Wednesday, December 16, 2020

And that’s a wrap

for this year for the blog. Normal service will resume on Thursday, the 7th January.

Until then, I wish my readers real and imaginary as good a festive season (whatever festival you prefer, of course) as they can get under the current circumstances and a happy and healthy beginning to a hopefully slightly less exciting year.

Otherwise, joining a Cthulhu cult might turn out to be an alternative.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

In short: Danur (2017)

aka Danur: I Can See Ghosts

When she was a child, Risa (Asha Kenyeri) lived with her usually absent parents in the country mansion of her grandmother. Her loneliness was disrupted by a trio of children she took some time to identify as ghosts, and apart from their encouraging her to suicide as the cure for loneliness, it really wouldn’t have needed the intervention of a priest (?) severing their bonds.

A decade or so later, the family returns to grandmother’s mansion. The parents are still usually absent, so it falls to Risa (now played by Prilly Latuconsina) to take care of her little sister Riri (Sandrinna Michelle Skornicki) as well as grandmother (Inggrid Widjanarko), who must have suffered one or more strokes and is bedridden, can’t speak, and looks generally frightened and unhappy. Any time now, there’s supposed to be a nurse coming in to help Risa out with her familial duties.

One night, a creepy woman calling herself Asih (Shareefa Daanish) appears, assuring that she is indeed the nurse and not the spirit of a woman dwelling in a banyan tree with a terrible fixation on little girls out to get Riri. Ominous things ensue.

Eventually, Risa will need to reawaken her connection to her old dead kid buddies if she wants to save her family.

If I believe the Wikipedia, Awi Suryadi’s Danur was and is the highest grossing film in the new-ish Indonesian horror boom. At least it was successful enough to spawn two sequels I’m hopefully going to get around to writing up one of these days. The film at hand is stylistically a lot softer than the May the Devil Take Yous and Queens of Black Magic of this world, standing in a continuing sub-genre of films about young women (sometimes cursed with) the ability to see and communicate with the spirit world. Often, like here, the main character has to take on a protective role not only towards innocents threatened by the supernatural but also towards a younger sibling whose own mediumistic powers are just awakening.

While still having proper hauntings that are an actual physical and spiritual threat, these films feature little gore and tend to be friendlier, sometimes more openly religious than their somewhat ruder siblings.

Danur is a good example for most of these elements. Asih – a lovely creepy turn by Daanish who does make an immense impression through strange body language and staring – may very well drag your sister to the spirit world (a place looking exactly like your house but drenched in Bava colours and a bit of dry ice fog) to drown her, but she’s not going to induce anyone to cut their face off. That’s not to say the film isn’t putting the work in to creep you out: there are some excellent scenes between Asih and the grandmother, playing on the old woman’s horrible helplessness; some clever plays with the invisibility of spirits to most people (unless they look through their own legs, apparently) and a generally carefully built mood of pleasant creepiness.

Apparently, in Indonesia, unlike other parts of the world, a horror film does not need to be a jump scare fest to be a mainstream commercial success in the cinemas.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

The Prisoner of Zenda (1937)

Retired British officer Rudolf Rassendyll (Ronald Colman) is visiting one of those curious fictional Balkan countries that pop up so often in Hollywood, the pulps, and comics for a fishing trip. As a matter of fact, the country in Anthony Hope’s novel this is based on, called Ruritania there and not named in the film, is often seen as the earliest example of the made up Eastern-ish European country in popular culture.

In any case, a peaceful fishing trip it’s not going to be for the man, for he just happens to look exactly like the very soon to be crowned king of the country, also called Rudolf, and Rudolf the king is in a spot of bother no true Englishman of Rudolf the Brit’s type is going to let him hang in. Being a notorious carouser and alcoholic gadfly, the king isn’t well loved by his subjects, leaving the door wide open for his perpetually coldly angry and pretty evil brother “Black” Michael (Raymond Massey). Really, simply drugging Rudolf on the night before his coronation should do the trick, providing Michael with an opening to declare himself regent, marry Rudolf’s betrothed Princess Flavia (Madeleine Carroll), and probably rename the country into Latveria.

As it happens, said drugging is taking place right when Rudolf the Brit is present, palling around with the king after a chance encounter. Because nobody would believe the truth, the king’s oldest and most-suffering retainer, Colonel Zapt (C. Aubrey Smith) comes up with a plan: why not let his king’s virtual twin go through the coronation to thwart Michael’s plans, without anyone knowing any better?

This is of course only the beginning of a series of intrigues, romantic interludes and curious adventures for our Rudolf.

The Prisoner of Zenda is, in its nature and type, a kissing cousin – or really rather a making out heavily in the backyard cousin – of the swashbuckler, really only missing that particular genre descriptor in my eyes because its moments of physical derring-do are nearly completely relegated to the final act. It’s a very fine final act, though.

And really, this is me doing genre nit-picking and not me complaining about the actual film, for the adventure and romance movie we get here is indeed one of the great achievements of classic Hollywood. Not only because it puts quite a few of the British actors working in Hollywood at the time into one movie – for what is more continental European than guys from Oxbridge to American eyes, apart from lederhosen – but because it really does wonders with them.

