Sunday, February 28, 2021

Cross Country (1983)

Ad “creative director” Evan Bley (Richard Beymer) is starting on a hastily planned road trip from his native New York to California. Surely, this may or my not have something to do with the fact that his – half secret – girlfriend was brutally murdered in her bed. Even before Evan has left New York, we learn that he’s a pretty angry and violent kind of guy. In a strip joint, he picks up dancer/would-be actress Lois (Nina Axelrod) who seems to push a lot of his sexual buttons, gets into a violent altercation, and then finds himself waking up on the backseat of his car, well, actually in Lois’s lap, while Lois’s friend John (Brent Carver) does the driving.

Obviously, a heated melange of sex and violence, secrets and lies ensues between these three; none of them’s a particularly pleasant character, and they all seem to have problems with sex, dominance, and violence in all their combinations.

At the same time, we regularly pop in with the man investigating the killing of Evan’s girlfriend, one Detective Roersch (Michael Ironside). After some time of beating people up and/or threatening them, Roersch hits on Evan as his most probable suspect. He’s not going to file that in any report, but is instead planning on finding Evan and blackmailing him to pay for the treatment of Roersch’s ill wife. Which, come to think of it, is probably the purest motive any character in this movie has for doing anything, yet also fits nicely into the film’s thematic thrust.

For thematically, Paul Lynch’s early neo noir/proto erotic thriller Cross Country is very much concerned with all the shitty horrible things people are willing for to do for love, sex, or the things they believe are one of these; it’s also interested in the more subtle ways dominance expresses itself in human relationships, featuring more then one scene in which the most obviously dominant character is not at all the one in control of the situation. This does fit nicely with the noir traditions the film obviously moves in, only no studio era Hollywood film would ever have dared even suggest to express its ideas about people and the world they inhabit in sex scenes quite as explicit, steamy, and often uncomfortable as the ones here. And really, once the erotic thriller as a genre was much more codified than it is here in its infancy, it quickly became impossible again to go quite this far into the more unpleasant recesses of the human mind while showing a lot of naked flesh.

Needless to say, nobody in this movie is a particularly pleasant person, but it escapes the curse of the classic “why should I care about any of these assholes” by also making them unpleasant in human and understandable ways, really mirroring rather typical human failures in businesses of the heart and the productive organs on a more intense scale.

Lynch is a interesting director, having a huge filmography in TV, but frequently dipping into the sleazier and more interesting parts of the silver screen as the director of nearly forgotten (and basically unavailable) gems like this, or rather less gem-like and certainly not forgotten movies like the first Prom Night. Lynch’s work here is stylish and intense, focussing on a world that’s dark and grimy, appropriately people by sweaty characters of dubious morals, giving the whole affair a nightmare noir quality that shines through even in the muddy VHS-based version that seem to be the only way to see the film right now.

The acting’s pretty fantastic throughout, the four main actors all portray their characters with intensity and ambiguity, always suggesting emotions not honestly expressed and a sexual and emotional intensity which feels wrong in all the right ways. Which really is a good way of describing the whole of Cross Country.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

In short: Dirty Weekend (1993)

After her supposed boyfriend breaks up their relationship in the shittiest way possible, Bella (Lia Williams) moves from London to a British seaside town. There, she is at least verbally abused by every man she meets. A neighbour (Rufus Sewell) from across the backyard begins watching her and treats her to increasingly threatening phone calls and behaviour. Eventually, Bella visits an “Iranian Clairvoyant” (so it says on his door), played by the totally Iranian Ian Richardson who also verbally abuses her little, babbles some nonsense about her either having to stay the lamb or become a killer and gives her a switchblade.

Afterwards, Bella first murders heir neighbouring tormentor with a hammer, and proceeds to kill various assholes. On the way, we learn that fat shaming a guy is completely fine with this film’s style of feminism, meet and see killed David McCallum, rapist dentist, and listen in on Bella’s always overblown voiceover narration.

At some point in time, our old enemy Michael Winner must have seen Abel Ferrara’s Ms .45, and decided he can do that too, and proceeded to make what amounts to a feminist (well) remake of his Death Wish, just as a really vile comedy. For yes, much of the film is apparently meant to be very, very tongue in cheek. I wouldn’t go so far as to call the film “funny”, mind you, for its sense of humour is based on the sort of would-be arch, mid-brow sort of thing that’s the bane of all comedy, as expressed through dialogue (the script was apparently written by Winner and Helen Zahavi, who also wrote the novel this is based on) that’s supposed to be terribly ironic, but seems to spend much of the time impressed at its own cleverness; which is the least clever thing to do, obviously.

There’s also the problem that the humour and all the horrible shit Bella is confronted with before and after she snaps really isn’t funny at all. Worse still, the film often seems to genuinely believe this stuff is all very funny and satirical indeed, quickly convincing at least this viewer that he’s in the hand of a monumental asshole. So yeah, it’s a typical Michael Winner movie in this regard.

As it is in others, also, like the shoddy technical filmmaking, the scenes that go on too long in the most self-indulgent manner, and the general air of something made by people who really, really want to shock you but mostly end up being annoying and a bit icky, like flies in the summer.

Friday, February 26, 2021

Yet another podcast recommendation

"The Battersea Poltergeist" is a serialized BBC audiodrama in the fake documentary vein, because POV horror still rules the horror audiodrama podcast world. It's not as great as the BBC's Lovecraft Investigations - the writing's simply not as sharp and inventive - but its greatest hits mix of British paranormal favourites is still a lot of fun, particularly on a BBC budget that can afford actors like the great Toby Jones.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

In short: Gor (1987)

Wimpy college lecturer Tarl Cabot (Urbano Barberini) finds his weird ideas about the existence of a “counter-Earth” you can visit with the help of a ring he inherited from his father proven very right indeed when he is sucked into the sword and sorcery without sorcery world of Gor.

Freshly arrived, he just barely escapes the clutches of the men henching for evil priest king Sarm (Oliver Reed) and runs into the local good guys. Sarm is on a bit of a rampage through various villages, slaughtering and enslaving their populations and stealing their “home stones”. Sarm’s rural enemies have hoped for a dimension traveller to arrive, apparently, but Tarl isn’t manly enough to pass muster, so has to go through a training montage.

To motivate him into helping out against Sarm, his new buddies – big-haired and big-breasted love interest Talena (Rebecca Ferratti) and characters I dub old guy and grumpy young guy – explain that their home stone is Tarl’s only way to get back home. Why everyone else is so fixated on some red plastic stones, the film never gets around to tell. So off our heroes go through deserts and more desert, visit a barbarian camp and wander through some caves in what appears to be the local equivalent of a quest, just without the adventure.

This is Fritz Kiersch’s Cannon version of the first of John Norman’s Counter-Earth novels. The books start as basically readable Edgar Rice Burroughs pastiches but becomes increasingly misogynistic and unpleasant, espousing some pretty notorious nonsense about women’s supposed wish to be dominated, enslaved and violated; the film on its part doesn’t care about any of that stuff, and really just wants to be an Italian Conan rip-off. Alas, it doesn’t manage to achieve this modest goal.

