Friday, April 30, 2021

Well-calculated and with Necronomicon included

This week in my "whatever takes my fancy" corner, have something rather special, namely a 1945 episode of the great, classic audiodrama show SUSPENSE (bold caps brought to you by DRAMA) adapting Lovecraft's "The Dunwich Horror".

Apart from being a Lovecraft adaptation having been made decades before the real Lovecraft renaissance, this is also an early example of what I like to call POV horror (you may go with found footage, of course), pretending to be an actual newscast, though a very peculiar one. It's not the first one of its kind, obviously, at least Welles's "War of the Worlds" did this sort of thing earlier and more straight-faced.

Add Ronald Colman (I probably should call him RC) to the mix of HPL, POV and one of the best old time radio shows, and you my kind of catnip.

If you don't already know the adaptation, why not give it a listen here:

Thursday, April 29, 2021

In short: The Omen (1976)

When the baby of ultra-rich American ambassador Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) and his wife Katherine (Lee Remick) is stillborn, Robert all too quickly accepts the offer of a shady priest (Martin Benson) to secretly adopt a child born orphaned. Without even telling his wife, obviously.

As we all know, that turns out to have been a very bad idea, because little Damien is the Anti-Christ, as evidenced by various bizarre deaths that begin to occur around him once he’s a couple of years older (and played by Harvey Stephens), deaths which he seems to cause by very vigorous and loud playing (now that’s what I call true horror). Eventually, thanks to the efforts of a doomed priest (Patrick Troughton, the Second Doctor himself) and an equally doomed but more long-lived photographer (David Warner), and because Satan’s really very unsubtle about his work, Thorn does find out what’s what, but alas, the forces of good in this one are just terrible at their jobs.

No, seriously, given how big a thing the Anti-Christ is, and how obvious the stuff going on in Richard Donner’s film, it’s pretty weird that there’s not a whole commando unit of exorcists sticking magic knives into the kid. But then, it’s also pretty weird that rich guy Thorn never bothers to acquire or simply hire some practical help when it comes to fighting off Satanists, evil doggies and so on. That’s really the film’s major problem: a script by David Seltzer that’s often painfully implausible even if a viewer is perfectly willing to accept its idiot version of pulp Christianity. Not that it’s terribly good at characterisation, either, for the Thorns, and even the gosh-darn anti-Christ stay half removed from the audience, or from much of what you’d want to interpret as believable impressions of actual human emotions. Don’t confuse this with the Italian approach to horror though, these people are deeply uninvolving and boring instead of strange and moody. While I’m bashing the script, it’s also sometimes dragging its heels painfully, coming in at twenty minutes or so longer than the material can carry.

However, there’s one saving grace to Seltzer’s script, namely the ability to come up with weird, often disquieting murder set pieces, which fits perfectly with director Donner’s ability to stage them. Indeed, it is Donner’s work at letting these weird elements come to life by using every camera trick, every skewed angle, every moody matte painting or creepy set he can come up with, throwing basically the whole visual history of horror cinema up to this point on screen that has turned this into a perennial classic. In fact, Donner’s so good at creating a mood of the Gothic in a contemporary guise, all the film’s weaknesses feel more like small problems than the critical failures they should be, so a film that should objectively be a bit of a polished turd feels rather a lot like a classic of its genre. I blame the Anti-Christ.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

The Boss (1973)

Original title: Il Boss

Sicily. After the old bosses have been driven into exile by the authorities, everyone left, be it newcomers from Calabria, the former small fry, or those dons not deemed important enough to get rid of, begins to violently scrabble for territory and influence. Gang wars minor and major flare up.

Right in the middle of it is Nick Lanzetta (Henry Silva), a guy who won’t think twice blowing up a private porn cinema exhibition for an enemy clan with some well-placed grenades. When the daughter (Antonia Santilli) of his boss Don Giuseppe (Claudio Nicastro) is kidnapped by the Calabrians of Don Corrasco (Richard Conte), the old man asks Nick to get her back. The first problem with this project is that the guy the next step up the ladder of Don Giuseppe has explicitly forbidden any action, literally leaving the girl’s fate up to God with a nice little shrug; the second one is that Nick has plans of his own.

If you’re one of the people who tend to be taken aback by how polite the portrayal of the mafia can get in many gangster movies, and how much films can buy into the concepts of honour etc that make up the PR of the group, you won’t need to approach Fernando Di Leo’s Il Boss with any trepidation.

This is a film very much working the same field as the post Battles without Honour and Humanity yakuza film, portraying the mafia and its members as brutal, traitorous thugs who only ever use their fabled honour and responsibility when it is useful as a weapon for them, otherwise breaking trusts with not even the slightest sign of second thoughts. Not that the film is any nicer to the legal authorities - those are either too cynical to even still be able to countenance any kind of action beyond mopping up the blood the gangsters leave, or corrupt to the bone like Gianni Garko’s Commissario Torri here. Also not getting away un-scorned are politicians (as corrupt as Torri just more polite about it) and the youth movement (only in it for sex and drugs). Needless to say, this is about as angrily political a movie as you’ll find in the field.

Di Leo portrays his cast of bastards and assholes – the least immoral character is probably Don Giuseppe’s nymphomaniac daughter (the portrayal of women isn’t great by today’s or even 1973’s standards) – with what feels like seething anger, barely held in check, and no hope for anything about the way Italy was in the 70s changing at all. You might call it nihilist, but in my experience, true nihilists don’t get angry at the state of the world like this, but revel in it.

Because Di Leo is also one of the great commercial directors of this genre, he packages his rage in a series of (often darkly funny) dialogue scenes that bitterly portray the state of his country, and just as many brutal, tight and absolutely relentless action scenes that do tend to get more than a little crazy. Henry Silva and the rest of the cast are of course perfect for portraying these specific kinds of assholes and monsters, often adding a self-conscious theatricality to their scenes that’s an ideal way of demonstrating that their characters’ only real use for emotion is faking it to look like human beings. They’d also rip the hearts out of Coppola’s mannered Mafiosi in the blink of an eye, making this a rather useful antidote to The Godfather (which is nonetheless a great film trilogy, don’t get me wrong).

Il Boss may very well be one of the very best European gangster movies, blowing up the competition before desecrating their graves, one supposes.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

In short: The Nickel Ride (1974)

Former carny man Cooper (Jason Miller) is working as lower middle-management for the LA mob. He’s mainly taking care of warehouses used for stashing stolen goods, but he’s also fixing boxing matches, threatening someone here or there, and so on. He is a bit of a local celebrity on his home block, and has is married to Sarah (Linda Haynes), who’d probably catch a bullet for him if she’d see it coming. Right now, Cooper is working on a project that might very well get him one step up the criminal ladder. He is trying to procure a whole city block of warehouses, legally if you ignore the bribes, which would make things much easier for criminals around the city, or so he believes.

