Sunday, August 30, 2020

Le manoir de la peur (1924/7)

aka The Manor House of Fear

A mysterious stranger (Romuald Joubé), always wearing black like a future country singer, and surrounded by an air of Big Romantic Drama, comes to a small town in the French countryside and buys a creepy old mansion. Why, the place is so creepy, you even need to cross a cemetery to enter it, and once you’re inside, it’s all German Expressionist angles and weird lighting. Also coming in the stranger’s package of horrors are an even creepier servant (Cinq-Léon, whose thin stretched body seems made for horror as well as comedy, a bit like a French Max Schreck), and a caged chimpanzee. Given that the stranger is doing mysterious experiments in the house that look a lot like mad movie science to expert eyes, and is generally not a fan of socialising, the villagers don’t take to him too kindly.

The only one around willing to actually get acquainted with the man before damning him is young Jean Lormeau (Gabriel de Gravone) whose love to a “lovely little” (that’s what the film says) village girl (Arlette Marchal) seems doomed by the angry disposition of her father.

So when a series of mysterious (everything is mysterious in this movie) nightly robberies and murders start, people have an obvious villain to direct their anger towards, and Jean the obvious guy to eventually understand what is actually going on. The truth, however, is rather more strange, sillier and more awesome than the villagers believe.

Apparently, when Alfred Machin and Henry Wulschleger made the lovely Le manoir de la peur, French silent movie audiences weren’t really ready for something this pleasurably macabre, and it took three years and Universal’s buying of the film for the US market to get it in front of an audience. At least that’s what the handful of sources about the film I could find tell me.

By the time he made this film, Machin was already a veteran filmmaker having started out with his first film in 1907. Machin doesn’t seem to have dabbled in the fantastique often, in the later years of his career using his own studio and the animals from his own private zoo predominantly to populate comedies and romances. I know nothing about Wulschleger, alas.

Watching the film, one doesn’t believe to be in the hands of novices in this particular genre. In fact, Le manoir is at the absolute stylistic height of this sort of affair for its time, using moody light, highly dynamic editing, just the right tinting, an authentically creepy looking village (or the parts of an actually village easy to be made to look thus) including that preposterously creepy looking manor house exterior, and some choice sets obviously influenced by German Expressionism to create a mood of the macabre and the strange. It’s visually striking, inventive and often breathtakingly beautiful if you like the grotesque and the weird. While they’re at it, the filmmakers also pack a nicely edited chase scene and some train stunts into the final act that are on the technical standard of Buster Keaton stunt work, so pretty sensational. These scenes are filmed and edited with such a sure eye for the dynamics of action scenes, it’s somewhat difficult to believe this is a nearly lost silent movie.

On the plot side, this is obviously a melodramatic pot boiler, whose murderer (hey, Dario Argento, you’re not the only one who liked the murderous ape in Poe!) turns out to be chimpanzee controlled by an evil servant but it’s a very well paced example of this sort of thing, presented with the proper lack of irony a film needs to tell this sort of story. It’s not completely lacking in originality either, for in how many films of this style does the obvious mad scientist turn out not the be a mad scientist at all, but simply a private researcher with a sad past who does nothing wrong apart from hiring the wrong creepy looking servant? Apart from what you may read as implied classism, it’s a neat twist on a trope that wasn’t even properly codified by the time this was made, suggesting Machin to be quite a bit ahead of his time.

So Le manoir de la peur turns out to be a true hidden gem, the sort of nearly-lost film we’re lucky to be able to experience today, suggesting an ocean of lost movies just as worthwhile as the best ones from the silent era we still can experience today.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Three Films Make A Post: Money, Madness, Murder.

The Haunting of Sarah Hardy (1989): If you’re in the right mood, this thriller by Jerry London produced for the USA Network featuring Sela Ward, Morgan Fairchild and Polly Bergen recommends itself by a particularly preposterous plot construction. At first, it’s very much gaslighting business by the numbers, but soon enough, the film spends time in James M. Cain land and even does some reverse gaslighting (something too few films do) eventually. If only London’s direction had more of a zing to it, this would probably be either a perfect example of the virtues overwriting can sometimes achieve or a camp masterpiece (if only I liked camp). As it stands, it’s at least less boring a film than it at first appears.

Mortal aka Torden (2020): I’m a big admirer of the films of André Øvredal, but this mix of superhero tropes, vague attempts at religious parable, myth and Brightburn just doesn’t work at all, its different elements never really coming together into a whole once the film starts giving answers to the questions it has come up with in the first act. On the plot level, there’s simply too little of interest happening, Øvredal going through motions of high budget thrill rides instead of actually making a thrilling film, while the film’s more thoughtful elements never really go anywhere. It’s rather poignant that the characters read up on Thor in a children’s book.

Visually, it’s very pretty indeed, but the pacing is much too ponderous for a film with so few actual thoughts, the characters have little to grab one – there’s just a feeling of something important that would make this into an actual film having gone missing somewhere during the production. Worst is an ending that attempts to be a classic 70s downer, but only feels deeply dissatisfying on a narrative level as well as  disconnected to any of the thematic questions the film might have had.

Local Hero (1983): I’ve taken a decade or two of coming around to the charms and qualities of Bill Forsyth’s much loved comedy. It’s not an obvious film to gather as much love as it has, with its nearly complete abandonment of the fish out of water plot after its first act or so, an approach to characters that can feel distant when you haven’t quite understood how subtle and empathetic it rather is, and a sense of humour that’s often plain peculiar.
The picture postcard beautiful shots of Scotland are an obvious attraction, but what really makes this for me is the willingness to meet characters on their own terms, understanding that the good and the bad in people are inextricably intertwined and even (not a thing anyone seems to be willing in the here and now) suggests that you might get along with people who aren’t perfect embodiments of what you want them to be, quietly praising individuality and finding it in everyone.

It’s also a film willing to present and accept a non-perfect solution to character arcs, as well as its so-called plot. And life, one assumes.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Past Misdeeds: The Sisters (2004)

Original title: Pee chong air

Pim (Linina Phuttitarn), the last surviving member of a small-time band, explains to a (up until the movie's very end faceless) cop what happened to her and her band mates when they spent a night in a hotel in the country.

At first, they were only somewhat disturbed by peculiar and unsettling noises coming through the air vent in the ceiling, but soon they learned that they shared a room with a very angry female ghost staring at them from above. Escaping into the lobby didn't help much. In fact, one of them got so panicked by further ghostly manifestations in an elevator shaft that he ran out of the hotel and right into a car.

You'd hope that leaving the hotel would protect the young people from the ghost's wrath, but unfortunately she followed them to the hospital their run over friend was brought into to die. The ghost was also bringing one of these especially disturbing child ghosts with her, so it’s not surprising the next band member died in the hospital by ghost-induced suicide.

At least the less frightening ghost of a teenage girl appeared and helped the band (and us) out with some exposition. The ghost following them around belonged to a murdered prostitute whose head was deposited in the air vent the ghost initially crawled out of. Teenage ghost was her sister.

Thusly informed, our victims - having no time for scepticism – decided the safest course of action was to seek help in the nearest Buddhist temple. The head priest there already had experience with this particular ghost, and was able to tell our protagonists that whoever sees her soon dies or goes insane. He did, however, know of a ritual that could help lift this curse - but he needed everyone to sleep in the coffin of someone who died a violent death as a part of it, and it had to happen before midnight.

The whole ritual business did not work out as well as the friends had hoped, of course, and the next day found the two last survivors doing research like good Call of Cthulhu characters, delving deep into the sad and tragic past of the ghost and the rather distressing present of her family.

The seeming randomness of the supernatural attacks on the protagonists and a general feeling of inexplicability of the first half hour of The Sisters reminded me heavily of the work of Takashi Shimizu circa the original (well, original big screen) Ju-On. Director/editor/cinematographer Tiwa Moeithaisong (who directed the fantastic Meat Grinder in 2009) uses visual techniques that reminded me a lot of Shimizu - long shots from strangely disturbing angles that suggest something malevolent abound, camera movement that is slow and lingering like a paranoiac's dream.

Less Shimizu and more Moeithaisong as I learned to love him in Meat Grinder are the at this early point more confusing than illuminating fragments of flashbacks (inside of the flashback that is Pim's story for an extra dose of confusion) and the excellently artificial colour schemes in which Bava-green of course indicates the cracks through which the supernatural seeps. All this combines nicely into a feeling of losing touch with linear reality in a receptive viewer like me, so I have to admit I was a little disappointed when the ghost began to make sense.

Explanations in horror films always carry a risk of pushing the viewer out of the realm of the unexplained and creepy into the less dignified castle of ridiculousness, but Moeithaisong avoids falling into this trap by the matter-of-factness with which his film delivers its answers. Elements like the "sleeping in the coffin of a someone who died a violent death" business or the expository ghost sister should be plain ridiculous, yet the simple, underplayed earnestness with which they are presented makes them - if not exactly belonging into reality as I understand it - perfectly fitting elements of the story.