Even the worst Italian sword and sorcery (or in this case sword and planet/scientific romance) movies try to keep their audience awake by throwing regular action scenes and cardboard and latex monsters at their audience. Gor’s action is as unambitious as it is infrequent, with the usual barely dressed guys and gals slowly going through motions Kiersch is either unwilling or unable to make look interesting. Apart from Tarl’s dimension hopping, there’s no fantastic or science fictional element here at all, missing out on quite a bit of what makes Sword and Sorcery or the best stuff by Burroughs (I can’t speak for Norman’s books, for I don’t have the stomach to delve deeper than the first two books there, and my reading of those has been a couple of decades ago) so fun – creatures, magic, and weird science as the base for fun and games.

It would be one thing if Gor had anything else to show its audience, but there’s really little happening here of any interest. Kiersch’s disinterested and unergetic direction doesn’t improve anything.

The most interesting thing about the film is how it manages to get such a bored villain performance out of Oliver Reed. For some reason, Reed mostly mumbles and angrily whispers his lines, with pauses that suggest he has to drag every single line slowly out of the script; from time to time, he laughs pointlessly. Oh, well.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Nothing Underneath (1985)

Original title: Sotto il vestito niente

Wyoming park ranger Bob Crane (Tom Schanley) has a sudden vision of the murder of his sister Jessica (Nicola Perring). Jessica’s working as a model in Milan, but still, Bob jumps into the next plane to Europe to perhaps save her, hoping for the whole deal having been a premonition. Bob and Jessica are twins, you understand, so twin telepathy is a thing between the two, so why not clairvoyance, too.

In Milan, there’s not a trace of his sister to be found. She simply seems to have disappeared, and nobody seems to think more about her disappearance than that she’s a model being a model. That’s not enough for Bob, of course, so he starts an investigation of his own. He also pretty quickly manages to convince police commissioner Danesi (Donald Pleasence) that there’s an actual criminal case to investigate here. And this even before more models of Jessica’s acquaintance get murdered and/or disappear.

A model-based mid-80s giallo shouldn’t really be my cup of tea, threatening the dreaded mix of pure sleaze and boring modelling scenes (nearly as boring as underwater scenes in most movies), but Carlo Vanzina’s Nothing Underneath turns out to be a pretty great giallo from the late phase of the genre I often feel empty of anything deserving even the word “good”.

The film of course isn’t sleaze free, but Vanzina does manage to hit the sweet spot where the titillation doesn’t harm the rest of the movie – some of it is even pretty important to the plot – but there’s enough on screen to sell the film through it. The handful of modelling sequences aren’t superfluous filler either, but indeed part of the plot and so get a pass from me, too.

Of course, not mishandling these aspects doesn’t make a film necessarily a good one, it just provides it with the opportunity to be one. The director does grip this opportunity pretty hard, though, presenting a giallo that is – if you can overlook or better yet enjoy the very silly set-up – actually pretty effective as a mystery, setting up Bob’s investigation so that he is always involved in something fun and interesting that also provides clues to the life and death of his sister.

The climax does of course descend back into classic giallo madness, but it does so with a lot of style, a reveal that probably was pretty surprising in 1985 (and might read as offensive to some today, but then what doesn’t), and the kind of macabre craziness at least I am bound to enjoy.

On the way to the climax, Nothing Underneath (a title meant ironically, by the way, even if it sounds pretty softcore) sets some stylishly staged murders, and quite a few side characters for Bob to interact with. Bob, as is tradition, isn’t a terribly interesting guy, so the film uses him as a foil for the rest of the cast, and in that role, he’s really rather effective. And then there’s the film’s secret weapon: beloved Donald Pleasence in his Italian phase, when he brought class and quite a number of different ironic looks to all kinds of continental European movies that probably should have been below his dignity. Pleasence appears to have a whale of a time with his Italian accent, his smartarse dialogue (yes, the dialogue is often pretty good here, too, quite against the rules of the giallo), even giving Danesi quite a different body language to many of his usual characters, including quite a bit of very un-British touching of shoulders. That the cop is neither unlikeable nor an idiot nor the killer is another interesting change for the genre, but then the script (by the director, his brother Enrico Vanzina and Franco Ferrini) really does seem quite a bit more interested in what’s underneath the surface of its characters than many films of the genre.

In the case of Nothing Underneath, this approach works very well, turning it into a film that’s really good at doing all the things you want and expect from a giallo, but also diverging from them in way that enrich instead of weaken it.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

In short: Below Zero (2021)

Original title: Bajocero

Spanish police man Martín’s (Javier Gutiérrez) first night at his new posting turns out rather a lot more dangerous than he could have expected. Being one of two men (and two guys in a police car we don’t need to get into) tasked with a night transport of half a dozen or so prisoners through some very cold regions of Northern Spain is an uncommon enough first night. Said transport being attacked, Martín’s colleagues getting killed and things turning into a siege scenario and not the break-out it first seems to be certainly makes the night pretty singular.

This Spanish Netflix premiere directed by Lluís Quílez is a pretty decent little thriller. For its first act, it does tend to rely rather too heavily on very well-worn genre tropes and character types, but come the second act, it does put a bit of effort into humanizing the walking-talking tropes a little, so that the efficiently staged violence and the expertly worked siege movie variations surrounding them get a bit more emotional impact. The actors do their best here too, bringing more personality to the characters than the script strictly shows; but then, that’s really the proper low budget action thriller approach to this sort of situation, unless you’re Howard Hawks working from a Leigh Brackett script, or John Carpenter.

And Quílez does good work with the various suspense set-ups, using the prison transport vehicle in various clever ways for action and suspense.

The only elements of the movie I’m not too fond of are its weird knee-jerk “fuck yeah! torture and vigilantism!” ending (particularly given what the film’s main vigilante has done throughout the film), and the sort of desaturated, greenish colour scheme I had hoped had died with the turn of the 00’s into the 2010’s. Well, that, and the practically complete absence of women from the film.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Opera (1987)

When the diva playing Lady Macbeth in a version of Verdi’s Macbeth is injured in an “accident” that makes her unable to play her role, her young understudy Betty (Cristina Marsillach) has the chance of her life with taking over her rule. Betty isn’t completely happy about the opportunity, though. Apart from the typical doubts in her own readiness for one of the most important opera roles for a soprano, this is still a version of Macbeth, after all, and Macbeth, as we all know, is a cursed play, even when it’s the opera version. Add to the problems that the play’s director Marco (Ian Charleson) is a movie director loving gimmicks, and with something of reputation, adding live ravens and modern effects to the play, and giving off a somewhat shifty vibe.

All these troubles will turn out to be the proverbial small stuff, however, for the same masked man responsible for diva number one’s little accident now starts hounding Betty, repeatedly tying her up and forcing her to watch him kill members of the production.

For the longest time, I’ve not been able to get along with Opera, often seen as Dario Argento’s last great movie. I took a very tired and anxious evening for the film to finally click with me, and now, like someone suffering from a religious revelation, I do believe it is one of the man’s best films.

