cooties and the woefully underrated Bushwick I really need to get around to writing up one of these days), though it’s not a film made for the squeamish or those with little interest in sometimes nasty, sometimes silly yet always highly effective genre filmmaking.

The film is full of little twists and improvements on genre standards, the directors clearly having spent a bit of thinking time on how to improve certain weaknesses of the handful of genres whose elements they are using, asking questions like “wouldn’t home invasion movies not be much improved by making the villains Nazis instead of simply poor people?”. To which the answer obviously is “hell, yeah!”. The film is also using some evil child tropes, but reversing those by providing that child with a bit more of a motivation than being born bad and also making her the clear hero of the piece (what with her murdering Nazi pricks in various ways).

The film also seems to want to say something about the nature of violence as a nearly infectious thing, as well as about the psychological price to be paid by those committing it through scenes between Becky and the doubting bad guy Apex (Robert Maillet), but these moments don’t work as well as one would hope in a film that has way as much fun letting a child kill grown men in very improbable and very entertainingly gory ways as this one does. The film is just too lovingly ultraviolent and silly to sell any anti-violent message, or to convince me of psychological veracity.

That’s not a terrible flaw here, mind you, for the directors are terribly adept at letting the violence and the tension flow, producing so many moments of excitement and violent fun, I can cope with this not being the effective message movie some parts of the internet tell me it is just fine. Come for the deep insight into the violent mind, but stay for the awesome eye mutilation, or something like that.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

A Very Short Summer Break

As I pretty much do in ever season, I'm taking a bit of time off from the blog for a week or so. Normal service will, resume on July 15th.

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Hard Target 2 (2016)

After he has killed his best friend in an MMA championship match – and was thrown out by the officials of his league – guilt-ridden Wes Baylor (Scott Adkins) is fighting illegal underground matches in Southeast Asia, clearly looking for a way to die but unwilling to do the deed himself.

When one Jonah Aldrich (Robert Knepper) offers Baylor the opportunity for one last big fight in Myanmar worth a million dollars, the fighter has vague dreams of using that money for some kind of redemption that’ll come in the uncommon form of a beach house (don’t ask). Unfortunately, though not terribly surprising given the film’s title and prologue, that “fight” isn’t so much a fight but rather a big game hunt through a part of Myanmar’s jungle kept free of pesky villagers by corrupt military, with Baylor as the prey. If he makes it the hundred miles to the border of Thailand, he’s home free with a bag full of rubies, supposedly. Of course, the hunting group consisting of Aldrich, his partner Madden (Temuera Morrison) and a bunch of rich assholes – killed off too early to have any character traits Gigi Velicitat, rich girl in leather pants Rhona Mitra, torero Adam Saunders, rich redneck Peter Hardy and wavering rich redneck son Sean Keenan, and gamer dude Jamie Timony – have vehicles where Baylor is on foot, military assistance, drones, and all kinds of weapons.

Yet that might still not be enough to kill one very angry Baylor, particularly once he meets Tha (Ann Truong) in the jungle, the sister of one of Aldrich’s former victims, and borrows a cause to fight for apart from mere survival from her.

There may be people who think the John Woo directed Jean-Claude Van Damme-starring Hard Target didn’t need a very belated direct to streaming (home video?) sequel, hell, there may even be people who believe the original wasn’t terribly great. Spoilers: both of these groups are wrong, the latter even horribly wrong.

This film’s a sequel to Hard Target only very freely anyway; it’s simply another Most Dangerous Game variation that found a sexier (or at least some decades more modern) title to use, so the producers might just as well have called this one a reboot. Director Roel Reiné does clearly love his John Woo, too, so the film includes about half a dozen direct homages to certain Woo tics used in the original film, naturally including those frigging doves. Otherwise, Reiné is no John Woo, but he’s certainly one of the more talented guys working in the low budget action sphere at the moment, showing a sense of pacing, a clear understanding of how to use the camera to create physical spaces for the characters to fight in, and an obvious appreciation for the fighters and stunt people involved that uses editing and whooshing noises to emphasise their efforts instead of distracting from them.

It does of course help that Scott Adkins is the contemporary king of this kind of movie – a decent actor and a great screen fighter, and by now also an experienced workhorse who is having a slow year when he’s doing only three films in it. The more important parts of the cast are rather great low budget movie people, too. Knepper, Mitra and Morrison all have a couple of action scenes to sink their teeth into as well as more than enough opportunities for some rather delightful scenery chewing.

Speaking of the action, while the film obviously puts the emphasis on the very fine martial arts fights, you also get a variety of fun vehicle stunts, a bit of shooting, as well as a lot of running; there’s even what I think counts as an exploding hut. Reiné does well by all of it.