But as the film starts, things begin to go slowly unravel. The officials he’s trying to bribe become evasive, boxing matches aren’t as easily fixed as they should, and his boss (Tony Hillerman) is sending him a weird Southern guy (Bo Hopkins) he is supposed to take care of. Though you don’t need to be a genius to realize the man’s actually supposed to keep an eye on Cooper. Once things start slipping, Cooper deteriorates fast, exacerbating his problems with rash decisions that’ll only make them bigger, and beginning to fear a quick, sudden death by his associates.

While certainly being a noir-ish gangster movie, what mainly resonates for me about Robert Mulligan’s quiet and atmospheric noir-ish gangster movie is its deep sense of paranoia. This isn’t just the portrayal of a man who built his life on violence seeing age taking some of his abilities away, or that of a man trapped in the gangster version of a job without much perspective. Most of all, it is the portrayal of a guy who wakes up one morning and starts to realize that the world is slipping around him, that the things he once thought secure are anything but, and that his safety is an illusion. Cooper is quickly slipping into the paranoia that naturally must come with this sort of realization, seeing enemies everywhere – where they are and where they aren’t and slowly realizes that his hopes for the future have brought him inevitable doom.

Miller’s portrayal of this process is highly nuanced, avoiding any kind of hyperbole, instead finding a very precise way to show Cooper losing his grip on a world that’s all too willing to get rid of him.

Precision is an important word for the whole of the film: before we even realize we are already witnessing Cooper falling, Mulligan has created the social world of dark and grimy streets and people of dubious jobs and morals around him slowly and carefully, making very clear what’s at stake for Cooper and why.

The Nickel Ride is full of clever decisions. A nice example is its use of Bo Hopkins’s patented Southern folksiness, or rather, how Mulligan and Hopkins (in a really clever performance) suggest an abyss of menace lurking just beyond a corny exterior, turning a Hopkins standard character into a perfect focus for Cooper’s paranoid (and not so paranoid) nightmares.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Kill Them All and Come Back Alone (1968)

Original title: Ammazzali tutti e torna solo

During the US Civil War. After demonstrating to the rather annoyed Confederate Captain Lynch (Frank Wolff) that his base security sucks in a fake sneak attack, mercenary Clyde McKay (Chuck Connors) and his gang of weird, violent men are hired to steal some gold belonging to the Union. As is usual in the man on a mission genre, McKay’s men (this is a film completely devoid of women in front of the camera, which on the plus side spares us the mandatory rape scene) are mainly characterized by the way they like to kill people, which can work, as it does here, when a filmmaker actually knows how to hone in on the right details about a killer that turn murder method into character. The best bet to get at said gold is apparently to somehow infiltrate a heavily secured fort and hope the dynamite it is hidden in doesn’t explode.

Further complicating the mission are the fact that McKay and his team are a bunch of backstabbers and cut-throats who can’t even wait with murdering each other until their mission is over, and that Captain Lynch may very well have an agenda all of its own.

Apart from crime movies, the great Enzo G. Castellari was particularly great at directing men on a mission style plots, may they take place during World War II or, like here, the US Civil War. So it’s no surprise that the perfectly appropriately titled Kill Them All makes for a pretty riveting watch, full of very exciting scenes of sweaty men with nasty dispositions first doing pretty unpleasant things only to their enemies but increasingly to their supposed partners too. Castellari’s great at staging the lighter, somewhat humorous action at the beginning, but he transitions just as well to the moment when things become seriously brutal, using the same vigour with which he portrays a brawl meant as a distraction when things step up to a jail break that turns into a massacre.

Speaking of massacres, more conservative critics have often tended to call the Italian Western “amoral” and “nihilistic”, a judgement that usually needs a healthy inability to understand the genre’s actual texts and subtexts. In the case of Kill Them All, that interpretation is for once actually applicable. Don’t get me wrong, Castellari isn’t exactly cheering the characters on, rather he never seems to judge the characters one way or the other, just showing the murderous nonsense they get up to without approving or disapproving. And make no mistake, these men are particularly nasty examples of their type, sacrificing bystanders and so-called friends alike for the tiniest advantage, and often in ways that actually must disadvantage them sooner or later. Which obviously makes perfect sense for the kind of people they are supposed to be.

In the very end, the film really earns the raised eyebrow of moral disapproval though, when it cheers on the final survivor’s acquisition of the gold, as if he hadn’t murdered friends and comrades, and killed hordes of people only for greed. That’s certainly one way to avoid the traditional ending where he’d end up alive and wiser but without gold, but really felt like one step too much for me.

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Three Films Make A Post: Take The Trip

Stone (1974): This Australian bikie (thanks for that term, Australia) exploitation movie is a weird thing. It starts out as a paranoid acid trip (that is to say, pretty awesome), turns into a nearly anthropological look at its version of bikie culture - with some added fun violence in between, of course – and ends with the sort of 70s downer business that really puts all that talk about honour in the scenes before into a rather brutal perspective.

One-time feature director and occasional actor Sandy Harbutt has quite the eye for going from 70s psychedelia, through the scenes that feel documentary, to the cheap and fun action, dropping some acerbic bits about class, and getting back to the bad trip quality while making things feel natural.

Hell Drivers (1957): There’s also quite a bit of class commentary in Cy Endfield’s curious mix of melodrama, truck action, and noir tropes. Unlike in many a 50s British movie, one can even imagine the director having met working class people before. The film also shows for its time surprising sympathy for its Italian “Gastarbeiter” character (though he is played by the decidedly not Italian Herbert Lom), and generally seems to have a good working idea of how a certain type of working class pride can easily be exploited to destructive ends.

On a less theoretical level, for my tastes, the film comes down a bit too hard on the side of the melodrama, putting the action and the noir elements sometimes too far in the back. The cast is pretty amazing however, not only featuring Lom, Patrick McGoohan, Stanley Baker and Peggy Cummins in the leads, but having pop up William Hartnell, David McCallum, Gordon Jackson, and even Sean Connery in small before they were famous parts.

The Comeback Trail (2020): George Gallo’s remake of the Harry Hurwitz movie is one of those comedies that sometimes go out of their way to repeat a joke for the slow audience members, likes to mistime perfectly fine punchlines, and often shows surprisingly little talent for staging its jokes as best as it could. Frome time to time, the script’s very funny indeed (particularly if you like your low budget movies), but just as often, it seems to coast on some basic ideas in it being funny without actually bothering with turning them into funny scenes.

That the resulting film is still watchable and entertaining enough (in an undemanding manner) is mostly the responsibility of the actors, well, really mostly Tommy Lee Jones, Robert De Niro and Morgan Freeman (a trio frankly much too good for the film), who put quite a bit of effort into classing up the joint. As an addendum for your nightmares, please appreciate how much Emile Hirsch looks like a young, thin, Jack Black in this one.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

In short: Trapped (1973)

aka Doberman Patrol

Chuck Brenner (James Brolin) is in a bit of a complicated divorce situation right now. His ex-wife Elaine (Susan Clark) is just about to move to Mexico with her new husband David (Earl Holliman) and her and Chuck’s daughter (Tammy Harrington), and relations are understandably strained. On the day of their departure Chuck, trying to shorten the wait for some change for a doll he was buying for his kid just before the store closed (it’s – needlessly -complicated) by having a smoke in one of the few places in the department store where smoking is actually okay, the rest rooms(!), is mugged and struck unconscious by two criminals of dubious talent.