This is one of those films that don’t just feature a perfectly cast hero in Ronald Colman, who does the wit, the romance and the physical demands of the role more than just justice. Nearly everyone else on screen is more than just fit to type, enhancing the traditionally flat characters in a film like this through mild ironies, charisma, and a hand for the telling details of body language and intonation. Even Raymond Massey’s Michael is only not considered one of the great screen villains because he’s overshadowed by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.’s Rudolf von Hentzau, the most fun to watch bastard imaginable, whom I left out of the plot synopsis as well the roles played by Mary Astor and David Niven because synopsising the film’s finely wrought net of dramatic interpersonal relations and improbable intrigue would have to go into novel, or at least movie, length.

Apparently, this was a bit of a difficult production, director John Cromwell having some kind of beef or the other with about half of the main cast – which sounds ridiculous going by what we see of them on screen – so that some scenes may or may not have been shot by someone else. George Cukor was supposedly shooting whatever, as well as, and more probably to my eyes, W.S. Van Dyke doing work on the fencing scene in the climax. Whoever told DP James Wong Howe in any given scene what to do (or was wise enough to let him get on with his business) did a bang-up job in any case, creating one of the best fairy-tale Europes of the American subconscious, built out of sumptuous, beautiful and exotic scenes gliding into another elegantly, everything culminating in a finale that visually seems to take place in the direct neighbourhood of Universal’s backlot Europe of shadows and expressionist castles.

It’s as perfect as anything you’ll see.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Three Films Make A Post: He's good at taking friends

Come Play (2020): If you are one of those peculiar people who think The Babadook isn’t great, you might like Jacob Chase’s risible rip-off instead. After all, it does replace careful writing and thoughtful characterisation with jump scares and regurgitated tropes, grinds down the personality of the original in favour of bland slickness and basically sands down everything that’s good about the film it is ripping off into nothing, while not even acknowledging the debt officially. It’s everything that doesn’t work about contemporary mainstream horror squashed into a single film, without anything about this part of the movie universe that’s actually worthwhile and good (and there’s a lot of that to go) making an appearance.

In a way, the film’s total, nearly aggressive, blandness is some kind of achievement, I’m sure, but not one anyone should be proud of.

Boss Level (2020): By all rights, a film by Joe Carnahan about Frank Grillo as a man of violence with the usual problems finding himself caught in a time loop, fighting ridiculous caricatures again and again, should at the very least be a pretty fun watch. It never really was one for me, though. The film’s ironic use of clichés is never actually as smart and funny as it apparently believes it is, and the attempts of making an audience connect with Grillo’s character suffer heavily from him being a vapid idiot and an arsehole (and not the interesting kind) whose rise to heroism is something the film declares instead of actually doing anything to convince the audience of.

The action is perfectly okay, but I wish the filmmakers had taken a good hard look at a lot of low budget action movies with basic plots but heavy emotional stakes, skipped the ironic sneer, and instead learned something from them about how to creatively turn violence into an expression of a dozen different emotions.

Moonshine County Express (1977): Hicksploitation and carsploitation have never been my greatest loves in exploitation cinema, so I’m not sure if my enjoying Gus Trikonis’s example of the form more than most would be a recommendation to anyone who actually likes the sub-genre. It’s certainly always nice to find a female-led (Susan Howard, Claudia Jennings and Maureen McCormick) exploitation film that takes said females’ attempts at taking vengeance on the killers of her dead dad (Morgan Woodward working for William Conrad are the guilty parties) seriously, adding John Saxon as the male helper, but really not making him terribly effectual or useful, and letting the villains and the women drive the plot.

Stylistically, Trikonis moves convincingly from mid-70s style brutal-ish shoot-outs, to corny but mostly inoffensive humour, to a bit of drama, and to the mandatory car chases and back again, letting things get a little weird from time to time as they should be in exploitation cinema, yet finding his way back from there, too.

Friday, December 11, 2020

Past Misdeeds: SAGA: Curse of the Shadow (2013)

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.

Welcome to the extremely generic secondary fantasy world of SAGA that is – I’m not kidding – the background for a bunch of – possibly popular – fantasy miniatures!

There’s trouble afoot in whatever the damn land this takes place in is called. A shadowy cult of undead and cursed known as the Shadow Cabal (or sometimes just the Shadow) is planning a ritual to bring the Elder God of Death back from wherever he is, with hopefully resulting undead armies and other fun stuff for the junior fantasy conqueror who can’t get any dragons. One of the younger gods of good (though her interpretation of the concept of “good” will leave quite a bit to be desired during the course of the film), known as the Prophetess, gets wind of the problem and sends out her cleric (though he seems to be more of a paladin, D&D class-wise) Keltus the Wanderer (Richard McWilliams) to solve the situation, because clearly, this is the kind of problem that you wouldn’t throw a few people more at.

Anyway, Keltus will have to team up with anger management impaired elven bounty hunter Nemyt (Danielle Chuchran), cursed with the sign of the shadow and therefore eventual evilness by an orc shaman she has killed, and former orc chieftain Kullimon the Black (Paul D. Hunt), whose tribe has been taken over by the Shadow against his will, to resolve the situation.

