Sunday, November 29, 2020

The Queen of Black Magic (2019)

Original title: Ratu Ilmu Hitam

A group of people who grew up together in a country orphanage, and grew as close as birth family there, mostly coupling up with their foster siblings, too, gathers back there to say a last goodbye to the apparently beloved orphanage boss Bandi (Yayu Unru). The new batch of kids is away on a bus tour over the weekend, so it seems like a good time for a reunion.

And a reunion it certainly is: the dark secrets haunting the lives of the grown-up orphans come back in a more literally form of haunting, and soon, ghosts and ghoulies appear, and half of the cast loses their minds in various very unpleasant ways. A nested series of dark secrets is revealed, and sins of the past have to be paid off in gory and very unappetizing ways.

Kimo Stamboel’s Queen of Black Magic (written by the redoubtable Joko Anwar) is only nominally a remake of the classic Suzzanna vehicle, using some elements of the older film but really being its own thing, the nostalgia relegated to the end credits. Hilariously enough, part of that nostalgia is a still shot of a bowl of maggots and worms, but then, once you’ve gotten through the scenes of centipede horror the film at hand features (enough of it you might also sell it as a remake of Centipede Horror), you might feel nostalgic towards that bowl too.

But really, centipedes, (self-)mutilation and all kinds of increasingly insane gory fun (and “fun) until the climax goes for a veritable hell on Earth of the grotesque are quite a ways away when the movie starts. Stamboel spends the first half of the running time carefully establishing character relations and those parts of their shared past the characters admit to, even among each other, effectively suggesting the holes in their stories and the peculiarities in their behaviours without outright explaining them or pointing them out.

So when the supernatural violence begins to explode, it’s really a very traditional, as well as as very effective way to confront the characters with the lies and secrets of their pasts while drenching them in blood and bodily fluids. It’s not one of those highly moralizing films where nasty people get what they deserve, though. Rather, there are degrees to everyone’s guilt, Stamboel making pretty clear that, as terrible as some of the things some of the characters did were, there were quite a few extenuating circumstances, and the traumas inflicted on them in their childhoods were price enough for anyone to pay for any sin. Behind the gore, there’s some clear knowledge of the way abuse can twist its victims into accomplices of their abusers, leaving behind minefields of guilt, and silent quotidian horrors.

And it’s not as if the supernatural vengeance were in any way, shape or form interested in punishing anyone in appropriate ways. Indeed, the film makes a point of the perpetrator of the vengeance being so warped by their own pain and trauma, she simply doesn’t care if she hurt or kills innocents not even born when the initial incidents took place; it’s not so much about vengeance anymore, but a wish to perpetuate the pain inflicted on oneself. Again, Stamboel works quite a few truths about the true horrors of abuse into his little fest of nasty visuals. In fact, one might argue that all the blood, mutilation, child death and centipedes are Stamboel’s way to ease the bitter pills about abuse he has to offer down our throats a bit more easily, the icky bits actually making it possible to watch what amounts to a tragedy about cycles of abuse.

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Three Films Make A Post: Boy Meets Dog

Love and Monsters aka Monster Problems (2020): If you’re patient enough to get through the film’s atrocious first twenty minutes that combine lots of exposition, crappy jokes and an intensely annoying main character, you, as was I, might be surprised by how entertaining Michael Matthews’s science fiction comedy adventure with medium sized monsters then becomes. It’s still a movie with not a single original bone its body, mind you, insists on a very traditional way for a guy to turn into a hero™, and ends trying to sell us people inspired by a speech of our protagonist going out for what amounts to mass suicide as a hopeful ending, but at least, it puts its borrowed bits and pieces into a pleasant series of adventures. More often than not, it’s really quite charming in its undemanding way, and if you survive the first act, you’ll probably be entertained on rainy Sunday morning.

Maigret voit rouge aka Maigret Sees Red (1963): This is the second time Jean Gabin steps into the shoes of Simenon’s police inspector hero of oh so very many novels and adaptations. Directed by Gilles Grangier, this outing finds Maigret hunting a trio of actual American gangsters using their particularly violent methods (US crime is to this film as Russian crime to today’s US crime cinema) on his home turf. It’s clearly a matter of national honour, with a low-level nationalist vibe running through affairs that would be much more annoying if Grangier’s nice eye for interesting side characters, Gabin’s always lovely (and often pretty funny if he wants it to be) low-key acting style, and the film’s absurd ideas about the way US gangsters of its time worked, weren’t so damn distracting and charming. It’s certainly as pulpy in mood as Maigret gets.

El esqueleto de la señora Morales aka Skeleton of Mrs. Morales (1960): This macabre thriller/comedy by Rogelio A. González is generally seen as a gem of Mexican cinema, its heavy-handed satire of Mexican bourgeois mores clearly the thing to delight the people compiling “The Most Important Mexican Films of All Time” lists and such. The film’s gender politics have aged rather badly, though, as has its critique on the bourgeoisie. Chabrol, this ain't.

If you’re like me coming at it from a more genre savvy perspective, the satire, the black comedy and the thriller elements here don’t always fit together all that well or effectively, and while González repeatedly shoots very beautiful scenes, there’s little here to see rather more disreputable kinds of Mexican cinema haven’t done quite a bit better. On a curious note, this is also one of the few adaptations of a work by Arthur Machen, though not adapting anything of the part of Machen’s body of work I’d actually like to see adapted.

Friday, November 27, 2020

Past Misdeeds: Violet & Daisy (2011)

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.

Violet (Alexis Bledel) and Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) are silly teenagers (or in Violet's case a young woman using a not quite age-appropriate teenage persona to protect herself from things she and the film can't speak about directly) and best friends. Or really rather "only friends", for they are both too weird for the general populace. Together, they don't fight crime but work as professional killers. They're the sort of professional killers whose thoughts after the rent are pop stars and dresses, though.

Their latest hit develops a curious dynamic. It isn't, after all, every day that a hit person's victim reacts to finding two armed girls asleep on his couch by putting a blanket over them, nor are offers of cookies day-to-day experiences in the killing business. Of course, their victim (James Gandolfini) is rather atypical in that he actually wants to die and has therefor done his best to piss the leaders of two independent criminal organizations off to get his death wish fulfilled. Our heroines are not quite prepared for this kind of situation, and soon a peculiar sort of friendship develops between them - in particular the more classically sane Daisy, who really only ever became a killer to be with Violet - and their prospective victim, with unexpected and expected expressions of humanity.

To complicate matters, there are also the number one killer of Violet's and Daisy's organization (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), the killing troupe of the other gang, and the kind of lies you tell people because you love them to cope with.

At first, Geoffrey Fletcher's Violet & Daisy seems to be another movie in the never ending line of would-be Tarantino gangster movies, the kind of film Tarantino hasn't been making for a long time, or ever, and the kind of film his imitators generally painfully not succeed at making anyhow. The longer the film goes on, though, the clearer it becomes that Fletcher isn't really making one of those films at all but something much more interesting and individual.

Violet & Daisy does share some of the surface aspects of the semi-Tarantino genre but the film's emotional core and the direction of its intelligence are both completely different from that horrible non-genre. And not just because of its protagonists' prolonged teenage-hood, but because Fletcher's main interest seems to lie in examining the way in which people, young women like Violet and Daisy as well as older men like Gandolfini's Michael, can grow sideways and crooked, yet still deserve some basic human compassion. The film doesn't believe that compassion then magically fixes everything but it does believe in it making things better, even if an act of compassion is as twisted as the one Michael provides for Daisy in the end.

I was at first rather uncomfortable with the way the film's portrayal of its female main characters, with horrible clichés about teenage girls hanging in the air, but here, too, things became more clear and more interesting the longer the film went on. Fletcher is neither out to reduce the two to the clichés they at first seem to be, nor does he look down on them. Turns out a girl can be a professional killer for dresses and still be a complex character; it's as if Fletcher had actually met teenage girls.

One of the film's tricks to achieve its obvious goal of complexity and ambiguity is by playing with audience expectations. The best example for this is the casting the 30-year-old Bledel not as we'd (ironically) expect - and some typically dense IMDB reviews even complain about - out of painful movie experience as an actual teenager, but as a woman who acts like a teenager to keep things in her past at bay the film can only ever hint at or show in a metaphorical dream sequence, because the character just can't articulate them. And yes, this is the sort of film willing to be ambiguous enough to just tell (or not tell, depending on your perspective) its audience something important about one of its main characters via a metaphorical dream sequence.

It being a rather black comedy, Violet & Daisy very often happens to be not just surprisingly profound and emotionally complicated but also to be very funny. The interplay between Gandolfini, Ronan and Bledel really sells practically every joke in the movie, with no moment played too broadly. The trio is just as good in the film's more serious moments (though this is the kind of film where the humour is part of the serious business too, and vice versa, so it's rather difficult to keep them apart), playing off each other beautifully in ways that feel natural in a film little interested in realism but very much in feeling emotionally and philosophically real. They're so great together it's rather unfair to single one of them out, but I have to say, if Saoirse Ronan is this great at selling complexity in a role a lesser actress could have turned into a mere caricature when she isn't even twenty yet, what kind of performances will she be able to give in ten years? [Future me feels decidedly vindicated here.]