When he wakes up, he is trapped in the department store and soon finds himself confronted with a very special security measure. Apparently, the powers that be are in favour of just letting half a dozen kill crazy attack dogs roam the store over night without any human supervision, so Chuck has to use all his wits and physical strength to survive.

Outside, Elaine and especially David start worrying about him, doing some slow detective work to find him.

Frank De Felitta’s (of The Entity fame) ABC movie of the week is a fine example of the form, conquering the relatively minimalist production values of this sort of thing via clever suspense filmmaking, as is typical of the better of these films.

De Felitta (who also wrote) makes great use of Brolin’s often underused abilities as a physical actor (see also Night of the Juggler) in the locked-in suspense sequences, while increasingly constraining the character physically and emotionally. For this is a film very interested in portraying the mental toll the physical strain, the horror of the situation and his wounds will take on its main character. It uses simple yet highly effective methods (there is Vaseline on the camera involved, it seems) to convey Chuck’s increasing desperation and physical and mental exhaustion. The dog actors are also good enough to present a credible threat, particularly when the direction uses every possibility to make put them above our protagonists or in other positions where they seem to physically dwarf Brolin.

The film’s other plot thread with the search for Chuck is less obviously engaging. It is slower, with quite a few TV clichés and very 70s character psychology (my working theory at this point is that all 70s scriptwriters read the same two self help books and confused that with a knowledge of psychology). Yet it is also a necessary part of the film, keeping the inevitable slow moments away from Chuck’s dog adventures, and clearly added with the understanding that you can’t escalate the man versus dog centre of the film endlessly without it becoming slightly silly.

This approach does work out well for Trapped in the end, leaving it as yet another fine example of what talented filmmakers were able to create inside of the constraints of the TV movie form.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Stagecoach (1966)

Nearly everyone reading this (hi, Mum!) will know the plot of this one, though not this version of it, so to keep matters short: a diverse group of travellers on a stagecoach to Cheyenne – saloon girl Dallas (Ann-Margret), alcoholic Doctor Boone (Bing Crosby), Marshal Wilcox (Van Heflin), comic relief whiskey salesman Peacock (Red Buttons), Southern-born gambler Hatfield (Mike Conners), pregnant cavalry captain’s wife Lucy Mallory (Stefanie Powers), banker with a case full of stolen money Gatewood (Robert Cummings), coach driver Buck (Slim Pickens) and eventually outlaw-with-a-cause Ringo Kid (Alex Cord) – have to survive natural and human dangers. Which is the sort of thing that happens travelling during one of the endless wars between the US military and the pre-colonial native population.

Though, to put that right in front, the film really isn’t interested at all in any more modern view on these wars or on the Lakota as a people, using both as forces of nature that endanger and kill anybody coming too close. So if this traditional approach bothers you too much, you’ll not be happy with the movie; but then you’ll probably not be happy with much of the canon of US Westerns.

Speaking of canon, this is indeed a remake of one of the great, canonical classics of its genre (probably Hollywood cinema as a whole), John Ford’s Stagecoach. Remaking this sort of certified masterpiece is a bit of a fool’s errant, the kind of endeavour seldom bound to earn praise from critics or audiences (though the latter may have been more tolerant in the home video-less times when this was made). It’s also somewhat arrogant. However, at least in my view, Gordon Douglas was a genre director who was not actually a lesser filmmaker than Ford. As a matter of fact, if I had to choose to between both, I’d most probably go with Douglas as my preferred director. But then, I do prefer working filmmakers like Douglas who still managed to develop a voice of their own to professional crafters of masterpieces like Ford. Though I have taken a decade or so to watch enough of Douglas’s films to truly appreciate him as more than a guy who just happened to make a lot of good Westerns and my favourite US giant monster movie. All of which does not mean I don’t appreciate quite a few of Ford’s films (and his original Stagecoach is surely one of the great Westerns).

Much of this is simply a matter of taste, Douglas lacking certain things that can drive me to distraction with Ford: as a rule, Douglas’s movies tend to be less socially conservative, feeling more genuinely concerned with the outsiders of society, and less beholden to a nostalgia which can sometimes become cloying in Ford, particularly connected to a kind of sentimentality that simply does not work for me. Though the original Stagecoach is one of Ford’s least conservative movies in some regards, particularly the ending. Douglas also does not generally delve as deeply into the abyss of odious comic relief as Ford, usually relaxing the tension in his films in ways more based on the simple joys of human companionship, though the film at hand does indeed feature the Peacock/Boone combo doing some comic relieving.

Which indeed he does a lot in his version of Stagecoach, in between often genuinely wonderful scenes in which the characters reveal or discover their true natures in their shared encounters with danger. Interestingly, most of the characters are better than the world or they themselves believe to be, finding strength and dignity in the business of survival, most of them looking to stay their better versions in the future. There are exceptions of course: Gatewood learns exactly nothing about himself or the world, and – alas, quite realistically – Crosby’s alcoholic doctor sobers up quite heroically in the moment of greatest need but is back to the bottle immediately afterwards.

But then, Crosby’s sobering up is a great moment anyway. The actor shifting from humorous alcoholic wreck to a rather wise man about his business is staged and played with great dramatic and emotional heft that’s further strengthened exactly by the fact he has been part of the comic relief – though a more complicated one than his partner – until now. Crosby, not exactly an actor I’d expect this sort of performance from (I generally prefer him as a crooner and in musicals), does play the alcoholic very well indeed, suggesting the man buried under the bottle even in his silliest scenes.

As a whole, Douglas’s cast is pretty fantastic, in individual moments as well as in their interplay, all giving performances a step above their usual quality, which is saying quite something in a lot of these cases. Ann-Margret is heartbreakingly beautiful and intense at this stage in her career before starting to border on camp caricature, and really seems to embody the confusion of a young woman who already has seen quite a bit of crap in her time. Now, she is confronted with the roles she is allowed by society to play, none of whom seems to fit very well, and finds an opening to something happier (because this is a kind film at heart). Alex Cord, never much of an actor, brings something awkward, but also simple, straightforward and honest to Ringo that doesn’t feel as much as a performance but like watching a guy finding the thing he is best at; that not much in this line came afterwards for the actor is a bit of a shame, but so it goes.

Visually, Stagecoach ‘66 is just as excellent as it is in its character work. Douglas uses the much enhanced technical possibilities he had compared to the original to their fullest, staging stagecoach sequences and sometimes surprisingly brutal violence (particularly in a film that seems not at all influenced by the budding revisionist tendencies in Western, nor by what the Italians started doing) Ford simply couldn’t have realized at the time when he made the original, adding action and stunts that are often incredibly exciting and intense, as well as varied in their approach. Action and characters do tend to feed into each other rather wonderfully, as well, really turning this not just into my favourite version of Stagecoach but into one of my favourite US Westerns.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

In short: Sator (2019)

A handful of characters we will eventually realize are a family live separately in some deep and dark, desolate Appalachian forest and mountain snowscape. Talk and thoughts when the characters meet tend to turn to a figure named Sator that has apparently been in contact with – or hounding – the family since the time of their grandmother (June Peterson, the actual grandmother of the director, who indeed spoke with an entity she called Sator during schizophrenic episodes) who talks about something that only ever feels dreadful and horrifying as if it were her guardian angel.