Apart from the whole evil cult thing, other problems arise: Keltus’s plan to fight his enemy is really the sort of thing that could all too easily end up actually helping the Shadow and damn Nemyt’s soul; Nemyt hates all orcs with a passion, and Kullimon isn’t too keen on elves or human clerics himself; and Keltus’s goddess really seems to be more Lawful Evil than any other alignment.

Fortunately, these particular elves, orcs and men might just be able to get over the things that divide them, might just have quite a bit of heroic back bone when they need it, and the Prophetess just might not be the only goddess interested in Keltus (for reasons I don’t even want to speculate about).

Don’t tell anyone, but I’m convinced in these post Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit times, we live in something of a golden age of low to extremely low budget sword and sorcery and fantasy cinema. Sure, many of the resulting films look like their elves, orcs, and monsters were created with resources left over from various LARPing sessions, and their plots are generally made with secondary world fantasy cookie cutters, but that’s the kind of minor stuff that is not going to keep me from enjoying a film about people and creatures with pointy ears going at each other with swords.

Curse (or whichever of its many titles you choose) certainly has its problems in the plot department, with the basic quest being pretty bland, and its not very interesting attempts at turning the whole affair into a redemption story for Keltus and Nemyt falling flat by virtue of at least Keltus never doing anything much worthy of redemption. Instead, Keltus eventually gets killed and then revived by a goddess with a love of hopeless causes, without having to actually do anything for it, and Nemyt’s redemptive act only carries the most tenuous connections with the things she needs to redeem herself for. On the other hand, the characters are generally likeable, particularly Hunt’s Kullimon, who seems rather more worldly than his two future friends, and certainly gets all the best lines. It helps that the film’s core trio of actors is decent enough, with Hunt and Chuchran even charismatic enough it’s not too difficult to ignore all the grunting and snarling they have to do.

The rest of the script is basically competent, with decent pacing, and a clear idea of the fact that this sort of film really needs a fight against a different creature or enemy every fifteen minutes or so much more than it needs anything else.

These fights are quite well done, too, with Chuchran (who gets to have an acrobatic fighting style not too far off from that of a wuxia film character) and Hunt making for attractive screen fighters even in those moments where there’s clearly no stunt person substitution going on, and some very fun choreography that makes much of the film’s limited resources. Director John Lyde for his part provides ample space for the fights and fighters to shine in, using little obfuscation of what is going on on screen. McWilliams, on the other hand, often looks as if he’s just stumbling after his sword in these scenes, but two out of three ain’t bad.

The make-up and effects are all over the place in quality with Kullimon’s orc make-up one of Curse’s high points, the sort of make-up job that might not look real but keeps the actor’s face expressive enough for him to still act. Among the rest of the effects, there’s some ridiculous stuff (the final enemy, for example who looks like nothing so much like a mid-level boss from a video game made in 2006 or so), some neat, some mediocre, and a dwarf who looks to so weirdly artificial he actually hits the same sort of freakishness as your run of the mill evil clown.

All this adds up to something better than I’d ask of a tiny low budget sword and sorcery movie. The film does perhaps take its plot a bit too seriously for some tastes, but if the film itself didn’t why should the audience? If you’re not willing to just accept the D&D module style of the whole affair, this is not a film actually meant for you anyway, I very much suspect. I have no problems with that, and so feel myself in a good position to enjoy how much Lyde et al just go for it, and how fun the resulting film turns out to be.

And even though much of the dialogue is a bit too heavy and portentous for its own good, there’s actually a nice series of witty lines too, not so self-conscious as to rip you out of the world the film tries so hard – if cheaply - to create but enough of it to add to the sense of fun I got from the film.

All in all, Curse of the Shadow is a positive surprise, at least if you like the things D&D level fantasy or Italian sword and sorcery films have to offer, or just enjoy watching very competent people fighting on screen.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

In short: (The) Devil(‘s) Kiss (1974/76)

Original title: La perversa caricia de Satán

After the suicide of her husband left their estate in ruins, the former countess Moncorn has started a new life under the identity of Claire Grandier (Silvia Solar), medium. She has partnered with one Professor Gruber (Olivier Mathot), specialist in telepathy, mad scientist, and owner of a weak heart, working their séance trade in exactly those circles her husband and she moved in once, now usually without getting recognized by her former acquaintances. Well, the Duke de Haussemont (José Nieto) does recognize her when she holds a séance at a party in his castle. Driven by what might be a bit of a guilty conscience as well as some fascination concerning what happens at the séance, de Haussemont invites Claire and the Professor to perform their further occult studies in his home.

The two agree, for this invitation is indeed part of their evil plans. The Professor is developing some sort of compound that can bring the dead back to a kind of life, and once it is ready, Claire is going to conjure up a demonic spirit to inhabit the freshly not-living body, so that the Professor can then control it with his telepathic abilities to take vengeance on Claire’s enemies. In the world of this film, zombies are complicated to make.

On paper, particularly given that it was made during the height of European horror in Spain and Andorra(!), Jordi Gigó’s Devil’s Kiss (I’m going to keep to this version of the title) sounds all kinds of wonderful, and everyone who loves this era and type of filmmaking will probably imagine all sorts of awesome and exciting things with this set-up. Alas, awesome and exciting are not to be with this one, a film cursed with pacing so leaden, you might just think you’re being too hard on poor old lead, as well as camerawork so bland and boring, calling it an aesthetic or a style would be plain preposterous.

