Wednesday, March 31, 2021

The Sun Above, Death Below (1968)

Original title: Sogeki

Toru (Yuzo Kayama) is your typical movie professional killer: competent, emotionless on the outside, and a natural born loner. He also has performance problems in bed, the act of killing apparently giving him a feeling nothing else can compare to.

This changes somewhat when he encounters professional model Akiko (Ruriko Asaoka). It’s love (or something like it) on first sight, the just as lonely and lonesome Akiko recognizing a kindred spirit in him, and he in her. Even the sex is going to work out between the two, eventually. Akiko’s obsession with catching a huge New Guinean butterfly fits so perfectly with Toru’s own mental bizarrerie, the couple can dream about going to New Guinea so she can catch her super butterfly and he can shoot all kinds of birds dead (seriously).

The film could turn into a very weird romance movie about people who fantasize (well, I say, fantasize, but as the film plays it, this might very well be actually happening) about donning “New Guinean” garb as interpreted by a racist and brownface and going on a drum and dancing session in their hotel room. However, the killer’s newest job of helping some yakuza acquaintances murdering a whole gold smuggling ring soon finds him hunted by the best killer of some probably rather irate Chinese gold smugglers, which is certainly good for his shooting and adrenaline kink, but perhaps not terribly great for anyone’s health.

Hiromichi Horikawa’s Sun Above is quite the film. It was clearly influenced by a horde of other movies about professional killers and very consciously presents many a nod to other films from the sub-genre. It harbours a particular affinity towards Branded to Kill, seeing as they both are Japanese movies turning a deep fascination with the psycho-sexual elements of violence into moments of the surreal and the bizarre, not to mention the butterflies.

Horikawa isn’t going as all out all the time as Seijun Suzuki does, tending to play the action scenes straighter, and not adding quite as many peculiar subversions into every single scene, clearly trying to not alienate completely an audience that came to watch movie star Kayama in a straightforward hitman thriller. So about half of the film is a relatively standard, excellently shot and staged crime movie; the other half either includes bizarre elements or gets up to semi-psychedelic freak-outs. That hotel scene that may or may not be a fantasy is the most obvious example, but there’s also a sex scene that uses documentary shots of black people in deeply problematic ways together with extreme close-ups of skin, psychedelic effects, classical European imagery and ends on a little chat about Icarus. Going by the film’s Camus-quoting ending, it’s all in the service of a very particular interpretation of existentialism. However, it is just as easy – and much more entertaining - to read Death Above as a movie about obsessions and kink, mainly for and about a holy trinity of guns, sex and death (where the middle part is only possible in close connection to the other two), with a side-line in butterflies and the dubious objectification of black bodies, overloading all of these elements with an intensity that you can read as subversive, deconstructive, bizarre, or just plain silly.

Me, I’m going with all of the above, raising my eyebrow at some of the philosophy (which may or may not be made worse – or better for that matter - by not always elegantly translated subtitles) and the racial bits, giggling and gasping at Horikawa’s general aesthetic daring, enjoying the weirdness as well as the straightforward excellence of the more conventional parts of the film, while mentally applauding a cast able to inhabit the film’s world as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

In short: The Doberman Gang (1972)

Supposed criminal mastermind Eddie (Byron Mabe), is deeply disappointed with the way his last bank robbing plan worked out. According to Eddie, it’s always going wrong because humans are fallible. If only he had robots to do his robbing for him.

Instead of robots, he eventually stumbles upon the idea of using dogs, Dobermans to be precise, to do his banking business for him. Which might suggest his earlier plans failed not because the flawed state of humanity, but because he’s an idiot. As the rest of the film will demonstrate, there’s that as well has his inherent dickish inability to treat his human gang properly, always thinking himself to be a great psychological manipulator but really not getting the simplest thing about people right.

Director Byron Chudnow really must have liked Dobermans, for this is only the first of three films about dogs getting roped into robbery. I do understand the attraction of the idea at least in part, for the dogs are certainly much more convincing actors here than most of their human colleagues. Well, at least Julie Parrish playing Eddie’s underpaid moll is on their level.

As far as heist movies go, you have to admire the merry absurdity of The Doberman Gang, Chudnow taking his basic idea as seriously as he can get away with. The film does take place in a pretty absurd world too, where people only notice half a dozen Dobermans strolling into a bank once they start robbing it; bonus points here to the extras doing various, perfectly appropriate “WTF!?” expressions once the robbery gets on its way.

It’s not all silly gold here, though, for whenever there’s no dog action, the viewer has to cope with some pretty bland heist movie tropes staged just as blandly. A situation that is certainly not improved by Mabe’s performance as Eddie. Alas, he lacks the charisma, the charm and the viciousness of your typical dog, and is certainly not the material a mastermind even in a semi-comedic heist movie should be made of.

Chudnow’s direction only truly comes to life when he’s shooting the animals, the rest of the action is staged indifferently, with little sense for the intricacies of human interactions and their dramatic portrayal. The best he seems to be able to do is milk the film’s horrible and painfully catchy title song until we can get back to the doggy business.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Someone’s Watching Me! (1978)

Following what appears to have been a very bad break-up, live TV director Leigh Michaels (Lauren Hutton) moves from New York to LA, even before she has found a new job. She is clearly going to land on her feet, though, her obvious competence winning her a new position very quickly. Emotionally, her weird sense of humour and her tendency to speak to herself a lot seem to ground her considerably.