Mental states become increasingly frayed as Sator’s influence seems to grow; rituals are committed; things end very badly indeed.

Jordan Graham’s Sator is a film that is bound to divide any given audience. If you go in insisting on a clear and obvious narrative throughline, contemporary ideas about streamlined pacing or even just a clear adherence to what are becoming the rules of folk horror, this might very well be a film that’ll simply infuriate you, or at least bore you to tears.

I felt pretty much in awe of Sator watching it, basically hypnotized by its use of slowness, its thick and deep mood of dread, desperation and doom (so thick it’ll turn anyone into Stan Lee, apparently), the seemingly random but actually deeply meaningful shifts in style. Parts of the film look and feel as if you were watching a very weird family documentary (which you sort of do at that point), others have an indie horror style sense of the poetry of long lingering shots of dark and lonely places. It’s beautiful if you have the patience for it, coming to a point where the presentation of a ritual through a movie feels as if it were part of the ritual itself, putting the viewer in the position of a witness to something that probably should not be witnessed at all. Thanks to the actual family connections of the tale to its director, the film is also deeply personal, turning something that must have caused deep rifts in an actual family into a thing of myth and awe, always avoiding the temptation to turn this into some kind of afterschool special.

There is something genuinely haunting about Sator, a quality that is certainly caused by very thought-through and careful filmmaking (the film is making so much out of a miniscule budget, it’s nearly unbelievable), yet still feels like it were part of some sort of folk magic, letting the viewer commune with the sort of things Man Wasn’t Meant to Know (hi, HPL!). Not to get coarse, but it’s impressive as fuck.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Una rata en la oscuridad (1979)

Warning: there will be spoilers, because there are some late movie revelations I simply cannot ignore completely

Sisters Josefina (Ana Luisa Peluffo) and Sonia (Anaís de Melo) have managed to buy a surprisingly spacious and classy house for suspiciously little money. As every viewer of horror movies will expect, the house does turn out to be haunted. At first, Sonia is in the centre of the various strange happenings that seem to emanate from the portrait painting of a somewhat intense looking woman found in the living room. These phenomena seem to travel with a single rat that makes uncommonly loud noises. In part, it’s the usual mix of poltergeist style phenomena and strange noises, but the haunting also slowly begins to influence the sisters’ personalities, turning Sonia first languid than aggressive through the magic of what is apparently pretty mind blowing ghost sex.

Fans of Mexican genre movies will probably know Una rata’s director Alfredo Salazar more as a screen writer than as a director. The ten movies he directed are small fry to the more than sixty he wrote from the 50s on. The film at hand does suggest a bit of a pet project, seeing how Salazar does his best to avoid the general shoddiness of late 70s Mexican genre films. However, pet project or not, it has to be said that some of the sleaze is too on the nose to be helpful for the film, and the acting tends to be too broad even for a film as consciously strange as this one gets.

The budget is obviously low, so complicated camera set-ups, extras or simply too many locations and sets are out, yet the film takes palpable care to use what little it has as best as possible. Salazar often manages to create a dream-like and truly strange mood on the cheap with the (I believe at least partially needle-dropped, most definitely genius) synth soundtrack, clever single camera set-ups, and slightly illogical plotting. It’s a film full of decisions like portraying a character’s ghost induced orgasm via a modern dance number in woozy white, the sort of idea that’s a bit absurd, a lot strange, and really rather brilliant. If that sounds a little like an Italian horror movie, I’d be very surprised if Salazar hadn’t been influenced by his colleagues from across the pond, or just inspired to go all out for the dreamlike and the peculiar by some very heavy food.

Also pretty strange are the film’s sexual politics. At first, the whole ghost sex angle does feel a lot like some of the good old (bad) lesbian panic angle. However, the big plot twist - as well as the explanation for why the camera is generally positioned so not to show the face of the sexing ghost, apart from this adding to the peculiar mood of the whole affair - is that the ghost is a transvestite (or a cross dresser), apparently an entity using the house as some sort of honey trap to seduce and murder people. In fact, I’m not even sure our villain is supposed to be a supernatural entity – the ending’s simply to weird to make the kind of sense that’ll lead anyone to logical conclusions about their nature. If this makes Una rata’s sexual politics better or worse, I honestly have no idea. It certainly adds another parallel to Italian horror movie obsessions and makes things more peculiar. What – if anything – Salazar actually means by any of it, I’m not able to parse.

In any case, if you’d like your weird European-style horror to come from Mexico instead for once, and enjoy being confused and mildly weirded out, Una rata en la oscuridad is most probably going to be a fine film for you.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Three Films Make A Post: Carrol Jo Hummer--A working man who's had enough!

White Line Fever (1975): I know that this film by Jonathan Kaplan about an independent trucker played by Jan-Michael Vincent taking on the long-haul version of The Man has quite a few admirers. However, for me, the mix of traditional trucker exploitation, hicksploitation humour and earnest working class “Organize!” doesn’t really quite come together. Taken alone, every given scene is a perfectly fine example of its given genre, together, they result in a film of wildly fluctuating tone and uneven pacing that really would have needed to decide where it wants to put its emphasis.

Kill Me Again (1989): This is the first of now quality TV director John Dahl’s neo noirs after his time as a music video director, a series of films that would lead to at least two absolute classics of the genre. For its first two acts, this is nearly on its way to that status as well. Dahl uses his slick and polished style and the desert sun to perfectly replace the play of shadow and light of the classical noir, letting his characters go through variations of classic tropes that get enough of a twist to feel new. Val Kilmer (before he apparently started to believe that the main job of an actor is to sabotage the movie he is in), his then wife Joanne Whalley and Michael Madsen fit into this surface bright noir world perfectly.

Alas, the film breaks down nearly completely in the final act, with too many implausibilities even for a noir, and a bad case of random plot twist syndrome.

The Dry (2020): While I respect it and its approach, I can’t say I really enjoyed Robert Connolly’s adaptation of Jane Harper’s novel as much as I’d have liked too. There’s certainly a great sense of the dry Australian outback it takes place in on display, and the film also makes the book’s flashback structure flow much more organically than its source.

But for my tastes, the film is a bit too distanced from the crime(s) and the people at its heart, using a clinical look on its characters and their travails that makes it difficult to empathise with them, packing little emotional heft despite being about things of great emotional weight.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

In short: The Score (2001)

Aging thief Nick (Robert De Niro), looking at retirement to be with his younger girlfriend (Angela Bassett) and manage his ill-gotten jazz club is going on one last, risky, heist together with an ableist newbie (Edward Norton) who has ingratiated himself with the thief’s main contact (Marlon Brando). Said contact will turn out to have problems of his own beyond looking as unhealthy as early 00s Brando. Still, nothing you won’t see coming a mile or two away occurs.