It is also illuminating to see how far a film can come without having psychologically defined characters or clear character types in it. Apart from one of them, the band members have no distinguishing character traits whatsoever, yet I found them less annoying than the usual assortment of jock, nerd, slut and good girl that typically make up horror film victims. They don't need to have more specific characterization because their characters or motivations have nothing to do with what happens to them, and their actions before they meet the ghost are utterly unimportant. These people are as doomed as soon as they step into the hotel room as the woman who would become the film's ghost was doomed through the accidents of birth (or karma, I suppose).

In the end, the only character whose psychology the film explains or is interested in is the ghost, and her psychology it explains in such a roundabout way a viewer has to work to comprehend it.

If a viewer doesn't want to put that work in, she will probably still be able to enjoy The Sisters as a solid piece of contemporary Asian horror.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

In short: Host (2020)

Corona virus lockdown. Haley (Haley Bishop – in classical POV horror pseudo-authenticity manner, every actor uses their actual first name) invites a handful of her friends (Jemma Moore, Emma Louise Webb, Radina Drandova, Caroline Ward and Edward Linard) to hold a séance via Zoom with a real medium (Seylan Baxter). To not a single audience member’s surprise, it’s all fun and games until they accidentally conjure up something very nasty indeed.

As a horror fan, nay, as any fan of good commercial fun, I’m practically honour-bound to approve of a good gimmick. And what better and more timely gimmick can a film have than being produced following all lock-down rules and measures by having been shot via Zoom? Never mind that the group chat movie is by now a little sub-sub-genre of the POV horror style, this one’s a Corona Virus group chat movie after all! And seriously, it’s still a pretty good gimmick even if it isn’t as original as the film’s marketing suggests, and it’s certainly a nice way for filmmakers to still keep making something amounting to movies right now without risking anyone’s health.

Apart from an eye for the gimmick and the practical, director Rob Savage also shows a more than decent understanding of how to construct a movie about a séance gone wrong, how to time shocks. Host also has the distinction of being a film that knows how long it needs to be, clocking in at under sixty minutes, the filmmakers having excised all kinds of needless guff and feet-dragging until Host becomes something akin to the pure distillation of a one-idea movie: a film that knows what’s good about it, what it’s good at, and proceeds to get in fast and out just as quickly. It’s rather impressive.

Of course, this also leads to a film that’s more a campfire tale than an actual story, lacking characters, themes and subtext. It’s a damn good campfire tale, though, and well-told, so who am I to complain?

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Reprisal (2018)

Bank manager Jacob (Frank Grillo) is having a bit of a bad time. His bank is robbed by a violent guy operating in a military style (who the audience will soon enough see is being played by Jonathon Schaech), with little he or anyone else can do about it. The perpetrator seems to be a serial operator, too, leaving empty banks and dead bodies behind without the police getting any closer to him.

The special unit chasing him does vaguely seem to insinuate that Jacob may have sold information to the robber, but don’t follow up on this after the first interview at all. Still, that’s apparently enough to get Jacob put on indefinite leave. Because having to spend time with his beautiful wife (Olivia Culpo) and dramatically diabetic daughter (Natalia Sophie Butler) is clearly not good enough for him, he begins to obsess about the robbery, starting his own investigation into it and the ones that came before. He also involves his retired police neighbour James (Bruce Willis) in this business, whose help will be rather useful once Jacob actually manages to get much closer to his prey than the police ever do.

Of course, this being the kind of film it is, this also puts Jacob’s family in dire danger.

Bruce Willis does not seem to take his descent into the realms of low budget action cinema about one degree, sometimes two, classier than the one Dolph Lundgren or JCVD cameo their ways through, terribly gracefully. He is usually looking bored and tired in these movies, seldom deigning to do that acting thing he has nominally been hired for, which tends to be enough for the producers of these things as long as they can slap his name on the cover. Digital one-sheet? You know what I mean. Willis clearly is no Cuba Gooding Jr. in his regard, who will approach even a crappy role in a terrible movie with as much seriousness as he can gather (which is good for Gooding Jr., because it doesn’t look like his off-screen behaviour will do him any favours for a future career), nor a Nicolas Cage who will bring as much craziness as is appropriate or more if you ask him to.

So it’s something of a positive surprise that Willis approaches his supporting role in Brian A. Miller’s Reprisal with a comparative degree of enthusiasm. He’s still looking pretty tired but puts enough basic acting moves on display to mandate a friendly nod from this long-time fan. Of course, he is standing next to Frank Grillo who doesn’t shy away from being good in films good, bad or mediocre, cheap or Marvel, even if a film just demands of him to get a bit nervy and obsessed. The film also features a pretty interesting villain performance by Schaech that provides the character with just enough actual human traits he becomes more than just a plot device shooting guns.

The script, as should be obvious by my plot description, doesn’t even try to do anything complex or original with its worn genre tropes, but it is decently paced and structured competently, so the film can move through its clichés unimpeded by awkwardness.

Miller’s direction is appropriately straightforward, with some montage-style intercutting being the most interesting thing he does. Though it is not doing anything artistically interesting, his work is generally competent, apart from a tendency to go too much into the old shaky-cam manoeuvre in the action scenes, in the usual weird assumption that not being able to see properly will read to an audience as being directly in the thick of things. The film’s not too bad about this, fortunately, so there’s at least little danger of headaches for the long-suffering viewer of cheapish action films.

Reprisal is a decently made movie that’s perfectly watchable when one is in the mood for undemanding action in the crime thriller mold, but does let its willing cast down a bit by not providing them with much to get their teeth into.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

In short: Downrange (2017)

A car full of ridesharing young ‘uns (let’s just mention characters played by Kelly Connaire, Stephanie Pearson, Rod Hernandez and Anthony Kirlew) find themselves on a lonely desert country road after a surprise flat tire. Turns out the tire was blown by a rifle round, and soon enough, a hidden sniper begins murdering the kids one by one. Desperate plans as well as the usual bickering between the survivors who managed to get a car between themselves and the movement-averse sniper ensue.

Ryuhei Kitamura isn’t exactly the director I’d have in mind for what amounts to a one-location movie like Downrange, for sitting still for a longer amount of time and focussing on character interplay are pretty much the opposite of Kitamura’s talents, and never aspects of filmmaking the director showed much talent for or any interest in. For a time, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of restraint Kitamura showed, and his genuine attempts to not add further elements to the situation he has set up but instead let it play out naturally. Sure, there are a handful of completely unnecessary swirling tracking shots form on high, but for about half the film, this is indeed the tight, psychological film you’d expect from the set-up.

Alas, Kitamura loses patience then, and the whole thing turns into a completely ridiculous one-location thriller full of all the tackiness the director goes for at his worst. So expect amounts of blood and unpleasantness so high-pitched, things don’t become dark and unpleasant but simply ridiculous, Kitamura giving up on using any of the humanity he provided his characters with in any sensible way once the bodily fluids really start spurting.

This really is a film crying out for a careful and focussed 70s-inspired director. Kitamura even seems to agree, given how the film’s final plot development so clearly wants to be a 70s downer ending. In truth, it only ends up being ridiculous, cartoonish and plain silly nonsense, Downrange and its director simply lacking the interest in their characters as human beings you need to pull this sort of thing off.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Murder by Night (1989)

Warning: there will be spoilers!

The charmingly named “Claw Hammer Killer” is haunting the nightly streets of New York, murdering women, as these guys inevitably do. His latest exploits are a bit below the standards of your typical ultra-competent movie serial killer, though, when one of his victims runs into a car, causing a crash and an explosion. Caught in said explosion is one Alan Strong (Robert Urich), probably out jogging at that moment, or something.

Neither we nor he do know what Alan was actually doing, for he suffers from a hefty bout of amnesia that leaves his past near and far a total vacuum to him. Apparently, he soon learns, he’s the reclusive owner of a successful restaurant he never enters, as well as the owner of a load of crappy modern art in his living room. He’s also a cipher to the world as much as he is to himself. Well, unless you’re the cop investigating the Claw Hammer Murders, that is. For said cop, one detective Carl Madsen (Michael Ironside) doesn’t buy Alan’s amnesia at all, and believes him to be a rich guy trying to avoid the trouble that comes with witnessing a murder.

Karen Hicks (Kay Lenz), the police psychologist tasked with helping Alan, does not at all agree with that opinion, but then, she clearly has no professional ethics and can’t resist the old Urich charm, so she’s soon having an affair with her patient. Why, she’s so into him, she’s even going to stand by him once Alan as well as Madsen start to suspect Alan might not be a witness, but the killer himself.