What further elevates the film about the lower tiers of the contemporary low budget action crowd is a script that’s not written around some one shooting day cameos and so hangs together well without having to ruin its pacing to accommodate Bruce Willis’s need to buy cigars. The character work is pretty obvious, but pretty obvious is what a film where motorcycles are inevitably carrying machine guns needs.

Also wonderful is the film’s complete lack of warehouse sets. Shot in Thailand (with a mostly Thai crew in the technical on-set roles), Reiné has rather a lot of very picturesque jungle, a few ruins, waterways and bridges to work with, which does of course help enable the variety of action scenes I’ve already praised and provides the film with a sense of place and space always useful in action cinema. It’s what turns Hard Target 2 into a much better film than you’ll probably hope for going in.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Three Films Make A Post: A dangerous land breeds a dangerous man.

Siberia (2018): I’m pretty sure Matthew Ross’s Siberia was meant to be some sort of neo noir, using its Keanu Reeves protagonist’s misadventures in shady diamond dealings and cheating in Russia as a means to show his alienation and probably say something about the US’s standing in the world right now too. Alas, what we actually get is a film whose characters are as clichéd as they are uninvolving, and played with little conviction by a cast that seem to have been provided with little usable direction. What little there is of a plot moves with all the verve of a dead snail, lacking any and all interesting detail. Direction-wise, this is a slick, personality-less concoction that looks pretty but doesn’t create a mood, or a world for its characters to inhabit, nor does it create much of a point for anything going on in it, very slowly.

Sequence Break (2017): Equally unsuccessful but at least more ambitious is this Cronenberg without the philosophy but with arcade consoles bit by Graham Skipper (whom I know better as an extremely dependable indie genre movie actor). Stylistically, this really wants to be a Panos Cosmatos movie – or at least loves the same things about Cronenberg movies Cosmatos loves – but it never quite manages to create the proper mood of dream/nightmare/insanity, and is at its heart too friendly and romantic to really hit the philsophical and aesthetical extremes of its models. It is borrowing their surfaces instead of their cores and never quite manages to convince me of its own core.

Blood and Money aka Allagash (2020): Also dwelling completely in very traditional genre structures, character types and ideas, John Barr’s movie concerning an old hunter (Tom Berenger) stumbling into conflict with a brutal gang of robbers in the Allagash is much better at bringing them to life than this week’s other films. In part, that’s thanks to Barr’s slow yet focussed direction style, in part thanks to a performance by a Berenger clearly happy to get a role with a bit of substance his late work isn’t exactly full of, and in part simply because Barr (who also co-wrote this with Alan Petherick) knows how to flesh out tropes and connect them to actual life.

It’s also a film very clear about the utter, existential uselessness of its characters’ struggles, Berenger making one bad decision after the other in a mixture of bad habit, bad luck and an ill-understood idea of redemption that’s going to redeem nobody and improve nothing in the world.

Friday, July 3, 2020

Past Misdeeds: Beyond Darkness (1990)

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.

Particularly innocently faithful priest Peter (Gene LeBrock) and his family – wife Annie (Barbara Bingham) and little kids Martin (Troll 2’s Michael Stephenson) and Carole (Theresa F. Walker) move into the wrong house, or really, are maneuvered into moving into that place by his mentor, one Reverend Jonathan (Stephen Brown), I think. Please keep in mind this movie was written by Claudio Fragasso, so half of the logical connections have to be provided by the viewer or the film would go from “makes no goddamn sense at all” to the noise a brain makes when it dribbles out of a helpless cult film blogger’s ears.

Anyhow, it’s really not a good place for a family to stay, for the house is haunted by a bunch of women in black shrouds – of course once burned for witchcraft they may or may not have committed – who like to tear holes in the fabric of reality, produce dry ice fog of astonishing density, and kidnap children for sport. These charming dead persons are lead by a dead child murderess (Mary Coulson, I believe) who not just murdered her little victims but ate their souls to be able to bring them down to her favourite demon’s part of wherever he dwells.

It was an encounter with that lovely woman right before she was executed on the electric chair that broke down the faith of Peter’s old seminary friend – who unlike Peter became a Catholic priest – George (David Brandon ably assisted by buckets full of sweat). Ever since, George has sort of dropped out of the priesthood, has sort of become an alcoholic, is looking for knowledge Man Was Not Meant to Know. and may or may not be possessed by the demon the murderess prayed to, depending on the mood of Fragasso when he wrote any given scene. In any case, when the shrouded ladies get rude, it’s George who helps Peter in various ways, until the whole thing fake-climaxes in a hilarious exorcism and other assorted nonsense.