On the surface, the film is very typical Argento, or really, simply a very typical giallo, with a script that makes more sense as a mood made moving pictures than a narrative, full of its director’s habits, tics, and gruesome delights. There is a bit more going on in the script of this one, though, I believe. Argento seems to play very consciously with various things, starting the narrative as a clear variation on the Phantom of the Opera but emphasising the elements of obsession and voyeurism in the source as far as he can go with them; and, given Argento’s love of operatic excess, it’s pretty damn far.

There’s also quite a bit of self-conscious irony on display here most other Argento movies earlier or later lack, Marco partially taking on elements of Argento’s public image as a bit of a cinematic madman, a sadist, the kind of guy who insists that he always shoots is own hands as the hands of the killers in his films, but also turning him into a the least horrible man on screen, even if he is a bit of a voyeur and an obsessive.

But then, practically everyone in Opera is, for voyeurism and obsession over the acts of seeing and witnessing is what the film in nearly every shot of the gliding camera is about. Even quite a bit of its violence demonstrates this focus. It’s not just in the (in)famous eye loss by raven scene in the first climax, or the gunshot through the peephole or the little nasty needle contraptions the killer uses to force Betty to see and witness what he does. Even when there’s no eye violence involved, Argento is particularly focussed on showing us the eyes of the killer’s victims when they struggle and die, pulling the audience in like the killer wants to pull Betty in, trying to turn the witness into an accomplice, only in our case through the seductions of cinematic style instead of rope.

I don’t believe Argento wants to criticize the voyeuristic and obsessive aspects of (horror) filmmaking, but Opera does give the impression of a film violently driven to make its audience conscious of these aspects, so that we can at least admit to ourselves that, yes, indeed, there’s something uncomfortable about finding pleasure in all of this, and even more uncomfortable in admitting to it. Argento for his part is, like the killer, not letting up until we see things his way.

That’s where the movie’s second climax comes in, perhaps. On the surface, it’s throw-away and pretty silly (it’s certainly no surprise the US distributor of the film wanted it gone), ripping off Hitchcock while trying to tack on a bit of an operatic mad scene for Betty. However, I also believe it’s Argento’s – not really successful – attempt at suggesting that the voyeuristic draw to violence and obsession is also a gate to a less dubious kind of beauty that may be madness or purity, depending on one’s perception, a place you can’t reach if you haven’t been drawn in by the horrors.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Three Films Make A Post: You will believe …

Haunted (1995): Why this plushy attempt by veteran director (every single piece I’ve ever read about this movie seems to call him that, and it’s certainly true) Lewis Gilbert at adapting one of those later James Herbert novel where the writer – artistically rather successfully – attempted to escape his pulp instincts is pretty well regarded is beyond me. The script snails its way to a big twist the book handles and seems to understand much better, dialogue and plotting are otherwise completely forgettable, and a theoretically decent cast does little to improve things by being typically wooden (Kate Beckinsale), atypically panto (Aidan Quinn), or nearly not in the movie (John Gielgud). Lewis shows little understanding on how to film the haunting scenes, overlighting every scene (nights are basically as bright as days in this haunted house), and doing not a lick of mood building beyond the mood of a postcard. Intelligent use of shadow or colour simply doesn’t happen; instead, the score by Debbie Wiseman swells, because the filmmakers think the film’s material is best treated as a romance. Which it might be, if the script actually constructed one.

The Devil’s Hand (1961): I had quite a bit more fun with this early 60s indie horror movie about a guy seduced into becoming a member in the cult of “Gambu, the great spirit of Evil”. As directed by one William J. Hole Jr. it feels a lot like the adaptation of a Seabury Quinn story sans Jules de Grandin that never made it into “Weird Tales”. Consequently, it does contain rather a lot of weird ideas about non-western cultures – the cult’s lair is kitted out with bits and bobs from all kinds of non-Anglo cultures that have sod all to do with one another – but then, it does mostly seem to consist out of white people from LA, so that’s a somewhat ironic (and certainly inadvertent) fit. The acting’s very stiff, as is the dialogue, but the film goes as far with the masochist elements implicit in the tale of a man falling for a femme fatale as it could get away with at the time, doesn’t drag its feet, and is genuinely engaging as a piece of pulpy horror. From time to time, Hole even catches on a truly weird idea or two, which is more than you can say for a lot of movies.

Adela Has Not Had Supper Yet aka Adéla jeste nevecerela (1978): Speaking of weird, this farce by Oldřich Lipský is a perfect example of the peculiar Czech sort of slapstick, deeply silly in a way that always feels somewhat subversive. Apart from that, it also functions as a loving homage to the more lively kind of silent cinema (and certainly silent cinema serials), Jules Verne (including what today reads as proto-steampunk elements), and whatever else the filmmakers find enjoyable, from Czech beer to dime novels (the hero is, after all, Nick Carter). The visual effects are at least in part designed and realized by the great Jan Svankmajer, so there’s quite a bit to gawk at between overcranked action sequences, silly romance, and bizarre revenge plots surrounding a giant man-eating plant who only dines when called with the sweet sounds of a Mozart lullaby not actually written by Mozart.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

In short: Edge of Honor (1991)

A troop of boy scouts (our main scouts are played by Corey Feldman, Scott Reeves and Alex “Sasha” Walkup) is on an outing in the Pacific Northwest. While farting around, our protagonist scouts break into a shack where they find a hidden cache of SAMs. They eventually decide to contact the authorities about their find, but before they can do much about it, the smugglers of said illegal weaponry come calling, and, as the audience well knows from the intro sequence where these guys murder a family operation of smugglers (apart from daughter Meredith Salenger who is going to help our heroes out with quite the talent for killing) in coldest blood, they aren’t above killing themselves a troop of boy scouts.

But these teenagers are more difficult to kill than you think.

Watching Michael Spence’s early 90s action movie with a very 80s action movie vibe, I couldn’t help but imagine this as an attempt to make a film a little like Red Dawn but without John Milius’s unpleasant idiot politics, keeping the teenagers under duress turning effective killers when threatened enough but dumping the red scare nonsense in favour of disgruntled weapon smugglers (Don Swayze giving the nastiest one) and the weird British main henchman (Christopher Neame) of their main customer. So there’s more space for the truly entertaining elements of action cinema, like said British guy’s tendency to randomly quote Shakespeare at you before he sticks you with a trick knife in his sleeve. Or Feldman’s typically strange line delivery that suggests a little kid imitating James Dean, badly, or a guy very consciously pretending to be a little kid that imitates Dean.

The woods are wet and claustrophobic, the action is fun and creative – with quite a few moments like the early scene where our scouts are trapped under enemy fire with little ability to do anything about it but cower that suggest a bit of realistic weight to the violence – a bit like a teen version of Rambo (again, without politics silly or not so silly), and the villains are perfectly hateable. It’s fun for the whole family (if your whole family watches R-rated movies).