As a rule, I am perfectly alright with things happening slowly in movies, but Gigó (who also scripted) really has no sense of drama or flair at all, making much of the film a chore to get through, the film moving slower than its own zombie.

However, apart from some eye-gougingly ugly (in the best way) 70s style in fashion and interior decoration to gawk at while one is yawning, the film, at least the subtitled version I watched, has some delightfully absurd dialogue to offer. Now, I’m not saying that lines like “Thank god, we had time to hide the dwarf and the coffin” or “Let’s hope I’m strong enough to control the satanic mind that will take control of the poor guy’s body” make crawling through the whole affair worthwhile, but they pretty much do, and I am indeed saying it, so make of this, as of the film, what you will. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

At Sword’s Point (1952)

Twenty years (supposedly, for the ages of most of our heroes suggest thirty-five or so) after the original adventures of the Three Musketeers, France is in turmoil. Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu are both dead, and the kid who will become Louis XIV still has some years to go to come of age. Queen Anne (Gladys Cooper) does her best to keep the country together as best as she can, but she’s old and ill, and fighting the ruthless Duc de Lavalle (Robert Douglas) for the fate of the kingdom.

Lavalle uses his increasing power and barely hidden violence to push for a marriage with Anne’s daughter Henriette (Nancy Gates), clearly planning to do away with Louis once he is nicely positioned as the only throne candidate standing. By now, the Queen has become quite desperate, hiding Louis away at a secret spot somewhere in the country, and repeatedly attempting to ask the King of Spain for help in keeping the situation stable. All of her couriers to Spain, however, have found themselves on the pointy ends of Lavalle’s men.

In desperation, the Queen remembers the men who served their country so well twenty years past, and sends for the former Musketeers.

Because time works a bit strangely in this France, all four are now either dead or too old for action (damn that gout!). Fortunately, they have children at just the right age who all happen to share their fathers’ character traits and abilities perfectly. Who’d have thunk!

So now it is up to D’Artagnan Jr. (Cornel Wilde), Aramis Jr. (Dan O’Herlihy), Porthos Jr. (Alan Hale Jr,), and Athos Jr. to save the day. Did I say Athos Jr.? In fact, it’s his daughter Claire (Maureen O’Hara) taking up her old man’s banner!

Swashbucklers often tended to have somewhat meatier roles for actresses even outside of the villainess roles and the melodramas where they were allowed to have personalities at the time when this was made. So it’s not a complete surprise that Lewis Allen’s very free (so free the original novel isn’t “Three Musketeers: The Next Generation” at all) adaptation of Dumas’s Musketeer Sequel “Twenty Years Later”, provides O’Hara with so prominent a role even when it comes to the fights, but it’s still a joy to watch.

Interestingly, the film does so while still using some of the standard tropes a woman goes through in adventure fiction, so she still is the romantic objective of the main character, and there’s a lot of flirting; it’s just that Allen, or the handful of scriptwriters, never uses this to diminish Claire. She’s just your standard adventure movie heroine who also happens to have the courage and conviction usually left to the male heroes, and the fencing skills to back it up.

This does of course also practically automatically turn her into the most complex and rounded character on screen. Of course, it does help that the script doesn’t go the route where the badass woman is suddenly turned incompetent once she’s fallen for the hero; nor do the other three, once Claire has demonstrated her fighting prowess, try to keep her away from the action or ever doubt her capabilities. The film and its characters simply accept that being deeply romanceable and being deeply capable aren’t mutually exclusive.

O’Hara seems to relish this role, too, providing Claire with the same kind of swagger and humour the other musketeers are supposed to have. She’s really throwing herself into the fencing sequences, too.

The other musketeers aren’t quite as awesome. Wilde is certainly fine in the fights, but he’s not quite as youthful and charming as the script pretends he is, ending up a bit too stolid, O’Herlihy doesn’t get a lot to do, and Hale Jr. seems to have difficulty enough with the little he is supposed to do already. The thing is, O’Hara’s good enough to make that a matter of little to no import.

The film’s plot, while certainly not brilliant, does help there also. Things never stand still for too long, the plot is always providing opportunities for scenes of men doing hearty belly-laughs while fighting, desperate acrobatic feats, a bit of pathos and romance, and a lot of intrigue. All of it is presented in an expertly timed manner, and really never lets a boring minute come to pass, using RKO’s not titanic purse strings to their technicoloured fullest.

Speaking of intrigue, even though Douglas’s performance is more solid than truly memorable, the script does provide him with a series of somewhat sensible plots, turning him memorable and interesting as a villain simply by virtue of his plans actually making logical sense in a swashbuckling world, therefor providing the heroes with actual odds and stakes to fight against and for, respectively.

All of which only improves At Sword’s Point, a film that could have gotten away with being the Maureen O’Hara show, even more.

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

In short: The Owners (2020)

Warning: there will be mild spoilers, but you have seen a movie before, haven’t you?

Country numbskulls in cliché chav garb Nathan (Ian Kenny) and Terry (Andrew Ellis) team up with their equally ridiculous pro small time criminal Gaz (Jake Curran) to rob the huge mansion of their town’s – one hopes retired – physician, Doctor Huggins (Sylvester McCoy). It isn’t exactly difficult finding a time when the Doctor (tee-hee) and his dementia-plagued wife Ellen (Rita Tushingham) aren’t home.