So, if you're in the market for a non-naturalistic film about growing up, compassion, and bloody violent murder, Violet & Daisy will be for you. I'd even recommend it if you're not.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

In short: Cameron’s Closet (1988)

Cameron (Scott Curtis) is a little kid with X-Men level psychokinetic powers, and has been the favourite test subject of his psychologist(?) father Owen (Tab Hunter) for quite some time. Alas, Owen did make the mistake of letting Cameron use a statuette of a Mayan “demon” which somehow allowed the thing to use Cameron as some sort of conductor into our world, where it moved into the kid’s closet. All this information, the film will explain in excruciating detail throughout its first hour or so, but everyone who isn’t a zombie (sorry, zombies!) will have figured out most of this after the film’s prologue, in which Owen’s attempt to somehow get rid of the demon – or kill Cameron? – ends in a pretty ridiculous decapitation with his own trusty machete for him.

Cameron ends up in the care of his borderline alcoholic mother (Kim Lankford) and her idiot budding child abuser boyfriend Bob (Gary Hudson). The demon soon enough burns Bob’s eyes out and throws him out of a window, which seems to be the proper way to treat the guy. Alas, this is also the point where the film slows to a crawl and spends a lot of time with intensely boring cop Sam Taliaferro (Cotter Smith), whose main claim to any interest at all is his tendency for weird dreams that do influence his on the job performance. He has to team up with police psychologist Dr Haley (Mel Harris) in this, who is of course not just the police’s child psychologist on call but also the woman he can’t open up to in his mandated sittings. You can imagine the character trajectory, and alas, so could I.

After a long, long time of Cameron being involved in little business of interest and the police bores finding out way too many details about everything the audience already knows, something may happen eventually.

Well, indeed it does, but if my subtle (cough) hints haven’t made it clear already, the main problem of Armand Mastroianni’s Cameron’s Closet is its apparent belief that it is a movie not about supernatural business involving a little kid but one about a very slow and boring police investigation conducted by a guy lacking in whit, charm and screen personality. Most of the first hour after Bob’s well deserved death is excruciating and generally pretty pointless, packing fifteen minutes of plot into forty-five, and lacking anything meant to keep an audience awake. As a director, Mastroianni doesn’t seem acquainted with the concept of mood building, and his style is the sort of bad TV movie bland many TV movies do not suffer from.

So it’s rather a huge surprise that the final act turns relatively entertaining, like a whacked out low budget version of Poltergeist, with a bit more gore and one of Carlo Rambaldi’s least convincing creations. A head or two are melted, excellently bad child acting happens right into a demon’s face, and things turn from soul-destroying boredom to stupid semi-fun.

Why, there’s even a scene of a character travelling into a cheap version of the spirit realm, Taliaferro trying to punch a demon in the face there. Given how much the rest of the film drags, that’s more than anyone could have expected of it.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

The New Mutants (2020)

After a catastrophic event which apparently destroyed her whole township with her family within it, Dani Moonstar (Blue Hunt) finds herself in the clinic of one Dr Reyes (Alice Braga). It’s a bit of a strange place, with Reyes alone taking care of only a handful of patients. Apart from Dani, there are Rahne Sinclair (Maisie Williams), Ilyana Rasputin (Anya Taylor-Joy), Sam Guthrie (Charlie Heaton), and Roberto da Costa (Henry Zaga). All of them are mutants whose lack of control over their powers has cost loved ones (or in Ilyana’s and Rahne’s case, not so loved ones) their lives.

As Reyes tells it, she is supposed to help the kids achieve control over their powers so they can take the next step her mysterious superiors have chosen for them. Not surprisingly given this language, the place is also a cage, surrounded by an indestructible force field, and Reyes changes tack between helpful counsellor and prison warden with disturbing ease.

Ever since Dani has arrived, the clinic seems to have become haunted, too, and the young mutants will have to confront their greatest fears, learn to work together, and uncover the true goals of Reyes. Well, a bit of smooching is also involved, because that’s what future X-Men are supposed to do in their downtime, just ask Chris Claremont.

After it has been shuffled through release dates for years for no fault of its own, Josh Boone’s The New Mutants has turned into the last of the Fox style X-Men movies, a state of affairs that has not helped the reception of the film much, I believe. Then there are also the expectations of the first adaptation of a particularly beloved comic to cope with. These expectations, a film can only survive if it is an absolute masterpiece, which the film at hand isn’t. So it’s no surprise that New Mutants hasn’t been a smashing success even with the nerd press or those parts of the mainstream who don’t automatically rant nonsense about the end of cinema through superhero movies.

However, while not a masterpiece, Boone’s film isn’t a bad one at all. At the very least, even if one is unkind towards it, the it is made pretty interesting by the decision to replace some standard superhero movie tropes with (light) horror touches (and a lot of nods towards the third Nightmare on Elm Street). After all, the backgrounds of troubled teenagers in the real world are only one step away from being a horror movie anyway, mutant powers only sharpening the metaphor, as is right and proper for the franchise as well as the specific comics this adapts. The realization of the horror sequences shows rather clearly why the film is only a good movie instead of a great one in my book, though. They are just not that creepy, Boone never quite finding a visual language that makes the weight of horror the protagonists feel towards them completely believable. In part, that’s really a problem of visual choices by the director, in part it’s the film’s very middling effects as well as the less than creative design work done to bring elements of the comics on screen. It’s not Shazam level terrible, but it does weaken the film’s emotional heft considerably.

On the other hand, the film’s narrative (script by Boone and Knate Lee) does have a pleasantly clear idea of what it wants to be about and the ways it believes teenagers can overcome heavy emotional loads (and horror movie scares) through the power of diverse families of choice. There’s an obvious reason why the kids are repeatedly shown watching Whedon’s “Buffy”, and while this sort of thing is obviously a simplification of how we get through life, it does speak to some things I at least believe to be true and important, while treating its characters and their concerns with respect and love.

There is little in the film that doesn’t directly speak to its thematic concerns, leading to a very focused and low key movie that only fulfils the expectations on the amount of action and loudness a modern superhero movie has to show as much as it needs to if it actually wants to get a budget. Though the climactic action scene really not being that great a catharsis it should narratively and thematically be seems to have a lot to do with that budget not being high enough.

Yet still, The New Mutants is a very interesting, and often also a very entertaining, film, ending the Fox X-Men movies on an unexpected yet fitting note.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

In short: Borley Rectory (2017)

This is a lovely animated documentary by Ashely Thorpe about one of Britain’s favourite haunted places, Borley Rectory, home of haunted vicars, a dead nun with a habit of staring into your window when you’re trying to eat, a headless coachman and many a rock thrown by Harry Price (or ghosts, depending on one’s preferences).

The film is putting all kinds of these wild and less wild tales into a mix of rotoscoped actors, digital as well as hands-on animation, with narration by Julian Sands, and people like Reese Shearsmith and Jonathan Rigby involved in the acting. This seems rather heavily involved with a certain generation of intelligent (mostly male) British horror etc people like the above mentioned and works in its animated documentary format on parallel interests to them: the Usborne Book of Ghosts is invoked, Stephen Volk is quoted, the gothic elements of the best Borley Rectory stories are put to the fore, and there’s a playfulness that never devolves into wink-wink nudge-nudge style irony on display. The film’s highly distinctive visual style creates the properly spooky mood, meant to feel as if the viewer is gazing at old film material run through a digital filter, and meeting this goal wonderfully. There’s a vein of nostalgia apparent here to, and, given the artificiality of the form Thorpe has chosen, one that is very conscious of the fact it is nostalgia for a time, perhaps things, that never really did exist. I believe one can fairly use the “hauntology” label here.

Of course, if you want your supernatural documentaries to be either involved in debunking or long conspiratorial speeches about them trying to keep the truth hidden, this is most probably not going to be for you. When it comes to its hauntings, Borley Rectory is decidedly uninterested in questions of truth and fakery, deciding to tell the story of a place that has taken on the quality of folklore as such stories should be told.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975)

Original title: Mekagojira no Gyakushū (メカゴジラの逆襲)

A short time after the end of Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, a submarine working with Interpol is searching the ocean floor for the remains of Mechagodzilla, when it is destroyed by a titanic amphibian kaiju the film is going to insist is a dinosaur, soon to be dubbed Titanosaurus.

It turns out the aliens from the last movie haven’t given up and are trying to smash Japan (the rest of the world to follow later) to build a beautiful, orderly New Tokyo for them to dwell in from the rubble. They are planning to use said Titanosaurus as well as a rebuilt Mechagodzilla for the smashing, and as their tools to destroy mankind’s most competent protector – as it happens also the one with the best theme song – Godzilla. To be able to control Titanosaurus, the aliens – apparently coming from somewhere romantically dubbed Blackhole Planet 3 which does explain their wish to move pretty well – have managed to win over tragically mad scientist Dr Mafune (Akihiko Hirata), who comes in a package deal with his somewhat mysterious daughter Katsura (Tomoko Ai).

Mafune has his reasons for hating humanity. Once a pioneer in underwater agriculture, he then turned to experiments concerned with trying to control animals as if they were robots. When he discovered the peaceful Titanosaurus swimming around in its natural habitat, he decided to make mind-controlling it his next big project. This led to his rejection by the rest of the scientific community, half of which seems to have poopooed the idea of the existence of Titanosaurus despite living on the same planet as Godzilla and company, the other half of which simply wasn’t keen on animal mind control. Afterwards, a mental breakdown and years of poverty that killed his dutiful wife.

Helping out on Godzilla’s side of the equation are the usual assortment of people in lab coats and suits, as well as marine biologist Akira Ichinose (Katsuhiko Sasaki) and his old school buddy turned Interpol agent Jiro Murakoshi (Katsumasa Uchida). Also, the potential power of love and long buried humanity.