Paul Lynch’s Murder by Night, a TV movie made for the USA Network whose TV movie output was specialized on making genre movies below the explicitness of HBO but rather above the usual network TV movie fare when it came to sex, violence, and bad ideas, is rather a nice example of the form. Well, one might complain that it doesn’t go quite as far with its basic concept as it could do, turning the whole affair into more of a gaslighting affair than the portrait of a man who doesn’t know himself getting into trouble. On the other hand, however, the killer and his plan are sufficiently nasty and ridiculous to base an effective little thriller on.

The film is of course – being a TV movie - a bit conservative in its construction, so anyone who knows this kind of film will cop relatively early to what is actually going on simply by knowing the basic structure of this kind of plot. Lynch sells it pretty well, though, timing reveals and reversals nicely, and making good use of Urich’s general nice guy image exactly to cause just enough doubt in the audience. Plus, there’s another TV nice guy actor playing the actual killer, so you gotta congratulate the movie for some cleverness here, too.

The cast is generally doing a fine job inside the constraints of what this is, Urich being likeable and confused, Jim Metzler being likeable and evil, Michael Ironside doing his patented driven asshole cop bit as convincing as he always does, and Lenz doing the best with what she is given.

So, all in all, Murder by Night is a nice little example of a well-made TV thriller, winning over hearts and minds, okay, my heart and mind, via the virtues of craftsmanship.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Three Films Make A Post: Secluded getaway. Killer views.

The Rental (2020): Despite Sheila Vand, Alison Brie, Dan Stevens and Jeremy Allen White being no core cast to sneeze at, Dave Franco’s film about two couples going on a weekend vacation and crashing against most of them being pretty shitty people as well as someone really, really not liking them doesn’t do a lot for me. In part, it’s the too slow pacing of Franco’s and Joe Swanberg’s script, spending too much time on characters that simply aren’t terribly interesting, until it finally gets up to very rote thriller tropes realized competently but without verve.

The whole thriller/horror part certainly isn’t helped by the film never getting around to telling the audience why we’re supposed to care for these characters under threat anyway, so their fates aren’t exactly keeping one’s eyes open.

The Wave (2019): Gille Klabin’s semi-trippy film about a corporate lawyer on his way to become a total piece of human crap played by Justin Long learning a valuable – and rather final – lesson about the universe (apparently, it wants balance, maaaan) after not saying no to drugs, is surprisingly bland for a film containing a giant drug trip, time jumps and the stuff of “lost in the city” movies. The film’s surrealism simply doesn’t hit, the drug visions and shifts having a blandly banal air to them rather akin to the banality of its protagonist’s style of evil, really not breathing an air of the actual surreal as much as one of the try-hard surreal.

Not helping is the banality (yep, that word again) of the film’s philosophy, the sort of thing a film would need considerably more charm to sell than this one shows.

The Cleaning Lady (2018): Ending on another film that leaves me nonplussed, Jon Knautz’s horror movie about a woman with a “love addiction” problem making the classic movie mistake of befriending a member of the lower classes (it’s feeling rather Victorian around here) and landing in the hands of a violent psychopath doesn’t just annoy me with its implied politics. It makes the much bigger mistake of not being good enough as a thriller and a horror movie to not let me overlook its politics. Sure, it adds some mildly crass violence to at least give its villainess more of a background but not really even attempts to sell  her as an actual human being instead of a caricature of suffering turned evil.

When it comes to the shock and the suspense, the film’s just okay, with a couple of scenes that don’t quite work or simply lack the imagination for any of this to have much of an impact.

Friday, August 21, 2020

Past Misdeeds: Le Seuil Du Vide (1974)

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 painter Wanda (Dominique Erlanger) flees from the rather bitter end of a love affair, chancing into renting a small, windowless, uncommonly shaped room in Paris. Her landlady warns her not to open a locked door in her room beckoning to Wanda, but the mysterious portal does of course not stay locked for long. At first the blackness of the void lurks behind it, curiously reflecting the light not in the way normal darkness should.

In an impulse between curiosity and self-destructiveness, Wanda decides to paint inside of the void. From then on, her behaviour changes rapidly. At times, it seems like the artist is becoming a different, older person altogether. She also has meetings with the not quite right elderly that might just be hallucinations of a haunted mind, and has visions which seem to hint at coming doom. Wanda may be dreaming, or she may be the victim of a magickal attack and a rather roundabout occult conspiracy.

As far as the Internet tells me, Le Seuil Du Vide's director Jean-Francois Davy was better known for his pornography (softcore? hardcore? who knows?) when this was made, but the film goes in quite a different direction than one would expect, eschewing directly exploitational elements more than many contemporary art movies did. If you're going into this hoping for breasts and blood, you will be sorely disappointed.

There is no good reason to be disappointed here, though, because Davy is not trying to go for that type of European movie of the fantastic at all. Instead, Davy works in the same realm as Jean Rollin in his less explicitly erotic moments, creating a very personal mood of the strange and the fantastic that lacks obviousness. A different director could have told the same story Davy tells as a thriller about an occult conspiracy, or as an art house film about a woman losing her grip on reality after a love affair gone bad, but Le Seuil feels divorced from these possibilities.

Davy seems to have no interest in being thrilling, or in downgrading the experiences of his audience or his heroine into the realm of the mere allegorical; he is in the business of turning his film into a world of its own, with rules that are different from those in our world, but also quite different from the rules most other movies decide to follow.

At times, the director's visual world threatens to become a little too private, a little too divorced from the idea of communicating with an audience, but is usually saved from becoming too self-indulgent in the wrong direction by Dominique Erlanger's performance. She has the slightly girlish charm French cinema (of every persuasion) is so obsessed with, yet she also manages to lead the viewer through the film's more unclear passages through an ability to stay believable as a real person in moments of greatest unreality.

Le Seuil Du Vide is a very peculiar film, deeply entrenched in very French ideas about the use of the fantastic in movies, as little interested in the narrative structures of genre cinema as a film can be while still being part of genre cinema.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

In short: Critters (1986)

A shipful of furry, hungry and very rude aliens break out of prison and land near one of those archetypal US small towns the horror genre loves so dearly (to destroy) to get some lunch. Humans, cows - the Crites, as they are called, eat whatever you got, though the movie’s cat is a true survivor.

Particularly threatened is the Brown family – mother Helen (Dee Wallace), father Jay (Billy Green Bush), teenage daughter April (Nadine Van der Velde) and youngest Brad (Scott Grimes) – but since this is an 80s PG-13 movie, of their circle, only April’s new boyfriend (as portrayed by a young Billy Zane who wasn’t quite as disturbingly toothy an actor at this point in his life) gets eaten.

While the Earth authorities are rather slow in reacting, the space prison has sent two bounty hunters with shape-changing abilities to take care of the situation. One of them quickly takes on the appearance of a pop singer (Terrence Mann), while the other one has problems not having a new face pop up every two scenes. Not that they’re terrible great at killing the critters; they do have the whole wrecking a town thing down pat, though.

I’ve never loved Stephen Herek’s SF horror comedy quite as much as some people do. It is, admittedly, one of the better examples of the 80’s obsession with small furry monsters, but then, apart from Joe Dante’s Gremlins, that’s not exactly a corner of the genre full of great, or even decent, movies. Decent, at least, Critters certainly is. It mostly suffers from problems with follow-through and a curious unwillingness to actually milk its own ideas for comical effect. For example – and this is really only one of many - why create a fake music video and let one of the bounty hunters take on the singer’s appearance, but then not really use that as a running gag during the course of the movie?

The film also introduces way too many characters for its own good, jumping around between them in a way that does help neither the comedy nor suspense parts of the film, dragging things out much more than they should be dragged out, burying the better ideas and moments under stuff that’s just…there for no good reason.

Really great, however, are the special effects by the Chiodo Brothers and company, providing the little nasties with proper personalities, expressions, and finding design-wise exactly the right spot between funny and threatening. If that saves the film for a viewer is simply a matter of taste; it doesn’t for me, but then, I find most of the film simply neither terribly funny nor terribly exciting and have perhaps lost the patience for the whole US small town under threat thing.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

In short: Asher (2018)

Asher (Ron Perlman) is a professional killer. You know the kind – aging, tired, sad, lonely apart from a handful of professional contacts, and not without regrets for his life decisions. His life just might take the kind of surprising upturn few people of his age get, when he killer-meet-cutes Sophie (Famke Janssen), a woman with some baggage herself and a mother (Jacqueline Bisset) suffering from dementia.

But as these films go, a strategic mistake in his professional life sets Asher on a collision course with one of his former friends and associates (Richard Dreyfuss), and some too ambitious plans the killer doesn’t know about get most of the rest of said associates killed, so his newfound hope for an actual human life just might come too late and be rather deadly for Sophie.