All could be well, if not for an ever increasing campaign of phone terror by someone who must actually have some sort of inside knowledge of her life. He’s also sending her objects – among them a telescope – supposedly as parts of some kind of contest to win a European vacation. The audience learns much sooner than Leigh that her caller is a pretty creative stalker who even bugs her living room, and manipulates the electronics in her apartment. The man may also very well be responsible for the death of other women, so our increasingly frightened and angry heroine is in actual physical danger apart from the damage caused by the emotional abuse. As always (at least in the movies), the police is of little help, but Leigh’s new boyfriend, the philosopher(!) Paul (David Birney) is of use, as is Leigh’s assistant Sophie (Adrienne Barbeau).

John Carpenter directed and wrote this NBC TV movie the same year as Halloween – and before that TV Elvis thing – and at times, one can indeed notice that, even though DP Robert Hauser is no Dean Cundey. But then, who is? There are quite a few shots that are set up in a manner very typical for Carpenter at this stage in his career, making some relatively standard suspense scenes rather more interesting than you’d expect without going overboard or blowing the technical possibilities of a TV production.

Apart from early Carpenter, the director predominantly does Hitchcock here. Some scenes, particularly the late business with Leigh breaking into the stalker’s apartment while being watched by Sophie through the telescope, are direct variations on scenes from Hitchcock, and there are so many nods in that direction here, poor Howard Hawks was probably getting jealous. It’s good, tense, suspenseful Hitchcock worship, so there’s no reason to complain.

Of course, no Hitchcock movie would have a heroine like Leigh, who is highly competent in her job without being snarled at by the film for it, a bit weird in a manner the film is clearly enamoured by, and tough even when she has reached her breaking point. So, while Paul is allowed to be somewhat helpful, it’s Leigh’s business to dispatch of the stalker/killer in the end, fighting her own fight because the men around her are pretty much useless in it.

The film consistently puts the stalker into the context of rather a lot of shitty men around our heroine, Leigh having to cope with a horn dog colleague who doesn’t understand the word no, and clearly having experienced enough crap of that kind in her life, she deals with these things with an exasperated toughness, pretending she’s not as angry about sexism as she has every right to be, but still shutting it down whenever she encounters it. Hutton does very well with the role (one can’t help but imagine her having some experience with quite a few of Leigh’s troubles herself), making our heroine very likeable and relatable even for guys like me who don’t have to run this particular kind of gauntlet. Carpenter’s script does a lot of little things in the background to build up a contrast between the way some men – worst among them obviously the stalker and killer – treat her, and the way Leigh actually is, not just showing her competence at her job, but also – without comment – showing her doing all kinds of manual things, working electronical equipment, putting together the telescope, and so on.

Today, some people would probably call Carpenter an “angry feminist”, when what he is actually doing is providing Someone’s Watching Me! with a verisimilitude that grounds the thriller business in lived experience, which makes the audience care more for our heroine and helps make an actual thematic argument to boot. Not bad for a little TV movie.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Three Films Make A Post: He's Six Feet Six Inches of Dynamite. She's Crazy. Absolutely Crazy.

La Funeraria aka The Funeral Home aka The Undertaker’s Home (2020): Mauro Iván Ojeda’s Argentinean horror film is about a mortuary business that’s haunted by ghosts the undertaker and his family just have to arrange themselves with as parts of their normal life, until they can’t anymore. It is an interesting mixture of Weird family drama, with relatively typical horror movie beats but also a handful of genuinely original ideas about the nature of life, death and love; a film that takes some very un-generic decisions on what to show and what not to; and a bleak film whose friendlier elements in the climax make it feel even bleaker.

La Tulipe noire aka The Black Tulip (1964): Based on Dumas in title only, Christian-Jaque’s French Revolution-set swashbuckler with Alain Delon playing two very different brothers manages to be a fun blast of a film as befits an entry into its genre on-screen, but also has undertones of surprising bleakness (one can argue, also perfectly in keeping with the genre as it should be) that seem to mirror the nature of its main characters, as well as that of the French Revolution itself. Of course, the old order as represented by the sadistic clowns ruling over the part of the French countryside the film takes place in is the main enemy here, and the film knows what its genre is for and what not too well to be too critical of the Revolution. But thanks to the bitter and cynical of the two twins, there’s also the shade of the bitter and cynical turn the revolution itself would take visible.

Special Delivery (1976): In this film by the often great Paul Wendkos, the plot about a war vet robber’s (Bo Svenson) attempt to get at the loot he had to deposit in a mailbox while on the run from the police, encountering a young divorcee looking for herself (Cybill Shepherd) and finding quite a talent for crime and love, really isn’t the point of the film. Instead, Wendkos uses the single street in LA and a couple of places outside of it to create a microcosm of the nightly side of the city and the encounters our leads have in it, with characters like the would-be motorcycle gang of rapist thugs of a young Jeff Goldblum(!), the local crime boss (Robert Ito), and so on and so forth. It’s rather a lot like a road movie that takes place in only one stop on the way.

Apart from Wendkos direction that makes a lot out of people watching other people from unexpected angles, the film also recommends itself by the great actors. Svenson – not always a favourite of mine – turns a character personable and interesting who could be a simple thug, and Shepherd creates a woman who is at once driven by doubt and insecurity and capable, courageous and determined, while also being charming as hell.