Terror of Mechagodzilla, set as a direct sequel to Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla was the very last hurray of the Showa era Godzilla films, holding the sad record of having been the commercially least successful entry in the series at the time it came out. Nowadays, the steady stream of home video versions has of course turned it into a commercially rather successful kind of commercial flop, all without the magic of Hollywood accounting. This film is also the return of the great Ishiro Honda to the Godzilla franchise, and big screen movie direction, as well as his final feature film as a director before he did some intermittent work for and with Akira Kurosawa in the final decades of his life.

It is also a much better film than its clearly low budget and the trajectory of the Godzilla movies suggest. While I’ll always defend the Jun Fukudas of this world for being purveyors of fun nonsense at the worst of times, the comparison of this direct sequel by Honda to a Fukuda movie does not exactly make Fukuda look good. Honda had the same diminished production values to work against yet the resulting film is simply better in every possible aspect, from the character work right through to the realization of the monster fights.

Rather more pertinent, Honda is much better at keeping an audience interested between the rare monster fights (Godzilla himself makes his first non-flashback appearance when the film is already half over). Or really, in this case, Honda simply avoids the feeling of the alien invasion plot, the mad science business and the desperately sad background of some of the villains being any kind of filler between the fights by making the often much-loathed bits of a kaiju concerning humans, as always was his wont, important parts of the actual point of the film. Don’t get me wrong, this is still a somewhat silly pulp alien invasion plot with bad guys so sadistic, they cut the vocal chords of their prisoners just in case they might escape their clutches, a cyborg woman, and some of the silliest helmets any alien invader ever wore, but Honda uses of all of this to treat many of his regular humanist concerns, showing much more interest in motivations and self-justifications of characters than you’d usually get in this sort of film, and doing it so well, a viewer might find oneself actually caring.

Of course, this is also thanks to Yukiko Takayama’s (yes, it’s that pleasant and alas rare occurrence of a woman writing a kaiju) script, that hides some complexity and a lot of intelligence between fun monster fights and Interpol versus alien invaders, clearly sharing in Honda’s understanding of how to join pulp fun and serious themes without losing the fun.

Another element that makes Fukuda look bad in comparison is Honda’s direction of the monster fights. They are few, and they are certainly cheaper than anything made at the height of the series but Honda uses all the tricks - the slow motion, the camera angles from below, editing to the rhythm of Ifukube’s (who wasn’t involved in the Fukuda film either) music, and so on – he has learned over a long career of having men in monster suits smash Tokyo to give the fights weight and drama. In Terror’s particular case, there’s also the excellent intercutting between the climax of the human drama and the monster fights to mention, which is perfectly timed, providing a series of emotional jolts that don’t distract from the city smashing business but enhances it.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is how a master takes a bow.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Three Films Make A Post: Do You Believe In Monsters?

Lost Child aka Tatterdemalion (2017): Sold as a horror film, this in really isn’t one, but rather a film using certain genre tropes of folk horror – as well as some from Appalachian/Ozarks noir – to tell a naturalistically minded story about a woman trying to cope with her past by returning home and the PTSD healing power of found family. This could be the sort of “heart-warming” approach to actual people’s problems and lives that tends to piss me off to no end, but director Ramaa Mosley does demonstrate you can make this sort of movie in a convincing manner. Part of the film’s effectiveness lies in Mosley’s control over the genre elements she uses: the folk horror bits are convincing as folk horror, the mountain noir elements are indeed told in the right tone, and their shift into the friendlier US version of the kitchen sink drama works on a craftsmanship level. That I’d rather have seen a real horror movie or noir is not the film’s fault.

Ritual of Evil (1970): This sequel to the first TV adventure of psychiatrist/occult detective David Sorell (Louis Jourdan) without the important behind the scenes talent of the first one makes it pretty obvious why there wasn’t the projected series following it: it’s pretty damn dreadful, replacing the clever mix of literary horror traditions and the then modern occult horror with loads of barely digestible early 70s psychobabble, characterization that’s the direct result of someone actually believing that nonsense and writing his characters accordingly, and plotting that goes nowhere interesting very, very tediously. The helpings of lifestyles of the rich and famous soap operatics don’t improve things either, nor does director Robert Day’s vehement inability to understand what makes a scene macabre, and what just stupid. Tragically, the man could do a decent scene, as the prologue proves whose proper horror mood blows the rest of the film completely out of the water.

Zombeavers (2014): Jordan Rubin’s little horror comedy that could goes to show that if you just commit completely to a bad joke, think through all of its possible permutations and treat it as if it were a good one for long enough, it might indeed, as if by magic, turn into a very funny one. It does help to find a handful of actresses and actors equally willing to play through the joke with as straight a face as possible, and here, too, Zombeavers wins.

And hell, if you ever wanted to learn practically every single joke about beavers you’d care to hear, the film’s got your back there too.

Friday, November 20, 2020

Past Misdeeds: Jaal (1986)

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

With his mother developing a consumption-like illness that makes it impossible for her to keep continuing the cooking work that paid for the family's food and education, and since his father has been dead for quite a few years, it now falls to kind-hearted part-time badass Shankar (Mithun Chakraborty) to earn the money that pays the rent.

His first attempts are - of course without his fault - without much success. His luck changes when a mysterious woman calling herself Sundari (Rekha) makes Shankar an offer he can't refuse. She's going to pay him quite a lot of money if he'll do whatever she asks of him for two years. Once Shankar has reluctantly agreed, Sundari tells him what his first mission for her is going to be: he is to go to a small village and somehow slime himself into the trust of the local evil Thakur, a man named Bhanu Pratap Singh (Amrit Pal).

Obviously (well, for everyone except for Shankar), Sundari has chosen Shankar for a reason. Soon enough our hero will learn the truth about the death of his father (Vinod Mehra) and a sticky and complicated past, find his true love (Mandakini), lead a minor revolution, and kick people in various parts of their anatomy with all the power his Mithun fu provides him with. And if you think I just left out about a dozen minor plot lines, detours, and flash backs, you're absolutely right.

It's been quite some time since I've last watched a Bollywood movie, and as always when I let this happen, I'm asking myself afterwards: why the heck did I take so much time to look towards India again? Thanks to the watchalong efforts of my delightful friend Beth, I'm back in the groove again, and we couldn't have chosen a better film than the delectable Jaal (which means "Trap", and is not to be confused with other Hindi movies name Jaal). Apart from being pretty damn fun to watch, Jaal also again made clear some things one really should keep in mind when watching masala of the 70s and 80s, lest one’s false expectations turn an incredible experience into something dreary and annoying.

Jaal's mixture of melodrama, a complicated backstory to be revealed sooner or later, overheated action, sudden bursts of psychedelia, musical numbers (written by Anu Malik) in at times frightening and always imaginative choreography, unfunny humour (responsible here: Jagdeep, one of the true horrors of the ages) and plain weirdness for weirdness' sake looks typical of masala movies even to a Bollywood dabbler like me; the only things missing to the formula are a death scene for Mithun's Ma and long-lost siblings at odds with each other. Of course, and that's the main thing I need to remind myself of whenever I dabble in Bollywood movies of this style, one shouldn't go into most of these films in search of originality or a sensible, linearly presented plot but to enjoy them scene for scene in a game of "whatever will they come up with next". These films were after all meant to include something for every potential member of their Indian audiences, which is not something that makes coherence as Hollywood praises it (and often doesn't achieve for completely different reasons) an easy or even useful element of what the films were supposed to be and do. The masala approach does lend itself to produce joy, though.

In Jaal's case, what the filmmakers came up with to produce that joy are delights like Mithun hitting someone with his crotch (to my disappointment only once, or I could have used the phrase "crotch fu" to describe his fighting style), Rekha's vengeance plans including awesome details like provoking one of the bad guys into a heart attack via an aerobic themed (well, nominally breakdance themed) musical number that for some reason also features mimes. Which, now that I think about it years later, is more than enough to give anyone a heart attack. There are also needle-dropped Madonna songs, the misadventures of the easiest marks for a confidence trick ever, Rekha doing her patented (and inspired/awesome) glowering, moral confusion, women getting very very wet during a musical number, magical jumping boots that appear for one scene only to forever disappear from the film afterwards, girls with guns, some deeply problematic ideas about prostitution that collide with some rather more humane and progressive ideas about prostitution and never get directly resolved into what I'd call a position, and a baseball match that ends with Moon Moon Sen being board-cified in a sexually suggestive position I'd really rather would have expected - and raised an eyebrow at - in a Japanese film.

As is so often the case with masala movies, it's difficult to talk about Jaal as the sum of its parts, because, as explained above, a lot of masala films (there are of course humungous amounts of exceptions to this rule) don't seem all that interested in being the sort of thematically coherent whole that is best looked at as the sum of its parts. Consequently, it makes little sense to judge the merits of a film like Jaal that way, or to get cranky at it for not following the rules of filmmaking made to construct and understand something with very different goals. Why, it would be like looking at a Hollywood blockbuster the same way as you would look at an arthouse movie. So instead, I like to look at these films and praise (or not) them for the amount of joy their succession of single scenes provided me with while watching.

Seen from this angle, Jaal looks pretty darn great to me, seeing as it contains not a single boring minute, and is never afraid to just throw in anything director Umesh Mehra found cool on that particular morning.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

In short: Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974)

Original title: ゴジラ対メカゴジラ, Gojira tai Mekagojira

There’s trouble brewing in that most exotic of places, Okinawa. A priestess has apocalyptic visions, something the film calls “space titanium” is found in a local cave, and an excavation opens up a treasure trove of objects, including a pretty apocalyptic sounding prophecy and a statuette of an Okinawan protector godhood with the somewhat culturally improbable name of “King Caesar”.