On paper, Michael Caton-Jones’s Asher is nothing special. We’ve seen its plot and variations thereof a hundred times before and its central characters are just as well-worn (though kudos for Sophie not being blind). However, in practice, there’s something pretty special about the whole affair. In part, the film’s considerable amount of actual human pathos is won by a cast and director whose careers have reached a trajectory quite parallel to Asher’s, a late middle to final phase that doesn’t fit comfortably with anyone, and the least with consummate professionals in a business that favours youth over talent and experience any day, as much as you try to mutilate yourself with botox and whatever other nonsense’s the flavour of the day.

It’s not all self-pity and doom and gloom here, though. Instead there’s a relaxed quality to quite a bit of the film, a willingness to stay with characters and care for them when other films would make haste to the next plot point. But then, we know the plot very well indeed, so fixating on it would be quite beside the point, especially when caring for what’s going on with the characters is a lot more rewarding.

Part of Asher’s special quality in this regard is how clearly it applies actual lived experience to the genre tropes it uses, providing the film with palpable humanity where it could get away with going through the motions. The actors clearly share in the film’s approach here, and they all, especially Perlman, Janssen and Bisset, seem to put a lot of themselves into what we are seeing.

There are also some fine, homage-heavy scenes of professional killer business, a dry yet warm sense of humour and low-key eccentricity as a way to give standard plot beats more life to enjoy here, turning this into quite a different film from the would-be post-Tarantino thing I expected Asher to be going in.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

In short: Man on Fire (1987)

Having left the CIA with a fine cocktail of PTSD related problems, John Creasy (Scott Glenn) is doing the lighter kind of bodyguard and security work, where actual danger and additional trauma is highly unlikely to come his.

His best – probably only – buddy David (Joe Pesci) has gotten Creasy a job in Italy as the bodyguard of Sam Balletto (Jade Malle), the young daughter of wealthy parents who seem to spend less time with her than with their hairstylists. Creasy doesn’t really do children because his biggest hit when it comes to trauma concerns a dead kid. However, Sam’s nearly in as dire need of a friend – even if it’s a middle-aged big brother kind of friend – as he is, and soon enough he’s doing all the bonding and parenting stuff you’d expect her parents to bother with.

Alas, some people with inside information manage to kidnap Sam, leaving Creasy behind wounded and very angry. So angry he eventually goes on a bit of a rampage trying to find the kidnappers and bring Sam back home.

I’ve written up Tony Scott’s (who apparently was initially in talks for this version) later remake of Man on Fire with Denzel Washington some months ago. Not surprisingly, I disagree with the general critical consensus that declares the intolerable Scott version to be clearly superior. But then, in its own way, Élie Chouraqui’s version of the material is just as pretentious as that of Scott is, it’s just a kind of pretension I actually find enjoyable and aesthetically agreeable to me. When in doubt, I’ll prefer the film introduced with the hard-boiled monologue of a guy in a body bag.

I also simply do prefer the slow, gliding, “look, I’m an arty European movie from the 80s” thing to staccato camera waving and the colour of piss. The film at hand is also much, much shorter, which does help with its not exactly deep and complicated plot, though it actually shares some of the problems the later remake has with uniting its character-based first half and its slow action thriller moves in the second.

The production design is generally lovely, though, the often empty or illogically populated industrial and semi-industrial places much of the latter half takes place in taking on a rather dream-like quality in Chouraqui’s hands, turning the violence Creasy commits curiously dream-like itself. That does cost the film quite a bit of the dramatic tension you’d expect these scenes to have, but then, I don’t think dramatic tension was ever something the filmmakers here were interested in. It’s more one of those European movies using and abusing the visual motives of thrillers and a couple of actors with a very American presence to re-dream pulp as floaty, strange, yet deeply exotic and sexy thing.

Which, obviously, is only going to make a very specific part of this movie’s audience happy.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

The Lodger (1944)

London, 1888. Jack the Ripper is stalking the streets of Whitechapel, in a Production Code friendly change of pace murdering actresses and former actresses who for some reason haunt the Whitechapel streets like prostitutes (cough). Though, when the film says actress, it really seems to mean 1940’s risqué singer/dancer, so temporal confusion is bound to happen for any viewer.

The slightly come-down Bonting family takes on a lodger, one Mr Slade (Laird Cregar), who says he’s needing the rooms they rent him for living and pathological experiments. Slade is clearly a gentleman, even though he seems a bit lost and lonely. Yet he also has strange habits, coming and going at all hours of the night through the back entrance, burning various things one might think to be connected to the Ripper murders and generally acts creepy and more than just a bit crazy. Let’s not even start with his rants about the evil powers of female beauty.

Despite all of this, it takes quite some time until his hosts start to suspect him, which is particularly dangerous because their live-in niece Kitty Langley (Merle Oberon) is one of those actresses who don’t act but sing and dance, and most certainly fits the mould of female beauty Slade, who is most certainly not Jack the Ripper, no sir, gets so excited about.

This third adaptation of Marie Belloc Lowndes’s The Lodger was directed by John Brahm, whose best – at least in my opinion – movies do tend to be thrillers in historical settings like this is. Brahm certainly knew how to attractively put much completely made up period detail into a film, the production putting Merle Oberon et al in fashion and environments that never try to actually realistically emulate the past but are very much a mid-1940s fantasy of the past. Particularly Kitty’s musical numbers have to be seen to be believed in this regard.

That’s not a criticism, mind you, for often, turning the past consciously into a fantasy of itself leads to more interesting results than any pretence of authenticity, which is often only a less honest kind of fantasy.

Among Brahm’s other virtues is a fine ability to use the Hollywood-approved elements of expressionist films, so there are rather a lot of wonderful, moody shots of a foggy backlot London that is in turn filled with the shadows of policemen and the Ripper and those singing, dancing poor you hear so much about (see also, fantasy). This is actually a surprisingly effective contrast, because not portraying Whitechapel as the slum it was at once satisfied the needs of the production code but also turned the Ripper into even more of a threat, a predator in a place completely unprepared for such a thing.

Much less satisfying than Brahm’s work is the script by Barré Lyndon. Answering the age-old question if the audience of the past was really that slow, the film apparently already annoyed some critics of its own time by making everyone involved with Slade quite so slow on the uptake that it sometimes borders on the ridiculous. And even once the family, and a boring policeman played by George Sanders in a particularly bland month, are pretty sure their guest is indeed the killer, they still don’t act on it in any reasonable or useful fashion, deciding on nonsense like keeping Kitty, who is clearly in danger from him, out of the loop for no reason I could make out. Kitty herself seems to have no sense of self-preservation whatsoever, treating Slade even in full-on crazy rant mode (and Cregar’s a great, effective, eye-bulger and ranter) as if he were a nice, socially adapted guy. This would be even more frustrating if Oberon didn’t somehow manage to still project a degree of strength and intelligence into a character who has nothing like that whatsoever as she is written.

Still, despite these pretty hefty flaws, the game cast, the fantasy 1880s, and Brahm’s direction turn The Lodger into a surprisingly captivating movie, even if it is a somewhat frustrating one at times.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Three Films Make A Post: You'll never see them coming.

Deadsight (2018): I have to admit that I by now belong to the sad group of people who could live without another zombie/infected movie for about the next billion years. Having said that, I found Jesse Thomas Cook’s viral zombie style indie horror film surprisingly decent. At the very least, It is focussed and the the main cast do their jobs well. Why, Cook even manages to wring some genuine emotion out of some zombie movie standards by virtue of effective and efficient direction.

There are also some tiny yet not unimportant changes to your typical zombie movie rules, where infected are still conscious to a degree, which makes this particular version of the zombie plague rather more tragic, and turns at least some of the infected into people suffering horribly instead of merely dangers for the protagonists (Liv Collins, who also co-wrote, and Adam Seybold) to get through.

A Whisker Away aka Nakitai Watashi wa Neko wo Kaburu (泣きたい私は猫をかぶる) (2020): This Toho anime by Mari Okada about a middle school aged teen, her awkwardly (or creepily if you're really sensitive) expressed crush on a classmate and the troubles that come with turning oneself into a cat is a prime example of how much of an influence Studio Ghibli films still are on parts of anime filmmaking, seeing as this one quite desperately wants to be a Ghibli film, hitting as many buttons, tropes, and favourite Miyazaki concepts as it can get its paws on.

That’s only a bad thing on the originality front, though, for while this certainly can’t compare to Ghibli at its best (which is one of the troubles a film will get into when it prays so clearly at other films’ altars), it’s still a genuinely charming film that speaks about the pains of growing up with real affection and insight, doing the Japanese version of Magical Realism with charm and style. The final act could have used some trimming for my tastes, but otherwise, this is as good as pseudo-Ghibli is going to get.