Friday, March 26, 2021

In short: Monster Hunters (2020)

Looking for some missing colleagues, some bad-ass US soldiers under the leadership of one Artemis (Milla Jovovich) drop through a rift in space into a desert full of giant monsters.

It doesn’t take terribly long until Artemis is the last one standing of her team, so it’s lucky for her she meets and eventually – after the usual tensions and miscommunications – teams up with a guy she dubs Hunter (Tony Jaa). There’s more monster fighting, unfunny jokes, and even something akin to a plot for the two to work through eventually.

I know I’m supposed to hate everything Paul W.S. Anderson does, what with all of his films (let’s ignore Event Horizon and that thing with Kurt Russell as early aberrations on the more brainy side, comparatively) being low-brow action, science fiction and horror mash-ups based on video games that aren’t ideally suited to adaptation even at the best of times. His insistence on casting his wife in the lead in every single movie he makes doesn’t make the not hating part easier, given that Jovovich can barely act on the best of days.

However, watching this stint in the playground of Capcom’s Monster Hunter games, I found myself not annoyed by low effort writing (though the script by Anderson himself certainly is nothing to write home about) but started enjoying myself quickly. Watching old Milla, the always lovely Jaa and co fight against various well-realized CG monsters may not be the deepest experience of my movie watching life, but it turns out to be effective popcorn movie fun, with neat monsters, special guest star Ron Perlman, a silly cat person right out of the games, and a well-paced script. Hell, I didn’t even mind Jovovich’s performance here, and found the film’s “so what” shrugging at its source material’s stranger elements pretty charming.

Even better, in this one, Anderson has most of his annoying directorial tics fully under control, not showing even a single scene first backwards in slow motion before repeating it normally, and really giving off the calm, professional directorial air of a guy who has made mid-budget popcorn movies of this type for several decades, and actually knows his business very well indeed; at least this time around.

All of this may not sound like a glowing recommendation, but honestly, Monster Hunter is a fine way to watch people fight giant monsters for hundred minutes or so.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

In short: Whiskey Mountain (1977)

Married couples Bill (Christopher George) and Jamie (Linda Borgeson), and Dan and Diana (Roberta Collins) are going on a treasure hunt for a load of US Civil War era muskets one of the women’s grandfathers has buried somewhere around a place called “Whiskey Mountain”. But hiking gear and dirt bikes won’t be enough when they ignore the curious stuff that begins happening to them. Apparently, if you’re on a hike, and somebody steals your panties, it’s the local marijuana growers trying to warn you off.

Our protagonists are understandably not really getting the hint, so will eventually have to endure rape, death and killing, for the pot growers around a guy named Rudy (John Chandler) play hardball, with optional sadface.

I’m not sure why of all the local exploitation filmmakers available, it’s William Grefé who is getting the comparatively lavish BluRays (though still sourced from pretty damn beat up prints), when there are still actually good films in desperate need of better versions of their films. But then, every film digitized is a film saved from oblivion, so there’s that at least.

Like most of Grefé’s movies I’ve seen, Whiskey Mountain is a workmanlike effort with a couple of scenes that are rather better than that description suggests, but also the director’s usual problems with pacing and tone. The first half of the movie or so drags desperately, the director filling time with dirt biking sequences and pretty decent nature shots while the plot slowly, very slowly, starts rolling, the mysterious threat taking its dear time to actually become threatening. Our character trait-less protagonists (a waste of good acting talent) are really not terribly interesting to spend time with either.

Tonally, things permanently stumble around between 70s grimness, unfunny humour, hicksploitation clichés and moments of actual nastiness – all set to the sounds of the Charlie Daniels Band. The film never settles for long enough on any aspect to make much of an impression.

There are some clever touches buried among the dross, though: Grefé’s decision to portray the inevitable rape sequence in form of polaroids shot by the evil hicks underlaid with their giggling and shouting and some screaming by their victims is actually making that part of the film more uncomfortable to sit through than this sort of thing is anyhow, and certainly makes it pretty impossible to a viewer to side with anyone but the women here (one can imagine the Grefé shouting: “Try to get titillated by that, assholes!”). In less unpleasant moments, I rather enjoyed the completely over the top Old Man (Robert Leslie) our protagonists encounter repeatedly, a guy so crazy, Grefé actually makes a suspense scene out of the question if he’s going to cut our tied up heroes loose or cut their throats.

So there’s that, at least.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

A small break

 I have to take a week or so off from my usual barrage of blogging. Expect new posts around March, 24th.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Greed in the Sun (1964)

Original title: Cent mille dollars au soleil

Buddies Marec (Lino Ventura) and Rocco (Jean-Paul Belmondo) are driving trucks through the Sahara for the company of the somewhat shady Castigliano (Gert Fröbe). One day, Rocco and his new girlfriend Pepa (Andréa Parisy) abscond with a loaded truck that was meant to be driven by a newbie with a clearly shady past calling himself Steiner (Reginald Kernan). We will learn quickly enough that a contact of Pepa’s has promised to pay a hundred thousand dollars for the truck’s supposed cement load, delivery somewhere half across North Africa.