However, because these people are risible idiots, they accidentally drag Nathan’s girlfriend Mary (Maisie Williams) into the affair, or at least the mansion. Things don’t improve when the supposedly full safe Terry has been talking about turns out to be mechanical instead of the electronic kind Gaz would supposedly be able to crack (given the lack of criminal effectiveness on display, I’m sceptical). So, the idiots decide to turn the break-in into a home invasion, against Mary’s half-hearted protests, and get the safe’s code out of the doctor by force. Needless to say, they have problems realizing this goal; and because this is a horror film, the elderly gentleman and his wife are of course serial killers, among other things.

French director Julius Berg’s The Owners is a bit of a mess, mostly because the script by Berg, Mathieu Gompel and Geoff Cox can’t find another way to drive their narrative forward apart from making every single character outrageously stupid. Sure, for one of them, there will be a plot twist-y reason to not act effectively towards the criminal goal, but that just opens a different can of him being stupid in a different way, and really makes little sense when you, apparently unlike the writers, spend more than five minutes to think about the mechanics of his specific betrayal. And the film’s really not so exciting that a viewer won’t find any time pondering these things as a viewer.

The script also has its problems with effective characterisation. At first it introduces its protagonists (such as they are) as risible clichés of poor people who don’t seem to have a single trait that seems to connect them to human beings as you can encounter them outside of bad comedy. Then, pretty suddenly, the audience is expected to care for them as if they were actual well-rounded characters with recognizable character traits; in the next scene, everyone’s made out of cardboard again, and back and forth, and so on.

Tonally, the film tries its hardest to be some kind of black comedy horror thriller, something it actually succeeds at once it becomes a film about Mary versus the crazy elderly, and can fall back on mild grotesquery and classic suspense techniques, as well as a trio of actors in Williams, the delightful McCoy, and Tushingham, who do their very best to elevate the material to something that’s actually fun and entertaining to watch, even when it is lacking in depth.

Really, it’s one third of a good – in the sense of “entertaining” – movie, grafted onto two thirds of outright nonsense.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Satu Suro (2019)

Towards the late stages of her pregnancy, Adinda (Citra Kirana) and her horror-hating atheist (so you know he knows little about genre tropes and will need to change his ways) screenwriter husband Bayu (Nino Fernandez) move into a large cabin on a mountain side. The goal is apparently to get away from the Big City (which I assume is Jakarta) and its stresses. However, the new country home turns out to not have been the greatest choice when one’s goal is stress avoidance.

Whenever she’s alone, Adinda has various threatening, and clearly supernatural, encounters. There’s also a creepy old lady (Yati Surachman, certainly this week’s winner of the “best creepy old lady in a movie” award) sneaking around, and when our poor heroine has dreams, it’s stuff like a nightmare about first puking up nails and razorblades on chains of hair, followed by a new-born.

So it is rather par for the course that the night the baby is finally coming is the one before the first of Suro, a day which, following some Indonesian beliefs, is the highest holiday of demons and spirits. So it might not come as too much of a surprise for any viewer that Adinda’s night at the hospital will turn into a series of encounters with standard Indonesian spooks, ghoulies, the ghosts of demon worshipping doctors and nurses, and other nasty entities. Bayu, on the other hand, will be rather surprised when the nice, modern hospital he left his wife in has turned into a clearly abandoned ruin while he was fetching some stuff from home and eating a bit at an expository food vendor’s stall. But don’t you worry, he’ll meet his share of nasty supernatural entities as well. Which is only fair since what is going on is connected to his family background.

From over here in Europe, it’s so nice to see the new wave of Indonesian horror and the way it celebrates its influences by classic Indonesian horror from the 70s and 80s, not falling into the nostalgia trap and instead using this as a way of broadening influences and looking for connections. Many a film, certainly Anggy Umbara’s Satu Suro, also seem to take away from the classics a willingness to let loose and just go there, not thinking about taste (and sometimes logic) so much it stifles the imagination, taking the risk of becoming a bit goofy when it also means to become more than a bit awesome (in both main meanings of that word).

Despite featuring a surprisingly complicated and involved back story, Satu Suro is a film very much in the tradition of the horror film as campfire tale or haunted house ride, firstly interested in presenting a series of creepy scenes and shocks, with in-depth plot development and deep characterisation a secondary thing. What’s here when it comes to the latter is rather perfunctory, things like Bayu’s turn to religion coming over as a bit of standard trope resolution business (and probably a nice way to calm down a censor or two), the film chomping at the bit to come to the next cool ghoul, depict some demon worshipping ritual, or feature a pretty great series of scenes in which the creepy old lady also turns out to be a badass creepy old lady (and more). Just wait until she pulls out her magical whip.

However, Umbara does not fall into the trap of making the series of spirits and demons we encounter as completely random as they at first appear. Their appearance and behaviour is actually integrated into the background, already elevating the film above the random jump scare school of horror of certain US mainstream horror franchises by virtue of actually connecting things. And even though that story is a concoction of clichés and tropes, it does push the film through its increasingly weird and inspired series of supernatural and occult encounters nicely. As do the performances by Kirana and Fernandez who provide the proper amount of humanity needed in between the loud stuff.