Hoffmaniada (2018): More than a decade in the making, this Russian puppet stop motion animation directed by Stanislav Sokolov uses the great German Romantic writer (and not quite so great composer) E.T.A. Hoffmann’s life and elements of his work to talk about the borders between imaginary lives and real ones, the difficulty of more traditionally artistic temperaments to live in the world instead of their heads (also to recognize the difference between a woman and a freakish automaton), and the cruelty of said world to them. Which is about as Romantic as they come.

Quite appropriate for something with and about Hoffmann, the film contains a healthy dose of the grotesque, and while the animation isn’t always exactly slick (though never amateurish), that more handmade quality actually adds to its charms, turning Hoffmann’s world stranger than Hollywood slickness would, something that’s very appropriate to the film and its themes.

Friday, August 14, 2020

Past Misdeeds: Blood Beat (1985)

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.

It's Christmas time in the highly isolated wilds of rural Wisconsin. Artist Cathy (Helen Benton) and her extremely beardy boyfriend Gary (Terry Brown) are awaiting a seasonal visit by Cathy's children Dolly (Dana Day) and Ted (James Fitzgibbons).

Ted is bringing his new girlfriend Sarah (Claudia Peyton), but the hope for a friendly first meeting with the family already evaporates on the doorstep. Cathy has a habit of just staring at the poor girl without even trying for small talk and nicety that Sarah finds deeply disturbing. Why, it's as if Cathy would look right into her mind and disapprove of what she finds there!

In fact, Cathy possesses some sort of psychic powers the film defines as "the powers of good", and while the rest of the plot is going on, Cathy will have shaking fits and visions of something terrible that is going to happen.

Sarah's day doesn't get any better when Ted and family are dragging her with them to murder innocent deer. At the moment of the killing shot, Sarah throws a fit, scares the deer away, runs off screaming through the woods and right into the arms of a guy whose guts are hanging out. Must have been one of those hunting accidents.

After that bit of fun, and a visit by the police, the girl tries to sleep off a bit of stress, but only falls into a strange dream (or is it?) in which she finds a samurai armour and sword in a chest in her bedroom. She cuts herself on the sword and falls out of bed.

Soon, a blue glowing guy in samurai armour wanders through the (suddenly surprisingly populated) area and kills people, while Sarah has finely timed orgasms.

A few killings and orgasms later, the blue glowing samurai guy decides to attack the family home, but he has to go through Cathy's awesome power of shaking her glowing red hands first.

Blood Beat is a peculiar regional picture made in Wisconsin by a (as far as I understand) Frenchman named Fabrice A. Zaphiratos, but supposedly edited in Paris, France. Its structure and texture have not much to do with European horror, but are completely in tune with the obscure and weird work done during the 70s and 80s by filmmakers working in the most improbable parts of the USA.

Watching films like this is often a problematic experience for the unprepared. Their flaws are all too obvious while their charms depend on a certain state of mind in their audience, a willingness to forget standards of professional filmmaking and just enter the world of a film wide-eyed as if exploring a parallel dimension.

Zaphiratos' film doesn't make this exploration too difficult for a willing viewer. Sure, it shows its probably non-existent budget through laughable special effects and a confused and confusing script, but at least Blood Beat's wild detours off the road of logic or just simple narrative progression are already a part of what makes the film as interesting an experience as it is. The film's world is a place where the usual rules of the progression of time and space don't exist, where amateur actors are either reacting much too cold and distant to everything or are jumping into hysterics at the slightest provocation. I like to compare this peculiar type of acting so typical of local filmmaking to aliens trying to emulate human emotions without ever having experienced any for themselves.

Zaphiratos' direction is quite the thing, too. Besides providing Blood Beat with the usual distracted and obscure feel, overly slow pacing and bad sound, Zaphiratos also shows remarkable cleverness when it comes to his film's visual side. Blood Beat is full of scenes shot from skewed and slightly disturbing camera positions, sudden shifts from lingering, static shots to quick cuts and lots of camera movement. It's the work of a director pulling out all the stops he can to draw his audience into his film, without a care for the silliness of the things that are happening on screen and as far from the self-deprecation of camp as possible. There's a mood of wrongness to evoke, and this director is damn well going to evoke it.

For most of the time, Zaphiratos' technique of overloading the audience's brain with strangeness embedded in moments of boredom works fine. Blood Beat's finale however is too silly and needs too much of the non-effects to keep to the moodiness of what came before. The finale has its cheesy charms, to be sure, but it's a grating step away from the utter weirdness that came before into the realm of the merely unintentionally humorous.

But of course, one shouldn't go into a film like this expecting it to work all the time. The moments of floating nonsense are what counts here, and Blood Beat delivers quite a few of those.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Some Scattered Thoughts on Jean Rollin’s Le Frisson des Vampire (1973)

Because frankly, Rollin’s films do often lend themselves to scattered thoughts more than stringent analysis or a simple recounting of their plots. Though, to be fair, Frisson (known as Shiver of the Vampires in most English speaking markets), is actually one of the man’s more plot-heavy films, with an at least half-clear throughline and even some recognizable character motivations.

This is also the Rollin movie that show clearest that this strange low budget Romantic had a sense of humour. To wit, he provides us with two male vampires who are as goofy as they are weird, letting them give a couple long, word-play heavy double-monologues that connect vampirism to Isis as well as to the Black Madonna (it’s not as if “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail” had invented this stuff) while Rollin uses the camera and the actors’ somewhat dubious performances in comically grotesque ways that not just lighten this heady (in the early 70s meaning of the word) business up considerably but also add to the Weird mood of the film instead of detracting from it.

This does of course fit nicely into one of Rollin’s greatest strengths, his ability to turn what should be his film’s greatest weaknesses into their greatest strengths. So, if not all of his actors and actresses can really act but absolutely have faces for the sort of things he’s doing he’s getting them to consciously increase their somewhat dazed and stiff demeanour until they act as if they were sleep-walking, which always seem to be an appropriate way to go through Rollin’s gothic dreamy and dream-like world of nude vampirism and (in this case) early 70s hipster vampires. Characters in Rollin’s films – certainly our male lead here – are so often not clear if they are dreaming or not, reacting in manners to the world Rollin creates that seem perfectly appropriate and downright realistic in context.

Which to me seems to be one of Rollin’s great achievements, making the borders between dream and reality inside of the particular dream world of his films so porous, diffuse and liminal, even a strict term like “realistic” can shift its meaning.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Hollywood Story (1951)

New York Producer Larry O’Brien (Richard Conte) moves to Los Angeles to found and head a new independent movie studio. Buying an old studio building that’s been unused since 1929, he learns of the unsolved murder of former silent star director Franklin Ferrara. Ferrara was shot right in his office on the lot, too, so it’s easy for Larry to become somewhat obsessed with the matter.

Clearly, the combination of oldest school Hollywood glamour and an unsolved murder should make box office gold, so Larry decides to turn this particular true crime story into his first Hollywood film, despite misgivings from friends and very shouty misgivings from his money man Sam Collyer (Fred Clark). And because Larry’s a bit of a method producer, he starts hiring old talent for that project, former silent actors as well as Ferrara’s old script writer Vincent St. Clair (Henry Hull). Also not amused by his project – or is it his deep dive into the matters of the case? – are the daughter of Ferrara’s favourite star (Julie Adams) as well as the actual killer.

Supposedly made as Universal’s answer to Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd, and directed by William Castle, this mystery doesn’t actually have much in common with the Wilder movie beyond the call-backs to the silent era and some cameos and small part appearances by actual silent era actors whom Universal, staying classy as always, decided to pay the lowest rates possible. It’s also, keeping with being classy, a thinly veiled version of the actual unsolved murder of silent movie director William Desmond Taylor, leading to a film that’s strangely meta in a very different way to Wilder’s film.

But then, Sunset Blvd was all about Hollywood and what it does to (at least some) people, whereas this one’s a zippy murder mystery whose moments of meta and strange resonance seem less based on an explicit artistic program but just come about through a combination of a somewhat exploitative set-up, a director in William Castle insisting on a degree of authenticity when it comes to places and their feeling by using actual silent sound stages as well as a couple of well-known Hollywood spots, and the magic that a film where production and plot can’t help but mirror one another a little simply cannot avoid when made by dedicated professionals. So while there’s no direct attempt at depth or more than a small critique of Hollywood life in the film’s script, there’s a certain resonance to the proceedings, as if this particular film had stumbled into a particularly liminal space by a mix of accident and mercenary commercialism, providing things with an air of the slightly weird throughout.

Thanks to being an actual murder mystery, and its willingness and ability to tell a genre story, Hollywood Story also avoids the horrors of artier movies about filmmaking, a sub-genre much beloved by Ebert-style film critics and certain directors that’s typically comparable to all those Great Novels about middle-aged writers, their writing blocks and their wish to fuck their grand-daughter-aged students. That is to say, this stuff is really of no interest to anyone but the makers and their cliques.