And wouldn’t you know it, very quickly, parts of the prophecy come true. Godzilla, with a very unpleasant new voice and yellow-coloured nuclear breath starts on a minor rampage, has a little bout with the always outclassed Anguirus (despite their friendship, human characters comment with shock), until another, correctly voiced version of Godzilla appears and fights the impostor. Said impostor turns out to be a Godzilla-shaped mecha and proceeds to kick our hero’s ass.

Afterwards, it’s time to spend more time with the humans, who uncover that Mechagodzilla is part of an invasion plot of evil alien monkey people and have spy fy adventures which will eventually bring us to the climactic fight.

By 1974, the second generation of filmmakers working on the Godzilla films, who were never as beloved as the simply brilliant bubble around Ishiro Honda, was pretty much on the ropes. Kaiju cinema was one of the genres having particular commercial difficulties with the competition coming from TV. That situation was certainly not helped by first generation kaiju people like Tsuburaya making arguably better kaiju and tokusatsu entertainment for the small screen than guys like poor Jun Fukuda did for the big one.

Fukuda never managed to really fill the footsteps left by Honda as Toho’s main director of kaiju cinema, his competent craftsmanship not really standing up to the comparison with Honda’s – often quiet - brilliance. But then, I don’t necessarily need a film concerning a silly alien invasion by mildly evil monkey people and Godzilla turning Magneto to fight a mecha version of itself to be brilliant. As cheap and joyful entertainment, I like Fukuda’s last Godzilla movie just fine.

It is of course a shame that the budget only left space for two relatively small scale monster sequences (I prefer lots of kaiju in my kaiju movies, strangely enough), but Fukuda and company do make the best out of what they have, trying to put at least a good silly idea into every thirty seconds of these fights. There’s obviously Godzilla’s sudden magnetic powers to mention there, but I’m also very fond of our hero’s jack in the box style appearance to the climactic fight, or that he’s literally screwing his bad copy’s head off in the end.

The light and pulpy invasion nonsense in the middle is entertaining enough too. Fukuda could by now probably shoot stuff like this in his sleep, but here, again, he does his best to provide something of entertainment value every couple of minutes, be it goofy monkey masks for the aliens, a cackling Interpol agent, or just some mild but not boring chases and punch ups.

There’s really worse things to spend one’s time on than Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, and if that sounds like a somewhat underwhelming recommendation, a recommendation it still is.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Graverobbers (1988)

aka Dead Mate

Nora Mae (Elizabeth Mannino) lives a rather sad life. She has managed to upgrade from being a New York prostitute to a Nowhere, USA night shift waitress, but is plagued by gory nightmares, terminal boredom, and an obnoxious condom salesman. Enter John Henry Cox (David Gregory), who waltzes into her diner, acquaints herself with her marital status, and at once proposes marriage, whipping out a proper diamond ring. Having some sort of spell when the ring cuts her finger, Nora says yes to the total stranger with the creepy look, and off the happy (?) couple drive to Henry’s hometown of Newbury (apparently a great place to live forever) in his shiny limousine.

Well, actually, the limousine is not so much a limousine as it is a hearse (Nora knows less about cars than I do, it seems, but then all those Fast & Furious movies had to pay off for me sometime), because Henry turns out to be the town’s mortician. Greeted by the creepy and weird (as well as weirdly acted) local people of importance, the couple is married at once. The wedding night’s rather interesting, Henry insisting on Nora not moving at all. But then, she’s probably had to suffer worse.

The next morning sees Henry giving Nora the grand tour. Most conspicuous is “The Preparation Room”, which she is never to enter. Unlike certain fairy tale wives, she’s even going to hold to that, and instead finds a way to spy on what’s going on inside. What is going on is necrophilia, weird mortuary science (Seabury Quinn to the courtesy phone, please) and tasteful talk about dead bodies not infecting you with AIDS. Turns out many of the townspeople are necrophiliacs, and also undead. Henry does have a tendency to murder his wives, too.

Straw Weisman’s (who is still working as a producer today) Graverobbers is quite the thing. Not necessarily a good thing, but if you’re like me, interested in the late stages of US regional horror filmmaking, or are okay with a film being weird instead of good, certainly a thing of interest.

Tonally, the film is a complete mess, with serious gore, tasteless sleaze like the first necrophily scene, and many a moment where it’s completely unclear what kind of emotion the film is actually trying to evoke crashing into standard thriller woman in peril tropes and a scene about an undead gentleman riding a motorbike. The whole thing has a very off the cuff vibe, as if the writer (hey, it’s Straw Weisman again) had simply jotted down ideas for set pieces, some things obviously borrowed from films deeply out of the film’s league like Let’s Scare Jessica to Death and Dead and Buried, had stuck on a risibly dumb twist ending and called it a movie.

So this is absolutely not a film able to suck anyone in with anything amounting to a consistent mood. Its tone is just too disjointed for this, particularly since most of the humour falls down with the dull thud of a dead body dropping out of a coffin, and the film’s greatest ambition seems to be that of being a black comedy – unless when it is not. The only thing connecting everything is a certain weirdness, a weirdness coming from Weisman’s direction, that clearly tries to be stylish but doesn’t quite seem to know how to get there, and an acting ensemble mostly consisting of one or two credit actors who apparently have even less of a clue of what the film’s actually going for than the people behind the camera and so go off on tangents, speak in monotones or act way too hysterically, depending on the time of the day. And don’t even ask me if Larry Bockius’s (the man playing the Sheriff) face is getting so red because that’s needed to spit out dialogue, he’s having a heart attack on set, or what?

Obviously, little of what’s going on in the narrative makes even a lick of sense even if you accept unexplained undeath and a town of necrophiliacs as par for the course. Basically, it’s Elizabeth Mannino looking very pretty while pointlessly walking around and encountering weird shit. The film’s ending has an excuse for that, of course, but if you’re going the “it’s all been a dream, a vision, or whatever” route, you really need to plan your film with that in mind instead of using it as an excuse for its failings.

All of this does obviously make for a less than satisfying movie if you’re looking for even a lick of sense, but Graverobbers is one of those films that can be very enjoyable if you meet it halfway and just wait and see what kind of weird crap it is going to throw at you next. Suddenly zombies? Sure. Undead biker? Yes! Our heroine suddenly shouting “No more one night stands in hell!” for no reason whatsoever? Yup. And really, watched this way, Graverobbers is seldom not entertaining, making it, par the cult movie rule book, a pretty great movie (though not a good one).

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

In short: Number One with a Bullet (1987)

It’s the 80s, so you will be not terribly surprised to hear that this one’s about an odd couple of terrible cops much better at killing than at investigating anything, as they are stomping down on civil and human rights and are shouted at by their bosses. Wait, actually, this is more realistic than I wanted to give it credit for.

But seriously, the mandatory crazy slob of a cop here is a guy called Barzack (Robert Carradine). When he’s not obsessing about a drug boss he just can’t seem to kill, ahem, put behind bars, he’s wallowing in self pity, eating unhealthily, sabotaging his partner’s sex life, avoiding his mother, torturing junkies and stalking his ex-wife (Valerie Bertinelli), who, because this is a movie, still holds a bit of a torch for him too, for inexplicable reasons. His more together buddy and partner is the suave hobby jazz trumpeter and full-time ladies’ man Hazeltine (Billy Dee Williams). Obviously, the film spends more time with Barzack, because the audience might enjoy themselves otherwise.

I won’t really talk about the plot in any more depth, because we all know more or less what happens in this sort of thing.

Most 80s buddy cop movies play pretty badly to most modern audiences; police brutality, it appears, has stopped to be funny and entertaining for many people. While I’d be perfectly willing to defend more than a few of the genre brethren of Jack Smight’s Number One with a Bullet (not because but despite of their failings), the film at hand really isn’t worth it, for there’s nothing here that makes up for any of its politics. To wit: the action – apart from a short sequence concerning people attempting to flatten Williams – is perfunctory and really not up to the standards of craziness you’d hope for in a Cannon production like this. Barzack is completely insufferable, though the film seems to believe its audience will react with something more akin to “oh, look at that poor broken man”. Instead he’s making this viewer wish for the bad guys to win this time so Barzack will at least stop whining and leave his ex-wife in peace. Williams is wasted on being Carradine’s foil getting very little of interest to do for himself. Let’s not even talk about the plotting that leans on complete nonsense like the protagonists leaving a guy hanging from a building after they have tortured him, so that he can then be conveniently killed by a bad guy, leading to their well-deserved suspension we apparently are supposed to feel to be scandalous.

And then there’s what goes as “humour” for this one, clearly written without the secret knowledge that jokes are supposed to be funny.

It’s rather a disappointing movie coming from an experienced hired hand director like Smight.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Dracula’s Daughter (1936)

Theoretically beginning about five minutes after the ending to Browning’s Dracula, this low budget sequel still suddenly seems to take place when it was shot instead of about the turn of the century as the first movie. It’s a Universal movie alright. Some change has also come over poor old Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan, the only returning cast member from the first film, and certainly not one you’d want to return) – he is now Professor von Helsing. Arrested by two comic relief bobbies who will go on to annoy throughout the film’s first act, he finds out that Scotland Yard in form of one Sir Basil Humphrey (Gilbert Emery) does not put much stock into his chances of not being convicted for murder when his main defence is that his victim was a vampire. It certainly doesn’t help that Von (ugh) Helsing never mentions all those other characters from the first film who just might be helpful witnesses there. In any case, our man is convinced that the only one who can help him is an old student of his, the lawyer, no wait, the eminent psychiatrist Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger). Not surprisingly, Garth will turn out to be rather sceptical at first.