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Knight Moves (1992)

Chess grandmaster Peter Sanderson (Christopher Lambert), of the tragic genius asshole type, takes part in a chess tournament on a very rainy Canadian island. When a serial killer starts murdering blonde women and doing bad makeup jobs on their corpses, Peter quickly becomes the police’s main suspect, his case certainly not helped by the fact he was (casually, as he explains) sleeping with the first victim and lying to the cops about it.

But then, one of the cops, one Detective Wagner (Daniel Baldwin), is an even greater dick than Peter is, so telling the truth to that guy wouldn’t be anyone’s first impulse. The island’s new chief of police Frank Sedman (Tom Skerritt) is rather more competent, and is not so sure about Peter’s guilt. He’s calling in help in form of psychologist Kathy Sheppard (Diane Lane). As all psychologists in thrillers, Kathy will have her problems keeping away from having sex with the guy she’s supposed to help investigate.

Even once someone claiming to be the killer starts phoning Peter as part of a “game” whose rules the mystery caller doesn’t bother to explain, the cops still don’t quite believe in his innocence, while also involving him in their investigation as if he were their favourite amateur detective. Go figure.

German director Carl Schenkel’s Knight Moves regularly lands on lists of non-European giallos, and it’s not difficult to see why. Some might argue this to be rather more of a post-Silence of the Lambs serial killer thriller, but then, that genre’s DNA is certainly shared with that of the giallo, too – and in the case of the Demme film, that’s hardly by chance.

But let me count the film’s giallo ways: there’s the interest in dubious yet fun psychological trauma motivating the killer in a way which clearly comes down from 70s pop psychology more than those books in which former real FBI profilers lay out how awesome they believe they are; the plot that’s convoluted and delightfully nonsensical, preferring any good excuse to show a highly stylized murder scene to sensible plotting; the Lambert-shaped amateur detective trying to solve the case for reasons of his own (at the beginning, mostly Sheppard needling him) and because the police are either violent bullying idiots with even worse manners than he has (Wagner) or not allowed to do proper police work by the script (Stedman), dragging in the female lead one way or the other; the love for style as the most important kind of substance a movie can have, even when it makes as little sense as the half-flooded hotel foundations the police use as the case’s centre of telephone operations. Really, the only things missing are a dozen or so bottles of J&B’s, a pair of black gloves and more nudity, though the film does have more sex in it than most US or Canadian thrillers not carrying the word “Erotic” in front of the thriller.

This is of course not the kind of thriller anyone expecting logic or a sensible narrative will find terribly satisfying. As with the giallo, it’s best to adapt one’s expectations towards understanding the aesthetic pleasures at the film’s surface, enjoying the ways they entwine with themes and mood, while ignoring any ideas about proper narrative and plain sense one may or may not be cursed with. Schenkel is making this particularly easy, too, for he makes a good case for himself here as a director who might have played in the league of the better giallo second-stringers if he had been born a couple of decades earlier.

If this is the sort of thing you might enjoy, you’ll probably find this one very fun to watch. It also has a hell of a cast, Lambert doing the sort of pretty asshole role typical of the male giallo protagonist better than most anyone else (for better or for worse), Lane putting much more effort in than the character work in the script actually deserves, regularly turning into the actual protagonist of the movie; also looking rather incredible, which is of course par for the course, for Lane and the giallo-alike genre. Baldwin is so punchable he makes Lambert’s character more likeable than that guy deserves through his sheer testosterone dickishness, and Skerritt is Skerritt (that’s not a complaint).

Insert some check mate based joke, here, imaginary reader.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

In short: Mitchell (1975)

Police detective Mitchell (Joe Don Baker) has few fans in his department. It’s not just his schlubby style and his somewhat dubious manners, it’s also his unwillingness to play politics. When influential mafioso Walter Deaney (John Saxon) shoots a Latino housebreaker in cold blood in the back, Mitchell quickly realizes that the man’s story about self-defence is a badly constructed lie. But when he wants to go for it, his boss calls him off, for apparently, there’s a big FBI investigation running (not that we ever get to see even a single FBI agent) for crimes more important than shooting Mexicans. Instead, as something of punishment, Mitchell is to alone conduct a solo twenty-four hour observation of another gangster, one James Arthur Cummings (Martin Balsam). In this case, Mitchell’s job is to annoy the guy so badly, he’ll talk business with the police. Mitchell, being as hard-headed as he is smelly, and not willing to take any murder lightly, swears to somehow arrest Deaney and get Cummings for something, too.

At least he is indeed an expert at annoying people, so there’s that. From here on out the film turns into a series of increasingly bizarre scenes broken up by standard 70s movie action, our man Joe Don having nice chats with Cummings, getting gifted the services of a high class prostitute (Linda Evans) by an unknown friend – content warning: hot Joe Don Baker action – and a plot about a hijacked heroin delivery develops.

Andrew V. McLaglen’s Joe Don Baker vehicle Mitchell was apparently the victim of a Mystery Science Theater episode (I wouldn’t know, I’m not the point and laugh kind of cult movie fan), but honestly, this isn’t a worse film than many a mid-70s crime/action movie. It’s certainly competently enough filmed by veteran McLaglen, with a couple of improbable but neat enough to keep me awake action sequences embedded into a mix of cop movie clichés; and hey, at least this violent movie cop is sticking it to the big guys (well, the kind of big guys like Cummings who apparently can’t afford more than one thug), seeking justice for the kind of victim movie cops – let’s not even talk about too many real ones - usually don’t cry any tears about.

Mostly, one’s liking for this one will depend heavily on one’s love for watching a sweaty Joe Don butt heads with John Saxon and Martin Balsam in often pretty peculiar surroundings. I take to that sort of thing like Joe Don Baker to free prostitution samples or Linda Evans’s character to Joe Don (I’d have to take the film much more seriously than it does itself or than I do to find these plot elements risible), so I had a fine time watching Mitchell.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Photographing Fairies (1997)

The 1910s. Charles Castle (Toby Stephens) loses his wife Anne-Marie (Rachel Shelley) on the day after their wedding in a traumatic accident in the Swiss Alps. This leaves him suffering from the kind of grief that looks pretty much the same as a case of PTSD. Consequently, he spends his time as a battle photographer in the Great War with what looks a lot like a death wish to anyone not him, not directly trying to commit suicide but taking needless risks that are bound to get him killed eventually.

Somehow, he does survive. When the main part of the film takes place, Charles has established himself as a photographer in London after the war, together with his war photographer’s assistant Roy (Phil Davis). Roy’s also the man he uses as a stand-in when he’s making family photos of the war dead and their living families, the faces to be retouched in later. He’s pretty abrasive in his manner, so I wouldn’t bet on too long a career. One day, Charles wanders into the Theosophical Society for some cynical sneering as well as publicity, publicly verbally taking apart a faked photo of a fairy so vigorously, even Arthur Conan Doyle (Edward Hardwicke in what must have been a sly “Watson to Doyle” joke from the casting department, as well as a decent idea) doesn’t believe in it anymore. Charles is also acting like an asshole about it, obviously.