If you’ve first encountered the great William Castle, king of the gimmick movie, with his later, independent productions, and heard and seen all those lovely gimmicks, it’s often easy to forget that the man had had a healthy career as a studio contract director before that. It’s a bit ironic that this film made in his studio phase is also a bit of a gimmick movie with its “ripped from the old headlines” approach, but it’s not Castle’s gimmick, it’s the studio’s.

The gimmicks also can tend to hide Castle’s considerable abilities as a director, like his command of pace – as a rule, a Castle movie is never slow nor full of filler – or the generally short but deft and effective use of expressionist filmmaking stand-bys like chiaroscuro effects, stark shadows, and so on and so forth. Hollywood Story in particular features some clever tracking shots, and well-staged suspense sequences, but its high point is the film’s actual climax that’s about three minutes of a beautiful potted noir chase through a studio lot by night, wonderfully mixing Castle’s talent for the efficiently brief and the expressionist.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

In short: The Three Musketeers (2011)

I think I can spare everyone the plot synopsis. Just imagine the usual Dumas highlights as well as the additions most loved by all other adaptations of the material and add airships and a weird-ass diving suit.

You may have read that Paul W.S. Anderson’s version of the old (but grand) chestnut here is supposed to be not very good, but if you’re me, that’s not a thing that’ll stop you. Even though, in this case, it really, really should have. Now, I’m not a traditional hater of Anderson, and while I absolutely agree with the usual consensus that many of the guy’s films are not very good, I can’t help but respect a director so clearly putting everything he’s got into entertaining his audience. That the filmmaker often seems to believe the audience he is out to entertain has a all the culture of the inhabitants of a monkey cage is a bit unfortunate here, but what can you do?

Even here, Anderson clearly tries to entertain us: there are half a dozen or so relatively loud and somewhat entertaining action sequences in the film, and these are, for what it’s worth, actually pretty fun in an extremely undemanding way. Alas, there is also a version of (parts of the) rather complicated plot of Dumas’s novel, containing rather a large amount of intrigue and dialogue, and here’s where the film completely breaks down, for Anderson clearly has no idea how to stage this sort of thing at all. It doesn’t help that all those parts of the dialogue that aren’t taken word for word from earlier movie versions of the material are some of the most insipid tripe I’ve heard in a long time – and as my imaginary readers know, my tolerance for this sort of thing is usually considerable. Nor does it add to its quality that the film clearly wants to be some kind of cross between the Lester version of the Musketeers and Guy Ritchie’s big damn action approach to Sherlock Holmes; of course, what it tonally actually is,  is what our British friends know as panto, just performed by quite a few theoretically highly capable actors.

In theory, I say, for whether it’s Matthew Macfadyen, Luke Evans, Ray Stevenson, Udo Waltz, Juno Temple, or Mads Mikkelsen, they’re just mugging their way through every single scene, clearly trying to get through this thing as fast as possible, pretending that winking at the audience about how shit the material is will somehow magically improve matters. To add insult to injury, the capable actors stand side by side with decidedly not capable screen personalities Milla Jovovich as the worst Milady, Orlando Bloom as the worst Lord Buckingham and Logan Lerman as the worst D’Artagnan imaginable outside of nightmares so terrible, they would probably be lethal. Particularly Jovovich is so bad, only a director who is married to her would let her get away with it. Wait a minute…

So yeah, this is indeed as horrible as everyone says it is.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

In short: Cliffhanger (1993)

This is neither a particular highpoint in the career of America’s second best mainstream action movie director of its era, Renny Harlin, nor of its lead, the sometimes redoubtable Sylvester Stallone.

Whenever the film about a tough free-climbing mountain rescue manly man fighting gangsters led by John Lithgow making an hilarious attempt at what I assume is supposed to be an English upper class accent (though I could be wrong) actually concentrates on tight action sequences cleverly filmed to produce vertigo in its audience, it becomes downright riveting. Plus, Cliffhanger teaches one quite a bit about all the ways gravity can kill you (and that in a genre and film that has a rather dubious grasp on gravity and all other laws of physics you might care to mention, treating them more as suggestions of physics than strict laws), and warns of the dozens of ways a manly man mountain rescue dude can kill you with whatever objects or natural features are available at any given moment. It also relates the tragically tragic tale of Sly getting his best bud Michael Rooker rather miffed at him via a very tragic girlfriend dropping into an abyss incident, and warns of the dangers of teaming up with Evil John Lithgow.

However, the film leaves these natural roaming places of the US action movie a little too often. An obvious example is the introduction of two extreme sports dudes that make Beavis and Butthead look downright realistic only to get them killed later on in scenes that mostly seem to be in the film to make it lose momentum (which is totally what you want in your big dumb action movie), awakening my inner editor rather fiercely.

It’s a bit of a shame, really, for a twenty minute shorter version of Cliffhanger would probably have turned it into the nail biter its title promises instead of the decent enough action flick with only mildly interesting idiocy it is.

Saturday, August 8, 2020

Three Films Make A Post: Blood is Coming

Revenge Ride (2020): With a female director in Melanie Aitkenhead and omni-present genre movie actresses like Pollyanna McIntosh involved, I suspected this “female biker gang on a rape revenge ride” movie to be a bit more interesting than your usual entry into this genre. It has a couple of moments you probably wouldn’t see in a male-centric film of the type, and it’s certainly not going for exploitative rape scenes (thankfully), but otherwise, most of the film is just terribly tepid.

In fact, this doesn’t play at all out like the subversive version of the rape revenge movie you’d hope for, nor as a clear-cut exploitation movie, but feels like a melodramatic TV movie with neither emotional nor intellectual depth enough to be able to allow itself to be this bland as a piece of exploitation filmmaking.

Crime Hunter – Bullet of Range (1989) aka クライムハンター 怒りの銃弾: This V-cinema action film directed by Toshimichi Ohkawa is apparently the first film in a long-running series. In typical V-cinema style, this is barely an hour long and still manages to pack an actual plot, copious action scenes and a handful of mildly crazy ideas in.

The film follows the attempts of a cop (Masanori Sera) in Little Tokyo, USA to avenge the (too early) death of his partner (Riki Takeuchi!) while hopped up on very strong painkillers. Also involved are a gun-toting Catholic nun (Minako Tanaka) who does undercover stripper work (no actual nudity involved though), as well as a criminal with pretty awesome hair (Seiji Matano). There’s much shooting, manly wearing of sunglasses and a finale with a really high body count, all shot with rather impressive efficiency. If that sounds like low praise for Ohkawa, I don’t mean it that way: there’s an art to pack an actual film, even one with a simple plot like this one has, into a runtime this short and still make it feel like a movie instead of a series of random scenes, and Ohkawa does this perfectly.

Daguerréotypes (1976): This is a relatively early long-form documentary by the great Agnès Varda, portraying the predominantly elderly small shop keepers on the street she lived on for decades. At first, the film does seem to border on the cute a bit too much, until you realize that Varda has looked at these seemingly very bourgeois people and found people marginalized in their place and time, country people and immigrants having come to the city decades ago, now suggesting a part of Parisian life – and a way of life - that’s coming to an end. And because this is Varda, she treats her subjects with kindness and compassion, not setting out to make fun of them, or reveal their hidden depths in a dramatic fashion, but looking at them and consciously seeing them as something different than the quaint background to other people’s lives.

Friday, August 7, 2020

Past Misdeeds: Una Rata En La Oscuridad (1979)

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.

Two sisters are moving into a rather shabby looking old dark house. Josefina (Ana Luisa Peluffo), the older of the two, has taken the role of replacement mother for her sister Sonia (Anais de Melo), although that doesn't seem to discourage her from practicing a rather problematic kind of sisterly massage women practice. When they are not having pillow fights or pyjama parties.

As is so often the case with old dark houses, strange things begin to happen to the sisters. At first, it's just the appearance of an unnaturally persistent rat (played by an anonymous rat method actor of the highest calibre), or the shadow of a woman (Ricardo Cortes) roaming the house - the simple spooky things. Soon the strange activities begin to increase. The camera and the furniture develop an unpleasant tendency to shake, and the female shadow turns out to belong to a transvestite sneaking through the house. The sneaker being a transvestite (or a cross dresser, the film really isn’t going into details here, or anywhere) seems to be supposed to be something of a twist reserved for the film's ending, but it should be quite obvious to anyone with eyes, so I see no reason not to spoil the "surprise".