The digital effects aren’t always great (though about half of them are), but this is one of those films where the wonderful ideas beat the not always perfect execution nicely. Turns out I don’t really care if the magic whip of the creepy old lady looks believable, as long as it is used as nicely as it is here.

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Three Films Make A Post: The Best Loved Bandit Of All Time!

On the Rocks (2020): This is another one of those films where I seem to have seen a very different movie than most other people. After comparisons with classic screwball comedies, praises for its New York-ness and with Rashida Jones and Bill Murray in front of the camera and Sofia Coppola behind it, I was pumped for a bit of light yet fun entertainment. What I actually got was a rich people’s problems film where poor people only exist as waiters, waitresses and drivers to serve as a background for some of the least interesting marital and daddy issues imaginable. Most of the film may take place in New York, but it’s certainly no part of New York anyone but the upper class twats inhabiting it would ever want to see. It’s all just very dull to look at, and that dullness runs through most of the film – it’s slow, the emotional stakes for this viewer are very low, and when it comes to light charm, humour and hidden depths, you won’t want to throw out your Nora Ephron movies.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938): So let’s get back eight decades into the past to find something more lively. Michael Curtiz’s Hollywood version of elements of British folklore is of course one of the best swashbucklers every made, and a film that still plays rather wonderfully. Sure, as always, there are elements very much of its time especially when it comes to characterisation, and I’m always flabbergasted by the Richard the Lionheart love (a guy who clearly didn’t give a crap about the country he was supposed to rule, what with him always gallivanting off to a crusade or two, or finding other business to be away on), but otherwise, this is a flawless movie, from Errol Flynn’s ability to play a smug bastard but still make him charming and likeable, over the eye-popping colour palette, to an astonishing amount of clever and playful little touches and ideas in the script. There’s never a dull moment here, that’s for sure.

The Green Room aka La chambre verte (1978): I have to admit that I’ve never been a particular admirer of Henry James, not even of his visits in the realms of the supernatural and the borderline weird, but the man’s body of work certainly has resulted in quite a few great movies. Case in point is this one, where François Truffaut mixes James’s story “The Altar of the Dead” with elements of a couple of other short stories that apparently connected with the director’s own haunted thoughts about the people in his life he lost. The result is an emotionally and intellectually complex meditation on what we owe the dead, how the memory of the dead can dramatically overshadow the ability to live life itself.

So it is very much a ghost story, though one without any ghosts but the ones the protagonist, as well played by Truffaut in his last stint as an actor, creates through his inability to let go of the love as well as his grudges against the dead. I don’t really want to pretend it’s a horror film in anything but the broadest sense, yet it does at the very least tell of a haunted man and incorporates some finely wrought gothic imagery. Beside being brilliant.

Friday, December 4, 2020

Past Misdeeds: The Machine (2013)

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.

In a near future dominated by a new Cold War between the West and China with a new arms race taking place on the field of cybernetics. Scientist Ava (Caity Lotz) has brought the AI she is developing as close to getting through the touring test as any AI has ever managed. Despite misgivings, she hires on to a secret UK military project lead by the brilliant Vincent (Toby Stephens).

Vincent has been working on brain implants that will give soldiers back those brain functions they lost in various unpleasant ways, and he has been so successful some of these soldiers are actually working as guards on the underground base where his – and now Ava’s – experiments take place. On the negative side, some months after they get their implants, the soldiers lose their ability to speak and tend to become rather, well, inhuman in their behaviour. Curiously enough, nobody involved in the project seems to think anything of the behavioural changes beyond the muteness, and somehow also everybody seems to miss that the cybered-up soldiers actually can talk to each other in some kind of machine language.

While all this still sounds rather humanitarian, if badly organized, the experimental subjects are basically held as prisoners, and the experiments at large are not exactly in tune with any rules on human experiments. And of course, Vincent’s ridiculously evil boss Thomson (Denis Lawson) dreams about mind-controlled cyborg super soldiers and killer/spy androids, and little of helping people cope with brain damage. Vincent for his part is only involved in the whole project because he wants to find a way to cure his brain-damaged little daughter.

Soon after she arrives on base, Ava has quite the breakthrough with her AI, getting her to evolve what rather looks like actual consciousness; unfortunately, she also digs into the project’s secrets without hiding her trails very well, which gets her killed by a fake Chinese assassin.

Vincent, who was really rather fond of her, builds an android body made in Ava’s image to house her AI (also Caity Lotz, obviously). While he is trying to nurture the strange new artificial kind of life he has helped give birth to, and understand what it is Ava and he actually created, Thomson does of course go the killer android route faster than you can say “Terminator”, with a rather more thoughtful and complicated version of the expected results.

Caradog W. James’s The Machine is the curious case of a film that has some major and very obvious flaws yet that I’d still highly recommend to anyone with even a mild interest in clever low budget science fiction. As my – still quite abridged for a film that doesn’t even reach the ninety minute mark – plot synopsis probably shows, the major problem of the film – beyond some dubious lines of dialogue - is that it tries to squeeze too many elements into too short a running time and too low a budget to do everything included in it justice. This leads to a state of affairs where something like the eventual replacement of the human race through artificial life – reminding me of a Terminator prequel that sympathizes with the machines - which would usually be quite enough to base a film on is just one among a huge number of things The Machine is about in one way or the other.