While this is happening, a woman with hypnotic powers and a striking dress sense we will soon learn to be Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden, who is the only element of the film that’s utterly, completely, right), whose actual relationship to Dracula the film never bothers to go into (of course), steals Dracula’s body, burning it to ensure his destruction. The Countess hopes that this will have cured her of her own vampiric desires, but a bit of nudging from her man-servant/enabler Sandor (Irving Pichel) on the next night gets her teeth right into someone’s jugular again. Eventually, she tries to get help from modern psychiatry, and yes, of course in the form of Jeffrey Garth.

Like many of Universal’s horror movies that are not the obvious classics, Lambert Hillyer’s Dracula’s Daughter is a deeply frustrating experience. As usual, it’s neither the actors (who mostly do as much as they can with what they are given), nor Hillyer’s direction, nor the technical aspects of the movie that are the problem, but the script by diverse hands. Oh, there are bits and pieces and hints and suggestions of great interest and attraction here (I’ll go into those a bit further on), but nobody involved with the final version of the script actually seemed to have understood those, leading to a film that doesn’t seem to know what it’s actually supposed to be about. It certainly isn’t making matters any better that much of what goes for a plot here is full of holes so big, even I couldn’t very well ignore them. Certainly, sometimes these holes could be taken as clever ambiguities, yet the shoddiness of their surroundings suggests otherwise.

Which is rather a shame, too, for there are several elements here that can make Dracula’s Daughter fascinating despite of itself. Take the aforementioned vague relationship between the Countess and Dracula in combination with her never showing any actual supernatural powers (apart from hypnotism, but the decidedly non-supernatural Garth can do that just as well as she, for in the pop culture of the 30s, hypnotism was scientific fact), suggesting the Countess may very well not be an actual, supernatural creature of the night but a woman only believing she is a vampire. Of course, the film does undercut this reading eventually via some dumb line by “von” Helsing, because it’s that kind of film.

Also interesting, and probably the film’s main claim to fame in circles interested in not terribly successful movies from the mid-30s of the last century, is the Countess’s status as something of the first movie lesbian vampire; though, really, given that only one of her victims is a woman, she’s probably more a bisexual vampire, and not the first one either, for Lugosi’s Dracula did some off-screen nibbling on Renfield. On the other hand, her same sex bloodsucking happens as nearly on-screen as the at the time particularly pesky Hayes code allowed (after several cuts made for the censors), so the film’s certainly pioneering in that. Plus, that scene is one of the most effectively shot of the film, suggesting the kind of deeply atmospheric film Hillyer could have made.

Then there’s the possibility to read at least parts of the film as being metaphorical about drug addiction, the Countess a junkie who already knows that her fix is destroying her, and doesn’t want to be destroyed, but of course still can’t resist. Even the dialectic between relapse and total acceptance of her role as a blood junkie is there later on. And of course, most of the film simply ignores this possible reading, as it does the lesbianism, Sandor’s role as enabler, and the ambiguity of the Countess’s mental state, because firstly, nobody involved in the final product cared about any of this, and secondly, there were scenes of bumbling bobbies and Edward Van Sloan talking with a Scotland Yard guy to shoot.

As I said, it’s an intensely frustrating film, because so much of great interest and weight is dangling just out of reach of the audience because the filmmakers didn’t seem to bother. Which is very much the problem of most of the lesser Universal horror films.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Three Films Make A Post: Mystery runs in the family

Enola Holmes (2020): I’m really far from the core audience for this one, so take this with a grain of salt, but I do believe that a teen audience could be better served than with this Platonic Ideal of boring competence as directed by Harry Bradbeer. It’s a film as bland as they come, full of bland attempts at being charming, bland emotions, bland characters who’d be happy if they’d be allowed to add half a dimension to the two they have, a bland plot told tediously. Even the feminism is bland with a vaguely unpleasant vibe of – fortunately - blanded down Libertarianism, curiously enough, as is the pointless Fourth Wall breaking, which these days seems to be the lazy scriptwriter’s way out to simply tell the audience stuff their script should put into action.

Poor Millie Bobby Brown seems to be the only one alive in front of the camera in this tragically Watson-less Holmesian universe; Henry Cavill is Holmes interpreted as a clothes rack.

Follow Me aka No Escape (2020): Keeping with the blandness theme, Will Wernick’s film about a Vlogger (again) trying to survive a Russian (yep, it’s the mysterious and evil East again) escape room experience that may just be a little too real, is exactly what you expect following this description. If you don’t see the so-called final plot twist coming from miles away, you’re probably a happier person than I. The rest of the movie consists of bland characters stumbling through one of those boring and bland warehouse sets, solving death traps and puzzles untouched by creativity and excitement, going through exactly the plot motions you’d expect in exactly the obvious way.

It’s suspense filmmaking that’s gotten so formulaic, you better call it unexciting filmmaking.

Red Spirit Lake (1993): Pretty much the absolute opposite to the blandness of the other two films in this entry is this camcorder shot wonder by Cinema of Transgression associated filmmaker Charles Pinion. It’s sleazy and bloody to an amount Herschell Gordon Lewis would have loved, but Lewis’s commercial instincts are replaced by the kind of (very special) arthouse sensibility that likes to pretend to be amateurish to be as subversive as possible, using a lexicon of horror movie tropes as aggressively as it can, editing, shooting and acting roughly on purpose, only to go from some homemade gore effect to moments straight out of abstract experimental cinema, being weird as hell throughout.

After two films so desperate to be for everyone they become too bland to be for anyone, this sort of thing feels even more alive.

Friday, November 13, 2020

Past Misdeeds: Werewolf Of London (1935)

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.

Botanist Dr. Wilfred Glendon (Henry Hull) is on an expedition into Tibet, looking for a mythical plant that only blooms by moonlight said to grow there.

In a valley guarded by strange powers, Glendon finds the plant he seeks, but before he can grab it and return to his native London, the scientist is attacked by a creature part wolf and part man. Glendon manages to fight his attacker off, but is wounded in the process.

The botanist returns to London with his find and begins to work ceaselessly in his laboratory on finding a way to influence the plant through artificial moonlight; he also seems to have invented a monitor and security camera combo you wouldn't expect from a botanist, but no matter. Glendon's increasing obsession with his work begins to put a strain on his marriage to his wife Lisa (Valerie Hobson). This is rather unfortunate in a marriage that never seems to have been based on a very deep understanding of each other's wishes or character.

Even more unfortunate is the fact that Lisa's old beau Paul Ames (Lester Matthews) is beginning to sniff around her again, clearly smelling emotional turmoil he can use to get what he wants, reminding me of nothing so much as of a dog with a receding hairline and no ethical backbone that goes beyond very basic ideas of propriety - in other words, he is the typical romantic lead in a 1930s movie.

Glendon is displeased, but too distracted to do much about Ames, while Lisa is all too happy to have someone close-by who treats her as a person instead of a piece of furniture, even if he’s an ass.

Soon, Glendon is visited by the mysterious Dr. Yogami (Warner Oland). Yogami knows all about Glendon's Tibetan adventures and warns him that the creature who bit the botanist was a werewolf - a creature combining the worst aspects of man and wolf in the language of the film - and that the creature has infected him with its curse, the same curse Yogami does suffer from. Only the blossoms of Glendon's plant will be able to counteract the transformation into a ravening beast out to destroy what it loves the most (something Glendon would seem to be perfectly able to do through negligence instead of violence without being a werewolf). Yogami begs Glendon for one of the blossoms for himself, but Glendon declines in disbelief of the story, and because simple kindness is clearly beyond him.

After his first transformation, the scientist will be much more believing in it as well as in the power of the plant, but at this point, someone will already have stolen all the blossoms he so desperately needs now. From then on, Glendon tries to keep away from his wife as much as possible, driving her even further away but living out his murderous urges on random women (of obviously “loose morals” - one might meet the film's subtext here).

Universal's Werewolf of London is often erroneously called the first werewolf movie. In fact, there have been four to six other films (excluding Jekyll & Hyde versions, which are of course closely related to the werewolf myth as the movies see it) containing werewolves made before it, but - as far as I can tell - all of them seem to have been lost to us.

In any case, Werewolf of London is Universal Studio's first attempt at making a werewolf movie, six years before their much more successful and much better loved The Wolf Man with Lon Chaney Jr.

At times, Werewolf of London feels like a dry run for the later film, but it would be quite unfair to only see it as such. While the basics of the two films - parts of the werewolf mythology, the werewolf as a victim of his own (aggressive and sexual) urges, a creature killing what it loves the most - are identical, Werewolf puts quite a different emphasis on things.

Where Chaney is nearly as much of an innocent victim of his own urges as the people he kills, Hull's Glendon seems to be much more conscious of what he is doing when he is not completely himself anymore. There's a distinct undertone of Glendon living out his true wishes when he is in his wolf form. Being a werewolf in this case seems to be less the case of Glendon being a victim than him becoming what he truly is.

This doesn't mean that the film treats its main protagonist as a pure monster - he is trying to stay away from people after he realizes what is happening to him, he is doing what he can at least not to kill his wife - it does however treat him as someone fighting himself rather than an outside influence. This impression is even deepened by the fact that Glendon-wolf seems to keep his intelligence and even tends to change into different clothes before going on a rampage. In this respect, Werewolf is closer to the Jekyll & Hyde school of werewolfery than the Chaney version.

The Chaney version also isn't a film about a marriage going down the shitter. Werewolf very much is. At times, this part of the subtext becomes so strong the transformation of a man into a raging creature full of hatred for his wife can hardly be called a metaphor for the emotional turmoil inside of a very insecure and violent man at the end of a marriage anymore.