Offered quite a bit of money (though certainly not as much as Rocco) by Castigliano, Marec agrees to get the cargo back. It’s not just about the money, clearly – Marec seems mostly pissed that his best friend has broken their bro contract, or whatever the early 60s French manly man thing is called. Together with the disgruntled Steiner (who lost his job on account of Rocco’s stunt), he goes in pursuit. Obviously, things are not going to be easy for any of these men.

When one thinks of adventure films about truck drivers in a post-colonial world made by filmmakers who haven’t quite gotten out of the colonial mindset, the first movie that comes to mind is always going to be Clouzot’s utterly brilliant Wages of Fear. That comparison is a bit of a problem for a scrappy little (okay, actually at the time highly successful in its native France) movie like this one as directed by Henri Verneuil. Not because it is a bad film, but because it can’t help but look so much worse in comparison to the genre defining film at least I couldn’t quite keep out of my mind completely during its running time.

Though, really, apart from the trucks and the post-colonial setting (and even that is a completely different post-colonial setting, or at least continent, here), the film’s aren’t actually terribly close in tone and style. Verneuil’s film isn’t really interested in desperate existentialism; in fact, it’s a buddy movie that keeps its buddies apart for most of the running time, and then puts them in the sort of competing position that’d end in blood and tears in noirs and westerns.

Verneuil doesn’t seem interested in blood and tears, either, and goes for a curiously limp punch-up/reconciliation scene that ends the plot on a note that’s too light to really work for me because it turns the struggle of the two hours that came before into a bit of a pointless lark in place of something that could really change its characters in any important way.

The film does like to meander tonally quite a bit anyway. But then, it meanders in most regards, and really could have lost about twenty minutes or so of runtime without losing much apart from a dozen of about a hundred moments of casual misogyny (there’s not a single woman in the damn thing that isn’t called a “slut” by characters we are supposed to sympathize with).

However, there’s a lot to like here, too: Ventura, as so often, has this great exhausted working class tough guy presence suggesting a guy who has survived a lot of things by a mixture of grit and luck but lost everything else he ever laid his hands on; while Belmondo is pretty perfect as the kind of charming asshole who would come up with a stupid stunt like the one he pulls in the movie and be forgiven by the actual grown-ups. When the film is not meandering, so particularly in its second half, there are some fine action sequences here, like the race along a mountain road, and quite a lot of nicely realized scenes of people pulling one over each other while smiling.

That these good elements don’t quite come together to make Greed in the Sun great isn’t so terrible, because on the other hand, its weaknesses don’t ruin it, so at the very least, it’s still worth watching after fifty years or so.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Three Films Make A Post: Little girl. Big psycho.

Psycho Goreman (2020): This weird-ass gory horror tokusatsu comedy by Steven “Manborg” Kostanski proudly stands in the tradition of comparable weird-ass movies from Japan. At least half of the film’s jokes are very funny indeed, the monster costumes are rubbery fun, and the acting’s generally fitting the tone. However, like it is with a lot of movies of this kind, from the US, Japan, or elsewhere, the other half of the jokes fall flat like blood-encrusted pancakes. The other big problem is that there’s simply not enough plot or material for a ninety minute plus movie, so the middle part drags pretty badly; which is particularly unfortunate when much of it could have been excised without any losses to the movie.

The Pond (2021): This Serbian, but English language, movie by Petar Pasic starring Marco Canadea as a Professor on leave after a family tragedy who is either suffering from a nervous breakdown or has stumbled upon a rift in our understanding of the world – or both - is a frustrating experience. There are some scenes and shots here that will probably haunt me for quite a while, but the film’s total commitment to a “everything on screen is a metaphor” type of the Weird also makes it hard to wade through, with little but metaphor to guide a viewer through it. Some of these visual metaphors are also really coming down on the side of the pretentious to unintentionally funny. Particularly all the fish business is just plain silly.

Still, there’s something there sometimes, an otherworldly quality to the staging and the shot composition that does make this one worth watching at least once, in my eyes.

King Rocker (2020): At times, there’s also something pretentious about this documentary about Robert Lloyd (of The Nightingales not-really fame) by Michael Cumming and comedian Stewart Lee, too. Particularly the film’s attempt to mirror Lloyd and a King Kong statue (don’t ask) is pretty strained and leading nowhere, and made even worse by Lee (who is on-screen as much as Lloyd) making jokes about it, suggesting that the filmmakers actually knew that this bit was a terrible idea but couldn’t come up with any better way to frame things. The film’s also a bit too chummy at times, with some diversions that really go nowhere fast (what’s the reading of parts of an unfilmed comedy TV script good for, exactly?), and scenes of Lee and Lloyd being drunk, middle-aged buddies that go on way too long.

However, it is also a treasure trove of interviews and raconteuring (that’s a word now) with and other footage of a genuinely interesting guy who made a lot of just as genuinely interesting music, presented with great sense of love and respect, which makes up for all of the film’s flaws.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

In short: The Red Ball Express (1952)

World War II, during the Allied invasion. Patton’s tank division is pushing forward so quickly, he’s regularly outrunning his supply lines. To keep things rolling towards Paris, the US military creates a mobile truck supply line through France, colloquially called the Red Ball Express by the grunts.