The whole affair looks and feels a lot as if director Frank Oz was really trying to make a Michael Mann movie, but failing, ending up with the artistic ambitions and slickness of Mann’s style and none of the intelligence and depth these things are supposed to stand in service of, and which make the difference between artistic ambitions and simple pretentiousness.

The script (with four people credited for story and screenplay, which is seldom a good sign in the sort of major mainstream movie where this means there were probably ten writers involved) lacks any nuance, any sense for the telling detail, that could drag the obvious clichés in more interesting directions, leaving the actors to go through the motions. And sure, De Niro and Norton going through the motions is not exactly boring to watch, but it’s also a painful underuse of their talents.

The script has other flaws: the motive for the final – and so obvious it’s not a spoiler – betrayal is underprepared even though the film’s about half an hour too long for what it is, the pacing’s off (a cardinal sin in this genre), and I don’t even want to know who thought having Norton go undercover as a “retard” (that’s a quote) was anything but an idea to make a viewer cringe.

Despite the flaws, it’s still a watchable film, even though it is only the kind of watchability that comes with a cast and crew made up out of experienced professionals doing their jobs professionally.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Death Hunt (1981)

The early 1930s, Canada, the Yukon territory. A trapper named Albert Johnson (Charles Bronson) has just returned to the area to reclaim a way of life he followed before he became a spy in World War I (and did whatever guys like he do after that). When he sees local influential asshole Hazel (Ed Lauter) attempt to kill his own dog because it was losing a dog fight, he intervenes, making Hazel and his gang of violent cronies his bitter enemies. Hazel does his best to escalate things when it turns out that Johnson isn’t one to be easily killed by the likes of him, eventually managing to set the – very unwilling and generally tired – local Mountie Millen (Lee Marvin), his partner Sundog (Carl Weathers) and newly arrived rookie Mountie Alvin (Andrew Stevens, quite some time before he became one of the kings of Skinemax) against the trapper.

Because Johnson is a very dangerous man when riled, and a master at survival in dangerous circumstances, things escalate into a huge manhunt that makes the national news, making any idea of a peaceful solution nearly ridiculous.

Peter R. Hunt’s Northern Death Hunt is a wonderful film, basically doing nothing whatsoever that could destroy its balance, and doing very many things very right indeed.

The character work is strong throughout: Hunt makes excellent use of those elements of Bronson’s external stoicism that can suggest a combination of compassion and stubbornness when used properly (and Bronson clearly liked to do that when a film gave him the chance, and so applied himself fully in these situations instead of going through the motions of being Bronson), showing all the complexities of the character despite him only having a handful of dialogue scenes.

This ability to work via the body language of veteran actors also produces quite a resonant relationship between Marvin and Bronson despite them never meeting between glances through binoculars. Of course, these two are constructed as very parallel characters, decent men of violence who see their ways of life coming to an end, and not liking the replacement at all. It’s not that the film is getting all melancholy about the great times of frontier barbarism, mind you: it’s clear that nearly everyone populating these last spaces ruled by the old ways is a violent thug of some kind, cruel and callous; the film’s just as clear about the fact that the new ways of living coming up North now are not really any less terrible – they just like to pretend they are.

The film works wonderfully as a grim adventure movie with quite a few great set pieces, atmospherically filmed. The environmental dangers of snow and ice are ever-present, and, the film seems to suggest, are outward symbols of everyone’s mental states, which generally aren’t terribly healthy. The film takes some rather clever detours when it puts its mind to it, using tropes of the Western and revisionist Western but giving them interesting little twists to turn characters more human. Somewhat surprisingly, but certainly fitting in this context, for a film whose view on human nature seems to be rather cynical as a whole, Death Hunt shows a decided tendency to give every single side character (all played by wonderful character actors) something to be beyond their premeditated genre role, even fleshing out some of Hazel’s shithead henchmen as if they were proper human beings. The most impressive thing is not just that Hunt had the immense ambition to add all this humanity to his icy chase movie, it’s that he managed to do this while keeping the film ticking away like clockwork, ending up with a film that’s sprawling when thought about, but which feels tight and focussed while you watch it.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

In short: Collateral (2004)

If nothing else, this Michael Mann joint about a taxi driver (Jamie Foxx) becoming the unwilling chauffeur and unlikely fall guy for a professional killer (Tom Cruise) on a five stop murder tour of police informers through LA does prove that good direction and excellent acting is absolutely all that is needed to turn a bizarre, overconstructed and deeply implausible script into a highly engaging movie.

The film’s plot is a melange of improbable happenstance and stupid plans by supposed “professionals” that would make quite a few giallos look completely realistic. However, as with the giallo, realism and believability really aren’t the point here. Instead, Mann creates a world out of his patented amassing of plausible feeling details (which are often total hogwash in actual reality, but no matter) and a visual style that goes all in for a very digital look when that wasn’t a thing most serious directors who could afford any better tried, where all the theoretical nonsense makes total emotional and thematic sense in practice. Because it’s all in a day’s work for Mann even on a bad day, he squeezes in quite a few fantastic action and suspense scenes into the cracks of his the tale of a man losing all of his illusions and finding strength through it, starring Los Angeles by night as the perfect metaphor for the modern world. Going by the critical consensus of the time, he also made pretty much everyone watching happy with it.

While Mann is working his magic, he not only gets the expectedly great performances out of Foxx, Jada Pinkett Smith and Mark Ruffalo (doing the most Michael Mann movie cop character imaginable), but also a less awkward performance out of Cruise than most directors get when asking him to act instead of to star. In these cases, the problem usually isn’t that Cruise isn’t trying but that he’s trying so visibly to rise to the occasion, ironically seeming to lack the self-confidence to really be in the role instead of playing it. Here, there’s still a bit of the stiffness this often produces, but there are many scenes where Cruise actually nails the character in a natural and fluent way.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Come True (2020)

Sarah (Julia Sarah Stone) is in a state of being something of a half-runaway. Sneaking into her home from time to time when she knows her mother isn’t there to cop some food or a shower, she sleeps in the bedroom of what seems to be her only friend at school when she’s lucky, and outside when she’s not. The film never really outright says what kind of abuse she’s avoiding, but it can’t be pretty.

Giving her precarious state outside of school, it looks like a bit of a godsend to the teenager when she sees an advert for a sleep study, that’ll get her a bit of money as well as quite a few nights in a very safe environment. Or what should be a safe environment, for as it turns out, this isn’t quite a typical sleep study. For some reason, the subjects of the study seem to share the exact same nightmares, nightmares that seems to increasingly trickle into their waking lives, until Sarah gets into mortal danger.

If nothing else, Anthony Scott Burns’s Come True is certainly the best film in the small horror sub-genre of contemporary films fascinated with sleep experiments (still waiting on a Russian movie about that sort of thing, obviously) and/or sleep paralysis.