A bit later, our transvestite friend begins to grope Sonia in her sleep, which the woman enjoys quite a bit. After their night of sweet sweet copulation, Sonia doesn't want to leave her bed anymore, develops a drinking (in bed, oh no!) habit and tells Josefina that she wants to kill her. Later still, Sonia actually tries her luck at strangling her sister. But don't worry, Josefina will live and she will get some of that sweet sweet groping love too. In fact, Josefina will do her sister one better and dream of doing jazz dance during her big sex scene.

Alas, it all will have to end in tears and more flying furniture.

I don't know much about the state of Mexican horror cinema at the end of the 70s when Una Rata was made, but going by the film's rather impoverished look and the way other Mexican genre movies of the time I’ve seen worked out, it's not much of a stretch to theorize that it was in its death throes. There's an aura of shabbiness surrounding everything I find all too typical of the products of film industries which have seen better days.

Una Rata is one of only a handful of films directed by Alfredo Salazar, brother to Mexican genre film impresario Abel Salazar and writer of just about every horror or lucha movie made in Mexico not written by Fernando Oses, and on one hand, it's not much of a surprise he didn't direct too many films. Salazar's style is just a bit too dry, the pacing of his film just a bit too much on the slow side (even by the rather relaxed standards of Mexican filmmaking of this type), his talent for mood-building just a bit too skewed to the patently weird side of the tracks. On the other hand, Salazar - at least in this film - seems much more interested in making a film bound to entertain its audience than many of his contemporaries, who all too often were making strings of filler instead of movies.

Fortunately, Una Rata is heavily influenced by the wild and weird world of Italian 70s horror in just about every aspect, and I for one can't find fault with the decision to at least make a mind-blowing film when you can't make a "good" one.

The recreation of Italian horror taking place here is a highly successful one and only begins with a soundtrack of perfect mock-Goblin quality, random moments of sleazy lingering on naked female bodies and the over-heated melodramatics of the acting. The core experience of Italian-style horror does of course not lie in in minor things like the soundtrack, a bit of inappropriate nudity, or hysterics, but in a film's insistence of making no sense whatsoever.

Salazar's film is especially successful in this regard. The film doesn't answer even a single question it brings up, gives no explanation for anything that is happening and does not care a lick about character motivations. In short, the sort of viewer who complains about the (imagined) lack of explanations in the finale of Lost would probably go mad from frustration watching this like a Lovecraft character having read his family tree. Who is the transvestite? Why is he doing what he does? Is he an actual transvestite or just a guy dressing up as a woman to disguise himself for some reason? What's up with the portrait of a woman the camera and Sonia's gaze linger so lovingly on? Is the rat causing the telekinetic phenomena? Salazar and the film don't tell, and frankly, I don't think Salazar knows or cares as long as his film causes its viewers to stare in disbelief and befuddlement.

I'm quite sure Una Rata En La Oscuridad's main goal is to trap its viewers in this blessed state of perpetual confusion, and man, does it ever. 

Thursday, August 6, 2020

In short: Mark of the Vampire (1935)

Backlot Europe - though this time, this is meant to be close to Prague, so the proceedings do nominally not quite occur in the dream-like places this suggests.

Sir Borotyn (Holmes Herbert) is found dead in his house, probably murdered. However, the only wounds on his body are two little wounds on his neck through which his body seems to have been drained of blood. For most of the men around, like Borotyn’s close buddy Baron Otto von Zinden (Jean Hersholt) and the family doctor, this naturally means he has been killed by a vampire. That’s a particularly good bet in this particular case since Borotyn’s house is supposedly cursed by and with a vampire, one Count Mora (Bela Lugosi). And since we the audience will soon enough see dear old Bela hanging around doing his vampire thing, accompanied by his vampire daughter, Luna (Caroll Borland), it seems like a good bet, even though the investigating copper (Lionel Atwill), freshly arrived from Prague, poo-poos the theory as mere superstition.

He doesn’t even change his tone when Borotyn’s daughter Irena (Elizabeth Allan) is threatened by the terrible twosome. Fortunately, one Professor Zelen (Lionel Barrymore), an expert on the occult and particularly vampires is called in to help solve the little bloodsucking problem.

Which is all fine and good until the film reveals the whole vampire thing as a ridiculously contrived method to get at Borotyn’s true killer, turning Tod Browning’s Mark of the Vampire into one of the pioneers of idiot plot twists in movies that make the supernatural solutions to the plot seem downright plausible.

Not that the film has been all fun and gothic games beforehand, for while there are a handful of genuinely atmospheric and interesting scenes, mostly concerning Luna or the Count hovering dreamlike in gardens or corners (the photography by James Wong Howe is lovely), there’s rather a lot of painful comedy to get through for such a short film. This situation is not improved by the broadness with which particularly Atwell, Barrymore and Hersholt approach their roles. Given the combined pedigrees of these gentlemen, it’s highly likely this is done on purpose, lending rather a lot of credence to interpreting the film as a satire like quite a few later critics like Kim Newman do.

Of course, there’s little point to a satire that doesn’t comment intelligently on the genre it sends up – particularly if its jokes are of the painful 1930s type – and I can’t see much of an actual comment on the genre as it was in 1935 here, so even believing that’s what Browning meant Mark of the Vampire to be, I still can’t find much to appreciate in it except for Howe’s photography and about ten minutes Browning magic.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Magi (2016)

Warning: there will be spoilers!

Her sister Marla (Brianne Davis) has invited American journalist Olivia Watkins (Lucie Pohl) for a visit to her home in Turkey. Marla’s freshly divorced, very pregnant, and seems to carry some kind of hidden burden she won’t quite explain to Olivia. She does tell a creepy tale about a dress she owns that apparently once belonged to a pregnant village girl that was murdered, her baby cut from her womb. What she’s trying to say with it, Olivia isn’t sure, and Marla’s not telling. But then, Marla’s life in Turkey seems to be the kind of weird that makes a woman rather blithe about creepy, icky looking occult ritual stuff just turning up on a table.

Marla’s story must have been important, though, for just the very same night, she is killed with the help of CGI flies with half-human faces, her baby also cut from her womb, as in the story. The police very quickly decide Marla’s ex-husband is responsible for the deed, what with him committing suicide and leaving a vague yet creepy letter just shortly after Marla has been killed. Olivia’s not completely convinced, though, for there’s no trace of Marla’s dead baby to be found, and little about the murder makes sense.

So Olivia starts an investigation of her own, assisted by Marla’s colleagues and friends Emir (Kenan Ece) and Suzan (Emine Meyrem), during which she stumbles upon the trail of a cult attempting to produce human/djinn crossbreeds. She is quickly beset by a variety of supernatural occurrences, reaching from nightmares to djinn attacks. On the plus side, she’ll also find help from cameoing guest stars Michael “Exposition Machine” Madsen and Stephen “The Exorcist” Baldwin.

In most every aspect, Hasan Karacadag’s (who is also the director of the long-running – and long - Dabbe series of horror films) Magi is a messy movie. It’s longer than it needs to be, shifts protagonists at the strangest moments, changes horror sub-genres repeatedly, and throws a somewhat insane amount of worldbuilding and backstory at its viewers. It is, however, exactly this messiness that makes Magi a worthwhile and often surprisingly fun movie, its messiness also making it unpredictable and giving it a whiff of creative madness. So while it is too long from a standpoint of effective and efficient dramaturgy, it certainly never is boring.

A part of the film’s considerable charm is Karacadag’s willingness to add extraneous detail to everyone and everything, climaxing in a scene in which Madsen exposits via a slide show about the cult that includes the occult roots of Nazism, elements of Eastern and Western occult traditions, various religions, the question of who gave birth to Satan, djinns, and conspiracy elements, the film clearly having understood that adding more occult weirdness makes everything in a horror movie better. The film also – surprisingly, really – makes an honest attempt at using all these elements afterwards (and before) the big exposition sequence, never shying away from making things needlessly yet awesomely complicated. There are even nods towards The X-Files.

On a stylistic level, Karacadag is alas a friend of that desaturated colour scheme most filmmakers right now have left behind for trying to make their stuff look like it was shut by Dean Cundey (in other words awesome), but he is loading so much stuff into his grey and beige frames, I nearly didn’t notice. For when it comes to horror sequences, Magi likes to copy other films’ and filmmakers’ approaches rather obviously, but again Karacadag seems to like, quote and borrow from so many different films and stylistic approaches, the film doesn’t feel like a series of stolen bits and pieces from other films so much as it does like a series of awesome, excited and exciting moments. There are set-ups clearly made with J-horror in mind, with the The Conjuring movies, with The Exorcist, there’s a use of bad CGI like in cheap contemporary Indonesian fare or certain Bollywood horror films from half a decade ago, a couple shots basically directly out of Paranormal Activity, a short trip into a parallel dimension made out of even more bad yet imaginative CGI, scenes shot in the style of Industrial Rock videos from the early 00s, a short trip into folk horror. There’s clearly nothing Karacadag doesn’t have in his trick bag; and certainly nothing he isn’t willing to use.