The units are thrown together, racially integrated (I believe that would have been the term then), and not necessarily manned with soldiers missed by their old comrades. The Red Ball Express unit the film is concerned with is lead by Lt. Chick Campbell (Jeff Chandler), who seems to be that curious war movie Lieutenant, a highly competent man who cares for his soldiers. The unit sergeant, Red Kallek (Alex Nicol) doesn’t see his commanding officer that way, though, for he knows him from civilian life and makes him responsible for the death of his brother.

Another problem, apart from the Wehrmacht, mine fields, and lots of mud, are the at times strained race relations, exemplified via the trials and travails of one Private Robertson (Sidney Poitier).

Shockingly enough for a movie made in 1952 by a white man (the great Budd Boetticher), Red Ball Express has more than one black character in a speaking role; even more shockingly, the film itself doesn’t treat its black characters any differently than it does the white ones, hell, they’re not even the odious comic relief. It’s shocking in the best possible way to see a film demonstrating that old promise of America of equality by simply, without grand gestures, actually treating people equally. The way the film resolves Robertson’s problems will obviously not be completely to the taste of the 2020s, but there’s a calm fairmindedness about the film’s serious moments that I’m not going to criticize from a distance of seven decades.

This treatment of social issues fits well with Boetticher’s direction style, a tendency to create verisimilitude through a calm look at all kinds of interactions, and through an eye for details that in this case helps fit the actual documentary footage the film uses to portray more than ten trucks or so into the rest of the movie. Boetticher always seems genuinely interested in the way people relate to each other, in the same way he is interested in the practical issues of driving trucks through a warzone. The humour and the romantic elements haven’t aged quite as well as the rest of the film, but since the narrative is very episodic, it simply makes sense to include episodes of levity, too.

And even though The Red Ball Express is so episodic, and therefore not following typical dramatic structure in every point (insert US war movie Ozu comparison here, if you like), there is room and budget for a couple of fine action sequences, particularly a fight against some German hold-outs early on, and a race through a burning French town right at the end.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Willy’s Wonderland (2021)

A man who doesn’t speak (Nicolas Cage) finds all wheels on his pretty swanky looking car destroyed while driving through nowhere, USA. He’s close to one of those small towns that always spell trouble in any horror movie, and the local mechanic’s unwillingness to accept a credit card as well as the absence of a working ATM, do indeed not bode well for him.

On the positive side, the mechanic is perfectly willing to accept payment through work, and quickly our protagonist finds himself tasked by one Tex Macadoo (Ric Reitz) to clean up an indoor amusement arcade full of creepy and weird animatronic dolls singing creepy songs nobody in their right minds would ever unleash on children. But then, these were created by a group of serial killers of kids. The man doesn’t seem to be too bothered to be locked in there for the night; neither does he lose his cool when some of the animatronics start to attack. But then, if I were that good at killing the things, I probably wouldn’t be either. The man does insist strictly on his regular pauses and intense pinball playing, though.

Also becoming involved will be a band of teens lead by Liv (Emily Tosta), out to burn down Willy’s Wonderland to stop the regular human sacrifices (like our guy, in theory) made to the animatronics by their elder townies, and mostly ending up pretty dead. The things, you understand, are possessed by the spirits of those serial killers who once ran the arcade thanks to a Satanic ritual, as these things go.

For a gimmick movie about a speechless Nic Cage kicking the furry asses of animatronic mascots as portrayed by people in suits, Kevin Lewis’s Willy’s Wonderland is actually pretty great. At the very least, it’s a very fun little movie with a genuinely weird sense of humour, and a wonderful willingness to not explain a single thing about its main character. What’s with his autism spectrum style adherence to pause times? Why does he take possessed animatronics quite this much in stride? Are his energy drinks like Popeyes’s spinach? Where did he learn fighting monsters? The film sure isn’t telling.

That’s perfectly okay, though, for Cage has us covered, providing the character the credits call The Janitor (he is absolutely deserving of capitalisation) with all kinds of annoyed, smouldering, grumpy, non-plussed but never confused facial expressions, doing so much great and funny work via face and body language, the on paper bizarre idea to have Nicolas Cage not speak in a movie turns out to be absolutely brilliant, showing off the great man’s insane prowess at larger than life acting to the fullest while also reminding this viewer of how funny Cage can be when he wants to.

Because this has become a bit of a tradition by now, the film’s also drenching its hero in various fluids.

It’s not all Cage all of the time, of course, but even though none of the younger actors or character actors does reach the exalted level of the guy, they do know how to deliver punchlines; even better, most of the punchlines are actually pretty funny, so the scenes without Cage don’t provoke the wish to get back to the real business but are indeed just as entertaining as the rest. Which is not at all a given with this sort of project, and, added to Cage and the general weird yet somewhat creepy and certainly creatively funny aspect of the whole affair, turns Willy’s Wonderland into what I really didn’t expect it to be: a film that’s fun and funny as a film beyond its gimmick and The Cage.

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

In short: Roh (2019)

aka Soul

The film takes place in a not clearly defined time in the past. Mak (Farah Ahmad), dwells together with her daughter Along (Mhia Farhana) and her younger son Angah (Harith Haziq) in a hut in the forest. They are desperately poor, Mak’s husband clearly having died, though she seems to treat his absence as if he could return any day now, from wherever he is.