Kidding aside, the film’s at the very least a minor gem (I’d argue a major one), shot in a style somewhat evoking early to middle period Cronenberg - like quite a few films have done in the last couple of years - through a certain visually expressed coldness. It’s – again like most of its stylistic brethren – not a simple stylistic derivative, for Burns shows quite bit more compassion for Sarah’s suffering, physical and metaphysical, than you’d get from Cronenberg and uses the distancing effect coming with the style to avoid sentimentality, but not sentiment.

The clinical style is also very useful when it comes to presenting the – brilliantly conceived yet budget-consciously minimalist – effects of the abnatural on the world and the characters. The film’s seeming objectivity makes most of its horror set pieces very convincing indeed. Most of the horror feels very much of a piece with that objectivity, presenting the influx of the irrational in a very rational manner, which is an uncommon approach for dream-based movies – which do tend to the consciously surreal – and turns out to be very effective indeed in Burns’s hands.

Some of the concepts the script (by Burns and Daniel Weissenberger) uses are rather wonderful indeed, certainly again suggesting the shadow of Cronenberg, but also of the more science fictional arm of weird fiction, and the fusion of that into creepypasta. There’s a very well developed sense of strangeness running through the film, yet a strangeness that doesn’t seem random but coherent and logical in the same way systems of the occult can feel coherent and logical even though they are irrational.

There are flaws here, of course. Most obviously, there’s a really ill-advised as well as unconvincing romance to suffer through that feels painfully tacked on and rather inadvertently uncomfortable. On the plus side, the ending of the romance does provide the film with one of its most haunting images in the end, so it’s not completely useless.

Some of the acting also feels a little off, with some of the actors in minor roles making peculiar decisions in their line readings as well as in their body language. Though, given the very peculiar and sudden double twist ending of the film, this might very well have been a purposeful decision from the filmmakers; it does certainly add to the strangeness of mood that increases the longer the film goes on.

Not at all awkward is Stone’s performance. As a matter of fact, it’s rather on the riveting side, carrying the film over its more implausible or distanced moments with its humanity, and keeping this as far away from the sort of horror film where you can’t wait to see the characters die as possible.

That all of this clearly has been realized on a minor budget is a little wonder indeed, turning Come True into quite the surprise for this jaded viewer of movies concerning sleep experiments and sleep paralysis.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Three Films Make A Post: The hunter becomes the hunted.

Enhanced (2019): By now, quite a few low budget filmmakers have realized that they may not be able to keep up on the spectacle of contemporary superhero cinema, but they sure as hell can use superhero tropes when focussing on comparatively low power sets and street level plots. Like at least half of these films, James Mark’s Canadian example of the type Enhanced is clearly taking its cues from the X-Men, with (mostly) innocent superpowered beings hunted by the government.

The resulting movie is a lot of fun for my tastes. It makes good use of the fantastical elements it can afford, presents some choice comic book science, and comes up with a handful of very nice, small-scale action scenes with more than decent choreography and direction. Leads Alanna Bale and George Tchortov comport themselves well in and outside of the action, too, so there’s a fun time to be had here.

Deep Cover (1992): Bill Duke’s (who is probably much better known for his character actor work than directing despite his copious direction credits on TV and in the movies) movie about a black cop played by Laurence Fishburne when we still called him Larry going undercover as a drug dealer (and partnering with Jeff Goldblum) packs a lot of style (one can certainly be sure that Duke watched Miami Vice and learned all the right lessons from the show), quite a bit of creative wildness, comments about being a black man in the 90s and a generally acerbic attitude towards 90s drug capitalism as well as the war on drugs into all the best-loved tropes you expect from a film in this genre.

With the help of Fishburne, Goldblum and a generally wonderful cast, Duke makes a film that manages to be genuinely intelligent under the cheap thrills, delivers these thrills in the best possible way, and really convinces anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear that he should have been one of the great crime movie directors after this, instead of the travelling craftsman he became. (No shame in being one of those, naturally).

In the Cut (2003): Also pretty fantastic is this hazy and moody erotic psychological thriller by the great Jane Campion, who never let her feminism stop her to get deep into the less easily stomached and judged areas of sexuality, desire and lust, and indeed found much useful for feminism to explore there. This is very much a film of a hazy yet tactile mood, interested in all kinds of liminal spaces – between characters, between feelings, between glances, between waking and sleep, between lust and caution, and of course (this being Campion) between touches. The film is pretty giallo-esque in its eroticism, as well as in the deep implausibility of its thriller plot; just as it is with most other great giallos, that implausibility really isn’t the point, though.

Of course, this being a Campion movie, we also get to watch some great performances, not just by Meg Ryan going brilliantly against her America’s Sweetheart thing with ease but also by house favourites Mark Ruffalo, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Nick Damici (of all people to encounter in a Campion movie).

Thursday, April 8, 2021

In short: The Children (2008)

A Christmas vacation in the snowy countryside with family and their respective offspring must have sounded like a good idea at the time for the characters in this movie. These people clearly haven’t seen as many indie movies about family meetings in – comparatively, this does take place in the UK – isolated spaces that turn into various kinds of psychological torture as I have. But then, these little family tensions do turn out not to be the biggest problems anyone will have, for the dear little ones seem to catch some sort of bug that turns them first apathetic, strange(r than children are anyway, so it’s perfectly believable the grown-ups don’t notice the danger of the situation) and eventually murderous. They also do seem to know a lot about the fine details of parental psychology as well as have had an internal crash course in murder physics.

While there is by now a number of infected-style horror movies in which children become rather nasty, and there has of course been a line of evil kid movies since at least the 50s, going as far with children as perpetrators or victims as you’d do with grown-ups is still something of a taboo in horror films, leaving much of the evil children of horror somewhat classier than many of their grown-up colleagues infected with demons or, as in the case of this film by Tom Shankland, a post-28 Days Later not-zombie virus.

There’s no classy reticence in Shankland’s film, however. Instead there’s a truly vicious yet also disturbingly child-like note to the killer kids here, their behaviour and attacks feeling unpleasantly believable and disquieting even to this childless viewer. I don’t want to imagine what some parents might make of it.

That sense of ruthlessness/viciousness/rawness really is the main thing the film has going for it after it has spent some time building the characters and their – only somewhat strained – relationships. That’s not because The Children is a stupid film, or a one trick pony, but because it is very effectively focussed on creating a mood of desperation and doom, efficiently dragging the audience into sharing the characters’ horrible situation on a raw emotional level.

The film uses a lot of tricks to never let the audience forget that these are indeed children, using their smallness and physical fragility in nearly every scene, and going for kills that turn perfectly typical strange kid behaviour threatening and violent.

In general, The Children tries to go for its audience’s jugular, using fast cuts, loud noises and some wonderfully horrible kid screeching and keening to stress a viewer out; and all that while using nary a typical jump scare. It’s too bad that Shankland hasn’t done much movie work after this, though he was involved in quite a bit of worthwhile series work for TV streaming.