For some reason, this performance has impressed audience member Beatrice Templeton (Frances Barber) mightily, and she visits Charles with a photograph she made of her daughter and a fairy only her daughter could see at the time in the woods near her home. There’s certainly a strange shape visible on the photo, but nothing anyone, most certainly not Charles, would find conclusive, so he brushes Beatrice off. Later on, though, he discovers that the fairy-shape is also reflected in the eyes of the child in a way he as a professional wouldn’t know how to fake.

He becomes increasingly obsessed with the photo and the whole fairy idea, a state of mind that will only intensify once he goes to Beatrice’s home and has rather a lot of peculiar experiences.

Directed by Nick Willing, Photographing Fairies is one of two films from 1997 concerning fairy photography. The other one’s a children’s movie, so at least they are very different kinds of movies about the same thing, as is only right and proper. At the beginning and through the middle act, this is a pretty interesting film, centred on Charles’s intense (and nicely portrayed by Stephens) struggle through the kind of intense grief that leaves the survivor with something close to PTSD, and a rational man’s wrestling with the beauties and terrors of faith and scepticism in a much more interesting manner than the usual “faith is awesome” kind of way movies prefer. In fact, in this film, faith is a thing that might kill you, even if the things you do believe are indeed true. Though the film never really decides on the truth or untruth of Charles’s experiences, keeping things a bit too ambiguous for my tastes.

If you’re into this sort of thing – as I obviously am - you will find some of the scenes surrounding the fairy experiences here suggest at least a basic working knowledge of the Edwardian Weird Tale, particular Machen and Blackwood and these authors’ treatment of the numinous and its often destructive influence on the human, a destruction not necessarily wrought from malevolence but humanity’s basic incompatibility with certain aspects of the universe surrounding us.

All of this is at the very least intensely interesting, often more, throughout the first two acts, though someone less fascinated with Edwardian weird fiction, Spiritualism, and the psychological toll of World War I than I am might not get quite as much out of it as I did. In any case, things break down nearly completely in the third act, when the film feels the sudden need to employ a series of increasingly stupid plot developments to get its main character where it wants him to be, losing all plausibility for no visible gain. The last act is further weakened by the decision not to take an actual position on Charles’s new beliefs; I am usually all for ambiguity, but the kind employed here seems wilfully self-destructive more than anything else, not so much occluding the reality of things that may or may not happen but occluding what the film is actually trying to say, which is never a good thing. Also less than helpful is that these late plot developments are based around the behaviour of the husband of Beatrice, one Reverend Templeton, as given by Ben Kingsley in his “I AM BEN KINGSLEY AND I AM GIVING A VERY PHYSICAL AND MUSCULAR PERFORMANCE HERE” mode (all caps clearly his), turning an underwritten character who is probably meant to somehow mirror Charles’s experience of grief in a darker way into a panto caricature of the highest degree, and making all the silly developments surrounding him doubly silly by the sheer ridiculousness of the performance.

Still, Photographing Fairies is an interesting film up to that third act, and afterwards, it’s so puzzlingly ridiculous, it may very well be worth watching for its mind-boggling effect.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

In short: The Three Undelivered Letters (1979)

Original title: Haitatsu sarenai santsu no tegami

During the 70s the big Japanese studios produced a rather large number of mystery movies in the traditional style. On the written page and on screen, there seems to be a resurgence of golden age style mysteries in Japan every couple of decades or so. Japanese pop culture often demonstrates a particularly deep interest in genres working to strict rules and rigid structures, sometimes finding joy in subverting them, sometimes in following them, and sometimes in playing with them. It’s not only mysteries, but half of the anime and manga market seems to be nearly fixated on this sort of play with rules and regulations too. In this regard, it’s rather suspiring Japanese filmmakers never really went for the slasher.

Anyhow, in the last couple of years, quite a few of these movies have become available, either through the dedicated work of fansubbers (heroes to anyone with a broad interest in international cinema) or through some Western Bluray labels (heroes, too, perhaps even to filmmakers, also) actually letting one buy the stuff. Turns out – there is of course always the possibility that most films of the genre that don’t make their way over here from Japan are really bad – that quite a few of these films are rather great. The obvious posterchildren here are certainly Kon Ichikawa’s Kosuke Koichi movies, lovely mixes of the traditionally conservative, the playful and the progressive.

Yoshitaro Nomura’s (who also made a Kosuke Koichi film of his own, a version of Village of Eight Gravestones that is as different from the Ichikawa films as possible while staying in the same sub-genre) The Three Undelivered Letters, an Ellery Queen adaptation, is not at all on Ichikawa’s level, or even just one below. It’s a deeply conservative film in all the wrong ways, really doing its worst to sand down the implicit critique of the paternalism of traditional Japanese “old” families Kaneto Shindo’s script implies, instead emphasising some choice misogynist clichés and delighting in “honourable” suicide to spare the family name.

Aesthetically, this is still a Japanese studio (Shochiku, to be precise) movie from the late 70s, so it always looks slick, but Nomura’s too conservative a director to ever make much more out of the enormous technical talents of anyone involved than produce stiff melodrama. Shindo’s script, at least at is filmed, is slow to the point of stasis, without there ever being the sort of detail or depth that would need this slowness. As a mystery, the film suffers from being terribly obvious; as a melodramatic mystery, it lacks interest in the deeper emotions or motivations of its characters.

Friday, February 12, 2021

And another podcast recommendation

People with my literary tastes probably already know the wonderful YouTube channel HorrorBabble, that has been producing fine readings of all kinds of older (and some new) weird and horror fiction. There's the typical assortment of Lovecraft, Howard, Smith and James, of course, but the story selection often goes into less obvious and very interesting directions, with writers like Bloch or Sologub, or some really obscure pulp writers.

The only downside for me until now was the awkwardness of YouTube for pure audio formats. So I'm clearly the core audience for HorrorBabble's new podcast that does the same thing but in a more convenient manner.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

In short: Im Lauf der Zeit (1976)

aka Kings of the Road (which, frankly, is the better title for the movie at hand, but we Germans always must demonstrate how intellectual we are)

By many, this three hour film that never feels long (and most certainly not too long) is still seen as German director Wim Wenders’s best film. I still have to make my way through the five hour version of Until the Ends of the World, so I can belay that decision. It is certainly one of the best films that came out of the shadow of the German Autorenkino; in part because Wenders was independent-minded enough to take from that particular arthouse style what he needed and could use, discard the rest, and use elements of all those other film styles he loved to make his films his own. Unlike most German directors, Wenders has always been interested in emotions as much as in ideas, not treating them like a kind of abomination that can only end in World War II and pogroms, or as an illness a film has to diagnose. Consequently, this is a film that demands interest in and empathy with its characters, the sort of thing that, or so I’ve heard, is the basis of understanding.

From time to time, you still get a few moments in the dry didactic German style, or some hand-wringing about the state of cinema, or some pretty embarrassing bits of “men talk about the mystery that is The Woman”, but for every second of that, there are scenes and scenes of sensitive insight into (very male-centric versions of, sure) loneliness, the joys of the road, the workings of complicated friendships, and a belief in the powers of quiet compassion that feels deeply held and absolutely convincing. For once in a German movie, the actors – Rüdiger Vogel and Hanns Zischler – don’t even have sticks implanted in their behinds but can actually calmly, relaxedly act and just be.