Visually, the film isn't as interesting as it is on its metaphorical level. Director Stuart Walker surely wasn't one of Universal's more interesting worker drones, and much of the rest of the team behind the camera - with the exception of special makeup artist Jack Pierce, of course - wasn't among Universal's best either. The film's set design and cinematography are far from the expressionist backlot Europe heights the studio's best films reached. Mostly, the film is looking professionally bland, but this blandness is from time to time broken up by single moody shots or short moments of inspired shadow play. After all, this was produced in a year when Universal's minor creatives were still more than competent in what they were doing, and more importantly, when they - and the studio itself - were still treating their films and their audience with respect and seriousness - it's 1935, and not 1944.

Pierce's werewolf make-up is of quite a different calibre than competence, though. Less doglike and hairy than the later wolf face for Chaney, the mask enables Hull to bring more of his facial expressions to bear. In fact, he seems to be a much better actor when baring his fangs than he is when talking.

Hull's performance out of his mask is unfortunately often quite weak. He tends to go for the overtly dramatic where subtlety would be better and for the bland where one would hope for something more charismatic. I'd go as far as to say that it is in large parts Hull's fault that the later Chaney film has become Universal's iconic werewolf film instead of this one.

Still, there's much of interest to be found here for anyone even a little interested in the horror movies of the 30s and 40s.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

In short: Da 5 Bloods (2020)

It’s not difficult to believe that films like this are a bit of a defence mechanism by Netflix against the type of critics that seems more interested in watching movies exclusively in the overpriced hell-holes known as cinemas, proving that they do indeed care for film as an art (not something the same critics usually ask of older multi-national companies).

It’s obviously all good when this gets someone like Spike Lee the money and the space to make the kind of film he wants to make without having to beg for favours from studios. Da 5 Bloods concerns a handful of black Vietnam veterans (Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr.) returning to he country decades later to find the body of the squad leader they loved (Chadwick Boseman) as well as a bunch of gold, and ending up in a pretty bad shape for it.

It’s a pretty great film to me, splitting the difference between a leisurely on-foot kind of road movie and a jungle action film in a way only a director with decades of experience like Lee would dare, and on the way talking about the complicated relationships between these characters, black Americans and their country, black Americans and the Vietnamese and black Americans and war in an appropriately complicated manner that usually doesn’t go for the quick, easy answer while always keeping its eye on injustice and what comes from it. Also making an appearance are the bizarre thing about the French Americans of all political colour seem to have, ironic versions of war movie greatest hits (including a brilliantly funny moment with Wagner’s “Ritt der Walküren”), and a handful of great performances – with Lindo being particularly brilliant – that feel like gifts from the cast to a director going out of his way to leave them space to breathe and work.

Apart from these performances, I’m particularly fond of how Lee’s more eccentric directorial decisions here – like not de-aging his cast in the flashbacks in any way – lead to the most clear-eyed and revelatory moments, daring to be strange when that’s what this particular story needs. And for a guy with my tastes, it’s certainly nice to see Johnny Nguyen in a larger role here, and Danny Bilson (a failed videogame executive to some, the screenwriter of some of my favourite Empire Pictures films to me) as a co-writer.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

The Witch’s Mirror (1960)

Original title: El espejo de la bruja

Elena (Dina de Marco) lives a seemingly carefree life with her husband, Doctor Eduardo Ramos (Armando Calvo), protected by her godmother and the doctor’s housekeeper Sara (Isabelle Corona), who is a real witch – demonic pacts and all – with a nice mirror to see the future in. But when the mirror promises a sad fate for Elena, Sara’s demon master forbids her to act, and Eduardo murders his wife to make room for his new love, Deborah (Rosita Arenas).

Deborah knows nothing of the true nature of her husband, yet Sara still decides to take vengeance on Eduardo through Deborah, with the help of the royally ticked off ghost of Elena. After an increasingly intense heap of gothic spookery descends upon the household, Eduardo accidentally ends up throwing a gas lamp at Deborah, who survives but is horribly disfigured. Eduardo, for once in his life feeling guilty for something, decides to use his medical skills to cure her, or rather, his mad science skills. Skin transplantation from fresh corpses is the name of the game, but he’s even happier when he and his assistant discover a woman who has been buried alive. Why, now he can even transplant a fresh pair of hands to his beloved!

Obviously, the mad science horror and the tale of nasty supernatural vengeance will eventually collide.

In the right week, Chano Urueta was one of the great directors of Mexican genre film; in the wrong one, he made The Brainiac, which is an achievement of a different kind.

The Witch’s Mirror was certainly made when the stars were right, various genre tropes and clichés colliding in manners that become increasingly delirious the longer the film goes on. In a different movie, the scene where Sara and the mirror trick Eduardo into throwing the lamp at Deborah with its gruesome depiction of a woman screaming her lungs out while burning up would be something that happens in the final act; here it’s the point where things just start to become really wild, grave robbery and mad science meeting medical horror of the kind many horror viewers still seem to think was invented for the screen by Eyes without a Face (which is a wonderful film, of course, just not that different on a story level from earlier films, some of them made in Mexico by Urueta) on a collision course with gothic vengeance from the grave. And witches.

It’s the maximalist approach to horror filmmaking, going by the logic – shared by many other Mexican films of the time as well as a decade later by Paul Naschy in Spain – that more sub-genres in one movie are always better. And in a film like The Witch’s Mirror, that approach is perfectly right.

While it’s impossible to not describe the film’s series of set pieces as delirious, Urueta actually seems to have a lot of control about the insane amount of fun and weird stuff he throws at his audience here: while the pacing is fast (the film’s short, after all), Urueta still manages to build up to the more extreme second half with some care, using all the tricks in the gothic book at first. From the deep shadows and threatening frames, the slightly stiff yet highly effective overacting (particularly Corona is a wonder), Urueta works his way up to the more explicit parts like Deborah’s burning (looking really nasty for 1960) and her make-up afterwards. The film also has time for the more human horror: the way Sara hides her hatred behind her calm demeanour, Eduardo’s madness hidden behind his gentility, or the quickness with which Deborah gets over the shock of learning how Eduardo is healing her – everybody in this one has a dark and corrupt side that really only needs to be brought out. This, of course, makes a mirror a very fitting central object of magic here.

As a whole, the film has a curiously amoral, nearly nihilist, vibe to it, with no innocents on screen for any length of time. Why, even Elena stops being innocent after her death. This is rather atypical for Mexican gothic horror at the time, where the demarcations between the guilty and the innocent were usually very clear; most Mexican films of this style would certainly not have countenanced a vengeance plot working on a woman who is innocent until the vengeance has been wrought on her. I’ve seen this interpreted as “Catholic misogyny” but given that the male main characters are murdering graverobbing Eduardo and his money-grubbing accomplice/assistant, I really read it as a very un-Catholic kind of misanthropy. That’s a good thing, mind you.

Apart from all that, the wonderful gothic on a low budget art of the filmmaking results in a movie that’s also plain fun for the refined horror movie fan, at least those among us who like a bit of the grotesque and the mean-spirited in their old-timey horror movies.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

In short: Grand Isle (2019)

The South, USA. Buddy (Luke Benward), a young husband and father working handyman-style small jobs to survive, is questioned by a policeman (Kelsey Grammer) who doesn’t cop to fancy city stuff like lawyers and phone calls in connection with some sort of violent crime. Buddy certainly looks as if he has gotten put through the wringer by someone. Most of the film takes place in flashback, Buddy telling Mr Cop a sordid tale that begins with him tasked to repair a fence for alcoholic vet Walter (Nicholas Cage) and his very, very hospitable wife Fancy (KaDee Strickland), continues with him stranded in the couple’s house by a hurricane, contains (awkward) sex, murder plans and a bag full of money and doesn’t quite end with a terrible discovery in a cellar.

Stephen S. Campanelli’s Grand Isle suffers from a bad tendency to drag its plot hither and yon, clearly aiming for the erratic feel of a Southern Noir yet still often making the impression of a film that doesn’t quite know what exactly it wants to be: said noir or a twisty modern thriller or a trashy 90s erotic thriller or serial killer chiller or whatever kind of movie those final scenes think they belong to? The film can’t decide, instead jumping through elements of all of these genres, bizarrely missing exactly the themes that so often connect them.

Of course, the film never comes to a consistent portrayal of its protagonist either, leaving Buddy with the weak backbone of a noir, erotic thriller etc protagonist but without other character traits, moral values or what have you which you’d usually be able to better explore thanks to that noir backbone. It’s a series of scenes, usually not even bad ones, that never gel into a movie.

The acting side doesn’t help with the Buddy problem either: Benward does not have the kind of presence capable to work on the same level of Cage even when he’s more going through the motions than outright crazy as here, or as Strickland’s frighteningly sexually aggressive Fancy, so the film misses yet another possible throughline here.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Fear No Evil (1969)

One night, while clearly in some kind of altered state, Paul Varney (Bradford Dillman) buys an antique mirror from a store, driven to the purchase by forces he can’t quite comprehend. Some days later, leaving a get-together by friend-of-a-friend psychiatrist and occult expert Dr David Sorrell (Louis Jordan), Paul and his fiancée Barbara Anholt (Lynda Day George) have a (vintage) car accident caused by his zoning out just like he did in that night he bought the mirror. Paul is killed, while Barbara gets away with minor injuries.