There’s also some pop philosophical thought about the nature of humanity and love, the transhumanist element as represented by the cybernetically enhanced soldiers, the question of moral responsibility in research, the evilness of evil governments (of evil), father daughter relationships, the problems with selling one’s soul, and various assorted ideas. Come to think of it, it’s a bit of a surprise the film actually finds time to think about any of this at all while still keeping its plot together. Not that it’s a very complicated plot, or a very surprising one, but, if you ignore some plot holes that might actually be explained by shoddy “results before security” thinking by the project’s boss Thomson (as if his evil evilness of evil weren’t enough), and behaviour by Vincent that smells more of wilful blindness than plot hole to me, it’s coherent, makes sense, and hangs together well with the film’s various thematic interests – all one hundred of them.

Even more surprising is how deeply engaging the film stays even though it can’t do its cornucopia of ideas as much justice as I would have wished for, how much it still manages to do with some of these ideas, and how it builds fascinating stuff like the suggested implant soldier culture out of a few scenes and a handful of suggestions of meaning. Really, the reason for my disappointment with The Machine not getting too deeply into any single one of its elements lies in how interesting the surface here is, and how much further this wee low budget movie mostly shot in one of those warehouse-looking sets goes in thinking about transhumanism and AI rebellion (of a sort) than any contemporary mainstream production that could actually afford to do much much more but just won’t. There really aren’t – for example – many movies that suggest the replacement of the old (aka humans) by the new (aka AIs) might be a natural thing in a cosmic sense, while at the same time keeping enough sympathy for humanity, as the dramatically ironic ending demonstrates. Perhaps Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning would be comparable, if you stretch the word “mainstream” a bit far, though Hyams does of course talk a very different filmic language from James, even though both visibly appreciate the stranger edges of their given genres.

The Machine is also full of nods in the direction of the films about AIs, cyborgs and androids that came before it. It’s mostly films from the 80s of course, because that was pretty much the high water mark of films thinking about the nature of humanity via AIs etc, beyond the Pinocchio riffs. It will hardly be a coincidence how much the Ava/Machine looks like it came out of Blade Runner and even the handful of echoes of Universal Soldier included seem quite consciously positioned. It would be rather silly to pretend not to be influenced by the films that came before thinking about the same things one thinks about, after all.

A final reason for the impressive effect The Machine had on me despite its obvious flaws is Caity Lotz’s performance as the Machine, with a body language that suggests the alienness of something that never had a body before, as well as the fragility of a child, but also demonstrates an ability to switch to the appropriate body language for the more violent stuff. Her performance also makes it that much easier to get over some of the more problematic moments of the film’s dialogue like my personal favourite “I didn’t know man and clown were the same”.

The Machine really is much better than you’d expect of it, a film that perhaps attempts too much than it could reasonably achieve yet still offers a lot, if you’re inclined to look at it from the right angle.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

In short: Mount. NABI (2014)

Warning: discussion of definitely non-consensual intercourse with a guy in a shitty monster costume!

A group of people shooting a shoe-string indie horror movie in ye olde POV style witness some strange light up the titular mountain. Despite a creepy guy hitting trees with a shovel warning them off, they climb towards the light and right into becoming part of an actual POV horror film.

There’s a mysterious rapey, murderous mountain monster (or is it an alien?) going about, and quickly, men are ripped apart, women are raped, and a lot of screams are screamed. Female lead Tana Akiyama is an excellent screamer deserving, perhaps, of less unpleasant stuff to scream about.

I don’t really want to play the moral apostle about Seiji Chiba’s weirdly punctuated Mount. Nabi, though, the rape is just pretty much the only thing in here you won’t see in most other POV horror movies, too. Well, it’s got more gore in it, too, but the gore, as is the execution of the perfectly fine concept of its monster suit, is pretty bad, even for a cheap little bit of horror like this one.

So, back to the film’s only notable feature. At least the rape sequence isn’t really shot to turn an audience on, but instead is clearly meant to shock, perhaps, revolt, or, when it comes to the shadow of the monster penis, make one laugh. The problem is that Chiba’s filmmaking really isn’t strong enough to invoke any of these feelings. Instead, I found myself annoyed by its use of rape as a shortcut to making an audience squirm, the whole thing becoming perfectly pointless when it doesn’t even invoke an authentic emotion in a viewer.

But “pointless” does rather seem the main word to describe the film.

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Vivarium (2019)

Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) are on the young couple’s lookout for a first house. Their search leads them to an encounter with a rather peculiar estate agent (Jonathan Aris) who is really, really keen on showing them one of his houses.

The development where it is situated looks like a nightmare of bland pastels, breathing a kind of ordered artificiality that does suggest the whole thing is the product of minds who don’t quite understand concepts like houses or home. While they are exploring the house on offer, which turns out to breathe just the same kind of nightmarishly blandness as its surroundings, the estate agent disappears. Worse still, Gemma and Tom can’t find a way out of the development of perfectly identical buildings under a perfectly unchanging sky, neither on foot nor by car. In the end, they always end up at “their” house again. They are trapped.