All of this is filmed in beautiful black and white by Wenders’s usual DOP Robbie Müller, turning the parts of Germany barely anyone ever wants to put into a movie just as fascinating and beautiful – often in surprising ways – as the America of the road movies Wenders so admired (and would soon shoot in). Speaking of which, as someone from and living in the provinces of Lower Saxony, it’s a particular joy to find places I actually know treated this way in the film’s first act, turned strangely beautiful and familiar at the same time. That’s probably not a big thing if you live in New York, LA, Paris, Vancouver, or Bronson Canyon, but if you were born and raised in Wolfsburg, it is quite the thing to see how Wenders treats the old, even uglier version of the city train station (or that Hanns Zischler doesn’t know how to pronounce “Gifhorn”) I remember all too well, or have the characters pop over to a cinema in Helmstedt that’s still standing now. There’s a sense of nostalgia to that, too, but then, unlike what I’ve been told, there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that feeling.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Visiting Hours (1982)

Politically engaged TV journalist Deborah Ballin (Lee Grant), barely escapes the murderous intentions of a mostly unspeaking serial killer (Michael Ironside) with a fondness for photographing the faces of his victims while they die during a home invasion; a friend of hers is not so lucky, and the killer escapes. Ballin’s injured enough to need to spend quite some time in the hospital. Unfortunately, the killer doesn’t seem to be done with her and starts regular visits to the hospital. He’s having trouble actually locating the journalist, but he’s clearly seeing that as an opportunity to just kill quite a few other people. The guy hates women more than men but isn’t one to overlook an opportunity for killing you, whatever your gender.

Given that the killer does this more than once without being stopped, it’ll come as no surprise to any viewer that the police here is less than useless for anyone not wanting to get brutally murdered. Luckily, Ballin’s pretty tough even in her traumatized and injured state. Plus, one of the nurses, Sheila Munroe (Linda Purl), a highly competent hard-working single mom, has taken quite a shine to the older woman and does her best to protect her and the other patients.

From time to time, William Shatner also pops in as Ballin’s boss, but I suspect he’s only in more than one scene because the production could get Shatner for a couple of days; as a character, he’s completely without consequence.

Which is perfectly alright, for at least half of Jean-Claude Lord’s Visiting Hours is difficult to read as anything but a paean to women. Specifically, women like Deborah Ballin and Sheila Munroe who do difficult jobs with competence, dignity, composure and compassion. On paper, this element of the film should not work too well with its more exploitation movie style sensibilities when it comes to the murders and the habits of its killer. In practice, the film is portraying its female characters so sympathetically, it is never a question if the film shares the killer’s hatred or not. Which doesn’t mean it is going to treat its protagonists nicely. It does, however, mean that there’s no space for a Shatner-style alpha male performance, nor any chance for these women to be rescued by anyone but themselves.

The film isn’t a gore fest. The killings do, however, have the nasty undertone of real violence, emphasising the shock and the helplessness of the victims before anything else. Ironside’s performance and Lord’s camera portray the killer’s misogyny and general hatred for humanity (going by the bits you can catch of his letters, he’s racist, to boot) through the physicality of the actor’s body as well as the staging, keeping the killer silent because there’s really no need for dialogue to express what he is about. There are a couple of flashbacks to the man’s inciting trauma that are, as well as the scenes in his apartment complete with framed letters answering his letters to TV and newspaper journalists and his murder wall, part of what looks like a conscious attempt at not turning him into a slasher movie like killing machine, and keeping him a broken human being.

Visiting Hours is clearly influenced by the slasher genre, though. The number of victims and the variety in murder methods makes this quite obvious. If you want, you can even read the final surviving character and the end sequence as a variation on the final girl trope that changes certain things about the basic nature of the final girl; virginity and such are not a thing of relevance when you don’t populate your movie with teenagers.

Indeed, the film does give the impression that the filmmakers (script by Brian Taggert, who has some pretty great and some pretty terrible work on his CV, much of it in TV) were very consciously trying to adapt certain slasher tropes to those of the kind of thriller you might have – in less violent versions than here – encountered in ABC’s TV Movie of the Week slot, films that also very often centred around competent female characters getting into exactly the kind of trouble the women here do, for no faults of their own. It works rather well, too, the fine performances by Grant, Purl and Ironside, the shape of the violence and Lord’s control over suspense set-ups fitting nicely with the slasher elements, suggesting yet another, less codified, way the slasher could have gone.

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

In short: Skylines (2020)

aka Skylin3s [ugh]

I thought that Liam O’Donnell’s Beyond Skyline was quite an improvement over the first film in the series, winning my heart through the overwhelming powers of all sorts of sci fi pulp martial arts tokusatsu action nonsense. When presented with so much energy, only a fool would have cared about the thing having the brain of a dinosaur.

Alas, a returning O’Donnell can’t catch this kind of lightning in a bottle twice, and this sequel starring the perfectly decent Lindsey Morgan (replacing the perfectly awesome Frank Grillo), is a real drag, trying to do epic science fiction world building on a budget that can’t pay for it, and with brains that can’t conceive of it, and so falls back on a mess of boring clichés, failing with little grace and no style whatsoever.

Once the plot actually gets going, the film is slowly – for some reason the thing puts half an hour of actual plot into nearly two hours runtime - crawling through all your usual sci-fi action clichés, in the classic tradition of all films that are kinda like Cameron’s Aliens but crap. The final thirty minutes or so do win back some of the energy and general craziness of the second film but at that point it’s simply a case of too little, too late to save the film as a whole.

Not improving my mood is some of the worst dialogue I have had the bad luck to encounter (seriously, the sentence level writing makes Michael Bay look like a writer), and a supposed scenery-chewing villain performance by Alexander Siddig (who can really do better) that reminds of nothing so much as a little boy playing dress-up, badly.

Oh well, there’s always going to be Skyfourth4line, right?

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Shoot the Sun Down (1978)

Going by a mention of the Alamo late in the movie, I think this is supposed to take place in 1836. Variations on various Western stock characters converge in Santa Fe. At this point in time the town still belongs to Mexico but in the practice of the film takes a kind of liminal place between the US and Mexico. It’s a classical melting pot in the American style, where people of many cultures attempt to kill and rob each other. Our main characters are a guy calling himself Rainbow (Christopher Walken), a conscientious deserter from some massacres or other committed on the Native American population, but still a highly competent killer when that ability is needed; a Scalphunter (Geoffrey Lewis) and his gang of cutthroats; a former sea Captain (Bo Brundin) who supposedly wants to open a trading post in the desert and travels with a woman (Margot Kidder) who says she’s a British upper-class daughter but is actually a former maidservant to the upper-class the Captain has bought (rented?) for five years; and the Navajo warrior Sunbearer (A Martinez), soon to be in a debt of honour to Rainbow when the gunman helps out in a gambling incident.