As we all know, when Bruno Mattei and Claudio Fragasso ended their partnership, Mattei took with him whatever actual sense there was between the two (and given Mattei’s later output, that statement is rather frightening), while Fragasso went on to transfer full control to his Id and gave us Troll 2. Shot in the same year as that epochal achievement, and featuring the same non-acting child actor in Michael Stephenson, Beyond Darkness will probably always be “the normal one” in comparison, seeing as it features a vaguely understandable plot, contains only half a dozen or so scenes that might traumatise the unprepared by their sheer fucking weirdness, and even tells a – if completely unrelatable and absurdly structured – story about faith lost and found and glowing holes in the wall that lead to another dimension belonging to demons none of the three priests in the film calls Hell.

Of course, compared with Troll 2, most films are “the normal one”, and you can’t really say Fragasso didn’t apply most of his powers of coming up with sheer bizarre bullshit dressed up in improbable dialogue while setting his camera at an angle when shooting Beyond Darkness. This is after all still a film that has its perhaps sometimes possessed doubting priest suddenly popping up at his old mentor’s church to sweat profusely and jam a bit on the organ while both men babble nonsense about demons a theology doctorate wouldn’t help one understand, a film where there’s a scene shot via flying knife cam, and whose kidnap, rescue and possession plot is told in the most convoluted way possible. But hey, I’m pretty sure the good guys win thanks to mentor guy shouting at a demon really loudly while staying home in his church until a Satanic bible burns and mentor guy himself dies from a heart attack (see, you can hear Fragasso think, my film’s just like The Exorcist); which is pretty good, because without that, Peter and Annie would have sacrificed their own son to the demons – and only Peter has the excuse of being possessed at the time.

This kind of nonsense is obviously only the tip of the iceberg of nonsense and non-sequiturs Beyond Darkness barfs into our eyes, ears and brains. I might be mixing my metaphors a little here but this is only appropriate when talking about a Fragasso film. In fact, it’s more or less the same approach Beyond Darkness is applying to storytelling. Visually, Fragasso is all about all kinds of crooked camera angles that are probably meant to be stylish and creepy but most of the time seem tacky and weird, incredible amounts of dry ice fog, glowing holes in walls (with dry ice fog coming through them, obviously), dry ice fog,  close-ups of eyes, dry ice fog, and more dry ice fog. Well, that and sweat, because all of the actors seem permanently drenched in a way that might – like a few other elements here – suggest some sort of misguided homage to Lucio Fulci, with David Brandon so caught up in the hot sweating action it’s a wonder nobody drowned in his fluids.

From time to time, between the nonsensical, the inane, and the bizarre, Fragasso also hits on an image that’s honestly creepy, like the shrouded (or really, wearing something that suggests he has seen The Woman in Black and/or photos of Victorian mourning garb) women stretching their hands through walls, doors, etc, again demonstrating that you don’t need to watch a “good” movie to see something shudder-worthy.

So, how much did I love this wondrous abomination of a film? Well, I wouldn’t want to marry it right now, but I’m interested in a long-term relationship full of speeches about demons, tasteless child ghosts, and some good old dimensional rifts in the walls.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Some Ideas About The House by the Cemetery (1981)

Original title: Quella villa accanto al cimitero

Because doing a plot synopsis of this particular film without describing it scene by scene would be even less coherent than the film itself, and instead of reading a description of every single scene of a film, one should simply watch the damn movie, I’ll present some scattered thoughts about one of my very favourite movies.

It is very much worth watching, anyhow, even though Cemetery is usually described as the least of director Lucio Fulci’s trilogy (at least in mood) of films consisting – of course – of this, City of the Living Dead and The Beyond. It’s probably even less digestible for anyone coming to a horror film expecting a sensible plot, conventional narrative or storytelling than the other two films, because its great strangenesses in plot and structure are rather going at the audience as its villain, the delightfully/absurdly/hilariously named Dr Freudstein is at his victims. Riddle me this, for example: does our “hero” (heh) Norman Boyle know he is moving his family into Freudstein’s house? If he doesn’t, how can he still not know this after his wife (the always delightful Catriona MacColl) has found a tomb with the Freudstein name in their parlour? If he does know, why the hell does he seem so genuinely surprised by it later on? Like half of the characters here, Norman acts as if he was going by one base of facts in one moment and by the exact opposite one in the next.

Or take that babysitter – what is her deal exactly? Why does she clean up the leftovers of one of Freudstein’s kills when her death scene makes clear she isn’t in league with him? Add to this particular set of confusions about her, when the film early on seems to suggest she might be a ghost or some sort of revived manikin. She definitely acts bizarrely throughout her lifespan in the film. I could go on and on with this, because there’s really no single character in the film whose acts suggest the coherent whole we expect of a movie character.