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Slugs (1988)

Original title: Slugs, Muerte Viscosa

aka Slugs: The Movie

A lot of people, and I mean a lot of people die curious, icky, violent deaths in a US small town. We the audience know the deaths are caused by a humungous horde of mutated, flesh-eating slugs, but the authorities don’t. Well, heroic health official Mike Brady (Michael Garfield) figures it out relatively quickly, but he walks into a Mayor of Amity/German COVID policy situation where neither said mayor nor the police are going to be any help at all, or worse. Mike does team up with a British slugologist and the head of the city’s sanitation department in a sort of coalition of the people who really keep a place running.

Slugs, based on a novel by trash horror expert Shaun Hutson (that’s where the “The Movie” comes from) was directed by Spanish bizarro movie expert Juan Piquer Simón. His Pieces is often treated as one of those perfect, “it’s so bad, it’s good” movies, but never really did much for me but bore; on the other hand, he is also the director of the transcendentally weird and wonderful Supersonic Man.

The curious thing about Simón, a guy whose projects nearly always sound psychotronic in a way that doesn’t suggest slickness, is that he was clearly a talented director, with a good sense of pacing and editing rhythms and at the very least a solid grasp of the craftsmanship aspects of filmmaking. He just tended to apply his talents to movies with scripts going from the bizarre to the outright crazy, and often on budgets so clearly insufficient, even attempting to make these movies has a whiff of the heroic or Ancient Greek style hubris.

Slugs, curiously enough, is one of the man’s less impoverished films, providing Simón many an opportunity to show off his filmmaking skills. It’s just that he’s demonstrating them on a film about killer slugs full of insane set pieces that make little sense but are also unutterably awesome, presenting a series of gore gags that start out absurd and become increasingly freakish. This is a film that puts a scene of an elderly gardener cutting off his own arm because the slugs have snuck into his gardening gloves and are eating his hand (which somehow ends in an exploding greenhouse, but one has to see that one to believe) relatively early as something of a sign post things are going to become weirder still. And indeed, the film’s not lying, that’s nothing, for it soon reaches the point where a gentleman who accidentally ate a hacked up slug in a salad gets his head melted by the parasitic worms living inside snails. And Slugs is still not going to stop there. Will it be any surprise in this context to mention that the heroic way our heroic health official and co manage to save the day also seems to blow up most of the sets of the town the whole thing has taken place in?

It’s pretty incredible. Simón seldom stops for a breather between the slug attacks or variations on animal attack movie tropes turned absurd by the fact everyone’s trying to deny an infestation of killer slugs (who will bite your finger if you present it) caused by poisonous waste event though people are dying in droves and heads are imploding into wormy mush in restaurants. But then, the town this takes place in seems to be situated in Spain as well as the US, depending on which country any given scene was shot in, so I’m not too surprised everybody’s a bit confused.

The effects are not as unpleasant as they may sound, but go for a kind of wondrously fake gloopiness instead of the naturalistic gross-out, turning this gory killer slug movie into a charmer of a film.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

In short: Orca (1977)

After an encounter with an orca whale, Irish fisherman in Newfoundland Nolan (Richard Harris) decides to catch one of these lovely mammals to sell it to a marine park. The project goes very wrong indeed when Nolan becomes responsible for the death of a pregnant orca and her little orca foetus. Her mate clearly has seen a couple or ten revenge flicks and, after a bit of crying, uses his superior intelligence and physique to make Nolan’s life a living hell before it will eventually kill him.

Michael Anderson’s Orca is the kind of nature strikes back movie one really can’t imagine having been produced by anyone but Dino De Laurentiis, and really shows all the hallmarks of the guy’s admirable willingness to throw money and talent at idiotic projects. The script’s (credited to Sergio Donati and producer Luciano Vincenzoni) attempts at making a vengeance flick where the vigilante is a whale are as bizarre as you’d expect, with mind-boggling moments like that shot that looks rather a lot like a crying orca eye and all sorts of additional nonsense.

In good old Dino tradition, this is packaged into a wonderfully looking film, with beautiful surface and underwater photography by J. Barry Herron and Ted Moore, a score by Ennio Morricone (that does indeed include what I can only interpret as a love theme for two whales), and a pretty great cast. Richard Harris is of course soused and very Irish, Charlotte Rampling tries to trump the general weirdness of proceedings by doubling the intensity of every single line reading (I’m particularly fond of her hilariously dramatic exposition bomb in form of a university lecture), Will Sampson provides the mandatory Native American whale wisdom that saves exactly nobody, and the rest of the cast do their best with what they are given.

The thing with Orca is, if you are willing and able to either buy into its set-up emotionally or at least can accept it, shrugging, it can be a highly entertaining film, full of suspense scenes you haven’t quite seen staged this way before, as well as some moments – particularly in the Arctic last act – breathing a nice atmosphere of doom. It’s also a film against all reason convinced of its deep emotional resonance, the sort of thing that’s at once a bit admirable and embarrassing, and certainly never the kind of film you’re bound to forget, which goes a long way with me.

Sunday, April 4, 2021

The Creature Called Man (1970)

Original title: Jaga wa hashitta

The dictator of a fictional Asian country the subtitles dub “Southnesia” (still better than DC Comics’s Quraq) has managed to flee from the enraged revolution that toppled his government. He’s bound for the USA to build a government in exile (and most probably to milk money from the CIA tit for his own re-coup). However, because his flight was organized by a big Japanese corporation (and because he used a lot of Japanese soldiers who couldn’t get enough of the killing after World War II in the coup that initially brought him to power), his first port of call is Japan.

Because the Japanese police apparently has a “don’t shoot first” policy, his superiors encourage top cop and former Olympic shooter Toda (Yuzo Kayama) to officially step down, and unofficially become their very own killer of the killers the revolutionaries have most certainly sent after the dictator. Outfitted with a souped up VW Beetle (!) and a Mauser – a gun a lot of Japanese movies of this kind really adore - with a silencer, Toda certainly is a force of murder to be reckoned with when it comes to the revolutionaries. However, there’s also a true professional killer involved - Kujo (Jiro Tamiya). Ironically, Kujo was hired by the same company that brought the dictator out after the new government agreed to honour some arms deals of the old guy. But then, the film not so subtly argues, as long as money’s to be made on other people’s suffering, big corporations don’t care too much for yesterday’s business partners.

Toda and Kujo descend into one of those classical duels between killers. During the course of the film, the professional killer regains parts of his humanity through a complicated – and baggaged with some dubious consent business because this is a 70s Japanese movie about manly men who are too weak to take no for an answer – relationship to a woman (Nancy Sommers), while the policeman loses most of the innocence he still had.

At first, Kiyoshi Nishimura’s The Creature Called Man seems to treat the political, moral and emotional background for its pretty wonderful action sequences in a style akin to contemporary men’s adventure manga like Golgo-13 (still waiting on a decent movie adaptation, by the way) – as a mere backdrop that may ground proceedings at a particular place and time but is pretty much interchangeable.

In truth, the film’s just comparatively subtle early on, taking its time to present Toda and Kujo as admirable men of violence with no pesky emotional attachments and no politics who are really good at their jobs. Which, incidentally, seems to be the way these two define themselves in front of their respective mirrors.