One day, the children encounter a strange little girl (Putri Qaseh) while checking traps in the woods. She’s covered in clay and seems destitute and confused, so the they take her home with them to clean and feed her and find out where she belongs. That night, strange things start happening when Mak tells a story about a forest spirit. The next morning, the family awakes to the little girl eating raw birds in a mess of blood on the floor. After telling them they’ll all be dead on the next full moon, she cuts her own throat. Mak decides to drag the dead body further into the forest, fearing to be blamed for the girl’s dead. From here on out, bad luck and supernatural ill omens seem to haunt the family. Nightmares and bodily sickness as well as apparitions of the dead girl and violent possession follow. There might be help from a new neighbour (Junainah M. Lojong) living a couple of hills over; there’s also a Hunter (Namron) looking for the girl who might be of help or a threat. If there is any help to be had for the family at all.

The Malaysian Roh, directed by Emir Ezwan, is a fascinating, practically hypnotic movie. Tonally, there’s a folkloric quality to the narrative, with characters that take on very specific archetypal roles, yet it is still emotionally wrenching to watch the family of three that’s hardly getting by being destroyed in the cruellest manner. There’s a degree of sadness and hopelessness, combined with a certain ruthlessness towards the audience and the characters on display that seems parallel to the spirit of Western 70s horror movies. And make no mistake, while the film is clearly coming from the arthouse side of the tracks, with the slow – or rather, careful – pacing that comes with that approach, it is also perfectly willing and able to very explicitly show horrible things happening to these people. It’s not a film lacking compassion while doing this; it’s just one willing not to let its compassion rule its artistic instincts.

There’s also a religious aspect to the tale, but I’m not really knowledgeable enough about the roles of the iblis in Islamic theology (or the point where theology and folklore meet in Malaysia) to have much understanding of what’s going on there. I can say that my lack of knowledge didn’t hurt my being very impressed by the film.

Visually, this is a beautiful and brooding movie, Ezwan repeatedly creating the kind of haunting shots and compositions that can stay with a viewer for a very long time. The burning tree, the little girl staring, or the final revelation are moments I can’t imagine to forget any time soon; neither will I forget the rest of Roh.

Sunday, March 7, 2021

I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957)

Working class teen Tony Rivers (Michael Landon) doesn’t quite fit into his surroundings. He may have a lovely girlfriend in Arlene (Yvonne Lime) and do well academically, but he also demonstrates a twitchy, very violent temper, using his fists in moments when most people wouldn’t even need to shrug the problem off. Eventually, pressed by a well-meaning policeman (Barney Phillips) and Arlene, and taking a long good look at himself after he’s gone berserk for basically no reason, Tony goes to a friendly high class psychologist who is offering his services to the community for free.

That sort of thing is always a bad sign in a 50s movie, so you won’t be surprised to hear that Dr Brandon (Whit Bissell) is indeed a mad scientist. In Tony, he believes to have found exactly the subject he has been looking for, physically healthy yet emotionally out of whack enough to be drugged and hypnotized into regressing back into humanity’s natural state. It’s all for the good of humanity, of course, for our only chance of survival as a species, as Brandon explains, is to start the way to civilization right at the beginning again. And if that means a teenager regresses into a werewolf (a helpful eastern European or perhaps Mexican American police janitor played by Vladimir Sokoloff explains what that is, don’t you worry) whenever he hears loud noises and murders a handful of people, than that’s the price of SCIENCE!

There are a surprising number of joys to be found in Gene “I Married a Monster from Outer Space” Fowler Jr.’s Teenage Werewolf, and not just the still pretty great title. For one, there’s the film’s zippy pacing for an AIP production of its time, where little suggests a filmmaker playing for time to get the film up to length, and nearly all scenes seem to have actual utility for the film. Well, you could argue the early party scene is going on too long, but it’s actually useful to build up Tony being normal (or as “normal” as teenagers in a 50s movie get) before  he has his most decisive anger issue; the otherwise useless musical number on the other hand is just too horrific not to include in a horror movie.

Then there’s the surprisingly thoughtful (and yes, of course also silly and cheesy and peculiar) script, that actually attempts to smuggle in a wee bit of class commentary that’s easy to miss, with Tony being the half-orphaned son of a mechanic where all of his peers seem to come from “perfect” middle class households. And let’s not forget the stifling 50s idea of conformity he has to cope with; though there, I’m not sure if the film actually sees it, or just portrays it as part of the world as it knows and thus accepts it. On the other hand, this is a film whose main character’s fatal mistake is to do what everyone tells him to by submitting to authority, so perhaps Fowler knows exactly what he’s got here.

Why, you might think Tony’s rage has something to do with all of that, and less with any natural atavism.

But returning to the “fun” in the script, there’s a lot to be said for Dr Brandon’s whacked out theories and dialogue – generally spoken to his less crazy assistant who is one of those guys who like to talk about mad science being a bad idea but never does anything to actually help its victims. The most classic line is of course uttered when assistant Hugo seems a bit disturbed by the whole idea of experimenting on an unwitting teenager: “And you call yourself a scientist! That’s why you’ve never been more than an assistant”.

Bissell’s line reading and whole comportment as our mad scientist is rather wonderful, full of overblown arrogance and what appears as sheer delight in his own, idiot theories. Landon actually gets a bit of mileage out of poor Tony, too, portraying the kind of angry for reasons he can’t understand himself young man that wasn’t the cliché it is today with some dignity and making him sympathetic. And as a werewolf in the wolfman tradition, he’s really enthusiastic about the wild eyes and the snarling. Paul Naschy probably took notes.