Eventually, it will become clear that the Captain has a line on a gold treasure. Rainbow’s initially not interested at all but will be drawn into the affair nonetheless, particularly thanks to the Woman; the Scalphunter is very much interested but is not the kind of man anyone will want to trust, yet he is also inescapable; Sunbearer is going to get drawn into the mess too. As you can imagine, the characters will play through versions of the old trust and betrayal game, Rainbow eventually showing the character of a classic western hero, but not exactly the talent for anything but killing the classic western hero does usually have.

Shoot the Sun Down is the only film directed (as well a written and produced) by one David Leeds. It’s a western influenced by the Italians, ideas from the revisionist western and perhaps the more conventional moments of Jodorowsky, but is not as good at fusing these elements as it could be. The film certainly demonstrates a tendency towards abstraction and the abstract, shaving off character names here, scenes that would be exciting and adventurous there. The problem with this approach is that the film doesn’t really seem to know what it wants to do with the elements it has left after it has removed much what people expect of a western. It clearly wants to say something about America, but it is exactly its abstraction that makes it rather difficult to say what its ideas about America are, exactly, beyond the very obvious territory mined better by the Italians and the revisionists.

The problem with abstraction in genre movies is of course that it tends to deny an audience the joys of the genre it has come to see. It’s not the political assumptions underlying these joys - those you can change as much as you want if you know what you are doing – but the plot tropes that constitute a genre.

The film, for example, lacks the classical shoot-out in the finale, but it seems to do so for no good reason but for Leeds wanting to make it difficult for his audience; one imagines the director standing in a corner grumbling “I don’t wanna!”, while not putting much thought into what he actually wants to do to replace the tropes he clearly doesn’t like with. Just leaving them out, it turns out, really doesn’t lead him anywhere.

In visual style and mood, this really does its best to be poetic (there are some very fine shots of the moon, and the frozen desert in the end is very moody but not as metaphorical as the film seems to assume), mildly trippy and very, very slow, but the slowness only seems to have an actual function about half of the time. The rest of the movie, the slowness seems to keep with the film’s motto of denying the audience genre joys without wanting to come up with anything useful to replace them.

The cast, on the other hand, is pretty brilliant, with Christopher Walken, Geoffrey Lewis, A Martinez and Margot Kidder all lending the film what it otherwise lacks completely in its love for abstracting things away: personality.

Saturday, February 6, 2021

Three Films Make A Post: Get a Lift

Harry and Tonto (1974): Having lost his home to city development, and not really jibing with living with his son and his family, elderly New Yorker Harry (Art Carney) and his cat Tonto (Tonto) go on a road trip through the USA, encountering old flames and new experiences, living parts of life Harry never did before. Among other things, for this Paul Mazursky comedy is stuffed full with humanity and human encounters big and small, feelings simple and complicated, treating aging and old age and the loss that comes with it with as much dignity as humour, exhibiting an openness to different ways of seeing the world that seems to be utterly alien to today’s “you’re either for us or against us” world.

Mazursky creates (or sees) an America made out of very different people believing very different things that still express a shared humanity, never making a grand gesture out of this, but treating his characters kindly, even those that might not completely deserve it.

A Man Called Sledge (1970): This is one of two movies directed by actor Vic Morrow, though producer Dino DeLaurentiis apparently robbed him of the final cut, and there may or may not be material included shot by Giorgio Gentili instead. Despite an American cast, director and US money, in feeling and tone, this is a lot like an Italian Western, starting with its treatment of the Southwestern setting, over the “sweat and dirty shirts” production design, and certainly not ending in its pretty cynical view of the world. The film also includes a pretty hefty heist movie element and ends up as a Treasure of the Sierra Madre variation.

It features James Garner in one of his grimmer performances as the titular gunman Sledge, and moves through its set pieces of dust and mud with a degree of vigour. It never quite manages to reach the allegorical heft the director – at least going by the final act – clearly wants it to have, but then, I dislike allegories anyway. In the state it is in, it’s a solid enough movie, not as well directed as the best Italian westerns (nor as crazy as these can get) but entertaining enough for what it is.

Jiu Jitsu (2020): On the plot level, this thing directed by Dimitri Logothethis is a completely bizarre attempt to mix martial arts movie traditions with a Predator rip-off, plus the dreaded amnesiac protagonist (Alain Moussi is our hero, such as he is) syndrome. And Nicolas Cage is a crazy jiu jitsu swordsman veteran (jiu jitsu in this film has little to do with the actual martial art, by the way), so you can expect a couple of scenes of Cage flipping out entertainingly, doing his best in martial arts fight scenes against people who are actually good at this sort of thing, and doing an Obi Wan (just louder). Also appearing are action and martial arts film darlings like Tony Jaa and Frank Grillo, but they only get a couple of fights in. Moussi is good in his action sequences but pretty terrible at the whole acting thing. He was probably much cheaper than those members of the cast who can do both; but then, the script is so utterly bad at stringing the decent, sometimes fun, action scenes together, even a great actor might have not gotten through the affair with dignity intact.

Friday, February 5, 2021

A podcast recommendation

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you have probably realized that I harbour a particular love for British weird fiction from the Edwardian era that's nearly as large as the one I have for the strain of weird fiction coming from the US pulps (which was of course influenced by the British way of doing things).

The wonderful audiodrama podcast "The Strange Tales of Virgil Kaylock" puts itself quite consciously into the same tradition, though not without certain markers when it comes to social norms and mores that clearly show it to be a product of the Now (which is a good thing), hitting my personal sweet spot between the Then and the Now rather well. The tales are also simply very effective and highly satisfying stories of horror, well-paced, and atmospherically written.

Productionwise, this is not an amateur production, but features professional acting, a soundtrack made explictly for the show, as well as way above average foley (often a weakness in even well-funded audio dramas, and yes, I'm looking at you, QCode).

If you want to hear more, you only need to click on yet another handy link.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

In short: The Rope Curse (2018)

Original title: Zong xie

Warning: vague spoilers ahead!

Apparently, at least if we can believe the movie at hand, it is custom in Taiwan and certain coastal areas of China to hinder the spirit of someone who has committed suicide by hanging from turning into something dangerous with the help of a ritual. In it the rope (and the spirit bound to it with it, I assume) is transported via a pretty elaborate looking procession towards the sea and burned.

Jiawei (Jason Tsou) and his best buddy (Chu Chung-Heng, I believe) have gotten permission from the buddy’s exorcist uncle (Chen Bor Jeng) to film such a procession for their streaming channel full of creepy stuff, the burning of a the rope a young bride killed herself with. Particularly Jiawei hopes to make it big with this and earn enough money as an internet sensation to not be penniless when he marries his fiancée Shuyi (Kimi Hsia). Why, the buddy has even acquired the, ahem, talents of what he calls a “big tit internet talent” to help in their goal.

Of course, things go very wrong indeed, the rope falling by the wayside unburnt, its curse continuing. And wouldn’t you know it, said “big tit internet talent” is its first new victim. What at first seems somewhat random will eventually turn out to be connected to the bullying-caused suicide of Shuyi’s best friend from high school.