Obviously, Barbara is not taking this well, and is all too happy when Paul’s mother (Marsha Hunt) decides to break off the cold war that apparently was raging between them when Paul was still alive and invites Barbara to live with her in the family’s rich people mansion. Right in Barbara’s new room is that mysterious mirror Paul bought. On her first night sleeping there, Barbara feels drawn to the mirror – and wouldn’t you know it, a version of Paul that has developed a sartorial interest in French existentialist intellectual chic appears. Barbara is as clearly overwhelmed by intense sexual desire as a TV movie from 1969 can get away with (which is surprisingly much) and she and Paul do get it on late 60s TV movie style, Barbara somehow crossing over into the mirror world with her mind while her body, as is clearly implied, has its fun with the mirror.

After the first night of this, she goes to Sorrell for help. Sorrell does go for the most logical psychological explanation of her encounter being simple grief, but a case some years ago has taught him that sometimes, strange occurrences actually have supernatural sources, and so he begins to investigate what really happened to Paul before his death. This becomes particularly pressing since the now nightly encounters between a Barbara who simply can’t resist the mirror and Paul seem to have a dire influence on her physical and mental health.

This TV movie as directed by Paul Wendkos is a real gem of TV horror, working a very effective occult detective tale into the constraints of late 60s TV. The script by Richard Alan Simmons (based upon a short story buy Guy “The Werewolf of Paris” Endore) is surprisingly inventive in the ways it mixes the TV version of grief with Barbara’s supernatural misadventures, hinting at the connections between love, grief and physical desire, without feeling the need to explain them too much. There’s surprisingly little psycho babble TV of the time loved so much here,too, or really, just as much of it as the film needs for exposition.

Fear No Evil works very well as a tale in the classic occult detective mode, Sorrell’s double-expertise as a psychiatrist and a man of occult interests making him the ideal go-between between science (as much as psychiatry is one) and belief, and position him as one of the healer type occult investigators rather than the researcher of weird shit. I’ve never been the greatest fan of Jourdan – he always feels a bit too smug to me – but his performance here is just right, with just the right mix of that smugness and believable compassion; well, and a lot of cigarettes.

The plotting is pretty neat too, for the whole affair makes sense as a proper mystery, just one involving experimental demon conjuring and a magic mirror.

Wendkos does a wonderful job, too, pacing the investigation well, getting to the core of a scene clearly and efficiently, but also creating the proper mood of the outré as part of the human experience when it is called for. He is also doing wonders creating the supernatural menace on TV budget. The climax in particular is visually and conceptually inventive and makes total sense as a lived example of magical thinking, too.

Apparently, this was a pretty big ratings success for NBC, so the next year, there was another adventure of Dr Sorrell hitting the screen, but one without Simmons or Wendkos involved. About that one, I will complain in a coming “Three Films Make a Post” entry, because it’s as terrible as Fear No Evil is great.

Saturday, November 7, 2020

Three Films Make A Post: True Love Takes Sacrifice

The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw (2020): This piece of folk horror by Thomas Robert Lee clearly wants to play in the same ballpark as films like The Witch, Hereditary, or Midsommar. Mostly, however, it makes it obvious how difficult achievements successful films in this style are. In its characters and obscured back story, the film confuses the vague with the ambiguous; in its plot and pacing, it lacks precision, turning into a mere series of scenes instead of a movie. In theory, the film’s strong-ish grip on a visual mood of grey dread is probably meant to hold things together, but because it only ever seems to ape the outward forms of its style rather than the complicated insides, it never gets beyond being a series of moody scenes. Because the characterisation is so vague, there’s no heft to the moments of outward horror, and the titular curse is never any more than random witchcraft tropes stitched together.

Death of Me (2020): But I still think Lee’s movie is more successful than this thing directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, a film that tries to be tourist horror, twisty thriller, and pseudo Thai folk horror at the same time. A stronger script might perhaps have managed to hold the film’s disparate impulses together, but there’s little thematic connection to the various horrors Maggie Q’s Christine goes through; which is particularly bad in a film that’s supposed to be about a secret ritual. The plot twists never feel earned or part of any thematic whole; it’s supposed to be weird because it’s random, one supposes. That the film also makes no attempt to do anything about the xenophobic vibe movies about innocent westerners traveling somewhere only to be sacrificed by the evil locals can’t help but have does it no favours either. Really, I’m perfectly willing to ignore this sort of subtext in films made before the 1990s, or in classic pulp fiction, but in something made in 2020, there’s just no excuse anymore.

Archons (2018): This tale of a one hit wonder rock group going on a psychotropic drug fuelled journey through the wilds of Canada only to encounter the metaphorical as well as the literal things living inside them is clearly the cheapest of these three movies. It’s also the best, mostly because director Nick Szostakiwskyj seems to have a focussed idea of what his film is actually about, does turn this idea into an actual plot with actual characters, adds weird visions, a bit of body horror and some not terribly great monster suits, and then takes care actually putting these things together into a movie that’s more than a series of disconnected scenes. It’s not as moody as Lee’s film, but makes much better use of the mood it evokes; it beats the Bousman already by not being a random series of twists and racist tropes.

Friday, November 6, 2020

Pirates Of The XXth Century (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.

Original title: Piraty XX veka 

Little does the crew of a Soviet freighter transporting medicine for the Motherland expect the true nature of their cargo - opium. However, what the sailors don't know, a bunch of evil pirates does. A shipwrecked sailor (Talgat Nigmatulin) the freighter takes on board on the open sea is in truth the pirates' man on the inside, bound to destroy the ship’s radio when the time for attack comes. Soon enough half of the Soviets are dead, their freight is stolen, and their ship is sinking.

The survivors, led by their Captain Iwan Iljitsch (Pyotr Velyaminov) and engineer and part-time hero Sergej Sergejitsch (Nikolai Yeryomenko) manage to escape on a life boat without their enemies realizing it, but without supplies and far-off from help, their situation looks none too pleasant. That is, until they come upon an island. As luck will have it, the crew's troubles aren't over yet, though, for it is this very same island the pirates are using as an HQ after having enslaved a village of peaceful pearl-divers. Or rather the female population of it - for the men, the pirates just couldn't find any use.

Fortunately, the Soviet sailors are nearly to a man - there is of course the obligatory "coward" (aka a person who reacts rather more realistically to the whole plot) and the crew's two women are only there to get kidnapped and tortured a bit because why should a Soviet Russian movie be any better about this stuff - improbably competent at the manly arts of sneaking, fighting, and being badass while disco funk plays, so they even have a chance to survive the ensuing cat and mouse game against the much better armed and more numerous pirates. In the end, though, all will depend on Sergej Sergejitsch's ability to do the lone hero bit.

Boris Durov's Pirates Of The XXth Century was the highest grossing movie in the existence of the USSR, which again goes to show that people are the same wherever you go. So if there's a film full of fun violence, an audience will choose it over anything generally considered more worthy every time, no matter where it comes from or what specifically is considered to be more worthy at that given place and time. I say this and make it sound as if it were a bad thing, but obviously, Pirates and films of its type are my bread and butter when it comes to movies, and I'll watch and enjoy a film with shoot-outs and explosions over a treatise about some rich people's marital troubles (or in this case the purity of the working classes) every time.

As an action film - a genre Soviet directors only had limited experience with - Pirates often is a bit awkward, with everyone striking the same poses you'd find in a Hollywood production or something produced in the Philippines, but doing so in a manner that can feel slightly off, as if the actors and the director weren't totally fluent in the filmic language they were speaking. This does only strengthen the film's charms for me by providing it with a feeling of a certain playground innocence, not unlike that found in Turkish pop cinema, although Pirates' creators, not surprisingly, show quite a bit more technical proficiency. Like many action films this is a variation of kids playing cowboys and Indians, just with a greater budget for playing make-believe.

Other elements of the film are completely in keeping with the international language of action movies. There's awkward-yet-awesome white guy martial arts (still better than Chuck Norris because these white guys at least lack the ick factor), the need for people to at least nearly fall off a cliff if a cliff is provided, the naturalness with which everyone who isn't a woman not only knows how to use an assault rifle but is good at it too - all these pleasant clichés and more are there and always pretty fun to watch.

Pirates also offers some choice noises for our ears thanks to a wonderfully late 70s disco funk score by Yevgeniy Gevorgyan that is clearly a brother in spirit to what I like to call Toei Funk and assorted genres of film music, with some added moments of random synth-warbling during the diving sequences (which are pleasantly short and to the point instead of the traditional boring and long-winded).

Pirates is great fun if you don't have to take your action movies dead seriously, but can enjoy silliness for the sake of silliness like a proper cult movie fan should. No worries, though, while the film is as silly as one could ask for, it never goes the frightening and wrong route of conscious camp that has destroyed many a movie over the years. This film's silliness is not a result of cynicism.

It also should be noted that the film's script (by Durov and Desyat Negrityat's Stanislav Govorukhin) eschews the bane of many a Soviet movie, the propagandist speeches about the superiority of the Soviet people, awesomeness of the working classes, communism, and so on, and so forth that have sucked the joy out of many a film (which I suspect to not have been the favourite parts of movies for their native Soviet movie audiences either). There are of course certain assumptions about the way people and the world work that are slightly different from what one is used to from western films (for one, there's a larger emphasis on team play than is typical for action movies of the time without the number seven in their title), but these are the result of people coming from a culturally slightly different place, and will only annoy those who can't cope with others having vaguely different values or ideas about the world than themselves.

So, all in all, Soviet Russia can be proud of having this as its highest-grossing movie.

Thursday, November 5, 2020

In short: Legacy of Lies (2020)

Twelve years ago, a mission in Kiev to retrieve documents concerning a secret Russian assassination program went very badly indeed for MI-6 agent Martin Baxter (Scott Adkins), not just ending with him losing the documents but also with the death of the mother of his child through one of his own bullets.