So in my book, I Was a Teenage Werewolf ends up being one of those 50s AIP productions without Corman involvement (but that of Herman Cohen) that are much better and more interesting than you’d expect going in, as well as cleverer than the really needed to be to simply fill their drive-in spot.

Saturday, March 6, 2021

In short: Wrong Turn (2021)

Warning: I do have to venture into spoiler territory here!

Remakes like this one by Mike P. Nelson of the 2003 backwoods horror movie are a weird proposition. There’s really no reason apart from some sort of legal rights thing to pretend the film at hand has much to do with the movie it is supposedly based one. Sure, it begins as a backwoods slasher about a band of young people getting into trouble with the locals, but so do a hundred movies not called Wrong Turn. In fact, one might think that giving an original movie its own title could interest the audience it was actually made for more than the proposition of a remake of a deeply mediocre film from the early 00s.

Be that as it may, at first, the film does some rather clever and interesting things, twisting the nastier classist aspects of the backwoods horror genre around, mixing things up with more contemporary ideas from the box of “wokeness”, while also suggesting that being perfectly up to standards in modern ideas about race or sexuality doesn’t mean you’re free of prejudice; all the while not falling into the trap of pretending everybody espousing these ideas is a hypocrite. Backwoods horror, with its inbuilt concept of city folk with bad survival instincts encountering inbred cannibal hicks is obviously a great sub-genre to subvert here.

And indeed, one of the film’s better ideas is to sort of fake-out its antagonists as the sort of rapist, racist, nasty monsters you’d expect, eventually revealing their somewhat more complicated history and nature. Of course, that’s also where the film’s problems on its message and theme level start, for while these backwoods people are not the exact same clichés every viewer will have expected, they are still the kind of barbarians that will murder or drag you into slavery or mutilate you for the tiniest reason, and have very dubious ideas about sexual consent. So they are functionally not all that different from the original concept, they only dress weirder. To make any of this work at all, the film also needs an audience willing to suspend disbelief rather deeply when it comes to questions as to how this society could have survived for as long as it has when it always treats trespassers the way they do, or how nobody ever called the feds on them.

These problems get bigger the longer the film goes on, and drag the third act down completely, needing the audience to believe a lot of complete nonsense so it can get to some kind of action-packed finale.

Not at all improving the lasting impression Wrong Turn 21 makes is the decision to drag the classic horror movie bullshit ending out to fifteen minutes or so, including a double fake-out, and needing the audience to simply accept so much that is completely contrary to what it has shown about the antagonists before, I found myself genuinely offended by it. This ending is really one of the most preposterously stupid things I’ve seen in quite some time, and provided the films I watch, that’s saying something.

Thursday, March 4, 2021

In short: Malenka (1969)

Warning: I’m going to spoil the ending, but it really is the ending’s fault!

aka Fangs of the Living Dead (which is a recut version)

Model Sylvia (Anita Ekberg) is really, really happy that her mother died and left her a castle situated in the European version of backlot Europe as well as the title of countess. To be fair, Sylvia never knew her mom and has been raised by her father who never spoke of his marriage and the past, but still…

Keeping with her sociopathic streak, Sylvia has no problem at all in leaving her fiancée Piero (Gianni Medici or “John Hamilton”, if you prefer) in the loving care of his insufferable comic relief buddy Max (César Benet) just a couple of weeks before she’s supposed to get married to him. Arriving at the town below her shiny new old castle, she’s first greeted with the usual gothic horror welcome in the local inn, villagers in this place not just staring and muttering but also taking huge back steps. Things only improve slightly at the castle. Her uncle (Julián Ugarte) is living there right now with a couple of very rude servants and one Blinka (Adriana Ambesi), owner of some very cleavage heavy gowns and a pair of fangs.

Dear uncle is a bit of a weirdo himself, never getting up before nightfall, telling vague stories about an evil ancestor named Malenka who looked exactly like Sylvia with a different hair colour. We all know where this is going, until the film crashes down in a risible “it’s all a plan to drive Sylvia insane” ending that’ll make you want to punch director/writer Amando de Ossorio somewhere more painful than his face.

To be fair to de Ossorio (who as we know would improve doing this sort of thing in the future), this was his first horror movie, and the gothic horror styles the film is working in were relatively new to Spanish cinema at this point in time, so I can excuse some wavering in the script. The idiotic plan for driving Sylvia insane, though, there’s no way to excuse, for it makes no sense, needs a whole village full of idiots and decades of preparation that must have started before Sylvia was even born.

Sylvia as portrayed by Ekberg doesn’t make for a great heroine either. She’s superficial, has not a single interesting character trait, and Ekberg’s performance is absolutely terrible, full of the shrillest, fakest emotion you’ll find outside of a political rally, weird facial contortions and a complete lack of believable humanity. Not that anyone else here is much better, mind you.

At least the film does tend to be pretty to look at. De Ossorio gets some good visual mileage out of the castle and decent interior sets,  and the colours pop in a very 1969 way. Which can be enough to endear a film to me, but in this case, the script and the acting (let’s not even talk about the fearless vampire hunter duo of Piero and Max) seem to go out of their way to be actively annoying and downright stupid.

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Hunter Hunter (2020)

Warning: even though I am avoiding quite a few obvious spoilers here, some structural spoilage is unavoidable!