In theory, all this borrowing from obvious, successful sources could, perhaps should, lead to a tepid, copyist kind of horror film, but in practice, Magi feels much too excited and excitable, throwing all kinds of tricks at its audience in a way that feels generous much more than it feels derivative. The whole thing left me with the feeling of having watched a movie just terribly excited by being all other horror movies at once, and for most of its running time I found myself sharing in its excitement pretty enthusiastically.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

In short: For We Are Many (2019)

A demon trying to convince a king of making a pact pages through his book of greatest demonic hits. I’m not sure how convincing a devil’s dozen of tales where characters’ encounters with demonic entitites end badly for them should convince anyone of this being a healthy sort of partnership, but hey, I’m not in the soul-buying biz.

This is an anthology movie made by thirteen English language directors “from around the world” (among them Scotland’s finest, Lawrie Brewster) that packs thirteen wee tales into eighty minutes of film. The only rule seems to have been a connection to “demons”, where a demon apparently can be anything from a creature of Christian mythology to the Wendigo. It’s a fun anthology, thanks to the loose concept very diverse in tone and style. The film does come from the very indie side of indie horror, so don’t expect gigantic production values, though everyone involved found better locations than warehouses, even if it’s only a patch of woods (there are a lot of woods in this movie), which is all I ask of anyone making movies, even tiny ones, on pocket money.

Of course, with segments that are about five to six minutes long, there’s not a lot of depth to the tales, but more often than not, these five or six minutes are focussed and never boring, with enough stylistic differences between the segments you can at least be sure you’ll enjoy the next one when one doesn’t find your approval. What most of them (there are a couple of exceptions, but I’m not going to take more time complaining about a five minute short short than it takes watching it) have in common is a cool monster, most directors involved somehow managing to squeeze a cool demon or two out of nothing.

All of which makes For We Are Many a very worthwhile movie in my book.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Crypt of the Living Dead (1973)

Warning: spoilers ahead

Original title: La tumba de la isla maldita

aka (Young) Hannah, Queen of the Vampires

Engineer Chris Bolton (secret horror hero Andrew Prine) travels to a Turkish island once known as “Vampire Island” to retrieve the corpse of his archaeologist father who died there by being crushed by a sarcophagus while exploring a secret crypt.

We the audience already know that Chris’s dad was actually murdered by two vampire cultists, who did a bit of strangling and decapitating before crushing the man’s body. One of these guys we will soon enough learn is a writer called Peter (Mark Damon), supposedly a friend of Dad’s on the island to do research for a book taking place during the Crusades; the other (Ihsan Gedik) is only ever named by the credits as “The Wild Man”, and does comport himself accordingly.

Chris does of course know nothing about this, and is taken in by Peter’s charming and sane manner, his tales of his father, and his pretty teacher sister Mary (Patty Shepard). So much so, he’s staying as a guest with the siblings. While exploring the crypt, Chris learns of its history: apparently, one Hannah (Teresa Gimpera), the wife of king Louis VII. lies there, buried alive after having become a vampire by a husband who couldn’t stomach a proper staking. And her sarcophagus is still crushing down on dear dead Dad because the locals really don’t want to go into this crypt, nor do they have the appropriate know-how.

Chris, being a true engineer, believes nothing of the vampire story, of course, and for at least half the movie, he’s aggressively, rudely and condescendingly berating everyone who does, even Mary, a woman he’s clearly crushing on quite a bit. Well, at least he’s not a hypocrite. He’s also hell-bent on recovering his father’s corpse, something he does have the technical know-how for. Alas, while doing so, he has to remove the lid (well, humongous upper part, really) of Hannah’s sarcophagus, revealing a corpse completely free of any signs of decay, looking rather a lot as if the lady were only sleeping.

Of course, this provides the indeed real vampire with a nice opportunity to rise again and start to regain her powers by sucking the blood of an increasing amount of people.

Crypt of the Living Dead is usually seen in various public domain prints that leave out a lingering shot on Dad’s decapitated head and things of that sort. If you can find a decent looking version (I had the opportunity to enjoy a fan-made 86 minute composite), you might be surprised that this Spanish-US co-production directed by Julio Salvador with “additional scenes” by Ray Danton who is sometimes credited as the lone director despite Salvador most probably having done most of the work, is a good example of the virtues of Spanish horror films of this era, though neither as brutal as some, nor as loopy as others, nor as sleazy, and not containing Paul Naschy.

About half of the film is typical meat and potatoes early 70s horror filmmaking, enhanced by parts of the Spanish and Turkish landscape that look decidedly bleak and creepy as Salvador presents them, breathing the air of an earlier century. It’s pretty straightforward as these kinds of movie go. Or really, straightforward until the film makes one of various and regular small sideways moves. For example, it approaches its version of the vampire legend with a more medieval European bent, suggesting that early on, when she’s weak, Hannah doesn’t so much turn into a wolf as conjure him up to acquire blood for her, only later, when she’s actually free, truly turning into a wolf, or fog. It’s effectively vague and peculiar, putting a bit of distance between her and some of her vampire peers in the movies even though she’s still afraid of crosses, and is best killed by staking. Though she’s also very much allergic to “dogsbane”.

The film has quite a few of its best moments once the vampire is fully free, showing her gliding towards her victims while a lullaby-like melody sung by a female voice plays, suggesting psychic seduction in a rather effective and fairy-tale-like manner. Another wonderful, very effectively shot moment is her final fight with a by now vampire hunting Chris and a group of local fishermen on the beach, by night, only lit by her enemy’s torches. At this point, she has already been set aflame by Chris, looking gooey like a Lucio Fulci zombie now; the men surround her in a circle and drive her back to the bottom of the cliff she has just fell down. Then she begins to weep awfully, the men clearly being so shocked and taken aback by their enemy expressing anything so human, they barely manage to stake her before she can turn into fog and abscond again. It’s the sort of scene that alone would make the film worthwhile, but there are actually a couple of moments like this that suggest somebody involved in the production really knew how to combine their contemporary sensibilities with the more fairy-tale-like elements of horror and some good, old-fashioned nastiness.

Speaking of nastiness, even though this doesn’t go for the full-on 70s downer ending, the film’s pre-credit stinger is genuinely great, effective and pretty shocking, seeing how it uses children in a way hardly any filmmaker today would dare. The stinger is also properly prepared earlier on in the movie, quite against the way most horror films do this, and another sign that somebody involved in this film’s making cared quite a bit for the art of filmmaking.

So, if you manage to find a decent version of Crypt of the Living Dead, you might find yourself pleasantly surprised by a little gem of a movie.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Three Films Make A Post: 7 Directors. 7 Tales of Terror. 0 Working Cell Phones.

Scare Package (2019): In part, my dislike for this 7-segment omnibus movie is not the film’s fault. I’m not the biggest fan of meta comedies at the best of times, so the film’s meta tendencies would not have been ideal for me at the best of times. However, my problem with this particular film isn’t that the humour is meta, but that it is that lazy kind of meta that does little else than point at a trope, go “har-har, look at that trope!” and then not actually does anything of interest with that discovery, certainly nothing that will provide you with any kind of insight into the whys and wherefores of a trope, leaving it at the pointing out of that fascinating fact that a trope indeed does exist, and it will now subvert it by, um, pointing at it. Also, aren’t jokes supposed to be funny?

The Deeper You Dig (2019): Now, this sort of thing on the other hand warms the cockles of my stony heart, what with it being made by a mother-father-daughter trio (Toby Poser, John Adams and Zelda Adams) from the Catskills making their very own indie horror film together. It’s a tale of guilt and revenge from the grave with a big element of the surreal and the Weird, creating just the right mood of strangeness out of snow and found locations. It ends on a wonderfully macabre note, with a perfectly fucked-up happy end much superior to your usual horror bullshit happy ending.

It’s indie horror, so you’ll have to live with pacing that’s sometimes just a bit slow (ending scenes is always a bit of a problem in this area of the art), and some strained acting in the minor roles, but the rest of this is so creative and convincing, these really are only minor flaws.

Filth (2013): And then there’s this pretty insane and messed up bit of very Scottish crime filmmaking based on a novel by Irvine Welsh. The film does a lot of what one is tempted to call stunt filmmaking with an unreliable narrator perfectly played by James McAvoy in one of his best performances, incessant breaking of the Fourth Wall, and scenes that may or may not be dream sequences, but does it so well this feels like the most sensible way to tell this particular tale, perhaps the only way to understand the broken mind of its protagonist.

For the film also manages something very difficult extremely well: showing us a terrible human being doing terrible things, but also showing us his pain and suffering as a fellow human being, his suffering from mental illness, causing compassion for a man without ever wanting to use our empathy to excuse him.