Now, a retired Baxter moves across Britain with his precocious twelve year old daughter Lisa (Honor Kneafsay), earning their keep with underground fights (it’s a Scott Adkins movie, remember) and work as a bouncer. The last few months seem to have been particularly hard for Baxter, his PTSD symptoms now even including waking visions of his dead wife. That’s a timely development, too, for Sacha (Yuliia Sobol), the daughter of one of the people killed during that very bad mission seeks Baxter out looking for help in acquiring the same old documents of twelve years ago.

Of course, she’s not the only one looking for them – Baxter’s old colleagues from MI-6, the CIA (or maybe the NSA) as well as the Russians are also very much still interested in them. When the Russians kidnap Lisa, Baxter really has no other choice than to resolve the issues of his past violently.

Among the considerable number of low budget movies starring the great Scott Adkins, Adrian Bol’s espionage action movie has a decent place somewhere in the quality middle. Even though it is not as much of a cheap and awesome action extravaganza as some films featuring Adkins are, there’s more than enough of the fun violence to keep me happy. Most of it is choreographed and shot very well, too, but the emphasis of the film is elsewhere. For this one seems genuinely interested in Adkins’s tragic past, and the way it shapes his relationship with his daughter as more than just a device to keep the action going. It doesn’t come to any startling new insights about these things, but I can’t help but respect when a movie like this that could get away with simply showing Adkins punching and shooting people puts actual effort into characters and their relationships. This doesn’t keep Legacy of Lies from having some pretty silly ideas, but those, you can really only read as the film trying not to be boring.

While the action stays fun bread and butter stuff, and the plot makes just as much sense as it needs to be, it’s the character work that throws some interesting curveballs. Of particular interest is how the completely ruthless Russian agent (Anna Butkevich) in charge of Lisa treats her, acting like a genuine human being with hang-ups and an inner life, the film daring to turn one of its villains into something amounting to a human being without getting all soppy or pretending she’s just a nice decent woman at heart. Rather, the film says, she’s complicated. Which may not sound like much, but is a pretty fine thing to see in any low budget action movie.

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Wishmaster 4: The Prophecy Fulfilled (2002)

Warning: the guy with the “ironic” deadly wish fulfilment tic has acquired a new set of rules. Once he’s fulfilled the third wish of the person who woke him, he’s opening up the gates to Earth for all other djinn to begin the djinnpocalypse. Otherwise, he still kills everyone uttering anything amounting to a wish in stupid and cheap ways.

The accidental awakener in this movie is Lisa (Tara Spencer-Nairn). Lisa’s life is a bit sad right now, for following a motorcycle accident caused by some construction defects in the bike, her artist husband Sam (Jason Thompson) is wheelchair bound, depressed and – this is quite clearly the worst part of it for the film and the guy – impotent. They are also involved in an apparently never ending law suit against the makers of the bike that killed the penis, with the help of Sam’s lawyer friend Steven (Michael Trucco). If friend is the word you use for a guy who wants to sleep with your girlfriend while she’s emotionally vulnerable and you are completely on the ropes.

The djinn soon murders Steven and takes on his form, all the better to get some wishes out of Lisa. Apparently, those count even if you don’t know you are making magical wishes or are just silently mumbling them into your glass of wine. Obviously, the lawsuit is soon wished to success, and Sam’s leg’s are working again, too. Not his penis, mind you, because the djinn’s still a literal kind of fellow. Lisa’s crucial last wish, whispered when the djinn continues Steven’s advances, about her wishing to be able to love him as he truly is (which makes no sense whatsoever in context of the scene, but hey), is going to be a bit of a problem, though, for a djinn may be perfectly allowed to murder or mutilate you, but apparently can’t just interfere in a person’s emotional life, and love needs to be given with actual consent instead of mind control. Which turns Lisa into the only person who could fulfil her own wish.

This does of course lead to various awkward and stupid ways in which the djinn tries to win over Lisa with Steven’s pseudo-Tom Cruise thing (see me shudder about the film’s true horror), get rid of the still incessantly whining Sam, and kill random people because this is a Wishmaster movie, dammit. Also involved is some male model type angel sent to hinder the fulfilment of the third wish by murdering Lisa, or random people who get in his way, and other djinn popping in from their realm to annoy Wishie and look like sub-Cenobites.

There’s is a core of a really interesting horror movie about love in the face of depression, the question of how important sex is to love, and a weird love triangle between man, woman and djinn hidden away in Wishmaster 4, but it’s buried under too much guff to ever come to the surface.

The script by John Benjamin Martin and Peter Atkins is simply incompetent. It’s not just unable to see what an interesting tale this could be when prepared properly but seems to be actively working to destroy any hint of it, writing characters as thin as cardboard and show thinking about sex and relationships many a softcore porn movie writer would have been embarrassed by. That they can’t write Sam or Lisa in any believable way as hurt human beings does not come as a surprise, but then, I’m not too sure Spencer-Nairn or Thompson would actually be able to play them as such. That’s neither here nor there anyway, for instead of finding the film’s narrative core and looking for ways to tell it to an audience, all the script ever seems to do is find some way to shoehorn another opportunity for the djinn to kill someone in, even if they need to invent a killer angel who has sod all to do with anything.

Which would be well and good, or perhaps at least mildly interesting, if those kills were any good, but there’s no imagination at all to the ways wishes and death connect, the special effects are dreary and embarrassing, and Chris Angel’s direction is the sort of thing that recommends itself by the ability to point the camera vaguely into the right direction.

Which, as far as achievements go, doesn’t manage to make Wishmaster 4 any more interesting.

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

In short: Deadly Illusion (1987)

Private detective Hamberger (Billy Dee Williams) may not have a licence, but he’s got a sexy taxi-driving girlfriend and partner (Vanity), and half of New York’s working class loves him to bits, for reasons he doesn’t understand himself. He, as it turns out, is also the kind of guy who exclusively identifies women by their hair-do; at least that’s what the film implies, for otherwise, most of the plot would make even less sense than it actually does.

“What plot is this?”, you might ask, and the most honest answer would be “hell if I know”. It’s not that the elements of the plot are all that confusing – there’s the usual stuff about the bad guys trying to frame our protagonist for murder and a large scale drug operation – but the way writer/director Larry Cohen fits them together really doesn’t make a lick of sense. It’s not just that the film only works when our hero can’t understand that Morgan Fairchild in a frizzy wig and Morgan Fairchild with her usual blonde hairspray thing are the same person, there’s really little else about this mystery that fits together in a sensible way, be it the plans of the villains (whatever they might be exactly), the actions of our hero or the police. Half of the time, I didn’t even know why any given scene followed the next, and not in a noirish expression of existential confusion, but simple confusion.

Unless, of course, scenes follow each other because Cohen, one of the most New York of all directors, simply thought showing Billy Dee Williams running through this part of New York would be pretty cool at any given moment. After all, Cohen, despite his experience as a screenwriter, often shows a very leisurely idea of plotting, giving his actors a lot of room to improvise. Williams isn’t terribly great at improvisation here, alas, so most of the obviously improvised scenes end up as the sort of goof comedy that should have ended up on the editing room floor.

The film’s not a complete write-off, however, for there are couple of worthwhile moments, at least if you like Larry Cohen’s New York, with some pretty funny moments and lines coming from the various character actors involved. Two of the New York action set pieces are rather fun, too, seeing as they do involve some running and shooting through Shea Stadium and Billy Dee having a chase down a certain rather large Christmas tree.

Which certainly doesn’t turn Deadly Illusion into a film for the casual viewer but keeps it of interest to the Cohen die-hards like me.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

In short: The Phantom of Hollywood (1974)

A formerly famous big Hollywood studio (MGM moonlighting as something called Worldwide Studios for the film) is not bringing in the big bucks anymore, so its boss Roger Cross (Peter Lawford) is planning to sell its backlot to the devilproperty developers and is already auctioning off a treasure trove of props from various classics. However, someone – actually a guy played by Jack Cassidy in a dubious looking costume wielding a morning star – has started murdering and disappearing people on the back lot, be it developers, vandals, or eventually even some poor night watchman. Is he the rumoured Phantom of the Backlot? The police (Broderick Crawford and John Ireland) are certainly not capable to find out, and will indeed proceed to risk the death of innocents in the hope their prey is killed too (seriously), so it’s up to PR guy Ray Burns (Peter Haskell) to find out who is haunting the grounds. This matter will become particularly pressing to him once the Phantom – well -versed in Phantom of the Whatever genre traditions – absconds with Randy Cross (Skye Aubrey), Ray’s girlfriend and the boss’s daughter.

Going into The Phantom of Hollywood I was all pumped for a TV budget Hollywood version of the Phantom of the Opera. The film certainly starts out promising enough, making much of the melancholic ruin of the real MGM backlot in the late stages of decay (the best location for this imaginable, really), and integrating as much nostalgia for old Hollywood as possible. Alas, that’s basically all that’s remarkable here. Whenever he’s not lovingly going over the ruins, Gene Levitt’s direction is terminally bland, making murders and dialogue equally unexciting.

Apart from the old Hollywood guys and gals doing character parts, the acting’s just as bland, Aubrey and Haskell making the least interesting romantic leads anyone could have found at the time. Only Cassidy makes a bit out of the little the script gives him, but he can only fight the sheer boredom of Levitt’s direction so much. It’s a shame, really, for there were quite a few directors doing TV movies in the 70s who would have done wonders with the material.

As it stands, we’ll at least always have the ruins of MGM.