Joseph (Devon Sawa), his wife Anne (Camille Sullivan) and their daughter Renee (Summer H. Howell) live somewhere in the deepest American wilderness, existing on the proceeds of trapping, hunting and gathering, selling furs in the closest town to buy necessities they can’t get in their own private middle of nowhere. Apparently, this is how Joseph’s family has lived for at least three generations, and Anne has entered into this cruel and hard existence with open eyes out of love.

Things are getting even harder for the family these days, though, for the fur prizes are dropping, and the world is changing ever further from a place that would allow for their kind of marginal existence. In Anne’s eyes, it’s time to move on and change their way of living, if only for Renee’s sake. Joseph clearly won’t be easy to talk around to her point of view. The problem will need to take a backseat anyway. The family has even more dire problems right now, for a wolf has decided to use their trap lines as easy sources of food. Joseph won’t accept any help from the outside world (which won’t be all too willing to provide it when push comes to shove anyway), so he starts hunting the wolf on his own. Eventually, he will not only find the wolf, but other, even more dangerous things, and Anne will be the one having to protect her daughter from them.

That’s about as much as I want to delve into plot spoiler territory when it comes to Shawn Linden’s impressive Hunter Hunter. I am going to add that this is indeed a horror movie and not the survivalist backwoods drama the description might suggest, with a final couple of scenes of immense harshness.

Most of the film’s virtues are easily praised without detailing too much of its sparse (that’s a descriptor, not a judgement) plot anyway, for, even though said plot is indeed well constructed, the film really lives from its strong sense of characterisation and its mood of isolation, dread, and the sadness of people who realize their lives have ended up in a dead end.

Linden – with help from his strong cast, certain beside the family also including excellent performances by Nick Stahl, Gabriel Daniels and Lauren Cochrane – is very, very good at creating depth of character out of pretty sparse dialogue, telling visual details he doesn’t need to point out to the audience directly, facial expressions, and body language, drawing the characters (and these goes for some of the minor characters as well) and their relationships precisely without explaining them, trusting the audience to understand the cues he provides, and lets his actors provide.

The film works the same way at creating its mood, giving cues, showing things, never expositing what the filmmakers are so good at showing. Up until the very end, the film shows this deep trust in its actors and its audience, so that the latter will follow it into a finale that goes full French 00s horror on us, with a gore set piece that has to be seen to believed, just after it has rightly shied away from showing something just as horrible through anything but Sullivan’s face. Unlike a lot of those French movies, the film has worked for its freak-out by its calmness before it, and therefor doesn’t end up in cartoon territory, ending as well judged as it began.

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

In short: Origin Unknown (2020)

Original title: Sin Origen

Cartel higher up Pedro (Daniel Martínez) has retreated into a highly fortified house with his family, guarded by high tech, a small army, as well as his right hand-men, the brothers Alan (Horacio Garcia Rojas) and Erik (Ramón Medina). Pedro is in the process of extracting himself from the drug business, but he’s afraid that the cartel head he is working for will answer his wish with assassination instead of a nice gold watch. This night is apparently the decisive one when it comes to his survival.

Things turn rather stranger than a simple assassination attempt – though not less violent – when a little girl named Lina (Paulina Gil) suddenly and inexplicably makes it onto the mansion grounds. Pedro takes her into the house, but then all hell breaks loose: his man are quickly slaughtered by a small group of women and men dressed up like crosses between cast members of TV’s Arrow and TV’s Vikings wielding crossbows and traditional melee weapons. Much sooner than you’d expect, Pedro, his family and Alan are the only survivors in the high-tech mansion on lock-down, with the strange killers besieging them.

That’s not going to be the night’s only problem: it turns out Lina is the actual aim of the attack. Oh, and she’s a vampire.

Despite some dubious costume design – the vampire hunting assholes really look like grimdark cosplayers and the dress sense of the vampires isn’t any better – Rigoberto Castañeda’s Sin Origen is a fun low budget movie that turns the very basic idea of a fight between narcos, vampire hunters and vampires into a fun, and satisfying little movie.

Unlike I’d expected from the set-up, the film is surprisingly interested in characterisation and proper character motivation, not going terribly deep but deep enough to make characters sympathetic and their actions feel rooted in a little more than the fact that they are scripted thusly. Everyone inside of the house is driven by ideas of family, trying to protect – or avenge – their loved ones, with our little vampire kid as a wild card. In a somewhat original twist, it’s the vampire hunters who are the worst among a bunch of characters with dubious morals here, slaughtering non-vampires wholesale, and showing not the slightest compunction when it comes to violence towards innocents. These guys are total pricks, and so work, in classic siege movie fashion, more as a force of nature than human counterparts to the characters they threaten.

Castañeda is really good with the siege movie basics, building up threats, plans and counter-plans, escalating the tension with just the right pacing. He’s also never forgetting his film’s thematic emphasis on families and what people are willing to give up to protect them; again, it’s not an original argument or idea, but the film’s portrayal and use of it always makes sense in the context of the plot and provides humanity to what could end up being only a series of (small, because this is not a big movie) action set pieces.

It’s such a neatly focussed film, without pretensions, but actually very good at doing the things it sets out to do as an action and horror movie. Which, as my imaginary readers know, is exactly the sort of thing I like.