While it isn’t exactly a masterful example of horror from Taiwan, Liao Shih-Han’s The Rope Curse is an often genuinely entertaining film that could have easily improved by not hitting the clichés it needs to work quite as hard as it does. Parts of the portrayal of Shuyi’s dead friend in the flashbacks are particularly problematic, going the old movie route of giving a very pretty girl a bad haircut, ridiculous glasses and a nasty looking rash to make her “ugly”, making it a bit difficult to take exactly those parts of the film completely seriously that should provide its emotional weight. The bullying is certainly nasty to watch (particularly when you have your own experiences with this sort of thing from childhood) but here, too, the film goes to movie-extreme, where showing a bit more restraint could have actually improved the audience’s emotional connection to what should be an actual tragedy instead of plot mechanics.

There’s a lot of this sort of thing in the film, really, characters that are broader than they should be, motivations that never quite come together, and so on. It’s a film that tries to be very emotionally involving but misses the mark because it is so obviously trying so very hard.

However, Liao is pretty good with most of the scenes of the haunting, hiding mediocre special effects below moody lighting and shadow, and often creating a surprisingly spooky mood. The film does make a lot out of its folk horror elements, having a much easier time portraying the logic of tradition than that of human emotions.

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Edge of the Axe (1988)

Original title: Al filo del hacha

An axe murderer with a nice blank mask is making his way from an introductory murder in a car wash to a small town with the adorable name of Paddock that seems situated in Northern California, the Deep South and New York State at the same time. It’s probably part of the great state of Spain, USA.

Anyway, while the killer is murdering an ever increasing number of women, the local Sheriff publicly declares most of these axe murders to be suicide or accidents, while everybody else calls them axe murders, and the Sheriff himself also investigates them as such, badly. We can’t blame the man for failing, though, for there are a lot of suspicious people around this particular small town, and even more that get a “isn’t that guy suspicious?” kind of close-up from director José Ramón Larraz.

We don’t spend a lot of time with the sheriff, fortunately, but pop in with various characters around town on their daily business, mostly consisting of getting murdered or finding corpses. Among the town’s population are characters played by Jack Taylor and Patty Shepard, so you know we are in good, Spanish genre cinema hands there.

The closest we have to protagonists are new in town 80s computer geek Gerald (Barton Faulks) and his fresh charmed-by-absurd-computer-talk local girlfriend Lillian (Christina Marie Lane). Unlike actual protagonists, they are only kinda-sorta involved in amateur investigating the murders. Mostly, they are around to show off the various suspects, until the film eventually gets up to other business with them when things come to the climax.

Apparently, this is the least-favoured film of its director, the great cult filmmaker José Ramón Larraz, and I can see why. However, it’s also a greatly entertaining film if you’ve got the appropriate sensibilities, and don’t have to defend your own dignity like he did.

At the very least, this is a very interesting film in that it is one of those late period giallos (let’s just call Spanish thrillers in the Italian vein that, too) taking elements from the US slasher genre which took rather a lot from the giallo in the beginning, mixing both genres in strange and not necessarily effective ways. The film’s interest in whodunnit and the actual resolution of the killer’s identity is pure giallo, of course, but the staging of kills, as well as the US small town setting are really coming from the slasher side of things. It doesn’t quite work to make for a good mixture – the investigation is just not terribly interesting or excitingly done, or even an investigation, most importantly – but it is definitely an interesting one. The curious nexus of influences sometimes makes the film feel like an attempt by a non-American to make a US regional movie.

Even though the investigation parts are not all that exciting, Larraz actually manages to milk the Spain-Americana vibe to entertaining effect, doing to the rural US what the German Krimi did to London, turning it into a place of clichés and concepts taken from books and movies and no actual human experience. It’s like a slightly peculiar dream of America (sorry, Greil Marcus), and therefore a place that’s fun to visit for the length of a movie or two.

Plus, while this certainly isn’t the most stylish of its directors’ films, at least the murders are shot quite wonderfully, with some really enthusiastic axing by the actor playing the killer, moody light, and occasional pigs. The rest of the film looks pretty great, too, actually, Larraz making things at the very least attractive, and usually not boring to look at.

Other joys include the utterly ridiculous ways the film talks and thinks about computers, the pleasantly bizarre ultra-giallo revelation of the killer (here coming complete with a childhood trauma that’s only in their mind) leading into a downer ending that’s neither giallo nor slasher but the sound of scriptwriters giggling madly made picture, as well as the general air of watching interactions taking place in a somewhat peculiar neighbouring universe version of the USA. It’s pretty great.

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

In short: La llamada del vampiro (1972)

aka (The) Curse of the Vampyr

aka Curse of the Vampire

aka Crypt of the Vampire

aka Horrortrip

After the death of the village doctor, enthusiastic fighter of superstitions (or so she says) Dr Greta Materlick (Diana Sorel) comes to a small rural town in Spain(?) with her nurse Erica (Beatriz Elorrieta) to take over the local clinic and fight the mysterious illness that’s hitting the town. It’s a peculiar kind of anaemia that only shows its symptoms on the nights of the full moon, curiously, and if you are now thinking werepires, you’re exactly right, dear reader.

The good doctor can’t quite reopen the clinic yet, though, for there’s some sort of equipment missing, apparently. Which makes it all the easier for the doctor/nurse duo to stay at the castle above the village to treat the weak heart of Baron von Rysselberg (Antonio Jiménez Escribano), and flirt with his son Karl (Nicholas Ney). Karl only seems to communicate in bad Byronic monologues and surely can’t be the film’s main vampire, no sir. There’s also a lot of time for the women to get into one’s underwear and flounce around in negligees, for in the world of this movie, there’s basically nothing a woman won’t wear only her underwear to.

Nominally, the plot is about Greta investigating the vampire problem, even fetching another woman of science to get naked a lot help her, but in practice, director and co-writer José María Elorrietta has no interest whatsoever in silly things like plot and investigations. Many of his peers in European horror of this era could get away with that sort of thing by their ability to create dream- and nightmare-like moods spiked with some (or a lot of) eroticism and making films that don’t work as logical wholes but very much demonstrate an aesthetic unity as well as one of mood. Elorrietta, alas, mostly presents scenes of occasionally lesbian vampires flouncing about in their see-through nightgown (seen better in the works of Pauls Naschy, and even better in those of Jean Rollin) about a hundred of actresses dressing inappropriately for any situation, a horde of characters that are in the film for no discernible reason, and dialogue scenes that seem to come from a couple different movies, until he ends the film on a sort of inexplicable semi-stylish psychosexual freak-out.

Which does of course mean that La llamada is a pretty terrible film by most people’s standards, and even of dubious quality for the connoisseur of 70s European cult cinema. Yet it also means the film is never boring: there’s just too much ridiculousness going on for the viewer to ever get bored. From time to time, the film does even stumble onto a good idea or two, like mixing vampire and werewolf lore to weird effect, or letting Ney’s vampire version (unlike all the sexy girl vampires) go full on Dwight Fry as vampire on us instead of trying to make him suave and sexy. I’m still not sure if I’d include the film’s bizarre ending in its good ideas, for I’d need to have any idea what the hell is actually supposed to be happening there to decide.