Somebody is dropping off perfectly bland groceries tasting like a perfectly bland simulacrum of the real thing when they aren’t looking, so they do not risk dying, at least. After some time, said somebody is dropping off a baby too, with a note explaining that the couple will be freed if they take care of it.

At first, the baby seems normal enough, but it grows much faster than a normal human being would, and the boy (Senan Jennings, later Eanna Hardwicke) it becomes is even less so, copying and imitating its “parents” in ways that seem built to break them.

While I’m sure its style and tone will be annoying to quite a few viewers, to my eyes, Lorcan Finnegan’s Vivarium is an absolute masterpiece. There aren’t terribly many movies aiming for something parallel to the tone of modern non-cosmicist weird fiction, or Robert Aickman, but this one’s not just aiming, it is hitting perfectly what it is trying to achieve.

There’s a fantastically nightmarish quality to the whole film, a design sense that perfectly suggests the setting to be a copy of something human as constructed by something deeply non-human, emphasising the passive-aggressive power of blandness and the horrors of a place that is absolutely ordered to someone else’s rules. The place Gemma and Tom find themselves in is hell, even if it isn’t the hell of Christianity, and their captors are not demons. In fact, the film isn’t calling these captors evil exactly. Instead, in one of the most interesting aspects of the film, it makes them so ambiguous it is never clear if they are malevolent, indifferent, or simply don’t understand these or any other human concepts at all. It simply makes clear there’s little difference between malevolence and indifference if the entity that is either malevolent or indifferent has nearly absolute power over you.

It’s no wonder that the characters break in these kind of surroundings even before they are ordered to take care of their very own changeling, and the way they are breaking is very well done indeed, Finnegan portraying how a very non-realistic pressure drives Gemma and Tom apart in effectively realist ways, thereby finding a way to ground a film based in something we can’t quite relate to through the humanity of his characters. Poots and Eisenberg are both very strong here, really helping to provide the film with an empathetic emotional resonance as well as the more abstract one.Their reaction to something they can’t comprehend is utterly comprehensible, and becomes increasingly heart-breaking the worse their mental states become. In fact, I have seldom seen a film where I wished some Hollywood ending for the characters; though the whole tone and style makes it clear they are doomed from the start.

And that’s before I’ve even mentioned their horrible child-thing, copying and repeating in what feels like a cruel parody of an actual child, screeching for food, and sucking all energy out of Gemma, while Tom’s simply starting to dig a hole instead of confronting what is going on. Which does obviously more than just hint toward a metaphorical angle of this being about the horrors of conformity, the fears of young parenthood, etc. Yet even though the film’s most certainly about these things, it never loses the feel of watching people confronted with something they can’t comprehend, and which can’t truly comprehend them either. That some of this also fits into some modern Fortean ideas about transdimensional entities is just added icing on the cake.

But really, what makes Vivarium so great is that it takes all of these ideas and influences and turns them into a, sometimes very darkly funny, nightmare, holding to its mood perfectly and without wavering.

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

In short: This House Possessed (1981)

After having some kind of breakdown on stage, singer (he has a spiel about not being a rock singer, but no pop singer either that is nearly as painful as his music going on) Gary Straihorn (Parker Stevenson) has a longer guest spot in a hospital. He’s hitting it off, to put it mildly, with intensely cute nurse Sheila Moore (Lisa Eilbacher). So much so that he hires her as is live-in nurse for further convalescence and romance (his infatuation is reciprocated, don’t you worry). Because they both like one of the houses he is looking to rent, he just buys the place right off. It’s an interesting house, to say the least, tricked out with all the proto smart home devices the early 80s can provide.

It also turns out to be haunted; as a matter of fact, long before Sheila and Gary move in, it has already watched them on its security monitors, clearly looking forward to their stay.

The couple’s medical ethics breaking romance does run a bit roughly: he’s about as sensitive as a rock, and she is clearly haunted by something in her past she is not sharing. The appearance of some model who really wants to return into Gary’s pants doesn’t help there, nor does the increasingly temperamental haunting that uses much lesser technology to much better (and more murderous) effect than today’s AI assistants. Why, does it all have something to do with Sheila’s past?

William Wiard’s This House Possessed is another fine entry into the history of US TV horror movies. It brings a comparatively original premise – there’s still really little done with modern haunted houses on screen today – to which it applies quite a bit of, often slightly goofy, imagination, and hits on a couple of really fine horror sequences.

The climax is a fantastic example of how to do something that feels big on a modest budget, and the way David Levinson integrates the characters with the haunting is very effective even if you see some of what’s going on between Sheila and the house coming a mile away. Plus, how many films do you know about a love triangle between man, woman, and house?

Much of this is of course also cheesy as heck. The state of the art fantasy version of 80s technology, Straihorn’s horrifying music and some choice timely fashion do really turn this into a bit of a time capsule that can ever so slightly distract from this actually being a horror film. Until we get to the next surprisingly imaginative moment of technological haunting, that is. Wiard doesn’t consciously play things camp, instead taking the romance, the haunting, and (Cthulhu help us) even the music very seriously indeed, which is one of the main reasons any of this works as well as it actually does.