But I believe it is exactly Fulci’s purpose here to populate the film with characters that don’t make sense and by this rob his audience of all the security that comes with stable structures like character arcs and proper (or even fake) human psychology, setting us adrift in a world where everybody’s goals and personalities change in inexplicable ways. Thus, House by the Cemetery is less focussed on dragging the audience and the characters into the world of Fulci’s Beyond by dissolving their senses of time, place, and human anatomy as the other two films in the trilogy are (though there’s of course a bit of that, too), and more about finding the uncanny in the lack of a human core most narratives insist on.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

The Exterminator (1980)

Having survived the war in Vietnam thanks to his buddy Michael Jefferson (Steve James), PTSD-suffering vet John Eastland (Robert Ginty) is now working with Jefferson in a meat-packing plant, leading the kind of life so empty, it might as well not be one.

One day, Jefferson and Eastland prevent some members of a multi-racial gang known as the Ghetto Ghouls from stealing some stuff from their workplace. Later, the young assholes attack Jefferson in revenge, nearly killing him and leaving him paralysed, which, given his race, social status and the US medical system, adds financial strain to the emotional one, too.

Eastland pretty much loses it completely and hunts down the Ghetto Ghouls, killing them in gruesome ways. This clearly does awaken something in him, and he starts with a one man crusade against crime he happens to stumble upon, like putting the mob boss responsible for the protection racket at his place of work into a meat grinder (and stealing his money to pay for Jefferson’s medical bill), or destroying a child prostitution ring.

This is obviously not the sort of thing a guy can get away with forever. Veteran police detective James Dalton (Christopher George), who will turn out to be another Vietnam vet nearly as damaged as Eastland, is on the case. When he is not romancing a doctor played by Samantha Eggar, that is. And, weirder, the CIA also shows an interest in Eastland’s “work”, deciding that his vigilante killing spree is either a conscious attempt to show up the current powers that be’s promise to lower crime rates, or some sort of foreign ploy, which must make total sense to someone. Clearly, things can’t end well.

And depending on the cut of the film, they don’t,though the finale of John Glickenhaus’s magnum opus The Exterminator turns out differently depending on which version of it you watch. My favourite ending sees everyone die in a classic 70s US cinema fashion very fitting to a film that stands so clearly right on the border between the sort of film typical of the 70s and what would become typical for the early 80s. Consequently, things are a bit of a peculiar, yet always interesting, mix of post-Watergate grimness and pre-Reagan love for violent solutions, Glickenhaus trying and mostly managing to make a vigilante movie that isn’t trying to be as reactionary as possible, simply by virtue of Glickenhaus not attempting to take any kind of moral stance towards Eastland’s actions.

Glickenhaus treats this a bit like a documentary filmmaker of the more “objective” sort, showing us Eastland, showing us why and how he does what he does but never really assuming the “fuck yeah” attitude of many action films. In fact, there’s really little action shot to excite in the film – most of the violence is grubby, unpleasant and looks deeply uncool (so probably pretty close to actual violence), Ginty stumbles from one violent encounter to the next not so much with an expression of rage than one of tired resignation on his face, really expressing more his own inner damage than any sentiments towards the people he kills. Which is particularly ironic because his victims are as vile as they come and would certainly lend themselves to some semi-effective screeds about how much they deserve what they get, and all the other crap vigilante films like to spout. The Exterminator as a film seems just as tired and empty in affect as its titular character, breathing an air of desperation more than one of the violent excitement that’ll usually make you a grindhouse hit (though it certainly turned out to be one).

Ginty, in general not one of my favourite low budget movie actors, is perfect as Eastland here, his air of slight distraction and empty normality perfect for a guy who has been damaged so much, he feels compelled to kill but clearly doesn’t even derive satisfaction from the act, going through the motions of violence because at least when he’s killing, he doesn’t have to think anymore.

Dalton’s scenes do at first feel like filler to get the film up to a decent runtime, but eventually, it becomes clear that Glickenhaus is really trying to show us another man with the same kind of damage, our protagonist and the man hunting him not being two sides of the same coin as is genre tradition, but virtually the same, only divided by the luck of the draw, because that’s what America is in this film: a place where everybody loses, only some worse than others.

On this cheery note, it’s no wonder that Glickenhaus also adds the CIA and elements of the 70s conspiracy thriller usually absent from vigilante movies to the mix, the politics that broke Eastland and Dalton in Vietnam (and that arguably also broke the America they are now living in) still churning on like the empty machines their lives have become.

Which is rather a lot of interesting subtext for a grubby, New York vigilante movie, and certainly what makes The Exterminator a jewel in the crown of this particular genre.