Only once the film has shown the audience how these men see themselves and explain their actions to themselves does it start to show us the small hypocrisies and the potentials for change in their behaviour, deconstructing Toda’s stoic willingness to kill for a cause that isn’t his own (or really, anyone’s but the dictator’s) until he eventually even accidentally murders an innocent without consequences, and reconstructing Kujo as a human being through something that doesn’t even start as an act of kindness but still turns into one. Much of this seems to prefigure the emotional interests and arcs common to Hong Kong’s later heroic bloodshed films, and I wouldn’t at all be surprised if this specific film as well as some of its late movie aesthetic choices were a conscious influence on John Woo or Tsui Hark.

Politically, the film becomes acerbic towards all good causes that eventually only cause loss of innocent life (with a brutal nod towards all the hot wars driven by the cold one), and is not always quietly disgusted by all those ways suffering can be turned into profit or real violence fetishized, as shown by a translator and evilcorp assistant played by Mariko Kaga.

All of this is embedded into a cracking good early 70s Toho action movie full of excellently staged – and increasingly big – action that always keeps the personal level of Toda and Kujo in mind too. The inevitable final showdown between the two – of course after a friendly chat – turns a simple warehouse showdown into a crescendo of slow motion, brutal jazz, and one of the best timed moment of absolute silence I have had the pleasure to encounter in this sort of scene, providing an appropriately epic feel to the climax of a film that aims and hits much higher than it at first appears to.

Saturday, April 3, 2021

Three Films Make A Post: There are no partners in crime

The Invisible Guardian aka El guardián invisible (2017): For a time, Fernando González Molina’s serial killer procedural seems a decent enough entry into this particular genre, with some spectacularly moody shots of corpses in foggy and wet woods as its visual main attraction. The longer the film goes on, the more it goes off the rails, the family connections between the investigating police inspector and the case bringing out a lot of screeching melodrama that’s simply not well enough written or staged to evoke the emotions it so desperately wants to. The procedural bit becomes increasingly ridiculous too – this is the sort of film where our heroine cop is surprised and disgusted she can’t continue a case where her own sister is the main suspect, and the film agrees with bombastic nonsense on the soundtrack. For some reasons that may very well be clearer in the books this is based on, the film also shoehorns in a supernatural element that really has no place in the plot as it is whatsoever, as if the filmmakers were just adding random stuff to the already slow and ponderous thing.

Sentinelle (2021): A French soldier with PTSD sent home to now patrol public places with a loaded assault rifle (a thing that looks absolutely insane from my cultural perspective, and can only be bound to feel everyone less secure) gets violently upset at the rich guy who rapes and nearly murders her sister. Because she’s played by Olga Kurylenko, there’s a lot of scowling and actorly intensity before the outbreak of violence. Director Julien Leclerq seems genuinely interested in his main character’s inner life, so Kurylenko has much opportunity for a not original but pleasantly nuanced portrayal; that she’s also a good action actress certainly helps the Netflix film considerably.

Creature with the Atom Brain (1955): The main surprise about this Columbia cheapie directed by Edward L. Cahn is how thoroughly enjoyable it still is. A gangster uses the nuclear zombie (this seems to be part of the lineage leading directly to the Romero-style zombie, see also Cahn’s own later Invisible Invaders) creation method of a Nazi scientist for vengeance, with later plans for world domination. Mad science and evil gangster speeches are made! The hero’s intensely 50s home life is shoved into our helpless faces (it’s called horror for a reason)! Zombies with clever minimalist make-up attack in genuinely well-staged sequences that do their utmost to get around the tiny budget!

I have no idea what else I could ask of a movie like this.

Friday, April 2, 2021

Imagine the “Theme From Shaft” Here

If you’re like me, you probably have fantasized about a movie featuring a blaxploitation protagonist doing the good work of the psychic detective. I still can’t help you with the movie, but Edward M. Erdelac’s story collection “Conquer” (here’s a link to my local version of Amazon, you know how to use yours), concerning the adventures of the titular private eye with an eye for the weird, has you covered in book form.

Pleasantly, the stories don’t just coast by on the neat idea of “Shaft meets Carnacki” and Erdelac’s expert use of the pulp toolbox but do some fun conceptual work on its basic concept, adding some interesting ideas about how magic works in Conquer’s world, as well as demonstrating a fine eye for the interplay between the weird and the book’s 70’s setting.

With all its love for the period it is set in and inspired by, this is very much a book written in our time, so it does show a rather more inclusive and empathetic spirit than you might expect. Consequently, characters like the drag queens in one of the tales are treated much more dignified than you’d see in any blaxploitation flick. The book is, obviously, all the better for it.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

In short: Kingdom of the Spiders (1977)

What starts with the mysterious death of the prize calf belonging to farmer Walter Colby (house favourite Woody Strode) quickly turns out to be the spiderpocalypse in a rural US small town. Apparently, humanity’s love for nuking insects with poison has killed off the main food sources of spiders. Tarantulas have moved habitats and have developed new and rather exciting habits, now swarming together instead avoiding each other, making tactical strikes, and killing humans.

Will local vet Rack Hansen (William Shatner) and quickly called-in arachnologist Diane Ashley (Tiffany Bolling) solve the little spider problem, or will they waste valuable time on a romance so horrible, even 50s monster movie romances may suddenly feel swoon-worthy to a viewer?

Well, they certainly will do the latter, but stuntman turned director John “Bud” Cardos’s Kingdom of the Spiders doesn’t seem to put much stock into their efforts of fighting off those pesky arachnids in more than skirmishes anyway. This is a 70s animal attack movie, after all, so chances of winning out against an angry nature are slim to non-existent. Which, even more so from today’s perspective, seems like the proper way to treat these things. This of course doesn’t make the bizarre “romance” between people who’d rather kill each other than fuck in real life more believable or less squirm-inducing to watch, but it does explain it as an attempt (emphasis on “attempt”) to make us sad to see humanity go. Even if the result may very well lead to the opposite.

Though, to be fair, the rest of the character work is good enough. Cardos clearly puts effort into making the audience care for the characters, at least enough not to want to see them get eaten by spiders.

The first act is a little slow for my tastes, but the small town apocalyptic business in the rest of the movie does make up for it rather well, with the effectively shot panic in the spider-infested streets of the town late in the movie and the final, absurd yet utterly awesome, shots of the film being particular favourites of mine.

Tonally, Kingdom is a very 70s movie, having a rather bleak outlook on humanity’s place in the world even while keeping inside of the lines drawn by silly monster movies (that’s a good thing) and clearly having a lot of fun with all the tropes this suggests. Apparently, not even William Shatner (here in a comparatively controlled mood) can save us all.

Before the Shat fails, Cardos sets quite a bit of unobtrusively fine filmmaking in front of the audience, the film pretty much having all the visual and stylistic hallmarks of the sort of lived-in US 70s film that looks less carefully made than it actually is. It’s the filmmaking version of classic working class values, and it’ll make you happy (or unhappy, if you prefer humanity to tarantulas) just fine without making a lot of fuss about how good it is at what it does. Doesn’t mean it isn’t good at it, obviously.